Pastor’s Column: Sabbath Reminds us that God is God (and we are not)
Sabbath is a tricky concept for Christians.
We’ve tended to see it as a Jewish thing, not really applicable to us, or, more recently we’ve conflated it with trendy forms of self-care. It’s the only one of the Ten Commandments that we brush off as not really that important. But it’s the longest and most descriptive commandment, the hinge words between how we relate to God and how we relate to each other. It’s not a throw-away comment.
The Israelites are no longer slaves, no longer owned by a master and locked into a system that dictates their worth solely by what they produce. They’ve lived this way some 400 years; it’s deep in their psyche. Now they are free, and they will need to learn how free people live, alongside other free people, with God as their master instead of Pharaoh.
The other commandments take the people out of slavery; the Sabbath command takes the slavery out of the people. One day in seven, God says, you stop all work. You do this because you are not to be defined by your output. One day in seven everyone rests, and all distinctions that you erect to define your value and measure your worth disappear — old, young, rich, poor, slave, free, citizen, foreigner — you are all simply and completely human beings, alongside one another, all beloved children of God.
This is the hardest lesson to absorb, so we have to do it regularly, God tells us. We have to regularly step out of the mindset and activity of the world around us, the measuring, comparing, competing, striving, producing and consuming. We have to regularly stop doing and practice just being.
Like all the other creatures and the earth itself already do, we must succumb to the cycles of rest and renewal that God built into the fabric of existence, which we are brutally determined to transcend. One day in seven, this command says, you on purpose remember that you are not God. And you on purpose remember that you are neither better nor worse than anyone around you, but connected in a mutual belonging to God and each other. This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to be free. But we forget this most of the time.
While we seek meaning from our lives, forces around us seek to shape how we find that meaning. 24/7 connectivity in our pockets ensures we’re saturated with messages that strip us of our freedom and humanity, and suck us into relentless comparison and division, ranking and judging, striving and measuring. With social media, texting, email and phones ever at the ready, we’re justified in acting as though the world can’t run without us; (the average American checks their phones 80 times a day while on vacation).1
Spirituality is nice, and God is, of course, real, but do we really need God? We’ve got it pretty much covered. Meanwhile we’re so disconnected from true selves that we can barely stand when emotion of almost any kind arises — it throws off our equilibrium. We’re chronically over-committed, under-resourced and exhausted, and who in the world has time for Sabbath?
If we step off the spinning carousel it will all fall apart, and we’ll never figure out how to put it together again. In fact, let’s label Sabbath self-indulgent, or keep rest a reward for a job well done! Let’s bolster our Protestant work ethic with a good dose of self-effacing pride. “How are you?” we’ll ask each other. “Busy!” we’ll answer, holding it out like a badge of honor, proof of a life well-lived. Look how well we are producing and consuming! We are not wasting any time.
Sabbath is one of God’s big ten, right up there with not murdering, because unless we regularly stop, we forget that God is God and we are not. We forget that we are creatures — with bodies and minds and hearts that need tending, dependent on the love and care of a creator who is ready to meet us when we stop moving long enough to be met. We forget that we are in this together, alongside everyone else, and we need one another because life isn’t meant to be done alone and against. And human beings that forget their humanity are arguably the most destructive force in the universe.
Rest is not a reward to be earned. It’s the starting point.
The Jewish day begins at sundown. All creativity, invention and construction happen in the second half of the day, fueled by, and resulting from, rest. And when the Sabbath day arrives, everything stops, whether you are ready or not. Sabbath interrupts and takes over.
You don’t start Sabbath after all the work is done, the house is clean, the thank you notes are written, and the gutters are cleared. When the sun hits the horizon, you stop. The phone goes off, the screens go dark, the work is put down and the only thing left is human beings being human, in the presence of God, who was there all along but who largely went unnoticed until now.
It’s uncomfortable. It’s strange. We are trained to measure the worth of a day by what we accomplish; what do we do with a day in which the goal is not to accomplish a thing? Expect there will be restlessness. Often there are tears, as emotions we’ve stuffed down come up in the space we’ve made. These become, like hunger pangs during a fast, a sacrifice back to God and a gift to us, a reminder of our pressing need to stop, so unaccustomed and painful it is to have our basic humanity in our face like that. We’re out of the rhythm. We’ve forgotten how to remember.
Sabbath is God’s strategy for helping us remember that God is God (and we are not), and that we are human beings, made in God’s image for love and connection, (and not locked in a never-ending competition for worth and resources).
Set aside a day when you will practice Sabbath (make it a Sunday and dedicate the time normally used to gather for worship!). Make space for silence during worship, five minutes to just sit and be. Turn off cell phones when you gather (download this cell phone liturgy). Plan a Sabbath retreat together. Sabbath is a discipline that works best with the support of a community, and its benefits will be felt by the whole community. When we stop, God will meet us.
Rev. Kara Root is the lead pastor at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. She shapes its communal life around worship, hospitality and Sabbath rest. She’s a spiritual director, writer, and workshop and retreat leader. A recovering multi-tasker, Sabbath is a particularly rich vehicle for the Spirit’s work of transformation in her life. She loves to read fiction, walk, bake, and take every opportunity she can to travel and explore the world with her kids and husband. She blogs at inthehereandnow.