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When Sabbath Comes Calling

I bumped into a recent graduate of the Seminary last weekend at a conference.  She is in between things right now, waiting for her year-long Clinical Pastoral Education residency to begin.  Assuming that these six weeks would be experienced as a wonderful gift after several demanding years in school, I asked her how she was enjoying her “breathing space.”  It turns out she’s having a terrible time.  “I don’t know what to do with myself.  I have no idea how to deal with not being busy.”  Hopefully she’ll figure this out before her CPE group gets to work on her inability to throttle down from full speed ahead!

Our graduate’s malady is not a rare illness.  Learning to receive Sabbath as a gift appears to be one of the hardest lessons religious leaders have to learn.  Almost five hundred years ago Martin Luther ignited a revolution with his rediscovery of the theology of grace, the notion that we are justified, made worthy, not by virtue of the work we do but rather through the grace of God received in faith.  Protestants and Catholics alike now all agree about this.  But aligning our actions with our beliefs seems nearly impossible.  Pastors wear “busy-ness” like a badge of honor.  Few want to be seen as “holier than thou.”  Being known as “busier than thou” is quite another thing.

The ministerial life is hard work.  There’s no getting around it.  I know.  I was a pastor.  And being a religious leader in other institutional settings is also hard work.  Been there, too.  In fact, I don’t know many excellent pastors or church leaders who don’t work very hard.  It goes with the territory.  There’s no particular virtue in turning self-care into self-indulgence, particularly if it comes at the expense of the mission we serve or the colleagues we work with.  But hard work, and compulsion about work, are not the same thing.  It’s one thing when our work makes us busy.  That’s a challenge responsive to various adjustments or fixes when the pace is out of control or the balance is skewed.  It’s another thing when we simply need to be busy.  That’s a condition requiring deeper, spiritual interventions.

The key, it seems to me, is that when Sabbath comes calling, we need to practice it.  Practice.  An activity we perform, like the practice of law or medicine, and something we must learn and rehearse, like practicing the piano.  Practitioners of Sabbath perform Sabbath even as they practice it.  We have friends who sometimes invite us to their Shabbat dinner.  It’s a comfortable meal interspersed with prayers, songs, and simple rituals.  There is conversation, often guided by the host to topics of interest.  Above all, it is leisurely.  Nothing is more important, nothing is rushed, nothing intrudes.  It feels a bit like a dress rehearsal of the Sabbath day that’s beginning.  Our friends lead full and busy lives with demanding professional responsibilities.  But we know them now primarily through their practice of Sabbath.

Seminaries are not very good schools of Sabbath keeping.  So where is my young friend going to learn how to receive Sabbath as gift when it comes calling?  Not from the classroom where, generally speaking, the more you work the more you get rewarded.  Not from secular culture, where the more you work the more you are admired.  And, sadly, not often from church culture where folk assert that “the Lord’s work is never done.”  No, learning how to receive Sabbath as a gift will come from watching practitioners of Sabbath.  These men and women have probably not perfected their practice.  After all, most of them are also busy, struggling with myriad demands on their time and attention.  But they have committed themselves to a life-long discipline of practice that has taught them about things like rest, quiet, leisure, time away, indulging in pleasures, setting aside what is unfinished for another time, turning off devises, and saying “this much and no more” without guilt. 

Sabbath practice begins with listening.  Listening to the rhythm of our bodies, listening to the heartbeats of creation, listening to the voices of loved ones, listening to God.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans,” (Life Together).  It’s not all up to me is one way to think about receiving Sabbath.  But ultimately Sabbath means “it’s not all about me.”  That may be the hardest lesson of all.  Those who practice Sabbath have learned that it’s not really about obeying a commandment; it’s about receiving a gift.  Getting started may feel like practicing scales on a piano.  Not much fun!  But eventually a melody will emerge, and then harmonies, and ultimately a song.  It’s a song we need to sing.  And as our young graduate reminded me last weekend, it’s a song many need to hear.

John H. Thomas
June 20, 2013 

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