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Sabbath as Praying and Playing

Eugene Peterson has been a spiritual mentor to me through his writings. Years ago in his book Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Integrity I came across his penetrating words to pastors about Sabbath.

I was convicted. Despite being a Christian leader for two decades I was not keeping a sabbath, other than going to church on Sundays and generally being more restful and family oriented. I realized that I didn’t even understand the sabbath. Nor did I relate to it as God’s command for my welfare and that of my family and others in my circle of influence. It’s no wonder that I was struggling to live in the Sabbath Rest of Hebrews 4, what Jesus called his “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I was always rushing around trying to get more done, anxiously pressing and straining, often filled with worry — even as I was serving God. In the words of an old Jewish prayer my personal lack of Sabbath Rest was causing me to “Walk Sightless Among Miracles.”

I Learned to Find Sabbath Rest

Inspired by the Holy Spirit I began setting aside large blocks of time for Sabbath Rest. Over some years I grew into a practice of keeping a regular sabbath day to pray and play. A day of rest. A day to humble me with the reminder of my limitations. A day to slow my pace and cease my drive to produce. A day to find my identity outside of what I accomplish. A day to find enjoyment not in what I use, but simply in being myself with God, his creation, and his people, especially my family.

A day for intimacy with Jesus.

The more I practiced Sabbath Rest the deeper God’s rest got into my body, my pace of life, and my approach to people and to ministry. By “making every effort” I was learning to live and work in “the sabbath rest that remains for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9-11). You understand that I’m not just talking about one day a week, but a day that grows into an attitude and a lifestyle.

I found that my longtime struggles with anxiety were greatly diminished. God’s peace was taking over because I was letting Christ rule my heart more truly deeply than before (Colossians 3:15).

Later I discovered that most pastors struggle with sabbath. They help to provide a sabbath day for others, but can’t seem to set aside one day for their own rest in God. I believe this is a big part of the reason why so many pastors tend to overwork and be overstressed. Read the statistics on Pastor Stress and you’ll see what I mean and why we started Soul Shepherding as a ministry to pastors.

I’d like to share with you my selected excerpts from Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson. I have condensed his chapter 3, “Prayer Time” in what follows. Also, I have added subject headings and made some minor changes in paragraph structure. If you haven’t read the whole book I  encourage you to buy it and do so.

Eugene Peterson’s Words to Pastors on the Sabbath as Praying and Playing

The Sabbath is for Pastors

[Sabbath] is possible for pastors. Because there is a biblical provision for it… The single act of keeping a sabbath does more than anything else to train pastors in the rhythm of action and response so that the two sets of demands are experienced synchronically instead of violently.

An accurate understanding of sabbath is prerequisite to its practice: it must be understood biblically, not culturally. A widespread misunderstanding of sabbath trivializes it by designating it “a day off.”… However beneficial, this is not a true sabbath but a secularized sabbath. The motivation is utilitarian: the day off is at the service of the six working days. The purpose is to restore strength, increase motivation, reward effort, and keep performance incentives high… The side effects of shored-up family harmony and improved mental health are also attractive. The nearly wholesale substitution of a day off for a sabbath is one more sign of an abandoned vocational identity…

Sabbath means quit. Stop. Take a break. Cool it. The word itself has nothing devout or holy in it it. It is a word about time, denoting our nonuse of it, what we usually call wasting time.

The Genesis Rhythm

The biblical context for understanding sabbath is the Genesis week. Sabbath is the seventh and final day in which “God rested [shabath] from all his work which he had done” (Gen 2:3). We reenter that sequence of days in which God spoke energy and matter into existence, and repeatedly come upon the refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day”… on and on, six times.

This is the Hebrew way of understanding day; it is not ours… Day is the basic unit of God’s creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman, into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep…

The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. Grace is primary. We wake into a word we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn. Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated. Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning. George MacDonald once wrote that sleep is God’s contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake….

When I quit my day’s work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God’s genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service, and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for awhile. I get into the rhythm of salvation…

Every profession has sins to which it is especially liable… The snare of the fowler from which pastors need daily deliverance… is the sin of reversing the rhythms. Instead of grace/work we make it work/grace. Instead of working in a world in which God calls everything into being with his word and redeems his people with an outstretched arm, we rearrange it as a world in which we preach the mighty word of God and in afterthought ask him to bless our speaking…

The Sabbath Commandment

In the two biblical versions of the sabbath commandment, the commands are identical but the support reasons differ. The Exodus reason is that we are to keep a sabbath because God kept it (Exod 20:8-11)… There are some things that can be accomplished, even by God, only in a state of rest…

The Deuteronomy reason for Sabbath-keeping is that our ancestors in Egypt went four hundred years without a vacation (Deut 5:15). Never a day off. The consequence: they were no longer considered persons but slaves…

The two biblical reasons for sabbath-keeping develop into parallel sabbath activities of praying and playing. The Exodus reason directs us to the contemplation of God, which becomes prayer. The Deuteronomy reason directs us to social leisure, which becomes play. Praying and playing are deeply congruent with each other and have extensive inner connections…

The Sabbath Psalm

Psalm 92 is the one biblical Psalm specifically assigned to the sabbath… Psalm 92 sets praying and playing in tandem… with three metaphors, providing us with a triptych of sabbath-keeping.

The first metaphor is musical: we pray and play “to the music of the zither and lyre, to the rippling of the harp” (v. 3, JB). Playing and praying are like the musicians’ art that combines discipline with delight… Nearly all the prayers in the Psalter carry evidence within them of being played musically…

A second metaphor is animal: praying and playing are like the ox’s wildness: “you raise my horn as if I were a wild ox” (v. 10, JB). Animal wildness is unfettered exuberance. We are delighted when we see animals in their natural environments — leaping, soaring, prancing… Praying and playing are like that: undomesticated. We shed poses and masks. We become unself-conscious…

The third metaphor is sylvan: persons who pray and play “…flourish like palm trees and grow as tall as the cedars” (v12)… Praying and playing share this quality: they develop and mature with age, they don’t go into decline… They are life-enhancing…

Pastors must be in the avant garde of sabbath-keepers, reforesting our land, so savagely denuded…

The three play/pray metaphors are developed in a psalm that is centrally concerned with the enormous fact of evil… This sabbath-psalmist is not off smelling the flowers, dreamily detached from the awful plight of the people…

The technology of sabbath-keeping is not complex. We simply select a day of the week (Paul seemed to think any day would do as well as any other; Rom. 14:5-6) and quit our work.

Having selected the day we need also to protect it, for our workday instincts and habits will not serve us well. It is not a day when we do anything useful. It is not a day that proves its worth, justifies itself. Entering into empty, nonfunctional time is difficult and needs protection, for we have been taught that time is money.

Our secularized age is so fragmented that no consensus in the details of sabbath-keeping is possible. We cannot prescribe a practice for each other. But lest the command dissolve into a fog of good intentions, I will risk autobiography. The risk is that someone will try to imitate the details of my practice, or (more likely) will say, “That’s sure dumb; I don’t see the point of that” and dismiss the whole business on the basis of my inept practice…

Eugene’s Sabbath Rhythm

Monday is my sabbath. Nothing is scheduled for Mondays. If there are emergencies I respond, but there are surprisingly few. My wife joins me in observing the day. We make a lunch, put it in a daypack, take our binoculars, and drive anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour away, to a trailhead along a river or into the mountains. Before we begin our hike my wife reads a psalm and prays. After that prayer there is no more talking — we enter into a silence that will continue for the next two or three hours, until we stop for lunch.

We walk leisurely, emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to [God’s beauty in nature]. When the sun or our stomachs tell us it is lunchtime, we break the silence with a prayer of blessing for the sandwiches and fruit, the river and the forest. We are free to talk now… We return home in the middle or late afternoon, putter, do odd jobs, read. After supper I usually write family letters. That’s it. No Sinai thunder. No Damascus Road illuminations. No Patmos visions. A day set apart for solitude and silence. Not-doing. Being-there. The sanctification of time.

We don’t have any rules for preserving the sanctity of the day, only the commitment that it be set apart for being, not using. Not a day to get anything done but a day to watch and be responsive to what God has done.

What Eugene Told his Congregation

But we have help. Sabbath-keeping cannot be carried out as a private enterprise. We need our congregation’s help. They need our help to keep their sabbath; we need their help to keep ours. From time to time I say something like this to my elders and deacons:

“The great reality we are involved in as people and pastor is God. Most of the people around us don’t know that, and couldn’t care less. One of the ways God has provided for us to stay aware of and responsive to him as the determining and centering reality of our lives in a world that doesn’t care about this is by sabbath-keeping. At regular intervals we all need to quit our work and contemplate his, quit talking to each other and listen to him. God knows we need this and has given us a means in sabbath — a day for praying and playing, simply enjoying what he is.

“One of my tasks is to lead you in the celebrative keeping of sabbath each Sunday. But that is not a sabbath for me. I wake up on Sunday morning with the adrenalin flowing. It is a workday for me. Monday is my sabbath, and I need your help to observe it. I need your prayers; I need your cooperation in not involving me in administration or consultation; I need your admonitions if you see me carelessly letting other things interfere with it. Pastors need pastors too. one of the ways you can be my pastor is to help me keep a weekly sabbath that God commanded.”

More on Sabbath Rest

The best way to learn the practice of Sabbath for pastors and other men and women in ministry is on a Sabbatical. We show you how this can be a reality for you in our Sabbatical Guide.

We also offer an online Sabbatical Guide course. This program has everything you need to experience rest and renewal on your Sabbatical.

(Selected excerpts from Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, by Eugene Peterson, pub by Eerdmans in 1987, p. 66 – 82)

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