I walked out of the apartment onto our busy sidewalk when a surge of fear rushed through me. “Did I get dressed today?” Thankfully, the only issue was my shirt, on inside out. On some occasions, I’ve forgotten a perfectly good meal, only to discover it a few days later still in the oven. Other times I’ve mindlessly put ice cream in the cupboard and my purse in the fridge. While I laugh now, I know these are all signs of exhaustion. I desperately need the rhythms of work and rest that observing the Sabbath offers. Yet, I consistently find myself playing around the edges of burnout and exhaustion.
Tim Keller wrote an excellent article on the freedom of Sabbath rest. “Avoiding overwork requires deep rest in Christ’s finished work for your salvation (Hebrews 4:1–10). Only then will you be able to ‘walk away’ regularly from your vocational work, and rest.”
In NYC, we have tiny wrought-iron fences erected around the trees on our sidewalks. When a new tree is planted, a permeable skirt accompanies the fence as an extra safety measure to ensure the tree will survive. In a similar way, observing the Sabbath is like erecting a small fence of protection around us and exposing what so easily enslaves us. By stopping what we regularly do, we’re given a chance to see what pulls our attention and what drives us to the crazy way we live.
The observance of one day of rest in seven, over and over again, until it becomes a rhythm that protects us from our drive to accomplish—whether it is vocational work, projects, or ministry— serves as a habitual reminder that Christ’s work has been accomplished. It is finished! Saving the world is not our responsibility. No matter how important our work may be, we do not ultimately hold the weight of the world on our shoulders. The only way to stop giving our work too much importance, is to stop.
Experiencing Sabbath Rest
Here are a few things I’ve done to experience Sabbath rest:
Planning Sabbath: Observing the Sabbath isn’t just taking a day off. I had to decide when it would begin and when it would end; what it would include and what it wouldn’t. I listed the things I needed to turn over to God and not indulge in for one day a week. They were usually things that caused me to work harder or worry more. For example, when we were in ministry at a church, I realized I couldn’t listen to congregant’s problems or discuss church ministries on the Sabbath. I even stopped checking email on Saturdays so I wouldn’t go into my Sabbath with new worries. I learned on Sundays to ask people to send me an email I could answer later rather than engage in what was troubling them right then. One wise friend commented, “You’re showing us you have limits, too.”
We asked our kids on Saturday morning about homework assignments due on Monday. We helped them on Saturday with homework but not on Sunday. My husband led two congregations at the time; at first, his Sabbath began Sunday evening after church and extended into Monday. When he realized he gave himself the worst day of the week for a minister; he changed his Sabbath to Thursday evening through Friday instead.
Letting go of concerns: I began practicing committing my worries and fears to God at the beginning of my Sabbath. I started the day or evening with my hands outstretched, palms down as a symbol of giving my worries to God. I named each concern in prayer and then I would turn my palms up as a symbol of receiving from God. I would then pray truths of scripture about those concerns. However, not too much time would pass before I began worrying about the same things all over again. Rather than admonishing myself for having such little self-control, I reminded myself that God has already declared me righteous and holy through Christ’s saving work on the cross. This practice revealed to me how often I carry these concerns rather than letting God carry them. The more I continued in this practice, the more I noticed a change; as I turned concerns back to God over and over again, they started having less of a grip on me.
Letting go of ideas: Once I’m rested, I find my mind filled with ideas for new projects. The problem is, the idea would expand and before long I was busy on a new project. For a time I learned to write the idea down rather than starting on it and in more recent years, to just let the idea go. If I really wanted to experience the freedom that Sabbath brings, ideas would have to learn to wait, like the other rumblings in my brain. It’s not that there is anything wrong with working on a project. For me, however, my overactive mind needs to be silenced and allow space for the holy. Unfinished tasks will stalk me. Faces of people I’ve meant to contact will march before me. And new ideas! I’ve had to learn to let them walk on by.
Adding the new: Then there were the things we began adding to our Sabbath. We wanted to include others in our Sabbath rituals. Friends and acquaintances began coming over after worship services. For a season, I stopped cooking food so people brought sandwich makings or went into the kitchen and made a meal. We had a covered outdoor space with a daybed and hooks for hammocks. I would usually fall asleep listening to others talk or read aloud. For some, this might be stressful. For me, it’s not. We talk. We feast. I sleep.
Last year a new tree was planted on the sidewalk in front of our apartment. The permeable skirt is long gone. Only the wrought iron decorative fence remains. The tree is thriving.
Jeremiah 17:8, “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”