This post is part 2 of a 3-part reflection on Sabbath. Part 1 can be found here.
My Sabbath experiences growing up were not as restrictive as most of my friends. My parents encouraged us to slow down and refrain from work, but did not define that rest by inactivity. So while we did not make our beds, run the vacuum, or mow the grass on Sundays, we had the freedom to ride bikes, go swimming, and go out to eat. Sabbath was in many ways like a second Saturday with less errands and responsibilities and the addition of one (sometimes two) worship services. All in all, Sundays were pretty relaxed, comfortable days.
While I am thankful for that childhood experience of Sabbath, there is another side to Sabbath that I missed. Along with the comforts of rest, Sabbath ushers us – and occasionally drags us – into discomfortable spaces. I am not talking about Sabbath being uncomfortable, in terms of wearing “Sunday” clothes or of needing to sit still through long, laborious sermons or dreadfully slow organ playing. Nor am I speaking of Sabbath as being uncomfortable in the sense of an unpleasant, socially awkward or inappropriate situation. Rather, what I failed to see growing up was how Sabbath is deliberately and provocatively discomforting.
Efficiency & Productivity
Work is a gift, but it can quickly become an unforgiving, unrelenting slave master. In our culture, our character and identity our frequently described by how much we have or have not accomplished. We attempt to impress people with how busy we are, as if a litany of all that we have yet to do makes us more important, more valuable. We half-jokingly express our longing for more hours in the day and complain about not having enough time to complete everything that we need to do. We decline opportunities to play and hangout with friends because that would be irresponsible with the amount of work still on our plate. Our work – or lack thereof – defines so much of who we are. We envy those who have escaped work and can live the high life (perceived absence of work). We have two choices to get that type of life: win the lottery or work hard and set aside for retirement, so that we can finally enjoy life. The more efficient and the more productive we are, the better our chances of having the time and resources needed in order to have the good life.
A Different Story
Yet, the creational roots of Sabbath tell a different story. If we pay attention to the timeline of Genesis 1-2:3, God created humanity on the tail-end of day six. All the heavy work was done: sky, land, & sea were formed, sun, moon, & stars, fish, birds, and critters of all sorts were all already made. There was no creating left for us to do. The Genesis account does not leave room for the hubris of calling ourselves co-creators with God. Rather, God created us at the end of the sixth day, after all the creating was done, just in time to for a day of rest. Rather than rooting our identity in our capacity to get things done, Sabbath reminds us that our identity is rooted in receiving life as a gift of rest from God, with each other, in the midst of a creation that is very good. If we take this opening creation account seriously, Sabbath is not a well-deserved break at the end of an efficiently productive work week. Receiving the gift of Sabbath rest is the basis from which we are able to do the work God calls us to. In order to work well, we must first learn to rest well.
At it’s heart then, Sabbath is not about going to church, wearing different clothes, or refraining from work or certain activities. Sabbath is a practice intended to shape our core identity by reorienting us from our being producers and creators of our own lives to being recipients of God’s good life. Each time I practice keeping Sabbath, I am immersing myself within a counter-narrative, one in which my identity is not shaped by my work ethic, how much I have done or how much I still have to do. Rather, I am remembering that all of life – all that I am, all that I have, and all that I am surrounded by – is a gift from God.
To rend something is to tear apart with force and purpose, and it is definitely not accidental. Sabbath, when we attend to its creational roots, rends us from the deception that our identity is found in our efficiency and productivity. In this sense, Sabbath practices are not merely uncomfortable, they are deliberately and provocatively discomforting. They challenge the basis on which we understand ourselves and the lens through which we perceive others and the world around us. They even transform the way we see God from some distant deity we need to appease to a God who delights in us, creating us just in time for us to join God in God’s rest.
For those of us, who subtly or intentionally buy into the work-a-holic lifestyle promoted in the North American culture, Sabbath practices tear at the very sources of our identity and offer us a new vision and purpose in life. Through the call to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), Sabbath submerses me in the reality that life is not of my own making, but is a gift to be received. Even work gets caught up in and transformed into a gift to be received, rather than a task-master to be avoided whenever possible. Sabbath is discomforting in that it exposes just how discordant and destructive the droning mantras of efficiency and productivity really are. And letting go of how we define ourselves is seldom easy or comfortable work. Sabbath is intended to be discomfortable when we are living to make a name for ourselves.
In part 3, I’ll reflect a bit on how I have been reimagining Sabbath as a practice which is life giving, and I’ll highlight some of the resources that have been shaping and influencing my experience of Sabbath. In the mean time, I’d love to hear what Sabbath looked like for you growing up, how your experiences of Sabbath have changed over the years, and if there are any Sabbath practices that really help you to receive life as a gift from God.