Post Author: LeAnne Spruill Ryan
Editor’s Note: This article is one in an occasional series called “A Lenten Pause,” running on Fidelia’s Sisters. As many young clergy women plan to come to our summer conference, Sabbath in the City, in Chicago we’ll be taking a look at the sometimes terrifying topic of sabbath and the role it plays in our ministries.
Give us peace, Lord God, for you have given us all else; give us the peace that is repose, the peace of the Sabbath, and the peace that knows no evening.
~St. Augustine Confessions
You will never enter the Sabbath day without a Sabbath heart.
~Mark Buchanan The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Experiencing Sabbath
While walking my dog on a beautiful spring Sunday morning, I notice that many of my neighbors are out in their yards. House 1428 is trimming trees. 1448 is digging out a new flowerbed. A man in a straw hat mows the lawn in 1502. They look so peaceful, as if they are enjoying it. But I know better. Although I’m slightly jealous of their serene expressions and beautiful yards, I know they are “working;” and they are doing it on the Sabbath.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” (Exodus 20:8-10a).
What exactly constitutes as “work” on the Sabbath and who decides? Jewish law includes 39 abstentions from melakhah including planting and cutting. Does that include yardwork? One of my religion professors said he always cuts his grass on Sundays because he loves being outdoors to connect with God’s creation. I know pastors who spend their Friday Sabbath walking 18 holes of a golf course or knitting comfortably on the couch while watching a favorite movie; yet Jewish law also includes limits on walking and driving and does not allow weaving and sewing on Sabbath. So are these activities prohibited on the Sabbath although they provide enjoyment, relaxation, and even wonder at God’s creation? And how strict should we be with our Sabbath day rest?
Perhaps this is the time to confess that I’m a recovering Christian perfectionist/legalist. What’s more, I’m a cradle Baptist (meaning, I was listening to my first sermon and “Just As I Am” response hymn shortly after leaving the womb). To top it all off, I am called as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This, as you may have guessed, is a perfect storm for misunderstanding and improperly practicing Sabbath rest.
We observed Sabbath on Sundays in my small eastern North Carolina town. My family and church community instilled the importance of abstaining from work on the Sabbath when I was young. I remember my grandmother saying many times, “If you sew on Sunday, you’ll be picking out the stitches in heaven with your nose!” Businesses also closed on Sundays. I worked at a little antique store in high school whose owner would state that if he could not make a living six days a week, he would just have to close down the store. Sundays were for going to church, eating meals with family, taking naps in the afternoon, watching football, or playing a game of UNO. We did not rest according to exact Shabbat standards, but this was the way we Southern Baptists understood Sabbath.
While studying religion in college, my desire toward holy perfectionism only increased. I did not allow myself to do any schoolwork on Sundays. I went to church and even prepared and taught teenagers, but would not crack the binding of a textbook. I enjoyed a smug sense of piety when I saw my classmates studying or writing papers on Sunday. I thought the Lord was more pleased with me because I remembered the Sabbath. I was discussing this with a friend one day sitting on our dorm room floor when she busted my hyper-righteous balloon. I repeated the saying my grandmother taught me as if it were gospel truth, “Don’t you know that if you sew on Sunday, you’ll be picking out the stitches in heaven with your nose!” She laughed: “You don’t really think God would have you pull out stitches in heaven with your nose do you?”
I don’t… anymore.
Divinity School and my fellow students continued to challenge all my tendencies toward legalism, including what constitutes a Sabbath rest. My work in full-time church ministry certainly irritated my pesky perfectionism because Sabbath simply could not be observed on Sundays. Furthermore, there are weeks in the church when you spend seven days with teenagers at camp only to begin Vacation Bible School the day after you return followed by a weekend of missions in the community. If Sabbath rest must come every seven days, then we clergy might be doomed before we start. And now that I am a hospice chaplain, again I wrestle with what it means to find rest from your emotional and spiritual work after a week with folks who are still waiting to find rest from pain, suffering, and sickness.
What have I learned? That Sabbath has nothing to do with the work of being perfect. Sabbath is not about becoming irritated with others or myself for not knowing the right way to rest. It is not an opportunity to be found more holy or righteous than my neighbor. Sabbath is merciful. It is the joy that allows us as ministers to say “no” to our work at times in order to steal away for a while by ourselves—even if only for the afternoon. It reminds us that the Sabbath was created for our wellbeing, and not us for its fulfillment. It is rest for the body, peace for the mind, and compassion for the soul. It is taking the time to look back at all God has made and all Christ continues to remake in the world and say, “It is good.”
So will you find me outside mowing the lawn or digging in the flowerbeds next Sunday? Maybe… at least until the heat and the sweat begin to make gardening feel like “work.” Perhaps, there with my hands in the dirt, I will find rest from my perfectionism and perfect grace in God’s creation.
Photo © Soil-Net, http://www.soil-net.com, Cranfield University, UK, 2009