A lover of all things “old-fashioned” as a child, I read and re-read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Most of it struck me as idyllic and charming. Getting water from the well? How lovely. Playing ball with an inflated pig’s bladder? How sweet. Watching as Ma and Pa stood watch at night while the wolves howled outside? How brave.
My infatuation with their pioneer life was tempered by only one thing: their draconian observance of the Sabbath. I read Little House in the Big Woods with horror as Laura described a whole day filled with sitting quietly:
Every Sunday Mary and Laura were dressed from the skin out in their best clothes, with fresh ribbons in their hair. They were clean, because they had their baths on Saturday night. On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins.
Thank heavens I was born into a modern family with a spotty record of church attendance. I was free to spend Sundays just like every other day. When my family later joined the local Congregational United Church of Christ church, I was relieved to discover they’d changed quite a bit since Laura’s Congregational days–my high school self might have appreciated a day of sleeping in but not the legalism of requiring it.
This view persisted well into adulthood. Really, it persisted up until a few months ago, when I began to feel an internal craving to “get away.” It didn’t feel like stress or overwork. I didn’t want a vacation or even a lazy day of lounging. I thought about those things, I did. But they went down the way it does when you’re desperately thirsty and someone offers you soda. They didn’t quench the thirst. What I needed was something real. I needed rest.
This wasn’t a craving for physical rest. I’ve been physically exhausted before, this wasn’t that. I needed a rest for the soul. Mainly, I needed a rest from a cultural and internal pressure to “produce.” I needed it particularly around my writing.
Like so many creative endeavors, writing started for me as a hobby. It was, in itself, rejuvenating. I etched out my first article in 20 minute bursts while my toddler napped, or in the margins of pages when work meetings became unproductive. For my birthday in 2009, I lugged my laptop to a coffee shop and spent the day pounding out my thoughts. I composed an email to an editor, hit send and came home exhilarated.
But there’s a thing that happens when you try to turn a hobby into a business. Suddenly, the hobby is a job, which takes an entirely different mindset. Surprisingly, the place where I was starting to feel pressure was around this blog—which is tiny, in the grand scheme of the internet, and isn’t monetized in anyway. There was no earthly reason to feel any pressure around it. And yet I did. The very thing that had once been a form of rejuvenation for me had become a chore. What was once a hobby I yearned for had become a goal I had to achieve; instead of increasing my happiness, it was decreasing it.
It had become about production.
So on a whim, I started out 2017 by deciding to take a break from writing and all writing-related activities, including research and maintaining social media accounts (which I don’t do particularly well but always worry about how I should do more). I would go on sabbatical, which is rooted in the idea of Sabbath—a faithful discipline of rest.
In Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggeman highlights the countercultural mandate of resting every seven days. It’s not, as I always thought, so much about “God rested so we have to as well.” Instead, it’s more like, “God got to rest so we get to as well.” God stopped producing. And we, too, small humans, can stop producing.
Brueggeman says it this way:
That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, b) that YWHW is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.
We all have different things we love, different work we do and different productivity traps we fall into. Whatever it is for each of us, a regular observation of Sabbath times reminds us that the world doesn’t depend on our production levels. The sun doesn’t rise or fall on whether I blog, whether I submit my allotted articles a month, whether I reach my designated word count. It doesn’t even revolve on whether I weigh in on the political hurricane we’re watching. (And believe me, I have mental pages and pages of things I’d like to say about that. In fact, the closest I came to breaking my sabbatical was out of a desire to save the world with my words—an idea that is embarrassingly arrogant to write down.)
Sabbath puts us in our place.
Sabbath reminds us of the simple truth that we’re not God. As people of faith, this seems obvious. All religious traditions, simply by proclaiming that there is a God also assert that we are not it. We say it all the time. But until we really challenge ourselves to put it in practice, we’ll keep putting ourselves at the center of the universe.
This is why a regular time of ritualized rest is so important. Disciplining ourselves to rest regularly gives us the opportunity to literally embody our faith. For a brief period of time, we get respite from the pressures to “do” something. We get to simply experience what it’s like to “be.”
This is perhaps more in line with what the prophet Isaiah says:
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord
It is not that God will punish us if we don’t observe the Sabbath but that the observation of prayerful rest will lead us into deeper faith. If we learn to practice simply “being,” rather than in producing, our delight in God’s grace will grow and grow.
So I’m not sure how my practice of Sabbath will move forward. What I am clear about is that it does need to move forward. I’d love to hear how practices of prayerful rest take shape in your life—all words of wisdom are welcome here!