Learning to Stop

 

2016-06-06 12.44.01Ten years ago the standard response to the question, “how are you?” was “fine.” That was not a particularly informative answer but it was, well…fine. In today’s American culture, however, the standard response to the question, “how are you” seems to be “busy.”[1]

One social commentator points out that it is not only adults who are busy anymore, but also students and kids who are moving at breakneck pace. We are scheduled down to the slightest half hour, racing around from one activity to another.[2]

In the midst of our fast-paced, packed-out lives, we can often lose time to think, to rest, to play, to be with others, and more.

Of course, that is no less true for leaders in the church. Unfortunately, it is not difficult for me to think about seasons of life as a pastor when I have been rushing from one activity to another as my days, nights, and weekends fill up with endless pastoral needs: sermon preparation, staff meetings, pastoral care visits, weddings, funerals, church council meetings, and more.

In an article entitled “Black Friday and the Importance of Sabbath Rest,” Danielle Tumminio points out that we’ve come a long way from fifty years ago when stores, banks, and businesses were closed on Sundays. She writes:

as the culture in America has become increasingly consumerist, a new worldview has overtaken the one that honors the Sabbath. In that worldview, rest is anachronistic. Sunday is business as usual: Tellers open banks, businessmen strike deals by email, students labor over homework. We are too busy to rest, we say; we don’t have time to rejuvenate after setting the table, carving the turkey and cleaning when the last guest leaves.

What all this filters down to is that the increasing intensity of Black Friday — or rather, Black Midnight Thursday — is merely the latest manifestation of the way in which our culture dilutes the Sabbath and the need for rest in the name of increasing productivity and quenching consumerist thirst. Even though Black Friday is not on a Saturday or Sunday, it follows a period of heightened work and stress; it’s a natural time for rest, and yet, it’s a time in which rest is not encouraged. [3]

In the midst of the sort of culture we live in, the idea of Sabbath may seem both incredibly desirable and practically unattainable, even for ministry leaders. Yet this is what God still speaks in Exodus 20:8,“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

Most of us already now that the word Sabbath comes from a Hebrew word that means literally to stop, cease and rest. Sabbath calls for an end to the apparently endless activity and work around us. I believe it is pastors and church leaders who need this more than anyone else in today’s fast-paced society.

Sabbath sets a different rhythm from our tireless work

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. (Exodus 20:9-10)

The Sabbath is intended to set a different rhythm for our lives. By nature we as people let our work determine our life rhythm. With the increasingly unbounded nature of work, where technology gives us accessibility at all times, Sabbath intentionally breaks our rhythm with rest. While we are largely encouraged to get our identity from what we can produce – whether works of art, business deals, or landscaping projects – the Sabbath calls us to something different. It reminds us that we are not what we do, but we are people created in the image of the living God.

When I joined the staff as Senior Pastor at my present church about five years ago, the demands were huge. It was a church of more than 1,500 people and I was following a well-beloved founding Senior Pastor who served faithfully for thirty years. Soon I discovered I was reverting to patterns I had not indulged for years, as I found that I was trying to prove myself by what I could do, how much I could accomplish, and how well I could do it. Of course, in the midst of all that, Sabbath slowly disappeared under the waves of frenetic activity. I needed to restore a rhythm that I knew was important where I stopped the activity to restore my life. So, with great effort and not a little disappointment of others, I returned to a weekly Sabbath.

Setting a different rhythm through attention to God

For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)

Of course, the Sabbath is obviously a change of rhythm with our work, but it is much more than that. Sabbath teaches us to stop attending so much to our activity so that we can pay greater attention to God and what He is doing. Eugene Peterson describes Sabbath as “playing and praying.”[4] It’s a helpful description even for us pastors. We need to stop through the forced rhythm of Sabbath so that we can play again. We need to remember we are not just what we do.

At the same time, we have to return to the place of prayer, which is in itself both steady attention to God and conversation with God. When I began restoring Sabbath to my weekly rhythm as a pastor I was exhausted. My Sabbath day (which is now Monday) became a day to regroup, rest, go for a run, have lunch with my wife, and do something fun that restored me. After some time, however, I realized that my weekly day to stop was more about me than about attending to God. Peterson’s phrase helped me recapture the fact that I do need playing on the Sabbath, but I cannot forget the praying. For church leaders, unfortunately, this can feel like more work. If you, like me, are exhausted, then the idea of prayer as a vital part of the Sabbath may actually make you tired. If that’s you, can I just encourage you to find a new way to pray that begins to help you connect with our Father in a life-giving way? For me that has taken on many forms: fixed-hour prayer using The Book of Common Prayer, quiet prayer through journaling while sipping a cup of coffee, prayer talking and listening while hiking on a deserted trail, praying with a good friend after lunch together. Whatever the form, Sabbath prayer necessarily completes the Sabbath rhythm.

What forgetting the Sabbath does to Us

 If we do not remember the Sabbath, we run the risk of many things going wrong in our lives, but let me draw our attention to two that I think are the most significant for us as ministry leaders.

First, if we ignore Sabbath we run the risk of wearing ourselves out. While we do not know it to be true, we see that the intense weariness of ministry took its toll on Moses (Exodus 18) and Elijah (1 Kings 18-19). In the most straightforward manner, we were made by God for healthy rest. Work is important and we must steward our time and energy well before the Lord. But work is not rest, and rest is not work. I believe it is essential for us as ministry leaders to set aside one 24-hour period in every seven-day week where we can rest. If we fail to do this, we should not be surprised if we feel like we are stuck on an infinite ministry merry-go-round.

Second, if we neglect the Sabbath, we run the risk of centering our ministry upon ourselves. When we live without Sabbath it is easy to believe that everything in our lives is dependent upon us. Those of us who minister in Christ’s name do so because we want to make a difference in the world and the lives of people for God’s glory. Sometimes in this good goal we become confused and believe that we are necessary for God’s work in our church, organization, or certain people’s lives. This came home to me when I took a vacation and had a younger pastor on our staff preach while I was away. I returned and found that no one had really missed me in the pulpit. I needed some extended rest with my family but secretly wanted people to miss me. It’s sad, I know, but that can grow inside of all our hearts. After I recovered from my hurt feelings, I realized how great it is to know that the ministry in our church is not dependent upon me. Sabbath forces us to face this reality: God doesn’t need us as much as we think He does.

Learning to Stop

So, I am still learning how to stop. I am learning how to be a pastor who honors God by honoring the Sabbath. Won’t you join me? The Reverend James Ellis III writes: “If we are ever going to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, we must refrain from overwork. But not just that; we must also set special time aside, ideally one full day in seven however we can, to commune with God and rest, and make practical strides to not view work — whatever it may be — as our primary comfort. Christians have been loosed from the pains of idolatry and self-reliance.”[5]


 

[1] “How the Last Decade Changed American Life.” Barna Group. https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/624-how-the-last-decade-changed-american-life. Accessed March 15, 2014.

[2] Tim Kreider, “The Busy Trap,” The New York Times, June 30, 2012. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/. Accessed March 15, 2014.

[3] Danielle Tumminio, “Black Friday and the Importance of Sabbath Rest,” The Huffington Post, November 11, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-tumminio/consumer-culture-and-the-sabbath_b_1104164.html. Accessed March 15, 2014.

[4] I need to find the source for this quote or idea. I’ve read too much Peterson to easily find it yet.

[5] James Ellis III, “The Sabbath as a Lesson on Rest and Work (A Sermon on Exodus 20:8-11)” in The Huffington Post, January 27, 2014; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-ellis-iii/the-sabbath-as-a-lesson-work-life-balance_b_4670562.html. Accessed March 15, 2014.

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