Life-Giving Sabbath

Photo by Rev. Tim Ten Clay

The word “Sabbath” calls up lots of ideas and feelings for different people.  As I grew up, we were expected to observe it strictly, with no unnecessary work and no homework done on Sundays. We could not patronize a swimming pool or a restaurant, because that would require other people to violate the Sabbath as they served us.  This was not altogether a negative thing. When I was in college I continued to avoid homework on Sundays, thus enjoying a true day of rest every week.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the concept of Sabbath deeply.

I am a person who likes to get things done, to have the satisfaction of achievement. I have struggled with the notion that to be significant I have to be this way; I have to produce something all the time to justify my existence.

            So when I entered full time ministry, I knew I had to rein in these impulses or I would burn out quickly, because in ministry, there are always ten more things to do and goals to set, people to see, etc. Someone recommended Marva Dawn’s book to me, and it helped a lot. I did other things to deal with this, but her exploration of Sabbath enabled me to have a way that helped me hold myself together in the midst of reining in my pushy impulses. It helped me to remain healthy as a pastor and non-anxious in my other relationships, as much as I was able.

            Gradually I realized that Sabbath is about more than a day. It is a lifestyle and a stance. But it helps to think first of it as that seventh day set aside at the very beginning, as described in the story of creation.

            Sabbath enables us to stop. When we stop, we can let our selves catch up with ourselves. And God can reclaim us too, because in keeping Sabbath, we can remember who we are—God’s beloved—and that everyone else shares that identity and grace that come from God. It also enables us to see where we are, what we have, who is doing life with us. We can step back and see the picture more clearly, more comprehensively.

            Sabbath helps us remember who God is too. We have the time to breathe and realize that we cannot do everything we want to do. We cannot even do what is within our capacity all that well. So we realize that we have to rely on God. So we can recognize what is our part, and what is God’s part, and not get them mixed up.

            In the process we realize that Sabbath is a gift. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD your God,” the Scriptures tell us. So apparently six days is enough to do all that we need to do.

            Enough. That is a key word in thinking about Sabbath. God seems to want us to know that we will have enough if we do our work faithfully six days of the week. To know that resting is part of the rhythm that will give us life. That whatever we can accomplish in those six days, we do not have to look at it and say it’s not enough. It is enough.

            So then I learned to extend this idea to everything else, all seven days of the week. That whatever I can bring to God is enough. That whatever time I have for family and work and study and friends and playing is enough, but I need to stop once a week so I can see how to balance all of it in a life-giving way.

            I also learned that I am enough. I do not have to prove myself to God, earn God’s favor by doing “godly” things, or be good enough for God to love me. On my own, there is not enough of me, but with God, there is always more than enough.

            I learned that Sabbath is about trust. That I can trust God to make up the difference where I cannot be or do whatever is needed. God will be faithful in that. Over my years in ministry this became very practical. If I had to deal with a lot of unexpected issues or pastoral care like a funeral or a catastrophic illness, I could give all the time needed to that, and still be ready to lead worship on Sunday. When I trusted God, the sermons just came, and everything else fell into place too. So I could relax and not be anxious about all I had to do.

            My husband and I have learned about Sabbath living and the concept of enough in our stewardship of finances. When we feel compelled by the Spirit to give more than we think we can afford at the moment, God always provides for our needs. Every time. We can trust God who asks us to give money, time (such as one day a week), effort, material goods and then provides abundantly when we respond in faith. So we can live life with an open hand and a trusting heart.

            Sabbath enables us to get our bearings. It enables us to be restored, to find our well-being in God’s goodness. It gives us time to rest our bodies, minds, spirits.  We can take time to delight in good food, loving relationships, the beauty of nature. It helps us take the time for gratitude, and for each other. It is a reset button that is pure gift.

            To me, Sabbath living is also about awareness. It is a way of savoring a slower pace of life and savoring the gifts that are all around and also within us. It is a way of saying yes to God and all that God offers.

            But in saying yes to God we are also saying no to other things. We recognize that we are humans with limitations. We will not work on that seventh day because we truly need the rest God offers. As we learn to do this, we realize that we do not want to rush through the rest of the week; otherwise one day to take a break is not enough. Something deep down tells us that doing so much is not abundance; it is exhaustion. So we want to slow down.

            There is no getting around it. Experiencing life as God means us to live it is not about doing as much as we can. It not about acquiring more that we do not need. It is not about hurry. It is about receiving the gifts and using them thoughtfully, with God’s help. It is about love that does not demand or push. It is a life of peace and well-being because we know who we are, whose we are, who gives us all things, and how we can care for one another.

            To me, this is Sabbath living.

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