Are you tired? I mean right now?
I am. And I am guessing I’m not the only one. Tiredness seems to be a disease of our time.
I used to think it was strange that in the defining list of commandments God gives his people …"don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal" … we find the slightly out of place instruction “and make sure you get some rest”. Not just rest, Sabbath Rest.
But maybe it’s not strange. Many of us are not good at rest. At this time of the year some of us are fortunate enough to think about holidays and rest. But how do we rest, especially the regular rest we are supposed to get each week? How does God do rest?
Sabbath – what’s it really about?
Isn’t it interesting that God creates man and woman on the sixth day and then the first thing man and woman do is experience a Sabbath! The first thing they do is rest. Their work comes much later. I think most of us have got this the other way round. We strive to get everything done whether it’s looking after kids, toiling in our workplaces or toiling in our church. There is always something more to worry about - money, children, job. And we are always connected, always on some device or other. Rest is what we have left over when everything else is done. But on God’s schedule, rest was always planned, scheduled in. God commands us to keep the Sabbath.
I find this is a very hard commandment to keep – much harder than not murdering people (…which may be just as well).
And people in Bible times found this hard too. By the time we get to Jesus’ day the Sabbath had been twisted into a complex set of rules nobody understood. Jesus attacks the religious teachers for telling him he wasn’t allowed to heal the sick, or even to snack on grain in a field on the Sabbath. His reply in effect was " you’ve made the Sabbath into yet another thing people have to “do”, another set of rules, another thing to worry about. You’ve made the blessing of relaxing into the curse of worrying".
But even today it can be hard to know what to do and not do on a Sabbath. Is it OK to read something connected with work? It it OK to do other work – gardening or DIY? Is it OK to take a class in something new? Here are 3 tips that have been invaluable to me when thinking about Sabbath and rest:
1. Don’t carry a burden
Let everything slip from your shoulders. This idea is key according to Northumbria Community. Even if you have to pick them all up again tomorrow, let them go today.
This starts with letting go, ignoring the ironing pile, not replying to messages (turn your phone off?). A distraction can help loosen the burden. It might be a walk in the countryside, socialising, or just sleeping longer. And not carrying a burden means try not to measure time – stop clock-watching!
2. Don’t try to improve things
Writing on the Patheos blog, Wayne Muller says:
“In ordinary time, we work …In Sabbath time, we see things as they are — but we do nothing to change, improve, or turn those things into something different”.
“In Sabbath Time, we surrender into a world without need of change. We slowly come to see the world with different eyes, fresh, and new. We see the field not as a crop to be harvested, but as a gently flowing ocean of wheat, an abundance of texture shaped by gentle breezes. We see things as they are, and marvel at their magnificence.”
3. Try a Walking Meditation
Richard Rohr uses this name for what disciples have practiced for centuries. Find some where to walk for 15 minutes, an hour, or a whole day. Walk alone and observe … colours, a wisp of cloud, people, a reflection, a fragrance … and practice:
- Presence - really be there, really observe, don’t take your previous thoughts with you
- Connectedness - take in what you see
- Reverence - slow down, live life at 2 miles per hour!
Importantly this is not about coming back with some profound message from God. That’s fine if it happens but it’s not the point. Rohr says “goal-lessness is your goal. The journey is the destination”. Go stare at something – this is something children are really good at - and we are to learn from them!
This doesn’t have to be grand mountain tops or lush forests. It can be a walk down your street. This is about savouring the ordinary things. Most of God’s creation is not ordinary, it’s astonishing, it’s just that we’ve grown used to it, we’ve stopped seeing it. One thing I like to do (seated!) is simply close my eyes and listen, especially to bird song. It’s four times louder when you can’t see.
I once read that ignoring the commandment to Sabbath rest was dishonouring to God. At the time I though this writer must live on another planet - one where nobody does any work. But now I realise he was right, consistently breaking a commandments is dishonouring God. And I now try to schedule rest activities into my calendar, even if I sometimes fail to keep the appointment. Today some people cannot take Sunday off due to work. Some find Friday night to Saturday afternoon easier, and for many it’s hit and miss. but the commandment to just STOP for 24 hours remains.
And lastly back to the question: What did God do on his day off?
I sometimes wonder what God did on that first Sabbath. And what does he continue to do? Watch sport? Take a walk? Socialise in the Trinity?
Of course God doesn’t have days on or off (and maybe not even "days" in that sense). But on that first Sabbath he actually introduced us to all three of the above ideas above. He didn’t carry a burden – he ceased to work. He didn’t try to improve or tweak things - his creation was already good. And he did take time and space to step back and enjoy his creation.