Jul 16, 2019
By The Rev. Sonja Maclary, Dean of the MNYS Hudson Conference
Today marks one month since I began my sabbatical. Although I have done some reading and research, my main goal during that month has been to honor what sabbatical means: rest.
It’s not as easy as it might sound.
There is this idea both in my head and in our wider culture that rest is suspicious, lazy, or somehow less than ideal. We tend to value ourselves and others by their accomplishments, usefulness, productivity. Effectiveness.
What have you done today? How many things on “the list” have been checked off? My monthly Pastor’s reports number visits, meetings, projects, etc. Rarely does someone ask about my sabbath keeping.
Paradoxically, the weeks leading up to my sabbatical seemed particularly frenetic: reports, meetings, visits, check-lists, pastoral coverage, scheduling e-mails, social media posts, etc. I remember sharing with a colleague who had taken a sabbatical a few years ago that it felt like I had done a few months worth of work in just a few weeks! She sympathetically agreed.
So, as June began, the voices that resonated wisdom for me were the voices that pointed to the value of doing nothing, of honoring this sabbatical time, of allowing one’s self to, for a time, simply exist in the presence and grace of God.
That meant no blogging. No extra travel. No too detailed research.
It meant, instead, sticking with my original sabbatical proposal of coming away from my work, changing pace, reading, a bit of research, and, mostly, rest.
Of course, there was part of this which had tremendous, delicious appeal! Who doesn’t enjoy a nap in the afternoon? Who would not want to start a day – a week – a month(!) – with no “work” except for those endeavors in which one finds the most delight. (In my case, some history and genealogy research.)
But there was also part of me that was terrified!
I know how to accomplish goals, how to keep busy. I can be incredibly effective and live by multi tasking! I have been engaged in the 24 hour job of ministry for over 20 years. In the past nearly 15 years I have been a wife, mother of 4 children, cared for aging parents (including one living in my home), simultaneously while I have pastored one, two, as many as 6 churches at one time (fortunately, that was not for too long of a time!). I have served as the Dean of our conference. I helped to write the grant that enabled this sabbatical time. I planned coverage and planned our family activities for the up-coming months. (Whew! Writing it makes it sound like a lot, but it’s probably quite similar to life for many women my age!)
But, like most in our culture, I had never done a sabbatical!
As June 1st drew near, it was hard to imagine what a period of time whose goal was “no goals” might feel like.
What happens when someone who is non-stop finally stops?
In the past year, I have spoken with several colleagues who have been on sabbatical. Each of them told me, in their own way, that it changed the way they do ministry and it changed them personally. This was unsettling for me to hear. I am often in the position of advising or advocating for change, so one might think I like change. However, the truth is I really don’t care to embrace change any more than the next person. Change is disorienting. It often involves a learning curve. Change means something will be gone – and that means loss and grief. I hate loss and grief. Change sometimes hurts. I hate pain.
Couldn’t I just have a nice, long, vacation and forget about the possibility of change?
Of course, as this sabbatical time approached I still looked forward (ok, I counted the days!) to months without evening church meetings and Sunday mornings where I could wake up without an alarm clock!
But the notion that this fabulous time of rest and travel would somehow fundamentally make me a different person was disquieting to say the least!
There are many examples of the importance of sabbath rest in scripture. After creating the world, God rests on the 7th day. (Genesis 2:2), establishing the sabbath, or rest day. This day of rest is then commanded in Exodus 20:8-11 (yes, it takes multiple verses!) and is numbered as either the 4th or 3rd (depending on your tradition’s reading and numbering) of the 10 commandments. Jesus frequently comes away from the crowds for rest, and early Christians continue to practice holy rest, sabbath, even as they celebrated the resurrection.
However, the idea of sabbath in Leviticus 25 has resonated most with me over these past weeks:
“When you enter the land I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath – you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.” (Leviticus 24:2-7)
At first, the thought of an entire year of rest might sound pretty good to most of us!
Even my sabbatical, my first in 20 years, is only 15 weeks long! However, when one considers the fundamental changes in day-to-day living required to rest for an entire year, the picture is more daunting.
Imagine, in an agricultural society, where one’s food for the coming year came almost entirely out of what was planted and harvested, a year of neither planting nor harvesting?
What of workers and the “normal” social order? Time off, time away, will surely change the status quo! Without work roles to define, all are more equal: everyone will eat the same food.
Wouldn’t it be easier, more stable, to just to make a sacrifice on an altar and go on with business as usual?
But perhaps that is God’s intention in sabbath: that we stop business as usual and return to God’s more balanced way?
Yet I wonder if we can we even wrap our heads around what that might mean?
In a world where it seems we cannot stop for one day – even a few hours – for sabbath, or Thanksgiving, or any other religious or national observance or celebration – can you just imagine an entire YEAR of rest?!
What would the effect be of an entire year of closing the stores and trusting that God would provide? How would it change us to live day after day remembering God’s gracious, steadfast love for us? What would our relationships with each other look like if they were based not on what we produce, but on who we are: creatures in a world created in love by God in God’s own image?
Sabbath time calls us to change how we see and value both things and each other.
Of course, deep down Israel knows that it does not have to worry about the harvest. God has provided for them before – the manna – the “what is it?” – that sustained them in the wilderness. It could not be hoarded or stored. Manna just was: a wonderful sustenance for that particular day. In a way, it was not unlike the free food God provided for Adam and Eve before their downfall with the snake and apple and the curse that Adam would subsequently raise food from the earth by sweat and toil. In the wilderness, manna was a return to Eden where God generously and abundantly provides.
It’s as if during sabbath time God just wants us to remember these things: the ease and beauty of Eden and that God still provides. Sabbath time is time God tells us to to stop our devilish pace of work, so God can hold us and be with us, like a loving parent with a child. Sabbath time is time to hold and care for each other.
“We are saved by grace, not by our works.”
Lutherans often quote that, but do we live it? Does it shape our calendars?
Time spent in God’s grace heals us.
The changes sabbath time makes in us restore us to whom we were created to be, for God is truly our good maker! Sabbath allows the peace and patience of grace to seep into our being, from there into our relationships and communities.
Sabbath keeping – sabbatical keeping – is letting this truth of God’s grace shape our entire selves, our entire world.
I still don’t know entirely what that will look like for me after 15 weeks, but so far, after one month its been amazing! I suggest you try it – even for a day!
Meanwhile, thank you for joining my journey!