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On the Need for Sabbath

In the nearly two decades that I have served in collegiate ministry, there has been one sermon topic that I have preached the most. It is, not surprisingly, the one topic which has been ignored the most: sabbath.

It's a function of where we are, I suppose. 

See, I know this campus too well. This is a university full of workaholics. Driven, busy people. Connected at all times to their work. Taking extra courses. Signing up for that internship. Signing up for a second internship. Getting a part-time job on the side. Lots and lots of work. I’ve said this before but it absolutely astounds me that the advice I give out the most as a person in a position of “authority” is that you should all goof off more. Take more time off. Stop working.

And I know this city too well. And it doesn’t help that we live in this city. When you go to parties here in D.C. or you meet people at some other social function, once you’ve been introduced to someone new, they’ll invariably ask you, “So, what do you do?” It’s usually the first question out of their mouths. Because in D.C., what your work is, what job you have, is a marker of your status. So, it’s no wonder that people are so busy working all the time. They’ve been told that their worth is tied up in their work.

But here’s the problem with that: a life without Sabbath is like a song without rests. You can’t skip all the rests and have the music make any sense. It sounds terrible. The whole thing falls apart. The melody is not determined by the notes alone, it’s determined by the places where the music isn’t playing, too.

circles and lines with gaps creating the illusion of a triangle in the negative spaceThe beauty of design, as any graphic designer will tell you, isn’t just the shapes of the letters or the logo, it’s the shape of the negative space—the white space in between that adds to the beauty. So much of art is defined not by what is drawn or painted, but by what isn’t. Much of graphic design is made effective by the use of white space. Look at the graphic to the side, the triangle you think you see is actually defined by what isn’t there.

When I was in college, I came across some verses from the Tao Te Ching that I have always liked, that sum this idea up well:

Thirty spokes will converge in the hub of a wheel;
But the use of the cart will depend
on the part of the hub that is void.
With a wall all around a clay bowl is molded;
But the use of the bowl will depend
on the part of the bowl that is void.
Cut out windows and doors in the house as you build;
But the use of the house will depend on the space
in the walls that is void.
So advantage is had from whatever is there;
But usefulness rises from whatever is not. [1]

Why should our lives be any different? Why should we continue to think that our lives are defined only by the things that we do rather than the things we do not do? Why is it so easy for us to believe that work defines us but not the rests in between the work? That the dark patterns of our action define us, not the white spaces in between?

The spaces are what give definition to our lives. The spaces make the substance of our lives meaningful, and useful. The spaces in our lives help us to be better at the substance. An unneeded internship, an extra class, or some other activity designed to keep us busy, makes us less effective at the things we would do. The busier we get, the less we are actually able to accomplish. The spaces are necessary to give definition to our work.

But most of all, the spaces are for God. It is in the spaces that God speaks to us. In the spaces that we are still enough to hear the voice of God calling. In the spaces, that we are freed from distraction long enough to know what God intends for us. In the spaces, we have the chance simply to be, to know who we are and whose we are. It is in the spaces, in the rests, that we give room for God to enter. To hear the voice of the divine, to hear our own hearts, to discern meaning and to find purpose. How will that be possible if we never stop to rest?

It's the very reason that in the Ten Commandments, the people are told "six days you shall do your work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the Lord." This ancient command links working with the cessation of work. (Indeed, the word שָׁבָּת shabbat means "ceasing.") The people are told to observe a day of rest not as an escape from work but so that the work might have more meaning, that it might exist in the context of an encounter with the divine rather than as part of a never-ending slog of busyness.  

There are going to be many times throughout our lives that we are faced with a lot of work. Much of it will be out of our hands. Professors will expect assignments due at certain times. Bosses will demand reports or other projects. We won’t quite have the freedom to say, “I don’t really feel like it now.” And the work will pile up.

But it is during those intensely busy times that it is important—more than ever—to remember Sabbath. To take that time out. We often talk ourselves out of it. “I’d really like to take that time off, but I have so much to do, it’s better if I just work straight through.” But when we do that, the work we create is no more sensible than music that lacks rests. When we avoid Sabbath, when we avoid rest, the definition of and the quality of our work suffers. What we would seek to create becomes less beautiful, less coherent, less intelligible without the spaces in between.

And so I give it one more try, my most commonly preached idea. In the hopes that in our busyness and in our drive to fill our time with activity, we may instead cease. We may play the rests rather than the notes. We may leave the canvas unpainted rather than fill it all in. And that we may create a space within us—an empty space that fills us with meaning, purpose, and peace.


[1] Lao Tzu and R. B. Blakney (1955). The way of life. A new translation of the Tao tae ching. [New York], New American Library.