Striving... for Sabbath rest
A reflection on the reasons we find it so hard to rest - and why we really must to discover all that God has planned for us. By Ben Lucas
It was 10 years ago, and I was heading for yet another burnout. So much to do, so much to achieve, so many ideas to implement… striving in so many ways. And most of the day to day busyness was so, so good!
‘Ben, when is your Sabbath’? asked Sian, my Christian Yoda.
I have taken a day off every week, seeing the importance of being with the kids, so I proudly declared: ‘Saturday is my day off.'
Sian replied, ‘I didn’t ask when you took your day off, I asked when you have your Sabbath rest’? (She may have said, ‘Day off not asked, but Sabbath my young Padawan!)
Instinctively, I needed to be able to show my Jedi master that I was in control and doing well at this thing called ministry, so the excuses started to flow… ‘We are employed to work six days a week – I can only take one day off with the family, I can’t have Sabbath as well’… ‘I just have too much to do to justify a second day of no productivity’… You know the sort of excuses… you may have said them yourselves?
After the conversation with my little green friend, I embarked on a new weekly diary plan that allowed for Mondays to be a day of rest. Well, I say a day, in the evenings I had a meeting (like every other day of the week), and in the mornings we had our team meeting, reflecting on the week just gone and preparing for the week ahead. But… I did diarise Sabbath on a Monday! In 10 years of pastoral ministry, I managed to take Monday as sabbath only a handful of times. Sabbath, written in bold on every Monday would soon be crossed out and replaced with new details of meetings, emergencies, courses and all the other more important things I was striving to achieve (for God?).
The incredible truth is that the times I managed Sabbath, somehow, I was more effective, achieved more, felt healthier, knew intimacy with God and was simply more aware of the usually elusive sense of shalom. Members of the congregation would notice, remarking on how much ‘better’ my sermons were, how much more insightful my pastoral care.
But… even though I knew it would be the best day of the week, even though I knew I would be a better father, husband, minister, friend, son having had taken the time, even though I knew I would be more effective… taking the time to rest barely ever happened… it was just too hard and it got in the way of all I was striving to achieve.
This year has offered opportunity for Christ’s church to rest. I know there is still loads to do and I am aware that the communities we dwell in are struggling. But surely lockdowns and limited face to face contact offered us all the chance to take sabbath seriously? Many of us declared back in March, ‘this time can be a gift to get rhythms right and life into a better order and balance’. How has that gone?
My observation is that everybody seems more exhausted, living lives with less balance and a deep struggle to cope with the changing times. Shalom seems an awfully long way from our grasp. Why is sabbath rest so flipping difficult?
I found this verse about striving:
‘So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter rest…’
Strive to enter rest… well that’s a new kind of striving for me, I can almost hear Sian saying, ‘strive to rest you must’! We must strive because it is a commandment but also because it is so difficult to achieve… rest is near on impossible as my failures attest. I have made fresh attempts recently to take Mondays as sabbath. Surely that is achievable now I am a pioneer rather than a traditional minister? Yet, as I embark on a little silence, either my brain goes mental with everything I need to achieve, or I fall asleep with exhaustion. Either busy… or asleep… busy… or asleep.
Ring any bells? Why is it so hard? Why can’t we rest?
Brueggemann wrote something called the 19 Thesis (which is rather wonderful by the way). He suggests that we are all scripted by a ‘therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life’. This script is enacted through ‘advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television – promises to make us safe and happy’.
What does this mean? Well, for starters it means we are scripted to look successful, to achieve, to see people buy our product. It means to be constantly needing something new, and by requiring these things we will be happy (until the next aspirational product comes onto the market). Each one of us is scripted.
These scripts have failed.
We are more depressed, more anxious, more desperate and as a church seemingly less relevant in our context. Surely, we must do more? Be busier? Tell more people about Jesus? Pray harder? Copy the successful church down the road?
The Jews practised Sabbath to show the world their distinctive identity in Yahweh. We are called to take Sabbath to share our distinctiveness as Christians. We are a people who should not be identified by consumerism or productivity, but by God. To keep the societal scripts going the world needs us to be depleted souls - because depleted souls make good shoppers! Sabbath is a counter narrative, a refusal to live as a depleted person but to live in full capacity (or ‘fully Ben’). It is the place where we move away from what society says we should be like to the beautiful invitation of God to rest and discover what the creator is creating in us as we are filled with fulness of life. It is in resting that our anxiety can be cast off as it gives into the radiant love and peace of God. We can be so busy with the things of God that we forget what he is like and what he is calling us to be.
I have stopped using the word ‘mission’. Basically, it creates an unhelpful posture in me that buys into the scripts of society that unfortunately shape much of my DNA. It makes me want to achieve, to look successful and always filled with the desire to want more.
I am now using ‘pilgrim witness’ language, which suggest that the goals are not as important as the formation. That who we are is more important than what we do. Many of us are so busy doing mission… but hear the invitation from God whom invites us to rest, and as we rest we begin to learn the counter narrative of God and begin to reveal it to the communities around us.
Instead of doing mission, we are being missional. As I look around and hear stories, the greatest gift we could offer our community is not a new course, social enterprise, shiny service, a new arms-length missional activity but to display what a pilgrim community looks like as it rests and finds its true identity in the almighty creator God. Then… we shine like stars!
So… I am striving… striving for Sabbath rest. May as we strive together – may we find all that God has planned for us and may our depleted souls become restored and healed. And may the way we live our pilgrimed lives together shine to those around us and lead them to their own discovery that God is so incredibly good and is enlarging shalom, a task all invited to take part.
Have a great day striving!
Image | Annie Spratt | Unsplash
Ben Lucas was the minister of a large Baptist church before moving to rural Dorset in 2017. He and his family are living incarnationally, engaged in missional listening.
This reflection first appeared on his blog Vulnerable mutterings about grace and is republished with permission
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