The Rest of the Week
James W. Miller
A Contemporary Crisis
“If you want to ensure that you are unhealthy, ministry is a great fit,” says Dr. A.J. Swoboda, author of the newly released Subversive Sabbath. While coaching other pastors, Swoboda has unearthed a dangerous trend. “Generally, pastors are quite unaware of their own health. Don’t take my word for it – there’s hard science behind this.” According to the New York Times (8/1/10), 75% of pastors report severe stress causing anguish, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation, and 80% say that ministry affects their families negatively. Dr. Rob Muthiah, Professor at Azusa Pacific Seminary and author of The Sabbath Experiment, points to a lack of training in self-care among clergy. “A lot of my students have never heard a single thing about the Sabbath, and these are M.Div. students who have grown up in the church.” There is a frightening fallout among spiritual leaders today, but likewise a growing call in their ranks to attend to matters of the soul, and in particular, to the first spiritual discipline written into the fabric of Creation: Sabbath-keeping.
In Scripture, Sabbath rest is designed, commanded, promised, and finally, to prevent its would-be destruction in the name of religion, violated by the One who created it. Sabbath starts at creation. An omnipotent being doesn’t need a day of rest, but the one who designed us chose one. If nothing else, this was a model for the rest of creation.
Some years ago, I visited Hanauma Bay in Honolulu, which feels like the narthex of heaven, for a day of snorkeling. It was a Tuesday. I arrived to find a chained-off parking lot, an empty beach, and a security guard who was short of angelic.
“Looks closed,” I said.
“It is closed!” she grumbled.
“It looks closed,” I repeated meekly. “I’m a pastor,” I said, hoping for a waiver. “I know the guy who created this place.”
“No!” she answered. “The fish are resting!”
Rest is written into the design of creation, and to this day, Hanauma Bay is closed on Tuesdays so the fish can Sabbath. The design of the human frame manifests itself in health. According to Swoboda, even those who keep the Sabbath legalistically are healthier than those who don’t. He cites the fact that Seventh Day Adventists live on average 7-10 years longer than other Americans, with the exception of the Seventh Day Adventist clergy.
Muthiah recommends several counter-cultural elements of a Sabbath experiment. Turn off technology and stop buying and selling, he says. In so doing, we find our true value. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, where their worth was measured in seven-days-per-week productivity. The commandment to rest was their validation from God; you are worth more than you do. “In this concrete practice,” says Muthiah, “we have such an amazing gift from our gracious God that sets us up in a counter-cultural rhythm of life that opens us up to others and raises all kinds of ethical issues, that challenges the god of technology and makes a claim on us that sweeps us into the reign of Christ. It’s a gift.” Sabbath, ultimately, is a reminder that God can do more in six days than we can do in seven, a reminder that seems to have gotten lost among those who teach the faith.