Sabbath: The Work that isn't Work

Would you please give it a rest? Try to settle-down. Loosen up. Lighten up a little. Ease off. Back off. Whoa, wait a minute, time out. Give me a break. Chill out.

If you’re hearing these kinds of things more often lately, there’s a pretty good chance you’re missing a message people are trying to deliver, a message something like: “We’ve had enough of your burned-out, worn-out, cranky, and moody self.” They’re trying to tell you that, whether you think you need it or not, they need for you to claim the good gift of rest. Relax. Unwind. Wind down. Kick-back. Put your feet up. Stretch out. Catch your breath. Take a break. Take the day off. Take a load off. Take your time. Take ten. Take it easy. Take a nap.

Too many of us resist the free and abundant gift of rest. It’s a wonder which is everywhere, built into the way things are. The earth’s seasons alternate between dormancy and productivity. Tides ebb and flow, rise and fall. We inhale oxygen and mercy; we exhale carbon dioxide and brokenness. Our hearts alternate between systole, contraction, and diastole, relaxation. Speech would be unintelligible without brief pauses of silence between words. Music would be impossible without rests between notes.

Nature’s rhythm alternates between darkness and light, evening and morning, night and day. It’s a rhythm meant to break time into roughly equal periods of inactivity and activity and to invite us not only to work and produce, but to rest and sleep.

God calls us—commands us, actually—to receive the simple and essential gift of rest. I wonder if you have considered how amazing it is that we serve a God who loves us enough to make rest a commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Remember to rest—to rest regularly, even “religiously.”

It’s a commandment we find in both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In both passages, the commandment is the same: “Remember—observe—the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” but the rationale for the commandment in each passage is different.

In Exodus (20:10-11), we’re ordered and invited to keep the Sabbath because God did. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that, after calling the heavens and earth into existence out of nothing and after fashioning human beings in God’s own image, God looked around, decided that creation was good, very good, took a day off, and savored it all. God stopped, took a break, quit working, and rested.

Apparently, not even God can do everything by doing. Sometimes, even for God, “not doing” is the way to get things done. God knows when enough is enough and is not plugged-in to the productivity machine 24/7/365.

Keep the Sabbath, Exodus tells us, because you may and you must: if God rested, who do we think we are never to stop, never to step back, never to recover?

In Deuteronomy (5:14-15), we are commanded to keep the Sabbath in order to remind ourselves that we are not slaves to the demands of others. We are more than workers, producers, tools, and means to an end. Only slaves never take time off, Deuteronomy says, and God has set you free.

It’s ironic that, even though most of us are freer than any group of people who has ever lived, so many of us are slaves nonetheless: slaves of consuming desires, of overwhelming demands, relentless pressures and unreasonable expectations.

Keep Sabbath. Resting is a holy thing. You’re doing God’s own work when you do the work that isn’t work.

It’s Sabbath to gather with friends, week by week, to worship and to give thanks for the goodness and generosity of God, to sing and pray and listen, to remember and celebrate that you are a child of God and not a merely or mainly a worker, producer, and consumer.

It’s Sabbath when you’re stretched out in a hammock stretched between two sturdy oaks, their canopies of leaves casting cool shade on a warm day, breathing out the day’s demands, breathing in the fresh air of peace.

It’s Sabbath when you’re at the beach, walking toward the east at dawn, seeing the quiet splendor of sunrise and realizing that this dazzling daily miracle doesn’t depend on you. There’s nothing you have to do to make it happen and nothing you can do to keep it from happening. All you need to do is what you get to do: marvel and give thanks.

It’s Sabbath when you turn off the cellphone, log-off the laptop, take out the ear-buds, put down the Kindle, shut down the I-pad, put-away the X-Box, and turn off the television. You watch, instead, for the brightening and the shadowing of the eyes of the people in the room with you; notice the nuances of their smiles and frowns; hear their voices tighten and relax; listen to the sound of your own breathing; feel the pace of your pulse; pay attention to the promptings of your heart; and feel again, for the first time in a long time, the renewal which comes from seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, knowing and being known.

Sabbath is a free gift, a vital grace, and work that isn’t work.