Monday, August 9, 2010

Keeping Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:8-11

I am a great believer in the Sabbath. I believe we need Sabbath.

There is an old story which says that in ancient times when someone asked a rabbi, “Why do we have this mighty poem of Creation?” the rabbi answered, “To teach you to keep Sabbath.”

Sabbath reminds us that the world does not depend on us. The point of Sabbath is not that work is prohibited, but that rest is permitted. And in our rest we are able to reflect on deeper things, renew our spirits, and experience the presence of God.

One of the best days of my life was a Sabbath in Jerusalem. No one was working. No machines were running. There were no cars or trucks or buses. The sun was shining and people were walking in the streets. We went to Synagogue. Abraham Joshua Heschel called Sabbath, “a palace in time.” The time is sacred, not because of how much is accomplished, but because of how deeply life is experienced.

But as much as I believe in Sabbath, I do not keep it. Not often. Not regularly.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, that’s not my fault. At least it’s not completely my fault. Congregations are more demanding and clergy find it harder to take time off. Consequently, clergy as a group are becoming less healthy. We are more obese, more depressed, and less satisfied with our lives than we used to be.

(According to the article, the United Methodist Church has led the way in counteracting this tendency. In 2006 the church issued a directive suggesting strongly that clergy take all of the vacation they are entitled to. I did not know that.)

But for clergy, the problem is not just working too much and resting too little. In a related Times article, published on Saturday, a United Church of Christ Pastor, the Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, puts it this way, “there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.”

“The pastoral vocation,” he observes, “is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.”

People always want to be soothed and comforted, and this has always been in conflict with the Pastoral responsibility to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” But as MacDonald points out, the problem is greater in our consumer culture, where people shop for churches that will give them what they want. If the pastor focuses too much on uncomfortable issues, comfort is always just around the corner. And if the comfort comes with entertainment, that is even better.

The reality, of course, is that working non-stop (no one works non-stop, but with a little effort we can worry enough so that it seems life we are working non-stop) will not solve the problem. Work and worry are no substitute for spiritual integrity. Vision requires reflection.

I don’t really have a solution, for myself or for anyone else. The only way to keep Sabbath is to keep Sabbath.

This is more of a confession. It is a work in progress. (Note the ironic word choice.) I’ll let you know how it goes.


  1. I loved: "Abraham Joshua Heschel called Sabbath, “a palace in time.” The time is sacred, not because of how much is accomplished, but because of how deeply life is experienced."

  2. Thanks for the clerical perspective, Bill. Not something many are privy to. I couldn't agree more with your observations, either. Godspeed with that "work-in-progress"--"Wheels" V B