I have to confess: there are moments when I think that ministry might not have been the best decision for my soul. After all, fewer and fewer people go to church in America these days and everything has become far more complex than it was when I was a child going to Sunday School… back in the days when just going to church made you a “good American” and a “good neighbor.” And so we are all challenged (by the culture and our own religious establishments) to work harder and do more to “grow the church.”
But the irony is, as I have aged I’ve discovered, the harder I work for God, the less I become like God. When I work more than I should, I become tired and I find myself losing patience with others and myself. I become resentful of others, cranky and easily frustrated and discouraged.
In her book, “Sacred Rhythms,” Ruth Haley Barton writes, “The point of Sabbath… is to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake… I live within physical limits of time and space… There are limits to my capacities relationally, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I am not God… [O]ur unwillingness to practice Sabbath is really an unwillingness to live within the limits of our humanity… Something about begin gracious and accepting and gentle with ourselves… enables us to be more gracious and accepting and gentle with others.”[i]
Sabbath was listed among the Ten Commandments and I find we Christians struggle to know what to do with those commandments (OK, even the word itself – “commandments” – leaves us feeling uncomfortable). Some church-goers today seem to feel that memorizing those commandments would get us all back on track and straighten out the world. Others remind us that, as Christians, we are living under the new covenant established in Jesus. But either approach seems to recognize that those commandments – like the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – were really all about relationship; i.e. what it means for us to live as human creatures in right (or righteous) relationship with God and one another.
So I don’t think a legalistic enslavement to the practice of Sabbath will help us unwind and rest in God’s presence. But I do think it is God’s reminder – God’s invitation – to us to consider what it means to be human and to live relationally. God is God; we are not. We need rest: time for prayer and play, rest and reflection. If nothing else, we need time to settle in to an awareness of God’s presence, to simply breath in the breathe of God, and invite God to “have thine own way” within us so that we can become not just hard workers for God, but joyful collaborators with God.
[i] Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton, IVP Books (Formatio); 2006; pp. 137-138.