A Journey Toward Sabbath

The monologue in my head goes like this when I read Exodus 20:8-11:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy;

(Me: Alrighty then, I go to church and get lunch sometimes with friends on Sunday, then take a nap. Sounds pretty holy to me.)

You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.

(Me: All my work?!? My to-do list does not stop. I don’t think this is possible.)

You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates.

(Me: Not do ANY work?? But I have to do all the adulting to prepare for work on Monday. Also, I don’t have servants, or livestock, so…pass.)

For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day.

(Me: Even God rested on the seventh day? Oh. Maybe I should try this…but only when the to-do list dwindles, when I retire from working in the healthcare field, or when I get my own livestock. Someday…I’ll get to start a real Sabbath. Also, does watching Netflix count?)

First Step to Sabbath: Resistance

My first adult memory of the Sabbath was of Orthodox Jewish families walking to the temple in North Dallas. My friend told me that on Saturdays, those who practice Orthodox Judaism don’t drive on the Sabbath and even set timers for lights and stoves so they don’t have to do the work of turning them on that day. How quaint, I thought, how unrealistic for my modern life. Even a more watered down Sabbath is probably unattainable for me.

Second Step to Sabbath: Fatigue

So I proceeded like a happy clam, moving through my Sabbath-less weeks for great opportunities in ministry, building my marriage, keeping up with friends, advancing in my career. Sometimes my decisions were Spirit-led; other times, I would power through, no matter if God wanted me to or not. Finally, I hit an unforgiving wall called “burnout” at the end of 2016. Looking back, my version of burnout can be summed up by this Parker Palmer quote:

“Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have; it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”

This stage of my life really wasn’t surprising because I have a habit of burnout anyway, trusty millennial that I am. Starting in my late adolescent years, I would burn out, then quit jobs or ministry roles that I initially fell in love with at a breakneck pace every two years. I needed to recover from it, but didn’t really know how. More small group meetings, more spiritual books, more memorization of Bible verses and less ministry roles? Six months into my search for restoration, a kind sister gently asked me, “When is the last time you took a Sabbath?” I fumbled for a halfhearted answer, not even knowing what a true Sabbath would like in my own personal life.

Third Step to Sabbath: Accepting God’s Grace

Through a sequence of God-orchestrated events, I stumbled onto a book – Emotionally Healthy Leadership by Peter Scazzero. Out of all the terrific insights this book had, I will always remember one quote about the precious seventh day of rest, in which “we are deeply loved by God for who we are, not what we do.” I kept soaking the sentence in over and over – it was the Gospel message for my empty, thirsty soul. In my work-driven world, it was difficult to believe, and even more difficult to accept for myself, but my dried out soul was drinking it up so desperately. “I am deeply loved by God for who I am, not what I do.”

Fourth Step to Sabbath: Taking Baby Steps

Miraculously, that sentence and the first half of Scazzero’s book snapped me into attention and my heart started longing for rest in Jesus, at least once every 7 days for an ENTIRE 24 hour period. I was relearning the Gospel (Isn’t that what faith walks are made of? Needing Gospel reminders/reshaping/relearning/resharing?). My first early attempts at a true Sabbath only consisted of a) choosing to do things that allowed me to delight in and rest in God and b) to not complete or add any tasks to my running to-do list. The first time I tried that, my heart nearly stopped. I had been so enamored by my lovely to-do list, I didn’t realized it had sneakily taken its place as my glorified ball and chain – essentially a mini-god. My brain started resisting again — Sabbath, I don’t like you.

In that first month of battling and arguing with God about the Sabbath, another friendly sister offered me Jesus’ words as respite.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

My heart opened up again to the idea, realizing it was no longer a concept of legalism. God gave us the Sabbath day for rest for our own good!

The second week I attempted the Sabbath, I prepared about 2 days in advance, taking care of all the priority items on my task list so I could rest well. My soul took in rest much more readily, armed with the verse from Mark about the Sabbath, and the whole day made me realize how my soul was so starved after so many years of ignoring rest. After that, I started craving rest in God’s Word in short spurts (aka. devotional time or daily office) throughout my weekdays, and God led me into an extended sabbatical from ministry for about two months after that. I had nothing to prove anymore – to myself or anyone else; I desired to honor God by releasing my control and receiving the abundance of life He had for me through the Sabbath.

At this point, I’m on my third month of Sabbath keeping. I still forget to take a Sabbath some weeks. My mind still wanders back to my to-do list. A couple times, I willingly decide to bypass my day of rest completely with plenty of ‘legitimate’ excuses. And yes, I do still take a nap most Sabbath days – sometimes two.

Brothers and sisters, I pray this restorative practice into your life. It’s countercultural and difficult to initiate, but God is always waiting with loving, open arms for you to step into his invitation of rest. If your heart is ready for the Sabbath, these questions might help:

What makes me feel restored?
What places or activities help me find true joy and delight in God?
Does my Sabbath involve unplugging from technology? Social media?
What are the biggest obstacles in the way of my Sabbath?