Learning Sabbath Rest

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30

I preached on this text this morning, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with it over the past week or so. As I thought about what it means that Jesus invites us to rest, I also started thinking about what keeps me from resting despite Jesus’ gift of sabbath.

For years, I’ve been wanting to get into a habit of weekly sabbath. Obviously, working in ministry, Sunday’s don’t typically work out, since the first half of Sundays are typically work for pastors. That combined with a full-time seminary schedule made sabbath difficult, but I was finally able to work things out a few months ago so that I could take a full 24-hour sabbath from Sunday afternoon until Monday afternoon.

The break from regular ministry work (and, until recently, school work) was good. The problem is, I’m less and less certain that what I’m doing is really sabbath. In his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton talks about sabbath in terms of “saying no and saying yes.” First, we say “no – to our agendas, schedules, to our production drive, our sense of time and urgency, to the busyness and patterns of every day, to our power, to our cultivated blindness.” (Labberton, 105) This part I’m getting fairly good at. In my last term of seminary, when I kept myself from doing any schoolwork for 24 hours each week, it felt almost liberating.

My problem comes with the second half of sabbath rest, the saying “yes” half. According to Labberton, “The other movement in sabbath practices is saying yes to God and yes to the world God has given us. Here energy is focused toward re-creation and seeking the renewal of mind and body that comes from seeking and resting in God.” (106) This I find much harder. When I rest from my regular work, what I do instead has little to do with seeking renewal from God. For example, last week, I spent my “sabbath” watching approximately half of Season 3 of The Office. Is that really time spent resting in the presence of Jesus, or just plain old laziness?

I think working in ministry makes the “yes” piece of sabbath rest difficult. I’m use to associating Jesus with labor rather than with rest. It’s difficult, for instance, for me to read Scripture devotionally without thinking about ways to turn my reflections into sermon illustrations or lessons. I’m also noticing in my relationship with my friend and co-pastor (note the order) Chris, that it’s a lot easier for me to start talking NCD business without taking time to ask how he’s doing or say how I’m doing. (Chris, if you read this, don’t let me do that :-)) My instinct, then, whether conscious or not, is to seek rest elsewhere instead of in the presence of Jesus.

There’s a paradox here. Jesus Christ is both the Lord who demands our service and the Shepherd who restores our souls. To learn sabbath rest, I need to rediscover the latter.