A Time to Rest: Sabbath Keeping for Leaders
by Donna Schaper (July / August 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 4)
How do church leaders keep the Sabbath? And what is Sabbath keeping, today, anyway? The author focuses on God's ancient command for the sake of the ministry and personal lives of our rostered leadership
The Sabbath or seventh day of rest was part of God's original plan in creation. It is codified in the third commandment, which tells us to "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy." The commandment is to go back to creation and to be like it was in the beginning.
Even God restedand not just morally or as a way to manage fatigue. God rested to enjoy creation. Literally, in the Hebrew, on the seventh day God exhaled. God enjoyed all the work God had done in a separation or Sabbath in time.
Sabbath also means to separate one kind of time, chronos, from another kind of time, kairos. Sabbath separates work from playthat is, holy work from holy play. All seven days of original creation were created by God; all were enjoyed by God.
Work, as many leisure sociologists define it, is anything we have to do; play anything we want to do. God, of course, didn't have to work. God chose to work. God chose to play. God set up a rhythm and a cycle. When we violate that cycle and work too hard, forgetting to play, we find ourselves in a violation of creationnot just a violation of a commandment.
Our sin is ontological, not only moral. Our sin is forgetfulness of God. We go out of whack with the way things are.
Church leaders are particularly vulnerable to ontological confusion. We like to think we are better than the normal folk; it is they who need to rest. We are exceptional; we are exceptionalistic. We think we are differentmore energetic, less a part of creation, more a part of some fictional higher order.
Thus we make such a grand point out of obeying all the other commandments that we forget the one about rest. We become tired, grumpysometimes a little mean. The source of our trouble is ourselves: God gives us permission to rest. We refuse it.
Thus, the first thing a leader can do to restore unto him- or herself the joy of God's salvation is to remember that we are normal. We are not better than others by virtue of our calling; we are normal. Therefore, we not only may rest, but like others, we must rest.
We begin Sabbath keeping by giving ourselves permission to be normal. From that permission comes the permission to rest.
Without that permissionwhich comes from God through selfwe will not be able to rest. With it we can begin to make the Sabbath connections.
Sabbath is the connections between one kind of time and another: it is the chair we sit in when we come home, the coffee we enjoy once we get to work, or the clothes we put on for a special occasion. Sabbath remembers the ring Grandma gave us when it goes to our place of worship on a festival day. Sabbath is pause.
It is time spent remembering what time is for. Some time is for weeping. Sabbath knows about that kind of time too. Because it makes time spacious by its active separations, the people who know Sabbath don't have to be afraid of weeping. They are intimate enough with time to know that weeping will only endure for the night. Joy will return in the morning.
In our middle class American world today, we imagine little time for joy and little time for weeping. All time seems the same. It is as homogenized as the milk and the neighborhood.
Time is the river in which we rush from one place to another. Time is a digital clock, where minutes matter. Time is money, or so we say, in the world without Sabbath. I even see people rush to their ski resorts on Friday afternoon. The same people use a portable phone at their summer campsite.
I have these people in me; they are not a "they." We are a we. I can easily go for weeks at a time, feeling harried and pushed by something I can't quite explain. It is not God. It is not good. It is certainly not beautiful; it puts a long frown on my face, a high pitched tone in my voice, and doesn't do a thing for my heart or liver or lungs. During these times, I may sing but I have no melody.
Work Ethic's Impact
Time without Sabbath is time that is homogenized by anxiety. The simple name of the anxiety is the American Work Ethic. The majority of Americans subscribe to its articles of faith.
The work ethic is the belief that work produces happiness. It is the faith that effort is ethical. The number of people who still believe in work is high, but the connection between work and happiness is low. The work ethic has turned into a hollow ethic: it has become a should. Work should produce happiness.
But most people know that work in this society does not produce happiness. The work ethic is instead obsolescent; its time of life and usefulness is over. But, like an old record or a cartridge tape, most of us still carry the work ethic around. We don't know whether to throw it out or hang on to it.
The work ethic doesn't work, but that doesn't mean that many people in this society still don't believe in it. Because of the disconnection between work and happinessand people's awareness of the disconnectionwe face an ethical crisis, if not emergency. We live by a belief that we don't believe in. What we think is good is not. That which we think will save us does not save us. Work does not make us happy.
But we have constructed our families and our economic culture around the bedrock belief in this broken connection.
In the death of the work ethic, we face a spiritual crisis and a material crisis, both at the same time. We do something every day which is supposed to be good but doesn't feel good. We are daily disappointed. We are disappointed both materially and spiritually, both in our everyday experience and in our own confidence level. Why is work so hard when everyone says it should be so good?
The answer is rooted in the original betrayal of creationand the way work became a curse from having been a blessing. "From now on you will work by the sweat of your brow." We refused God's permission earlyand the curse has been present for a long time.
Breaking the Curse
Ironically, the way out of the curse of work is to rest. When we rest, we find ourselves much more capable of our best work. We find the joy returning to our desks and our computers, our fields and our factories.
We do not, however, keep Sabbath in order to achieve these blessings! We do not rest for practical reasons. Sabbath is not a self-help project. Instead, Sabbath is a gift from God which keeps on giving.
When we rest, we are more able to be joyfully productive. We also become better church leaders because we have gotten our egos out of the way of God's work. We are not leaders because we are better than "them." We are leaders by the grace of God.
Sabbath is not just grace and not just time beyond the exchange and the curse. Sabbath is the connection between works and grace. It is the patterned separation of the one from the other, on purpose. Sabbath is not opposed to work. It is not anti-work. It is a way of putting work in its proper place.
When church leaders get our work in the right relationship to our playour works to our grace, our selves out of the way of Godmagnificent things can happen.
Our shoulders no longer feel the tension of carrying too much of the world. Our people actually come to believe that we are touched by Godinstead of just touched! We become true vehicles for the grace of God. "In the day, we know goodness, at night song," as the Psalmist puts it.
We model the message we speak. When leaders can keep Sabbath, so can those we serve. When preachers can worship in their own services, as opposed to work at them, services become genuine. They lose their place in performance. When teachers can show God in their ability to say yes to more task and no to more task, then they model genuine Christian education. Real yes and real no is a very different model than "Oh, sure, I'll do it."
When leaders learn to keep Sabbath, the grace of God shines through them.
Donna Schaper is senior pastor at the Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, Florida. She is the author of The Sense in Sabbath (Innisfree) and Keeping Sabbath (Cowley).