Sabbath Thoughts from a Pastor on Sabbatical
Because of the creation account, the observance of holy time reflected in the Ten Commandments, and the emphasis on rest and Sabbath, especially in Hebrews, I see the Sabbath as intrinsic to who we are as being created in the image of God. Sabbath rest is an integral part to who we have been created by God to be.
A number of New Testament passages (e.g., Gal. 4:10, Col. 2:16) refer to festival days or Sabbath days for Jewish Christians that these people were keeping in a legalistic fashion. From Romans 14, we learn that the day is not as important as the heart. One person considers a specific day as sacred, while another person does not; therefore, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (v. 5). I keep Sabbath—not legalistically, but as an attempt to be all that God wants me to be.
It seems the biblical pattern of Sabbath rest in every person’s life is lost in our culture. This is especially true for those in the “ministry.” Many of us in vocational ministry almost take pride in saying we are on call 24/7, as if we must convince people that we are worth being paid for what we do. And for many in the ministry, indeed we do a 24/7 job. People expect the minister to be available at any time, and we run to someone’s side whenever we receive a call. We do this because Jesus would. Or would he?
Jesus at Rest
In our photo album of Christ’s life called the Gospels, we see snapshots of Jesus with the never-ending crowds healing, teaching, casting out demons, feeding huge groups and challenging the religious leaders. 24/7?
If we keep looking at the photo albums, we find a few pictures of Jesus pulling away for rest. His timing for these rests seems almost regular, especially when he has experienced a particularly action-packed previous day. Mark writes of Jesus, “He said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest’” (Mark 6:31). And Jesus refused to give into the legalism of the Sabbath rules in His day. Jesus knew what the Sabbath was all about. Mark also records him as saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).
At the conservative Bible college I attended, I experienced shock when I found out that one of the many rules prohibited students from studying on Sundays. While I thought many such requirements were legalistic, the “no study on Sunday” rule was my favorite. One day out of seven, I was released from the pressure of the other six days of studying. I looked forward to Sundays and felt refreshed for another week at the end of the day. During these days, the weekly practice of rest took root in my soul.
The Modern Ministry Calendar
Because I am a pastor, Sundays cannot be my “set apart” day. For me it is Monday. I protect Monday as if it were the gold in Fort Knox. I basically hide away by ignoring emails and never scheduling appointments for that day. I will even find another minister on our staff to make the needed hospital visit or prayer with someone hurting on that day. Yes, even if the church member asks specifically for me. Not only is my rest day holy, but I also think it is healthy for our church and the church staff to know that I practice the Sabbath as I believe it is given to us in the scripture. Instead of feeling guilty on Mondays, I feel blessed, refreshed, and thankful for the way God takes care of His children.
We need to be careful of using the excuse “at least I am doing something different on my day of rest than what I do the rest of the work week.” Such a view of rest can easily turn the day off into another packed day of errands, tasks, and “to do” lists. But when can we get these needed things done in our busy schedules? We must exercise faith and re-prioritize the rest of the week. It can all get done, even with a Sabbath day.
I am currently on a thirteen-week sabbatical, a gift from our church to me every seven years. I will admit it took a full five weeks to disengage from my packed ministry life. It even took the blessing of the staff taking me off all the distribution email lists (against my wishes, by the way) for me to fully enter into the purpose of the sabbatical. This shows me how intentional I have to be about rest.
More people in ministry burn out not from the extreme demands of our people but from disobedience to the Lord’s gift/command to rest.
Rhythms of Rest
One word I have seized that I borrowed from both Ruth Haley Barton and Adele Calhoun: “rhythm.” God created us with rhythms in our lives. And when we get out of that rhythm, we suffer consequences. We need Sabbath rest as a needed rhythm built into our DNA. Don’t fight it, get into step with it. As Calhoun wrote in Invitations from God, “God imprinted the creational rhythms of work and rest on the cosmos because these rhythms already existed in him. God’s way of existing was and is restful.”
Sabbath rest is one of the great gifts from God to us. It is also one of the most neglected patterns in the scripture. A return to practicing Sabbath rest will be a lifesaver, both for ourselves and for the people we serve.
DTS alumnus Dr. Mark Engelthaler serves as executive pastor at Woodcreek Church in Richardson, Texas.