A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
September 9, 2010
It happened again this week – a well intentioned soul admiringly described her pastor to me: “Oh, he’s such a hard worker. You often see the light on in his study at the church past 10:00 p.m.” It was also noted that there were no lights on in the Associate Pastor’s office late at night – she must be a slacker, was the unspoken message. Burning the midnight oil for Jesus, the pastor may also be letting his home fires smolder down to ashes. But at least he’s getting some great strokes from his parishioners along that desolating way.
I know well the temptation to seek renown as a hard worker. I know better than to tie my work output to my salvation, but unless I am vigilant, I all too easily succumb to the charms of sweet strains of praise that swell up around me when I’m seen going the extra mile. Especially in ministry, we make a virtue of the sin of living unsabbathed lives.
The Hebrew word shabbat, the root of our “Sabbath,” means simply “stop.” We have lost the capacity to stop working. One of the primary reasons is our acclaim addiction. Even people who know it is only killing us grant us the gift of admiration for draining ourselves down to the bottom of our tank.
This week’s celebration of Labor Day led me to contemplating Sabbath. Society stops work one day a year to celebrate the gift of work. Do we do any better than that as those who profess to follow what Scripture leads us to believe and do?
No biblical command is stated nearly so often or forcefully as the command to keep Sabbath. Why does this matter so much in the Bible, and why do we set it aside with little second thought, while making a big deal over commandments about which far less is said – adultery, killing, stealing, etc.? For all the accusations of his being a Sabbath-breaker, Jesus never set aside the Sabbath commandment. Being in the synagogue on the Sabbath was his custom. (Luke 4:16) His followers continued the custom, as they made the Sabbath gathering a primary venue for spreading the word of how the Scriptures point to Jesus as Savior. The Gospel does not supersede our need to stop regularly to be renewed in body, spirit, and relationships. Just like their Creator, humans need Sabbath.
Problem is, we don’t get strokes for keeping Sabbath. We get strokes for burning midnight oil, not for dousing the lamp. And if you are like me, those strokes are mighty enticing.
One of my significant responsibilities as presbytery leader is to cultivate “sabbattitude” as a way of life – first and foremost for myself. (Thanks to Rev. James Lamkin of Atlanta for that felicitous term.) I need to be relentless and uncompromising in keeping Sabbath. I need to make a regular practice to “stop the madness” of the ever-accelerating rush of an acclaim-driven life. But it goes beyond my own practice – I believe I am called to hold forth for our presbytery more fully becoming a Sabbath-keeping company. In our new clergy orientation, I list Sabbath-keeping as one of our presbytery’s expectations of its ministers. This means a discrete 24 hour period entirely away from work. It goes against the grain of our acclaim-addiction, but it is ultimately one of the most freeing, rewarding, and God-honoring things we can do.
I have found great delight in Sabbath-keeping. One symbol of my being in Sabbath mode is that I don’t check my work email or voicemail between midnight Thursday and midnight Friday. I have discovered that Thursday evening has become one of the high points of my week– I can’t wait for Sabbath to begin! Not because I dislike my work, but because I love it so much that I want to preserve my capacity to engage it for the long haul by being careful to stop weekly for Sabbath.
What might you do as a tangible commitment to stopping work for 24 hours each week?
Yours in Sabbattitude,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery
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