Naming and Removing Barriers to Sabbath Keeping

Post Author: Rev. Molly F. James, PhD

My good friend Patrick is currently living in England because of his wife’s work.  Patrick has a Master’s Degree and had spent a number of years here in the US establishing himself in his field, and by the time they moved to England, he had graduated from two weeks of vacation to three.  When he moved to England, he was not able to find a job as a biologist, and so he took a part time job working for a telecommunications company.  When he was hired for this job, the employer apologized profusely that because he was only a part-time employee, he would only be able to have FIVE weeks of vacation.  When Patrick told me and my husband this, we all had a good laugh. Five weeks of vacation?  Don’t they know that we, Americans, usually only get two, and many of us don’t even use all that we are given?

Five weeks of vacation seemed so generous it was amusing, but in fact it is actually good business practice.  And that much vacation certainly does wonders for one’s quality of life.  Patrick and his wife Lisa have made good use of their generous European vacation time and have invited us along on a number of their trips.  There is also scientific evidence to assert the value of vacation.  Scientists from NASA working for Air New Zealand found an 82% increase in productivity following a week-long vacation.

Really, vacations are good for you.  This is a truth Christians should readily affirm, but to do so today is almost counter cultural.  Americans are known for their work ethic, and there’s an increasing understanding that our ethic requires constant labor.  The advent of computers, smartphones and Blackberrys means that employers can expect their employees to be available and able to do their work wherever they are, at any time of day or night. No longer is time at home reserved for family, for rest and relaxation.  No longer is Sunday a day of rest – most business are open, and plenty of people are expected to show up for work on that day of rest.

Taking a Sabbath, taking time to rest and relax requires discipline, since it’s no longer a culturally enforced practice.  We need to have a personal practice of engaging in Sabbath.  Having a Sabbath is, in fact, an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and yet it is one that is often overlooked.

Mark tells us that while Jesus was in the midst of his healing ministry, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [he] got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” A single sentence attesting to rest surrounded by meaningful stories about  healing and preaching is easy to overlook. But there’s Jesus, taking a break – time in a quiet place to pray. He gets up early – while it is still dark out – to go and have some quiet prayer time to refocus and center himself.

I can just imagine a marketing expert looking at this and saying, “No, no this is all wrong.”  Jesus is just beginning “to build his brand.” He has cast out demons and healed the sick. He is getting noticed.  But just when things are starting to pick up, he stops.  He goes off by himself to pray. His disciples could have been moving on to the next town or spreading the Good News, but no, they spend their time searching for Jesus.  A marketing expert would probably encourage Jesus to ride the wave of his success. To just keep going. Push on through till all his goals are accomplished.

Many of us can relate without a doubt to this marketing approach.  We often apply it to our own lives. I consider myself a “recovering perfectionist.” I easily fall into the trap of wanting to keep working at something until it is just right, or even to just keep checking things off on the to do list, even when what would be best for me is to take a break and take care of myself.

It is so tempting to push on through: to put off those things which would actually serve our well-being best, in the interests of hurrying along and trying to accomplish more. We live in a culture that rewards hard work, and so it is so tempting to just keep working. But we shouldn’t.

Sabbath is too important.  It is one of the Ten Commandments after all!

Notice that Jesus doesn’t go off for a week and sit on the beach – although that can be an important and particularly valuable way to “do sabbath.”  Notice that Jesus just takes a little time; Mark doesn’t actually say how much, but we might fairly assume a couple of hours.  He takes a little time for quiet prayer.  He does what feeds him, what centers him.  And he gives us permission to start small.

It is nearly impossible to completely take a day off in this economy and this culture. We can start by following Jesus’ example: Jesus went back to work after his brief prayer time.  Sabbath can be a way of making us more effective at the work we are doing.

Other studies suggest that those who work less than 40 hours a week are actually more productive than those who work extra-long hours without a break.  Just as the creation story reminds us, we are in fact created for work and play. Exertion and rest.  We are supposed to have a break.

There are many of reasons we fail to take that divinely-recommended break.  For many workers, the debate about vacation or time off is not about which Caribbean cruise to choose, but a question of whether or not their family can survive without a paycheck for a week. Those of us in good paying jobs with contracts and benefits packages may complain about our lack of vacation or need to confront our own issues if we are not making good use of the gifts we are given.  But there are also those who do not have the luxury of vacation or even sick days. Millions of people in America have trouble making a living: trouble putting enough food on the table and providing adequate food and shelter for their family.  Taking vacation, having time for Sabbath, is too far down the list of priorities.

But it shouldn’t be that way. Jesus reminds us that Sabbath should be a right and a duty of ours.  It is how we care for ourselves and our relationship with God. We owe it to ourselves to practice Sabbath time and to keep it holy.  And we owe it to our fellow human beings to work for justice in our workplaces and communities to ensure that Sabbath is not a privilege reserved for the wealthy and powerful, but a God-given gift we can all enjoy.

The resume of the Rev. Dr. Molly Field James does not readily suggest that she is someone who takes time off.  Holding a PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter, she now works for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and serves as an Adjunct Professor at Hartford Seminary.  She’s also married and has a kid.  But we’ll take her word for it that she is able to manage all these commitments because she’s learned how to honor the Sabbath.

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