Recently I've heard a lot about the importance of Sabbath. It's easy to realize that I definitely need it, but not so easy to nail down what it means for me today. I asked friends and collegues how they "Sabbath". I consistently heard words like rest, or go to church, take time to slow down, prayer, etc. For many Sabbath is another word for taking a day off and doing something spiritual for a couple of hours. If I'm honest, on some level I too had the read your Bible and take a bubble bath mindset.
An Asian Perspective
At our leader summit in Cambodia earlier this year the topic came up. I was especially interested in how these leaders from southeast Asia observed Sabbath. I have to admit I was surprised to hear what a struggle it was for them and the reasons specific to their context. Low wages and economic uncertainty drive people to work long hours and taking time off is seen as a luxury reserved for the wealthy. In many cultures the pastor is considered a kind of guru, always with the answers and always available when someone has a need. For a pastor to say no to a request because it happens to be the Sabbath would cause him or her to be judged harshly by the neglected congregant and could spell misunderstandings down the road. I left the summit thinking God must have intended more for us than simply a day off and church attendance when he etched the fourth commandment in stone. I knew I had to dig deeper to get closer to the heart of his intent.
The Sabbath / Labor Interface
While I have not concluded this journey of discovery, Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance has been particularly helpful in changing my mindset. He skillfully points out that the rhythm of work stoppage for a full day every week forms in me God's perspective on the gift of work. Sabbath was postioned in contrast to the slavery of Egypt. Today it helps me embrace my "humanness" (I am not a machine constantly producing) and opens my heart to neighborliness (I relate to you as a human and not a machine or producer of goods/services).
Sabbath—a Transforming Pause
Taking the bold step of stopping production each week expresses my trust in God to provide all I need. It quiets the voices that scream acquire more, bigger, better to feel secure and nurtures contentment deep in my soul. I can receive what I have as gifts and share freely with others. This makes me more aware of how greed and a drive for acquisition can lead to oppression of the vulnerable (Psalm 73). My tendency toward greed (which is equated with idolatry in the New Testament) and self-sufficiency is exposed—observing Sabbath rightly is my starting point—my way out. God connects our transformation with neighborliness and how workers, especially those without power, are treated. Brueggemann says,
"Sabbath is a school for our desires... when we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us. But Sabbath is the chance for self-embrace of our true identity" (p.88).
...something a bubble bath alone cannot accomplish! And more importantly, this kind of Sabbath is something we all need, in every culture and at every economic level—a Sabbath that helps me embrace my true identity in Christ and better express that in my world.
This Labor Day
On Monday Canada and the U.S.will celebrate their workers. It seems a great time to pause and consider both the gift of work and how I might observe Sabbath in ways that change my heart toward God's design.
Mary Jo Wilson serves as VP for Missional Engagement with Asian Access. She spent nearly 20 years in Japan partnering with Japanese leaders to start churches and now oversees our missionary staff. See her staff profile here...
- Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, Kentucky:Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).