“How many of you have tried incorporating Sabbath into your life?” the retreat speaker asked. I squirmed a little in my seat. Not because I hadn’t tried taking Sabbath…I had tried, often. But my mind went back to the past month and the four weeks in a row that I had worked on the day I had set aside for Sabbath. I thought of many other months that were like this one. “Trying” Sabbath was not my problem. “Receiving” Sabbath was.
Sabbath is the biblical idea of taking a day off. Thousands of years ago God commanded his people to take a day of rest once every seven days. On this day, they would do no work. Instead they would step back and remember their identity as God’s children and be reminded that God would provide for them. It was meant to be a gift. It was meant to be a joy.
Although our understanding of how we keep commands like Sabbath changed when Jesus came, it does not mean that Sabbath keeping is not still a good idea. In a world where we are often valued for what we produce, I think pausing from our work once a week to remember the world turns without us is a great way to practice trusting God. Also, it’s still meant to be a gift – a day without work is, in theory, something to be enjoyed.
“Why is Sabbath so hard for me?” I thought.
I thought of how strictly we had to honour Sundays in our house growing up – no swimming, bike riding, and certainly no “work.” (Not that we would have had time with two church services and Sunday School every Sunday). I thought of a song we used to sing called “You must not play on Sunday.” I also had a flashback to when I applied for my first job as a pastor.
Because I lived in a different city I was granted a phone interview for the position. A faceless person I’d never met asked: “If you got this job would you see Sunday as a work day?”
Before you hear my answer, let me tell you that I already knew what Sunday would include if I took this job. I would oversee children’s programs starting at 9:30 each morning (and set up ahead of time), and participate in the 11:00 a.m. service. I would return that evening for another worship service and afterwards gather the youth group for their Sunday night program. It worked out to well over 8 hours each Sunday.
It might surprise you, therefore, to hear that my answer to the question went something like this: “No, I wouldn’t. I mean, as a church member I’d be attending church anyways. Sundays would still be my Sabbath.”
I didn’t know if I had given the “right” answer until when, having received the job, someone on the interview team told me what I didn’t see during my phone interview: that when I replied someone had got on the ground and started to bow to the phone to indicate their pleasure that I “got it.” I felt so proud and pleased when I heard this. I got the answer right!…Right?
I want to acknowledge here that I was well loved by this church, that I loved serving there, and that I was always encouraged to care for myself by my Senior Pastor. But I can now see that we had all grown up with the same message that I had also internalized: Christians are supposed to work really hard for God, and work for God isn’t really work anyway! It is worship. It is service. It is what we have been called to do. Why would a pastor need to rest from that?
In the many years of ministry to follow for me, learning to see Sabbath taking in a new way took some adjusting. Acknowledging that what I do Sundays is worship, service, calling AND work from which I need to rest took a few years. Taking a “normal” two day weekend of Friday and Saturday (even though almost every Saturday includes some work for my job of some kind) felt like a luxury I hadn’t earned.
This may be why I still too often say “yes” when people ask if they can meet on my day off (“I felt rude telling them it was my day off,” I argue with my husband as I get ready to head out). It’s almost certainly why I keep my phone close by (“There may be an emergency!”) and why I will reply to messages that could easily wait a day (“If I just reply quickly then it will be out of mind and then I can focus on my day off.”).
I see it as a type it: I still believe the lie that if I work really hard, and do extra things, and go “ above and beyond,” that someone, somewhere is somehow seeing this and maybe even bowing from a distance to tell me what a great pastor I am.
I know I am not alone in thinking this way. I’m not the only one who has come to believe that working really hard will affirm the identities about ourselves we hope to be true. The messages are everywhere!
If we are out every night driving our kids to endless activities, we are good parents.
If we bring extra work home from the office, we are good employees.
If we produce a lot, and do a lot, and make a lot, we are good workers.
If we give a lot and serve a lot and volunteer a lot, we are good citizens.
But you know what?
(And I say this with great confidence)…
Ain’t nobody bowing, anywhere.
(Or if, by some bizarre chance they are, they’ve got it just as wrong as we do).
We will never do enough. We will never produce enough. We will never work enough to cross the magic line where we feel we can say: “Now I have proven who I am.”
We will never be done all we have to do in order to be ready to rest, to turn off, to slow down. We will never answer every phone call, write every sermon, visit every person who needs our support.
We will never do it all.
So I say we take a day. We take a day and rest. We take a day and enjoy. We take a day and worship. We take a day and feel God’s delight instead of our own condemnation. For me, this does not mean pretending a day when I actually work really hard is Sabbath just because it happens to be a Sunday. For you, this may mean signing the kids up for one less activity, leaving work at the office on Friday night, or putting your phone on silent for one day a week.
And remembering…the world can turn without us.