A Day Off From God Stuff?

By Lynne M. Baab
Originally published in Leadership Journal, Spring 2007.  

Some pastors observe sabbath well. Their day away from work is markedly different from the other six, and there is something special and holy about what they do—and don’t do—on that day. For others, the sabbath feels like another work day, another day of handling holy things that—even with the best of intentions—seem to have nothing particularly holy about it. It isn’t set apart. It isn’t even restful.

When you work with holy things all week long, what is it you are resting from when sabbath finally arrives?

Ben, the pastor of a small urban congregation in Seattle, keeps a Sunday sabbath. He is alone quite a bit during the week, so he relishes his time with people on Sunday mornings at church and with his wife’s extended family in the afternoon.

For Ben, the heart of the sabbath is appreciating what God has given him. He makes an effort to walk slowly around the church building on Sundays in order to be present to the gift of the moment and the place. At coffee hour, he tries not to talk church business with parishioners. Instead, he tries to enjoy them. He does the same with his children. He figures six days a week is enough to try to shape his children and teach them. On Sundays, he simply enjoys who they are and how they are growing. He tries to do small household tasks like emptying the dishwasher so his wife can also have a sabbath.

Marva Dawn, a Christian theologian, writer and speaker, has described a Sunday sabbath pattern similar to Ben’s. She is willing to engage in ministry on Sundays in the form of speaking or preaching, but she will not do any work of preparation. A Sunday sabbath affirms the connection between corporate worship and resting in God, but for many pastors, Sunday morning is such hard work that it doesn’t provide the rest God intends.

Ann, another pastor of a church in the Seattle area, keeps a Friday sabbath. She has been a faithful sabbath keeper for more than 30 years. She found as she entered her fifties that she needs longer than 24 hours in order to feel rested. She begins her sabbath at dinner time on Thursday and usually continues her sabbath until bedtime on Friday.

For Ann, the heart of the sabbath is taking off all the roles she wears during the week: pastor, teacher, building administrator, worship planner, etc. On the sabbath, she slides gratefully into the role of beloved child of God – and nothing else. She describes it as comfortable clothes that she looks forward to wearing each week. She spends the time largely alone, reading fiction, walking on a beach, riding a ferry.

Over the years, Ann has negotiated sabbath practices with several roommates and vacation partners. Ann doesn’t want questions or comments about work on her sabbath day. Abraham Heschel, in The Sabbath, suggests that we should cease from work and also from thoughts of work on this day of rest. Ann would agree.

Ann’s sabbath is similar to the pattern Eugene Peterson described in several of his books, a day of rest not connected to a Sunday worship service. When Peterson was a pastor, he and his wife spent Mondays hiking. On the first half of the hike, they kept silence, and on the way back, they talked with each other.

The Sabbath Command
Ben and Ann have adopted practices that dovetail with the two versions of the sabbath command in the Ten Commandments. The nine other commands are very similar in the two versions of the commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but the fourth commandment differs significantly, beginning with the opening imperative verb. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8, NRSV). The second version begins with “Observe” (Deut. 5:12). These two verbs capture significant aspects of the sabbath challenge. A healthy, obedient and life-giving sabbath involves habits of observance as well as a commitment to remember.

Both Ben and Ann have built patterns of observance into their lives. In addition, they engage in the spiritual discipline of remembering. On the sabbath, Ben remembers God’s blessings and abundance by taking the time to notice them. By stepping out of her many roles, Ann remembers that she is God’s child, loved quite apart from what she does.

The two sabbath commands give different reasons for keeping the sabbath. In the Exodus version, the sabbath is commanded because “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11). In the second version, God wants the Israelites to remember that they were slaves in Egypt and “the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15).

These two commands reflect the two central acts of God in human history: God as Creator and God as Redeemer. A helpful reflection for sabbath observance begins here. What practices help you experience God as Creator? Perhaps walking, hiking, biking, gardening, painting, or reading poetry? What practices help you experience the freedom God has given us in Christ, our redemption from slavery? Turning off the computer, the phone, or the TV, putting away the Blackberry or calendar, turning off worry or the temptation to obsess with ministry issues? These are practices to consider for a sabbath observance.

For people whose life revolves around ministry, these two reasons for sabbath observance can be helpful in another way as well. Christians are called to be partners with God in sustaining the creation and redeeming the world. Our profession is heavily weighted on the redemption side. We spend our days creating structures and working with individuals to help people grasp the great gift of redemption and eternal life we have in Jesus Christ.

On the sabbath, then, those of us in ministry professions may benefit most and honor God most by engaging with God as Creator. We rest from our partnership with God in redeeming the world by acknowledging God is Creator as well as Redeemer.

One pastor spends the first few hours after the Sunday worship service riding his bike or gardening. Another man, who works in student ministry, enjoys working out at the gym on Sundays, exercising his body, a part of the physical creation. Ann enjoys walking on the beach on her sabbath. When I drive somewhere on my sabbath, I drive more slowly and try to notice clouds, trees and flowers. When I cook on the sabbath, I pay attention to the color and texture of the vegetables as I cut them, and I pause to enjoy the smells coming from the pans.

In Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are too much work for the sabbath, and prayers of gratitude are encouraged. Thankfulness prayers can help us remember God our Creator. One of my favorite sabbath activities is to sit on the sofa in our living room staring into space, idly watching the big tree outside the window. I find myself expressing wordless thanks to God for the beauty of the tree and the squirrels that run along its branches, and for the warmth and comfort of the room. Sometimes those prayers of thanks grow larger, and I remember the people I love and the joys of the work I do, and I thank God for them as well. But often the prayers of thanks remain focused on the tree, the squirrels, and my physical comfort at that moment. God made them, God gave them to me, and I rest in gratitude for those gifts.

In the same way that Ann relishes her role as God’s beloved child on the sabbath day, so I relish my place as a creature who was lovingly made by my Creator. The tree and the squirrels were fashioned wondrously and beautifully by God. As I rest in my role as creature, I remember that I, too – my physical self and the components of my life – receive the same careful attention from my Creator. I am beloved as God’s creature.

One of the challenges for people in ministry involves family members. If our ministry leaves us fatigued from contact with people, how can we then embrace time with family members on our sabbath? A husband and wife who both work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship take a two-day sabbath if at all possible. They spend Sunday with their young children doing family activities. Then on Monday they take turns spending time with the kids and time alone. In the morning, one of them will pray, journal, read and think while the other takes care of the children. In the afternoon, they switch.

Two of the keys to happy sabbaths with young children are to eliminate multi-tasking and to reduce expectations of a profound spiritual experience with the children. Simply enjoying them, without trying to get something else done at the same time, can be quite refreshing and honors the gift from God that comes to us in children. A short Bible story, an easy craft activity, or a brief prayer time can help to keep the focus on God, but too much stress on those activities can turn the day of rest into work.

Time with a spouse also needs to be considered. In my early years as an associate pastor, before the congregation added a Sunday evening service, I considered my sabbath to be 2 p.m. Sunday until 2 p.m. Monday. I spent Sunday afternoon in a vegetative state, reading or napping after the demands of Sunday morning. My husband would usually do something physical with our sons, who were then in their late teens. We would have a simple dinner, soup or a casserole that I had prepared the day before.

In those years, my husband didn’t work on Mondays, so we spent Monday mornings together, usually walking in a park. We ate lunch together, often in a restaurant, and in the mid afternoon I would reenter my work week, checking email and planning the events of the week. Spending time alone and with my husband gave a feeling of balance to my sabbath day.

Single people in ministry also need to consider the place of time alone and time with others on the sabbath day. Adam, an associate pastor who is single, keeps a Monday sabbath. He likes to spend time alone during the day, reading and going for a long run. Then in the evening he usually has dinner with friends, enjoying relaxed conversation.

Another key to healthy sabbaths for people in ministry comes from the root meaning of the word “sabbath”: stop, pause, cease, desist, or rest. The heart of the sabbath is stopping, not finding more things to do. Several ministers I know observe a sabbath discipline of journaling, which has been a great gift to them. They record prayers and thoughts, and they try to use journaling as a way to listen to God. The center of this discipline is stopping long enough to listen and pray.

Patterns of Jewish sabbath observance are very simple. The symbols of candles and braided bread on Friday evening are reminders of God as light and God’s presence braided into our lives. A glass of wine and a box of spices at the end of the sabbath evoke the desire to bring the sweetness of the sabbath into the rest of the week. Married couples are encouraged to make love on the sabbath. Families often go for long walks. Many Jews, but not all, attend synagogue.

When we set high expectations that the sabbath will be “spiritual,” it becomes one more thing to do, continuing the addiction to productivity that is so common in our culture. As a person who has kept the sabbath for more than 25 years, first as a stay-at-home mom, later as a writer and editor, and then as a pastor, I can say that some sabbath days are very spiritual, others are peaceful, while yet others are discouraging because stopping productivity reveals a deep fatigue.

Over time, though, the sabbath inscribes important truths on our hearts. As the two versions of the sabbath command indicate, God is the Creator and Redeemer. Certainly, those of us called to full-time ministry are invited to partner with God in the work of sustaining creation and bringing redemption. We spend six days a week taking seriously our partnership in ministry with God.

But the work is God’s. Redemption comes through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the source of power. We are God’s beloved children, utterly dependent on God, receiving everything good from the hand of God. Because we are so easily addicted to taking ourselves too seriously, because we so easily fall into patterns of idolatry that elevate our own significance too high, we need the sabbath discipline of stopping productivity so we can remember that God is God and we are not. For people in ministry, stopping on the sabbath is a gift of rhythm – like a heart beat – that keeps our hearts in the right place.

(To access six other articles I've written about the sabbath, click here. My book Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest is the most popular of my books. I also wrote a Bible study guide on the Sabbath.)