Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest: From Sabbath to Sabbatical and Back Again

Shaping Sabbath

An excerpt from “Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest: From Sabbath to Sabbatical and Back Again.”

I am a better person on the sabbath. I am not as stressed. I move slower, talk slower and listen better. I am kinder, more patient, more loving and more grateful—for the big things and the small things. I am more in love with my life and the people God has given me than on any other day of the week. Somehow, in a way I cannot explain, I come back to myself and to what’s most important. I sink and settle into the gifts of my life and savor them with abandon.

I am really not sure how all this happens, but on the sabbath I am more at home in my humanity, more satisfied and less driven. I am insanely happy to putz around and just be, letting the day unfold. In this quieter, slower pace with fewer distractions, I am often able to plumb the deeper well at the center of my being, and from that place say true things to God—things that surprise me, things that need more time in order to come to the surface and form themselves into words, things that keep my relationship with God true, fresh and alive.

It amazes me, really, that a person who is as driven and distractible as I am, can settle in like this, and I know the ability to do this only comes now after years of practice and pressing through the hard parts. Truly, I wish I could be the person I am on the sabbath all the time!

To what can we attribute all this betterment? While most of us have heard about sabbath and have maybe even attempted it to some extent, I’m not sure we fully understand how transformative and essential it is. It is a spiritual practice that opens us to God’s transforming work, enabling us to be the kind of people we want to be on this earth. If we understood this, I think we would take it more seriously.

Like all spiritual disciplines, sabbath-keeping is a means of grace—a way of opening to the transforming work of God beyond anything we can accomplish for ourselves. I cannot will myself to be the person I experience myself to be on the sabbath, but I can open myself to it so God can come in and do what only God can do. As Rabbi Heschel puts it, “Every seventh day a miracle comes to pass, the resurrection of the soul.”

Free to be

So, what does sabbath-keeping actually form in us, not only as individuals but as communities of faith? What are we freed for? We are freed to love and be loved, to experience ourselves valued and blessed just for being. Free to delight in gifts that money can’t buy and experience them as being enough. Free to rest ourselves in God and live on God’s own terms for us. Most of us don’t even know what to do with that much freedom and it can be quite life changing!

One of the main things we are freed for on the sabbath is to simply be human—to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment, and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake. It begins with the willingness to acknowledge the limits of our humanness and to live more graciously within the order of things. And the first order of things is that we are creatures living in the presence of our Creator, the One who knows and loves us better than we know and love ourselves. This is especially important for leaders who, in a celebrity culture, are often put on pedestals and seen as superhuman. Even though other people might insist on seeing us as superhuman, we know better and simply must put a stop to it—at least on the sabbath.

By establishing a sabbath practice, we affirm and accept the fact that God is the only one who is infinite, and we are finite. This means we live within the physical limits of time and space, strength and energy. There are limits to our relational, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities. By being faithful to a sabbath practice, we are saying in a very concrete way, “God is the only one who can be all things to all people; I am not. God is the only one who can be in two places at once; I am not. God is the one who never sleeps; I am not.”

Our resistance and/or our dismissive attitude toward sabbath is often related to an unwillingness to acknowledge and live within the limits of our humanity, to honor our finiteness, to confront the nasty lie that we are indispensable. On some level we may be convinced that the world cannot go on without us, even for a day. Or we might believe there are certain tasks and activities that are more significant than the delights that God is wanting to share with us on this day. Like the Israelites, we struggle to believe that God can and will provide for us if we stop for one day doing all we think is needed to provide for ourselves. This is a grandiosity we indulge to our own peril.

Sabbath, on the other hand, marks out a path that enables us to live humbly within the limits of being human by letting go of our relentless human striving at least one day a week so we can nurture our human being-ness versus our human doing. This becomes our confession each and every time we enter in: I am human. I am finite. I have limits. Thank you, God, for the rhythms you put in place for my good.

Can’t you just feel the freedom contained within these statements?

Adapted from “Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest: From Sabbath to Sabbatical and Back Again” by Ruth Haley Barton. ©2022 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

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Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors and Christian leaders, and the congregations and organizations they serve. Ruth holds a doctor of divinity from Northern Seminary along with her studies at the Loyola University Chicago Institute for Pastoral Studies. She is a sought-after speaker and preacher, having served on the pastoral staffs of several churches and also teaching frequently at the graduate level. Ruth’s books include “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Life Together in Christ, Sacred Rhythms, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Retreat,” and “Invitation to Solitude and Silence.” She shares perspectives on transforming leadership through her Beyond Words blog and her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership podcast. Her latest book is entitled, “Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest: From Sabbath to Sabbatical and Back Again.”