Confessions of an Imperfect Sabbath-keeper




My wife and I and daughter Nicola lived in Wales for 4 months, in winter and spring of 2012. Sarah, our other daughter, joined us for the last few weeks (alas, our son Adam was unable to get away from work). It was part of a sabbatical that the church I was serving then graciously gave to us.

We had been to the UK before, on brief visits, but my haste on those trips, trying to cover much ground and take in many sights in slivers of time, reduced my experience, and my subsequent memories, to blurry fragments. That’s the irony of trying to see too much too fast: it often renders everything forgettable.

Our time in Wales was different. It was a lingering sojourn. We traded houses, and vehicles – and even churches – with a pastoral couple who were just beginning their retirement. We had only met them, through a mutual friend, via email (and then face-to-face, for 30 minutes, at Gatwick airport in London, where we quickly exchanged greetings and keys). View from Kitchen windowTheir home sat high on a green hillside overlooking the endlessly twisting Teifi River and, beyond that, the tiny stone village or Pentre-cwrt, a place even most Welsh people are stumped to locate on a map. The house bordered a sheepfold, and every morning when we stepped into the kitchen to make our coffee, a dozen or so plump and skittish ewes, sometimes a haughty surly ram, then later in spring a few spindly and curious lambs, stared at us through the window, though scattered at our first greeting.

It was magic. I think of it now – I thought of it then – as my season in Narnia. The days unfolded with unhurried ease. I learned to drive under the speed limit. Life’s slowness, its stillness, its deep quiet, made us, not drowsy, but fully awake. The stillness enhanced everything, made each colour brighter, every sound sharper, all movement more dramatic. Looking back on it now, almost 4 years later, I remember almost every walk we took, meal we ate, conversation we had, drive we drove, church service we attended, visit we enjoyed, with photographic precision. It lives inside me vividly.

That’s also what Sabbath is meant to do. It slows everything down, and so brightens everything up. It creates space and time – a stillness – for us to linger, to savour, to notice. It is one day, rung like a tuning fork, that makes all the other days sing on key.

I wrote a book many years ago – actually, while I was on my first sabbatical, given to me by the same generous church that let us go to Wales – on Sabbath. It’s called The Rest of God. I wrote it when I was still a rank beginner, stumbling through my first clumsy steps, babbling my first garbled words. The book did well in spite of all that, and for the past dozen years I’ve been asked to speak often on the topic, treated as something of an expert on the matter.

The truth is, I’m still mostly in a rush. I still wrestle wild impatience. Most of my days still go by in a blur.

But it’s not all that. I’ve been keeping Sabbath, in at least some cobbled-up way, for 14 years now. And it’s made a difference. It’s making a difference. The weekly slowing has made more room inside me. I listen better. I notice more. I’m more curious, more thankful, more receptive, more generous. Admittedly, I’ve a good stretch yet to go. And other things, including painful things, have helped in all this. And there are some areas in which I’ve made, it seems, little progress – maybe even fallen backward. But generally, Sabbath has been for me a long obedience in the same direction, to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, improbably, Friedrich Nietzsche).

I remember reading many years ago something by Henri Nouwen in which he described his hurt over a friend accusing him of insensitivity and uncaring. Nouwen admitted to these faults. His defense was simply this: Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry – but please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a man of prayer.

I still move too fast. Still listen poorly. Still grow impatient over minor things.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry. But please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a Sabbath-keeper.

‘For Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.’ ~ Hebrews 4:10-11

Join us in rest, prayer, and worship at the annual Kingdom Prayer Conference and explore how to: live out Sabbath, understand the rest of God, and make prayer a lifestyle.

Speakers: Mark Buchanan, Yinka Marcus, and Ben Johnson
Cost:  $20 per person

Date: January 23, 2016
Time: 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM
Event: First Assembly Kingdom Prayer Conference
Venue: First Assembly, Calgary
Location: 6031 Elbow Drive SW
Calgary, AB
Public: Public

Establish the Work of Our Hands



Several years ago, I wrote a book on rest (The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Thomas Nelson, 2004). Part way through the writing, I realized there was a massive hole in my thinking: I had neglected to reflect on or write about work. So I went back and, near the book’s beginning, inserted a chapter on the meaning and value of work.

A theology of work is as needed as it is scarce. Few people I know – even pastors and missionaries – reflect theologically on their work. We seldom see how bricklaying or selling shoes or studying spreadsheets – or even preparing a sermon – is a form of worship. This is a sore loss, and contributes to high levels of burnout, mediocrity, driven-ness, insubordination, sloth, dissatisfaction, and endless dreaming about greener pastures.

God is a worker. Six days he sets aside for vigorous, ambitious, creative work – making and naming and running things. And when he created man and woman in his image, the key point of resemblance is that we are workers, too. We steward what God has made, join him in naming it, and receive his authority to rule over it. Our identity is deeply rooted in these vocational acts.

The fallout of sin complicates all this. Now, we earn our keep by the sweat of our brows. Now, the soil we work – or words we craft, or computers we tinker with, or machines we repair, or children we raise – are riddled with thorns. The work of our hands raises blisters. And give headaches and backaches, and puts dark circles under our eyes.

But the work itself matters. Moses, after a lengthy prayer (Psalm 90) that both extols the eternal nature of God and bemoans the temporal and afflicted nature of man, ends with a hope and a plea:

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;
    establish the work of our hands for us—
    yes, establish the work of our hands
(Psalm 90:17).

Moses is asking God to value, honor and further human work. He’s asking that what we do – tending, mending, naming, growing – would participate in God’s eternal purposes.

It’s a good prayer. And it’s the basis for a theology of work. I believe that having such a theology has several benefits:

  • It helps us connect our everyday, ordinary tasks with God’s eternal, heavenly purposes.
  • It helps us see our work in true perspective – to neither obsess over trivial matters nor miss what’s important.
  • It prevents us from making either an idol or an enemy of our work.
  • It helps us find balance in our work between fostering relationships and doing tasks.
  • It scales back the poor motives we sometimes bring to our work – greed, acquisitiveness, laziness, entitlement, jealousy, the lust for power or control, selfish ambition, etc.
  • It turns our work into a form of worship: it motivates us to do all for the glory of God.
  • It helps us see ourselves as stewards, not paupers or owners.
  • It keeps us dependent on God for fresh energy, insight, endurance, motivation, creativity.
  • It awakens and sustains thankfulness.
  • It deepens our trust in God during seasons of vocational transition.

Indeed, O Lord, establish the work of our hands.