Waking Up to the Gift of Sabbath
“God gave us the Sabbath. Jesus taught us that we weren’t made for the Sabbath but that Sabbath was made for us. Sabbath time is our time, our chance to rest, to worship God, to forgive each other, to taste a wee bit of heaven, and to be more in sympathy with all that is, not least our own lives.”
I am quite certain I would not be alive today if it were not for God’s gift of sabbath. And not just a weekly sabbath day, but also daily sabbath moments cultivated in solitude and silence, and sabbatical seasons for letting the soil of my soul lie fallow. These rhythms have given shape and form to a life—my life—lived as a creature in the presence of my loving Creator; these sabbath rhythms have, quite literally, kept me in the game.
But I have not always lived this way.
A Wake-up Call
My wake-up call regarding God’s gift of sabbath came when I was in my early forties, serving on staff in a high-performance church culture, married with three busy and athletic children, writing, teaching, and guiding others in spiritual practices, and yet . . . I was actively resisting sabbath. I knew sabbath was a thing. But on a level I had not yet been willing to acknowledge, I was too busy, too important, too caught in cultural expectations, to consider ceasing my work one day a week. In addition to my grandiosity, the logistics of family life and work made it all seem just beyond our reach. Sunday was the only day it was even possible for our busy family to attempt a sabbath, yet traveling sports teams competed on Sundays, my husband’s place of work was open on Sundays, and my own job on a church staff made Sunday the busiest day of my work week! Sigh.
A Day of Contradictions
The deeper truth is that I just wasn’t that attracted to sabbath as a concept. I had been raised in a fundamentalist environment where sabbath was kept, but in a very legalistic way. For me, sabbath had been a day of contradictions. We went to church in the morning and since my dad was the pastor we kids had to work very hard at behaving. Sitting in the front row knowing people were watching us from behind while our dad watched us eagle-eyed from the pulpit was stressful, to say the least. Even the most minor infraction (like giggling or whispering) was treated with great seriousness when we got home. This was not restful or delightful at all.
Added to this was the fact that as the pastor’s family we often had guests for dinner or were guests at someone else’s home most Sundays after church. I enjoyed the communal nature of the hospitality that was part of our sabbath routine (in fact, I still miss it!), but I will say that the womenfolk—including myself as “the responsible eldest”—worked very hard at cooking, serving, and cleaning up while the menfolk visited in the living room. In fact, I’m not sure there was any other day of the week in which we women worked harder than we did on that day; it didn’t take long for me to grow resentful.
Our guests usually stayed through the afternoon, so we remained in our “Sunday clothes” all day, were limited in what we were allowed to do (no biking or swimming), and then it was back to church in the evening. All in all, sabbath was pretty exhausting and slightly punishing, so when I left for college and eventually established my own family, I was glad to leave that particular brand of sabbath-keeping behind. It was convenient to dismiss it as a practice we didn’t need to worry about anymore—not to mention the fact that as a young adult I was really into working and achieving, and Sundays were a day when I could get a lot done. I was so driven by my goals and aspirations that I really did not want to stop—for anything or anybody, including God! That is, until years later I was so tired from my overachieving ways that in unguarded moments I started dreaming of a way of life that was not so exhausting.
Wrestling with Impossibility
I developed a bit of a guilty pleasure—reading beautiful books about the sabbath, allowing the longing to well up within me for a few minutes, living inside the fantasy for just a bit, and then setting the book aside as a private indulgence full of pleasures I could imagine for others but not myself. I kept my explorations to myself because I wanted to dream without interruption— at least for a little while. I did not want the naysayers telling me sabbath-keeping was not possible.
By this time I had been to seminary and understood the basic hermeneutical principle that if you want to know what matters to God, you look for the great themes of Scripture, the arc if you will. The way I saw it, the theme of sabbath and rest was a vibrant thread running throughout Scripture—I had no patience for theologically resistant folks raising questions about whether or not sabbath-keeping is for today and why Jesus didn’t teach about the sabbath. To my knowledge God had never “taken back” the gift of the sabbath—it was one of the Ten Commandments, after all, and the best one if you ask me!
It seemed to me that Jesus never taught about sabbath because it was just assumed: as practicing Jews, he and his disciples kept the sabbath and that was that. Yes, he brought fresh nuance to it by making it clear that the sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath, and that he is Lord even of the sabbath (Mark 2:27). So rather than doing away with it, he actually rescued it from legalism, reframing it in such a way that it is even more life-giving for us as his followers. And then, to put an even finer point on it, the writer of Hebrews stated in no uncertain terms that the promise of sabbath rest is still available to the people of God and that to refuse such rest is to harden one’s heart in disobedience (Hebrews 4:9).
So, while I longed for this kind of rest and was completely convinced of its importance, biblically speaking, I did not want to wrestle with all the complications and practical challenges just yet. Somehow, just knowing the possibility of sabbath existed and that somebody somewhere was able to figure out how to have it, lit up my soul from the inside. Yet it still felt impossible for me.
You Did Just Get Run Over by a Car…
Then I had this biking accident—one I now see as something similar to God knocking Paul off his horse and leaving him alone and sightless for three days so he could ponder his life. I will refrain from retelling that whole story here, except to say that after the initial euphoria of having survived such a thing wore off, I went right back to work. But as relief gave way to other levels of awareness, God used a couple comments to help me ponder the meaning of things. One friend, after expressing his initial concern, laughingly commented, “Ruth, when are you going to learn that when you’re on a bike, you can’t take on a van?” Another friend, curious about the fact that I wasn’t taking any time to recover, commented, “You know, you did just get run over by a car. You could take a day off!”
And then there was this sentence from Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath that kept buzzing around in my head like a pesky fly buzzing against a windowpane: “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath— our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.” Boom.
I did not want to hear this. I did not want to consider the fact that perhaps this accident, while not God’s fault, was a way in which God was trying to tell me something. I did not want to acknowledge the possibility that it might be that hard for God to get my attention; nor did I want to face the fact that for years I had been thumbing my nose at human limitations, behaving as though I was beyond needing a sabbath. It was a nice idea for retired people or people who weren’t in demand, but surely I wasn’t one who needed a sabbath.
Except now I did.
Stopped in my Tracks
And that is how God began nudging me to take next steps on my sabbath journey. Unbeknownst to me, my sabbath journey had already begun because I had been practicing solitude in a profoundly different way than the busy “quiet times” I had been schooled in during my youth. Through the witness of the desert Abbas and Ammas (particularly Henri Nouwen’s seminal reflections in The Way of the Heart), I had been learning how to cultivate solitude as a place of rest in God—body, mind, and soul. It was wonderful. It was restful. It was bringing me back to life. Little did I know that in my practice of solitude and silence, I was already experiencing what Tilden Edwards calls “a special quality of time available daily”—a way of being in time that is open and receptive, restful and replenishing.
God used my accident to stop me in my tracks—to provide the right kind of space to really consider my human limitations and the layers of exhaustion that existed within me. In this space I was able to stay with my desire for a more sustainable existence long enough for it to take me somewhere. Even though I do not believe God caused the accident, I do believe the Holy One used it to get my attention. God used me into his invitation to take a next step in sabbath living—from a few delicious sabbath moments daily to a full day once a week, and then eventually longer sabbatical seasons—until here I am today, able to testify that God’s gift of sabbath is far more than just one day a week; it is actually a way of life.
Adapted from Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest by Ruth Haley Barton. © 2022 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.
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