The Real Reason We Don’t Take a Sabbath
One of the many things New Englanders are good at is taking a summer vacation. You see the evidence of this if you are driving on 128, 95, or 93 on a Sunday afternoon or evening, when everyone is coming back from a weekend or day away.
Nonetheless, our life’s work can easily take over if we’re not careful. We forget the truths of Psalm 127—that it is God who makes our work truly come alive. We do our work with a sort of Tower of Babel mentality… I’m just going to get this done really quick by myself.
Unless the Lord Builds….
Psalm 127:1-2 says:
Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
The other day I finished an intensive summer class on Cross Cultural Counseling. The final paper I turned in was in its 7th or 8th draft when I finally clicked the Send button to submit it to my professor.
So recently I can relate to “rise early and stay up late.” If your life’s work involves taking care of other people, early mornings or late nights when they are asleep might be your best time to work through your task list. These two verses don’t say not to do that. But they do caution us against squeezing more hours out of our day without deliberately inviting and acknowledging God’s presence in those working hours.
I can stand watch early over my work, but that work is good only because God stands watch with me. Work without God, Solomon says, is in vain.
Besides that, you need to sleep. God knows that. Sleep is part of the benefits package, if you will, of those who work with the God of Israel.
“He grants sleep to those he loves.” (I.e., to everyone.)
Our bodies have an amazing way of getting sleep when they need it. If we go for too long without enough sleep, our bodies just shut down. We may fall asleep involuntarily. This is one of the ways, I think, that God grants sleep to those he loves: When we’re tired enough, our bodies will sleep, whether we want them to or not. So you might as well get out of your chair or off the couch, brush your teeth, and get in your bed.
Why We Should Take a Sabbath
Another manifestation of God’s granting of sleep—rest—to the ones he loves is the gift of a Sabbath day. A Sabbath day of rest is part of the natural, biological rhythm that God set up from the very beginning of creation. God did his work—created the heavens and the earth, life and all that is in them—in six days. And on the seventh day, he rested. He didn’t do or create anything. Six days on, one day off.
We don’t need much intellectual convincing of the value of Sabbath-keeping. We know that practicing the Sabbath follows God’s pattern of six days on, one day off. (Work and rest, work and rest… not: work and work, work and work.)
We know that keeping a Sabbath re-orients us to God, in case we forgot about God during the rest of the week. We experience Sabbath as a gift of refreshment when we most need it, part of the full life that Jesus promised. (A Sabbath-less life is really only half a life.)
And who wants to eat what verse 2 of this Psalm calls “the bread of anxious toil”? We’ve ordered and eaten that dish, right? It’s disgusting. The bread of anxious toil leaves a bad aftertaste; it gives you heartburn.
Besides, we can’t really be productive 7 days a week anyway. Even multitasking doesn’t really give us an edge. A New York Times article says, “In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, [on] Facebook and [at] a meeting is really doing something called ‘rapid toggling between tasks,’ and is engaged in constant context switching.” We can’t just keep switching contexts and rapidly “[toggle] between tasks” for 7 days. That’s exhausting.
Sabbath: Not Just a Day, A Mindset
The practice and mentality and posture of Sabbath-keeping is not just for one day, but we can practice a Sabbath mindset in all of life, turning to God and acknowledging his presence in our work and in our rest, in our waking hours and in our sleeping hours.
Clement of Alexandria, one of those highly quotable early church dudes, said,
Practice husbandry if you’re a husbandman, but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the while on the heavenly pilot.
Here’s how The Message puts Jesus’ words in Matthew:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out…? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
That’s what we want. That sounds amazing. We need no convincing whatsoever of the value of Sabbath-keeping, both as a distinct day of the week and as an ongoing daily mindset.
Why We Don’t Keep Sabbath, Really: Internal Competing Values
And yet, we don’t take a Sabbath as we should. Or we do, but three days into the week, we forget to practice a daily Sabbath orientation toward God with complete reliance on him. We turn to our own inner resources to face our life’s work.
Euguene Peterson warns against “un-Sabbathed workplace” when he says,
[W]ithout a Sabbath…the workplace is soon emptied of any sense of the presence of God. The work itself becomes an end in itself. It is this ‘end in itself’ that makes an un-Sabbathed workplace a breeding ground for idols. We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce our relationships to functions that we can manage. We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce work to the dimensions of our egos and our control.
Why do we do this? We don’t really think about other people as just relationships to be managed, do we? We’re not really egomaniacs, right? At least, in the depths of our beings, we don’t want to live like that.
Is this as simple as just saying, “Okay, well, I guess we need to take a Sabbath more. We should practice a Sabbath mentality more often in our daily endeavors”? We’re just a forgetful and disobedient people and we need to obey to this 4th commandment.
There is some truth to that. But I don’t think it’s just disobedience or forgetfulness or laziness that leads to an un-Sabbathed life.
I think the main Christians don’t take a Sabbath, or don’t practice a daily Sabbath mentality, is because of our competing internal values.
Two educators at Harvard—Kegan and Lahey—have a diagnostic grid that I’ve found immensely helpful for unearthing my sometimes subtle competing values. It’s from their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work.
The essence of their diagnostic is to begin with a commitment or value or belief—something where we say it’s really great if this happens. In this case, to adapt their language, “We are committed to the value or importance of… Sabbath-keeping,” both as a distinct day and as a mentality throughout the week.
Then we ask, “What are we doing or not doing that prevents this from happening?” So think for a moment, what are you doing or not doing that prevents Sabbath-keeping and rest from happening?
There may be some forces outside of your control—small children, an overbearing boss. But what are you doing that prevents a Sabbath rhythm in your life?
Underneath the answer to that question is a competing commitment or value or belief. Based on what I’m doing to undermine my Sabbath-keeping—checking email on a day off, not calling in anyone else for help–“I may also be committed to…” getting everything done myself and making sure it gets done right. Or, “I may also be committed to” just keeping going, because I have to.
Where Kegan and Lahey’s grid gets really fascinating is in what comes after you’ve unearthed your competing value. They suggest that each competing value carries with it a big assumption that may or may not be true.
If I don’t do this task, it will never get done, and there is no one else in the entire universe who can do it as well as I would.
Or, I’m committed to working 7 days a week (competing value), because (here’s the big assumption) if I stop and take a Sabbath, I’ll be so stressed out the day after the Sabbath with catching up, that it won’t have been worth it.
Or, if I slow down enough to practice a Sabbath mentality, I might become less productive.
Walter Bruegemmann talks about this kind of assumption as a scarcity mentality. He says:
There’s never enough time; there’s never a moment’s rest. … But how willing are we to practice Sabbath? A Sabbath spent catching up on chores we were too busy to do during the week is hardly a testimony to abundance. [It] does nothing to weaken the domain of scarcity. Honoring the Sabbath is a form of witness. It tells the world that ‘there is enough.’”
There is enough. There is enough time for us to stop on the 7th day, and to slow down on the other 6 days and to dwell in the watching presence of God.
It’s true that we have a bundle of competing values, commitments, and assumptions that keep us from fully practicing God’s call to a Sabbath rest.
But ultimately, a Sabbath way of life acknowledges that God is God and we are not.
God can and does complete building projects that we cannot finish. God can and does stay awake watching, guarding, protecting, so we can sleep.
A Modest Experiment: Four Weeks of Sabbath
Here’s the final square in Kegan and Lahey’s competing values diagnostic: Try “a modest, safe test.”
I had to pinch myself the other day when I saw a “Back to School” sign up at the store. Our summer just started! But we’re just a few weeks away from Labor Day.
It’s time to start planning your fall, if you haven’t already. And I would propose that as you do, you try a “modest, safe test,” with regard to Sabbath-keeping.
Plan a Sabbath each week for the next four weeks and keep it. Make it a Sabbath from technology. From your job. From household chores. And after four weeks, evaluate it. See how it went. See if all the things you thought would go wrong (if you took a break), actually did go wrong.
Or… see if you find yourself refreshed and living with a heightened awareness of God’s watching presence. See if you find the scarcity you feared… or, if you find instead an abundance of good gifts from the God who gives rest to the ones he loves.
I preached on Psalm 127:1-2 this last Sunday, from which the above is adapted. See my other Psalms sermons here.