A recent blog articulated that the commandment we tend to ignore is Sabbath keeping (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/most-ignored-commandment). Clergy can be some of the worst offenders. When the law does what it is supposed to do, here I stand, guilty as charged. I’m often burning the candle at both ends and tell myself the lie that if I just keep running that fire can’t catch me. God intends for us not to just set aside a day to get our errands done, cart the kids to sports and other activities, and finally tend to that pile of laundry. God intends for us to rest. We are called to rest deeply into the life of God. Scripture and prayer center us there. As does taking a day once a week, to recharge and renew in God’s relationship with us and we with each other.
Martin Luther reflected that the purpose of the Sabbath is to, “Keep God’s word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” (Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008], 5.) But life is busy. There are a million distractions. The little devices in our pockets and in our hands are constantly calling for our allegiance. It is difficult to unplug for a few minutes, let alone a whole day. A day of rest, for reflection, prayer and engagement with scripture just sounds far-fetched.
I decided I could use a little self-care. When our synod offered a twenty-four prayer retreat on a Monday-Tuesday near the end of Lent I figured it would be good for me to participate. I didn’t think I really had the time to give with Holy Week rapidly approaching, but with the encouragement of a couple of friends I came to the conclusion I needed it more than I probably realized I did. I’m still at the retreat as I compose this reflection, using some of our “quiet time on your own” to reconsider the Sabbath in writing. (Don’t worry, I’m using a yellow pad and pen to do the job, I can type this up on one of my electronic devices later.)
Yesterday afternoon I did the unthinkable. I left my phone in my room while sitting with the group during the retreat, went for a walk with a friend, ate dinner and participated in worship. With my emails, social media connections, texts, and phone messages set aside for several hours I discovered something. I’m a real human being that doesn’t have to keep running. I stopped. I disengaged. I rested. I sat in the quiet and listened without filling the space (or myself) with noise. By myself I did some reading and I am doing some writing now. I feel open and connected. I didn’t look for that little device that tends to possess me. Instead I focused on the words I read and am writing. I took notice of the clouds and melting snow as I walked outside. I listened to my colleagues more intently.
This morning I woke up and found the books I was still reading when I fell asleep next to me on the mattress. It was a bit of a restless sleep last night, but maybe I needed to wrestle some of the distractions out of me as I dreamt. I got ready and was out of my room early. The coffee I made in our meeting room tasted especially good. I ate a quick breakfast and left the retreat center for a time. (I had scheduled a meeting with an old friend who happens to be our accountant to talk about our family taxes.) As I entered the real world again I took notice of the noise. I turned on the radio in my car. The wipers on a rainy morning squeaked across my windshield. The bustle of the coffee shop was full of conversations and connections. When our time together was over and I went back to my car, I sat for a few minutes before starting the engine, checking my email, reading a few texts, listening to my phone messages and scrolling down my Facebook feed. I tossed my phone on the adjacent seat, started the engine and said aloud (could it have been a prayer?), “Well, that didn’t take long.”
On the ride home from the retreat I started mentally thinking through my checklist of what I needed to do: call one of my messages back and stop at the hospital on the way back to Old Saybrook; put together dinner church for Wednesday night; finish this reflection and type it up, edit and post; think about the sermon for Sunday; follow-up on a few other conversations, and see what else needs attention between now and then. On a twenty-four hour retreat, my Sabbath lasted only about half the time until I was drawn back into real life. I wondered if I could arrive home in time to give Tammie the car so she could take our daughter to a doctor’s appointment. I’d have to get going immediately after lunch to leave time to stop at the hospital.
Sabbath is a hard thing to keep. We’re busy people with many commitments. I think of the families I know just struggling to make it through the week. Sabbath seems impossible. I wonder if anyone can truly keep Sabbath in the 21st century world.
After my retreat I was reminded of the benefits of keeping Sabbath: A time to clear your head is good for the body and soul. Disconnection to the world for a time helps connect with God and deepen important relationships. Both your responsibilities and distractions will be waiting when you’re done, and can wait. In the few hours I was able to keep Sabbath I started to feel the weight I carry on my shoulders lighten. I’m not sure if I’m burning the candle on one end now or both, but it feels more manageable. When the intrusions began as I left that retreat I didn’t mind them. I was more centered; focused; present; alive.
I learned (and re-learned) a few things about Sabbath too. Embracing solitude is not something to feel guilty about, but something to cultivate. Prayer and study won’t happen unless we make time for it, no matter how busy we are. Leaders need to model healthy habits for others. Sabbath is not a burden, it is often a gift left unopened and unacknowledged. Maybe God knows what we need after all. Maybe we can rely on one another more. Maybe I should stop writing, so I can enjoy these last fifteen minutes of silence before our closing worship at this retreat!
What to do next:
This week: Find fifteen minutes of your own for some quiet time to clear your head.
Next week: Expand that fifteen minutes, but don’t fill it with noise. Think. Pray. Read. Reflect.
By next month: Find someone to encourage you and keep you accountable, and do the same for them.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
P.S. Thanks to Pastor Anne Deneen and Pastor Jon Niketh for their leadership at the retreat, for the others who planned it too, and to all my colleagues who also participated or wish they had, peace be with you.