A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Give it a Rest!
July 11, 2019
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” So says the 1935 Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess. Time to move more slowly, take a load off, enjoy long evenings sipping beverages and swapping stories with friends on a big porch or at a campsite. While many of us have memories of summers long past that felt like this, today’s schedules are way more frantic, even in summer.
When you read this, Tammy and I will be on a long-planned bicycle trip in Europe. We had to make our plans six months in advance in order to be able to be part of the tour. Such recreational opportunity is not available on the spur of the moment – it takes intention and planning.
Had we not committed ourselves to it so far in advance, we would likely not be making this trip. In the intervening months, we have suffered the loss of Tammy’s Dad near Easter, and what appears now to have been a stroke suffered by my Mom leaving her with physical challenges that require ongoing rehab and physical therapy. The demands of elder care would surely have caused us to abandon the very idea of taking such a trip, had we waited to plan it until spring. Mom is being well cared for while we are away. Even so, as our trip neared she expressed great distress over our impending absence. Truthfully, we need this brief season of respite from our care responsibilities.
God knows we need reprieve from responsibility, rest from labors, and relief from pressure. Which is why God instituted Sabbath as a law rather than as a suggestion. We need to stop the constant go-go-go, and we won’t do it unless we plan for it. We set aside a day a week to do nothing related to making a living or advancing our influence. It’s the same day, not a random one. It’s on our calendar perpetually. Or so it should be.
Stopping everything (the Hebrew word shabbat means literally “stop”) is our acknowledgment that our welfare depends not on our efforts, but on God’s goodness. Sabbath re-centers us in God, because apart from Sabbath we think and act as though our world depends on us. Like a musical fermata, Sabbath pauses the metronomic march of time and schedule, signaling a close to what has gone before while we await what lies ahead.
No commandment appears more frequently in Scripture than Sabbath. Apparently we need it to be reiterated more than the others, because it is the one that we are most inclined to set aside in our fevered efforts to make a good life for ourselves. The writer of Hebrews, more than a thousand years after Moses, declared that God’s people had not yet entered their Sabbath rest according to God’s intention. (Hebrews 4:1-11)
Everything in us fights against setting aside our labors. In so doing, we fail both to trust God’s care of us, and to demonstrate our essential nature as those created in the image of the Sabbath-resting God. The call to “Stop, already!” is an invitation to trust God more fully and to be our authentic selves more truly.
I wonder whether the church as a whole needs to learn how to do less in a culture in which every prescription for success involves doing more. Some congregations practice a sort of Sabbath in summer from the frenzy of the program year. Good for them! But how about designating regular Sabbath rest in the middle of our program season? Might a day away from the press of ministry help us remember better whose ministry this really is? And might it help energize us better for the labors to which God has called us? I wonder which day you designate as truly “Sabbath.” Hint: for church leaders, it is NOT Sunday.
For me, it’s Friday. Only in an emergency will I work on Fridays. Email can wait, just as appointments can. And, oh, what a relief that day gives me amid the torrid pace of the work to which God has called me! It truly is critical to my capacity to remain at my best in fulfilling my calling.
The practice of Sabbath is restorative for us physically and psychologically, but its most important benefit is to our spiritual welfare. It is a refreshing renewal to those whose spirits have flagged. It converts us again and again by regularly re-centering us upon God as our only source. It deepens our sense of God’s abiding presence through all the twists and turns of life. It reinforces in us the conviction expressed by the 14th-century saint, Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.”
Resting in the Lord,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister