Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sabbatical (Pt. 1)

Last week, my sister shared with me this essay on the "inefficiency" of the Sabbath. Suddenly I realized: this is a Sabbath year for me! When I commented on this realization, a friend raised these questions:
What exactly is a Sabbath year? Are we actually supposed to take Sabbath years? What does that involve (i.e. what to do, what not to do)? Why do you consider this year in your life to be a Sabbath year?   
Working from last question to the first, here are my thoughts:

I consider this year a Sabbath year for me because it's a year of neither working nor being in school. I had a long list of things I intended to be doing this year so I would feel/be productive (and have something to say when people ask me "what have you been up to?"), but it's been 7 months (!) and I haven't really done those things, and I think I wasn't really supposed to be doing them anyway. If God actually wanted me to be as "productive" as I thought I should be, I don't think he would have let me be vaguely sick for over three months. I needed--still need--a time of rest and reliance on God: a long, long Sabbath.

What does that Sabbath year involve? I would say the essence of Sabbath is the "appalling inefficiency" that the Urbana blog discusses: being unproductive. For someone like me (and perhaps even more so for you?), being unproductive is seriously uncomfortable! Rest is psychologically troubling even at the same time that it is refreshing. This discomfort flows from believing that worth comes from productivity, or that useless people are less valuable, or some variation on that theme. Sabbath combats these lies and affirms a commitment to the truth: that worth comes from God, and that all we really need is God, and all our "usefulness" is only useful if God wills it to be so. (See Ps. 127: "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain" &c).

Investing my sense of worth and security in anything other than God's love and provision is idolatry. Observing the Sabbath--whether for 24 hours a week or for a whole year--demotes the false god of productivity to its rightful place (valuable but not divine) and promotes the true God to His rightful place (King of kings and Lord of lords). I do think we are supposed to take "Sabbath years," because productivity is a huge idol for us (responsible, driven, success-seeking people, working in a culture that idolizes those traits). We definitely need to topple that idol so that we can honor God as our only Lord, and I think we need some form of Sabbath rest to do that.

The question is, what form? We aren't Israelites and we aren't even farmers, so none of the concrete instructions in Exodus apply directly to us. Are we supposed to take Sabbath years? Almost certainly. Are we supposed to take them every seven years? Not necessarily. Are we supposed to quit our jobs, eat food out of dumpsters, or maybe eat the dandelions growing in the backyard? Almost certainly not. What is a Christian Sabbath year? I don't really know, but one passage to look at might be Hebrews 4, which talks about "a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (v.9), which I think refers to resting in God during life on earth as well as ultimately resting in God in heaven.

So, concretely speaking, what does it look like to observe the Sabbath / rest / be unproductive?

Simple: stop working!

Just kidding, it's not simple to stop working, especially since it's hard even to decide what constitutes work. For a one-day Sabbath rest, I count as work anything that I "have to" do. This usually means the things that I am worried about getting done soon, probably because of outside pressure: homework, projects, anything with a deadline. It is not obvious from either a logistic or a psychological/emotional perspective how to set those things aside for a whole day--or even a whole hour, depending how much I am stressing about them (i.e., how little I am trusting God about those things). But it is possible, and like every discipline it gets easier with practice, and though the implementation is not immediately simple, it will bring greater simplicity to your life and thoughts.

For a year-long Sabbath rest, the emphasis is a little different. The Biblical instructions for the year-long Sabbath didn't tell the people not to work at all, but rather not to plant anything, and to just eat whatever grew on its own. This is a command to refrain from making provisions for the future. To stop planning and preparing. To open myself to the possibility of deprivation. To cast myself on the mercy of God, to rely on His provision for things that I normally think I have to provide for myself.

To be honest, I just started to think about that aspect of my Sabbath as I typed that last paragraph. This is a year for me to refrain from making preparations for the future. This is a year for me to eat whatever grows in the field of my life, and to be fed by what happens, not by what I cause to happen. What a timely thought, in the midst of my various worries! For instance, this morning I was feeling the pressure of having been asked dozens of times already when we are going to have kids. (People! I am only 22! We haven't even been married a year!!!) My mother-in-law, who is very concerned about health and watches at least two health TV shows, has informed me that every year we wait, the likelihood of Down Syndrome increases. After the age of thirty, she told me, the risk of birth defects is a lot higher. --Yeah? Well, I don't want to hear about it. But now that I have heard it, it is hard not to think about it. How will that work with a PhD program? What if... And blah blah blah the worries go, as I try to figure out the future.

Sabbath year: stop thinking about the future. Stop planting, and eat what grows. I think that is what God is calling me to right now, and what that looks like concretely for me right now means not working, not studying, not producing, not accomplishing, just being and receiving and relying on my husband's work to provide for us financially, and relying on God to somehow provide for me socially and intellectually.

So this is my Sabbath and this is what it looks like. I don't know what anyone else's Sabbath year would look like, though. It comes down to asking God--relying on Him, which is what it is all about.

And I think I will close this post here, although there is more to say. I realized a little while ago that I hadn't actually looked up the Scriptures that command the Sabbath in the first place, and when I looked at them, I found they emphasized something else that I haven't addressed at all. But I'll write about that tomorrow! Stay tuned :)

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