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.”

– Ronald Rolheiser

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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Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Embracing the gift of Sabbath is indeed transformative. This article beautifully articulates the importance of rest and reflection in our fast-paced lives. Implementing Sabbath practices can bring much-needed balance and renewal to our spiritual journey. Thank you for this insightful reminder!

This article is a poignant reminder of the essential balance between work and rest. Ruth Haley Barton’s personal journey and insights into embracing the Sabbath resonate deeply with me. It reminds us of the importance of acknowledging our limitations and the need for rest, not just physically but also spiritually and mentally. It’s a valuable lesson in today’s fast-paced world, highlighting the need to consciously create space for rejuvenation and reflection in our lives.

There can never be too many reminders and encouragements around this practice b/c it is so countercultural and it also goes against the grain of (or some of!) our driven personalities. What is personal is most universal!

This post resonates deeply with the importance of sabbath in our lives, emphasizing the need to find balance and rest amidst our often hectic schedules. The journey you’ve shared about discovering and embracing the true essence of sabbath is both inspiring and a vital reminder of the need to respect our own limits.
Your story brings to mind the broader theme of finding peace and security in various aspects of our lives.Your experience is a powerful testimony to the transformative power of rest, reflection, and respecting our human boundaries. Thank you for sharing your journey, and may it inspire many others to find their own paths to peace and balance.

You’re welcome! Thank you for responding so thoughtfully.

Thank you for this insightful article on the significance of the Sabbath. Your reflections on finding rest and renewal amidst our hectic schedules resonate deeply. In today’s fast-paced world, it’s crucial to remember the value of pausing and rejuvenating our spirit. This article serves as a gentle reminder of the importance of incorporating periods of rest into our lives, not just for physical well-being but also for mental and spiritual health.
Your perspective on the Sabbath as a time for personal reflection and connection with the divine is particularly inspiring. It highlights how essential it is to set aside time for ourselves, to disconnect from the demands of daily life and reconnect with our inner selves and higher purpose.

Well said! So glad this resonated.

Your reflection on ‘Waking Up to the Gift of Sabbath’ is deeply moving and thought-provoking. It’s a beautiful reminder of the importance of rest and spiritual renewal in our busy lives. In line with embracing restful practices, I wanted to share a resource that might be helpful for those in ministry or any profession. Mail Boxes by MBE offers a range of services, including secure mailboxes and professional printing, that can help reduce the administrative burden and provide more time for rest and reflection. Their services could be a valuable support for anyone looking to find balance in their work and spiritual life. Thank you for sharing your journey and insights on the Sabbath!

You’re welcome.

I was deeply moved by your reflections on the Sabbath as a precious gift in our busy lives. The idea of taking time to pause, reflect, and rejuvenate is so vital, yet often overlooked. This concept of cherishing what truly matters is echoed in the craftsmanship of Ecali, a jeweler in Perth, Western Australia. Their dedication to creating bespoke Perth wedding rings with a personal touch reflects the same care and attention we are encouraged to give to our spiritual and personal well-being, as highlighted in your article about the Sabbath

So glad!

I am compelled to share this with my two daughters, each having embarked on life journeys that are already proving to be demanding of body, mind, and soul. The precious gift of sabbath rest is essential and the sooner it is received and owned, the better. Thank You for sharing this candid testimony, Ruth!

I could not agree with you more!

Thank you so much for this charge, exhortation, and encouragement regarding Sabbath being a way of life. In your reflections, I see much of myself and how I have been living and what God has been and is lovingly calling me to surrender and change. I feel like I’m so far behind but actively remembering that He is meeting me where I am at and holding my hand and heart as He leads me into His rest, one baby step at a time.

Secretly hoping that the new book by Ruth Hailey Barton would, in some unknown way be a check-off list so that i could check that box and get on with what has become a half-hearted attempt to convince the world around me that I am a really hard worker, yes perhaps even
compulsively dependent, leaning AGAIN on a heavy schedule and honestly to not have to stop and count my lost time with God. And then this wonderful book turns me around, profoundly let’s me see myself – now without Sabbath rest. It is an absoulte must read for every Christian leader as
he or she faces the call of Christ to “come away with me awhile and find rest — for your soul.”

Gary, thank you for such a gut-wrenchingly honest response….clearly God is at work and I am profoundly encouraged that this new work can be a part of it. God be with you…on your road, on your journey, guiding you and cherishing you.

I am grateful to know you sense God lovingly calling you…bless you as you hold on tight to the One holding you and follow his lead.

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