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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Just Stop It!
August 6, 2015

I have long been mindful of the irony in my relation to Sabbath. As a member of a class of people whose work rises to its highest crescendo on the very day we charge others to keep as Sabbath, I am inescapably guilty of not practicing what I preach. Some members of this class – aka “church professionals” – compensate by observing another day of the week as their Sabbath. In Pittsburgh Presbytery, we tell all pastors who join our ranks that we expect them to take a full 24-hour Sabbath each week on some day other than Sunday. I try to do that each Friday. We don’t police compliance, but I suspect that most of our pastors, along with other ministry staff, struggle with keeping that commitment, just as I do. Fact is, we love getting stroked for being hard workers, and hate being considered idlers. We know that our livelihood depends on the voluntary contributions of the people we serve, so we are ever mindful of how we’re doing in their polls. Work hard, your poll numbers rise. So, even as we continue to preach Sabbath-keeping we all too often exemplify Sabbath-breaking. Maybe “irony” is too soft a category for that.

I returned to the office this week from a two-month sabbatical that you generously gave to me. Words cannot express my gratitude for this marvelous gift. I also have lived more than a little irony in my relation to sabbaticals. Before coming to Pittsburgh Presbytery I worked as the chief officer of a Lilly Endowment grant program for pastoral sabbaticals. However, I had never had a sabbatical of my own in 30 years of ministry. When I accepted the Lilly post, I asked if they’d finance a sabbatical for me at the outset of my work there, so I’d know a little more about what I was talking about when advising pastors for whom we provided sabbatical funding. Understandably, they laughed at me. So I worked for several years advocating for pastoral sabbaticals without ever having taken one myself.

And so over the past two months I have for the first time lived something I’ve talked about a lot over the years. I have learned experientially the critical importance of stopping. I have discovered that there are vitally important things about God, myself, my relationships, and my vocation I can learn only by stopping for a while. “To stop” is, after all, the literal meaning of the Hebrew word at the root of both “Sabbath” and “sabbatical.”

I found out that some of the arrhythmias of life can be arrested only by, well, arresting oneself altogether. By stopping. By “sabbaticating.” One of my key biblical passages over these weeks was Matthew 11:28-30, which The Message renders, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

“Unforced rhythms of grace.…” What a marvelous invitation and prospect! My life metronome got reset as I set aside my labors. Keeping it properly regulated will depend significantly on my ongoing practice of Sabbath each week.

How is it with you? Whether we have a monster job or are retired, whether our lives are regimented by a workplace schedule or we set our own calendar, living in graceful rhythm requires intentional regular stopping from whatever is consuming us, and being intentionally attentive to the “sabbaticating” God whom we are called to imitate. (Ephesians 5:1)

I will share with you over coming weeks some of the specifics of what I discovered, together with Tammy, when I took a full stop for two months. For today, I want simply to underscore the power of stopping. Of Sabbath. Of being genuine imitators of God.

In praise of stopping,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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