Sabbath in community

Posted Mar 26, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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by Callie Smith

Sabbath comes to us as an extreme challenge, so extreme that it can be difficult to talk about.

I remember gathering with a study group around a café table one evening to discuss the idea. What for weeks had been a talkative, dynamic collection of people suddenly stared at each other with awkward, blank expressions. I had just asked a taboo question: “What does Sabbath look like in your life?” Silence.

Sabbath challenged each individual there. We were singles working day jobs and evening/weekend jobs. We were partners with at least three jobs per pair. We were parents scheduling around the fact that somebody needed to shepherd the kids. When we finally started speaking (slowly at first), we named this. We named the challenges to carving out an entire day of the week when we did not “produce” in some way. We named how hard it seemed to either justify an entire day of rest each week or to actually claim such a day.

And yet, there was the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8).

Sabbath in the Biblical story challenged more than individuals. It challenged entire communities. When Exodus and Deuteronomy spoke of Sabbath, they meant more than a day when no one punched a time clock. They meant a day when no one expected anyone else to punch a time clock, either. They meant a day when neither humans nor animals labored. Made by a God who labored and then rested, God’s creatures lived with God and with each other properly only when they all took time to rest, as well. Had this concept seemed practical or culturally-accepted in the ancient world, one could assume that there would have been no need for discussions and commandments about it in the Biblical text.

And yet, there we see the commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

Sabbath challenges many cultural contexts, ancient as well as contemporary. A Sabbath day after six days of labor or a Sabbath year after six years, the concept pushes us to expect periods of rest and renewal, both for ourselves and for our neighbors. Far from being a practical suggestion about increasing productivity by adding rest into the mix, practicing Sabbath provides a divinely-sanctioned opportunity to value the lives of entire communities based on grounds other than usefulness for work. Sabbath concerns us all.

Who in your communities are you joining with to explore what Sabbath could look like? Pastors are not the only ones who wrestle with how to carve out time for proper spiritual disciplines, including rest and renewal. Just about any person associated with the life of a congregation is likely to struggle with these questions of spiritual disciplines and balance, as well. One of the great strengths of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs’ structure is how renewal leaves involve more than simply pastors and pastors’ families. Leaves involve entire congregations joining with pastors in the process of exploring what rest and renewal may look like. From early brainstorming to collaborating on actual grant proposals, congregations support pastors on this journey and partner with them to structure ways for the congregations to both function and thrive during the leaves, potentially even undertaking their own times of intentional study and reflection while the pastor is away.

The proposal collaboration process can be a gift of an opportunity to engage an entire faith community in theological reflection on the spiritual discipline of Sabbath practice, whether or not a congregation actually receives a grant during any particular grant cycle. Far from raising a taboo question, engaging each other around the topic of Sabbath practices can be an opportunity to build relationships that engage – as a community – a challenge that was directed to communities in the first place.

Rev. Callie Smith is administrative assistant for the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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