The brilliant composer and musician Mozart once said, “I can tell a good musician by the way he plays the rests.” What an amazing insight. Mozart knew that the rests are what give the composition structure. The rests give us the space to enjoy the delightful sounds of the musical selection. Perhaps this is true for all of life. Maybe we are all known by how well we play the rests.
Sadly, we live in a culture which praises and rewards burnout. “Look at how she works from sun-up to sundown,” we say admiringly. “He never takes a day off,” we exclaim. Sabbath rest is one of “The Big Ten” (commandments), yet we actually encourage breaking it. Can you imagine such cheering if we intentionally broke one of the other nine commandments? “Wow, look at him shoplift…such a good stealer!” Or, “She commits adultery with such deception!”
In making a virtue out of Sabbath-breaking, we are caving to culture’s values. And we do so at our own peril. As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “Busyness keeps us from lingering on anything long enough to engage it at any depth.” Busyness tyrannizes us, convincing us there is always more to do. It exhausts, embitters and discourages people.
We are so focused on to-do lists that even our attempts at taking a vacation can be exhausting. As one person said, “How come it takes four suitcases and a car-top carrier to get away from it all?” Consider the strangest oxymoron of all ? — “working vacation.” Observe how our churches work our people to exhaustion on the Sabbath, with committee meetings and special training sessions. And all of this after a full morning of study and worship.
Let’s be clear about something. When we talk about “keeping Sabbath,” we are not revisiting the old Puritan practice of making Sunday a day of drudgery and deprivation. We live in a nation which no longer has many “blue laws.” Most stores and businesses are open on Sunday. Many people are required to work on Sunday (myself included!). The Hebrew word “shabbat” comes into our language as “Sabbath” and simply means to take a break. Stop talking. Stop doing. Cease striving. The point is that we take some kind of break on the Lord’s Day (or an alternative day), to acknowledge that this time is different from the rest of the week.
Interestingly, the two biblical accounts of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) both list Sabbath-keeping as the fourth commandment, but each for a different reason. In Exodus, we are to keep Sabbath because God also rested (20:11). Was God tired? Of course not. God took a break for the same reason a painter steps back from the canvass to assess and enjoy her work, or a farmer walks out to his corn field in early June, or a parent watches her child play with a toy train — to enjoy life’s creative mystery.
Ask yourself this simple question: “How many right-nows am I missing because of my obsession with my tasks? When God created the Sabbath, you and I were handed the gift of time — time to smell the roses, at least once every seven days.
In the second Decalogue text, Deuteronomy 5, we are commanded to rest because God liberated the Hebrew slaves from bondage (v. 15). We live to work; we do not work to live. People have value and worth beyond what they can produce. The Egyptian (pagan) way of looking at life says, “If I don’t work, I won’t eat.”
God’s people know better. Even while we rest, God is still working. God provides! Every Sabbath we are declaring our independence from human systems and our dependence upon God. A very successful businessman once told about his practice of hiking in the mountains one week each year. While he was away, he would ask his wife to keep all the newspapers delivered that week. After his return, he would read each day’s paper, just to remind himself that all these things happened without him!
God wired us. God knows what we need. Just as Mozart knew that beautiful music needs to be set off by well-placed rests, so God knows that our work is more effective when it is punctuated with breaks. The quality of our rest will impact the quality of our work, whether that work relates to our paycheck or to church responsibilities.
Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 11:28-29, The Message).
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo.