In high school I remember sitting on a folding chair in the church basement listening to my 9th grade bible study leader explain to me in great detail why his neighbor was such a hypocrite. After 15 minutes I realized that it boiled down to the fact that his neighbor wouldn’t help him re-finish his deck on the Sabbath.
“…but he takes his family out to eat every Saturday for lunch.” He said throwing his hands up. “Now isn’t that just a little bit hypocritical.”
I stared at him blankly still trying to process the information.
When I didn’t answer he re-iterated his point for the tenth time. “You know…making the restaurant people work on Saturday so he doesn’t have to?”
I was still stuck on the fact that an actual person was trying to not work on the Sabbath. It was the first time I had ever heard of someone taking “You shall not labor on the Sabbath” literally. At my church honoring the Sabbath seemed like one of the lesser Commandments, like “don’t covet your neighbor’s donkey.” A good idea, but not really applicable to life in the suburbs.
It was clear my Bible Study leader wanted me to agree with him. “Yeah, I guess that does sound pretty hypocritical.” I nodded.
But over the last 3 years of my own misadventures in trying not to work on the Sabbath, I have since changed my mind about his neighbor. I have realized that trying to not work for 24 hours, is actually kind of a lot of work.
The hardest thing for me is remembering not to work.
It’s a lot like when I’m driving down the four lane highway on my way to a friend’s house thinking about God knows what and suddenly I find myself on the Johnson Street exit to my office. My ‘auto-pilot’ is to start working.
One Sabbath, I was binge watching episodes of “My So Called Life.” And half way through an episode on bullying I realized I had spent the last 15 minutes constructing an anti-bullying lesson plan for my youth group kids.
It’s sort of a pattern in my life. If I don’t pay attention, I just start working.
Which is frustrating because the whole reason I started keeping a Sabbath was because I was an over-worked 20 something trying to juggle grad school, volunteer managing a non-profit, and working a part-time catering job.
You know, basically what every idealistic 20 something was doing during the recession.
But after several panic attacks I found myself in my doctor’s office, 30 lbs overweight, and on a daily dose of anti-depressants that could have turned a basset hound into a rodeo clown.
So I decided it was time for drastic measures. I put together a plan based on my best interpretation of a 4,000 year old tradition and the latest in neuro-science.
My goal was simple. Stop working and/or worrying about working every second of every day and allow my body, mind, and soul to rest and rejuvenate. I read a few books on bio-feedback, eastern meditation, and brain chemistry. I learned it takes the body 20-30 minutes to detox from stress. As in, reset the brain chemistry from flight or fight or in my case work back to cool and collected.
This turned out to be easy enough. Once I found a couch at all my work places, I just spent all my breaks laying flat on my back counting my breaths.
But the Sabbath was another story. It was more complicated to surgically remove a full 24 hours from my sun-up to sundown, every day, rinse and repeat, work week.
When I first started, I naively assumed that I would just trouble-shoot what was and wasn’t considered work on a case by case basis.
I re-read the Sabbath laws in the Old Testament, but unfortunately I didn’t find much help. Most of the laws were based on an agrarian lifestyle without any concrete details about how I was going to avoid the modern internet based workload. The other thing I realized when I read the OT was that the Sabbath is supposed to be more of a group effort.
At least that’s how it started out. When the Israelites enacted the third commandment it was more of a law than a spiritual practice.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:8-10)
The unsaid last line of this law was “Or we will kill you.” It seems pretty clear. Until they start to unpack the word work.
This is exactly what Jewish Rabbis spent the next 2,000 years doing. To make a long story short the Rabbi’s created this complex set of “case-law” called the Halakah which spells out how far you can walk on the Sabbath, how to open a sealed jar, how big of a stone you can lift…needless to say it get’s pretty specific.
Then one Saturday a thirty-year-old rabbi named Jesus decides to try and untangle the knotty Sabbath mess.
Jesus and his twelve disciples walk into a city with his disciples munching on some freshly picked grain and then he heals a man with a deformed hand. Understandably the other rabbi’s point out that Jesus is clearly working on the Sabbath.
But Jesus brushes them off by citing a rule that allows shepherds to save sheep on the Sabbath. “So why can’t I help this man?” Jesus points out.
Jesus’ basic critique is a good one. “You should keep loving people on the Sabbath.” But how that gets played out proved to be just as complicated as everything thing else on the Sabbath. Throughout his recorded ministry Jesus points out a dozen examples of these little hypocrisies in the Sabbath laws. And if there were any “don’t work on the Sabbath” sermons from Jesus, the Gospel writers didn’t think they were important enough to include.
Whether Jesus meant it or not, his critiques were the beginning of the end for the Sabbath. Christians were always on guard against looking like Sabbath hypocrites. And after Christianity became a mostly non-Jewish religion, Sabbath laws went into the more trouble then they’re were worth category, along with circumcision and curly locks of side hair.
So here I am two thousand years later, still wondering how to keep from working and how to keep from looking like a hypocrite.
But despite my ongoing questions I’ve become a firm believer in the Sabbath. After carving out a 24 hour Sabbath nearly every week, and a tiny one nearly every day, I have turned my life around.
I’m thirty. But surprisingly little has changed in my schedule. I’m still studying, writing, volunteer managing a non-profit and a part time pastor.
But I have stopped having panic attacks. I cut my anti-depressant dosage to a third of what I was at before, and am back to my pre-grad school weight. My head is clearer. I’m able to manage the stress of my workload. I’m no longer afraid to put off an email or reject a phone call once in a while.
Not to say I’m batting 1000. When you work with people in need, every Sabbath is full of emails, phone calls, and Facebook updates about people who need a visit in the hospital, hungry kids…sheep who have fallen in a well.
This last Sabbath, I had breakfast and suddenly found myself blasting out a flurry of work emails. I took a deep breath, stood up, and went out for some fresh air.
But half way down the block I got a text from my co-worker in Kenya. “We need you to send over some money for next week’s food. Please call ASAP.”
I sighed and texted back. “Okay, I’m on it” as I turned around and headed back to my desk.
That’s when I have to remind myself that I’m practicing the Sabbath.
And that I can always try again next week.