Restless Sabbath: When You Can’t Stop Hustling on the Day of Rest

Restless Sabbath: When You Can’t Stop Hustling on the Day of Rest

They may have gone through the motions of Sabbath, but they did not stop the practices of anxiety, coercion, and exploitation that real work stoppage would entail. Their acquisitive enterprise had such momentum that it carried right into and through the Sabbath. The great festival of rest had become simply another venue for restlessness.

Walter Brueggemann


Since Sabbath in the Time of Corona two years ago, “Return to normal” has taken over as the cliché of the day. There’s even an insistence to return to pre-pandemic realities that threaten to undo changes that had made lives and work more humanized.


Inescapably, churches are also shifting back to normal, yet I find myself reluctant to return all the way back to pre-pandemic realities. I’m also certain that I’m not the only one rethinking many aspects about what church means these days. So, after two years of brewing, I will attempt to put language to the experience of pandemic-era Sabbath that, even to a lifelong Sabbath-keeper, was revelatory: how good, indeed, how restful it was to have Sabbaths at home.


Craving for Rest


In my faith community, we maintain a ritual of spending Sabbath mornings at church. Kids attend their age-appropriate programs, with adults in their parallel curricula. A liturgical service then follows where songs are sung, Bible verses read, and sermons preached. Add to this the accoutrement of modern-day church service—AV system, livestream, slideshows—and you’ve got a complete show that takes a substantial amount of work to sustain each week.


Optionally, the afternoon may include a potluck lunch, arguably the best part of church because food, but also because it is the closest thing to people really meeting face to face. Then, if you’re part of an ambitious community, various programs ensue.


In others words, Sabbaths can be very…exhausting?


Personally, Sabbaths have been the most tiring and stressful after becoming a parent of toddlers. Attending church with the ticking time bomb that is hungry children is super hard. Irregular schedules, keeping them quiet (without sedation), managing the psychological effects of imagined and real dirty looks from distracted people, picking up the 1700 pieces of noise-free toys/crafts/activities that you bring to keep them occupied. Yeah.


When churches closed down during COVID, I felt like I entered the Narnia of Sabbath-keeping. Is this what true rest feels like? Cue in A Whole New World. All of the sudden, we were freed from getting the kids prim and proper on Sabbath mornings, freed from sweeping goldfish crackers that got stepped on, freed from thinking what other high-sodium snacks am I going to feed my kids until the three-hours-later-than-usual lunch, from skipped naps, from programs, programs, and programs. It really was a fantastic point of view.


Oh, and I didn’t have any work to do on Sabbath and could listen to the sermon? What a novel concept.


Sometimes, often, I crave those Sabbaths at home. I believe in the value of community and fellowship in faith building, that rituals in religious practice can sustain a person through spiritual ups and downs. I also believe in rest though, as in, Sabbath.


The question is, if I was doing Sabbath right, how come that restful feeling was such a revelation?


Fatigued by Programs


I am nothing if not systematic, so I have tried to analyze possible answers to the question, Why am I surprised by rest?


Am I just tired in life? Perhaps. The more involved one is with church, the more tiring Sabbaths are. This is not necessarily bad, since Jesus’ Sabbaths must have been tiring too. But being tired in and of itself is not a virtue. Rather, the reason for that tiredness determines the virtue.


Is it the performative aspect of Sabbath—the gearing up to go to church (physically and mentally), the gearing up to perform the various duties at church, the formalities? There’s nothing wrong in each of these things, yet they chip away at my energy.


When I think about the best church experience in my life—during college—I remember how none of these programs were a burden then. Why is that? Well, the answer is quite simple: friends make everything better.


I’ve concluded that my source of weariness is this: programs that forget the human connections. (On top of being tired in general).


If the ultimate church experience is about community and human connections, involvement in programs often competes or eliminates this aspect of church for me. Some days, I go through church without a single meaningful conversation with another person because I am running to and fro fulfilling responsibilities. This feels deeply wrong to me.


There’s a lot of discussion on why it’s hard to get people of the age bracket 18-40 to come to church. This is a complex question with many, many layers to unpack. But from a very small-scale nonscientific survey, I’d submit that some are not going to church because church is not church enough.


There is a certain kind of fatigue that many in my and neighboring generations—even the ones who are still attending—feel from church. There’s a feeling of being unknown and unseen by fellow church-goers, a disconnect between the world depicted in church vs. the world that we see six other days of the week. There is a craving for real, honest, and authentic connections with each other, rather than merely practicing the forms of religiosity. A craving for a safe place where we can process questions and doubts as living in the present world becomes more and more confounding. A place where we can bond over shared brokenness, not just shared beliefs.


Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town, Walter Brueggemann writes.


Could some of these cravings be fulfilled by programs? Maybe. But let’s be honest, oftentimes, usually, the programs win over the needs of the people.


A Tale of Two Cultures


If you are a Sabbath-keeper, when someone asks about your Sabbath, is the description filled with programs? In my case, the answer is yes. I think this is problematic.


One of the core essences of Sabbath is its refusal to succumb to the culture where everything is valued, quantified, measured in economic standards. We are more than our productivity. Every moment doesn’t have to be monetized, advertised, or broadcasted. It is restfulness against anxiety, against wanting more, having more, everything more. In his book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Walter Brueggemann calls this the commodity culture.


Under commodity culture, our lives are defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. We are how productive we are, how much better than the competitor, how much we are capturing the market. We are getting and acquiring at the expense of others.


The rewards in this culture are profit, fame, power, clout, influence—a measure of greatness derived from the market. Brueggemann writes,


In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods…


In contrast, when our minds and hearts are divested away from production and consumption, from winning and acquiring, they are freed to turn towards our neighbor. This is the Sabbath culture. In the commodity culture, everyone else is a threat, a competitor, or a market share to win. In the Sabbath culture, they are neighbors; people to have relationships with, not a thing to be bought or sold, won or discarded away. We see others as humans, not as commodities.


The God of the Sabbath is “not to be confused with or thought parallel to the insatiable gods of imperial productivity… At the taproot of this divine commitment to relationship (covenant) rather than commodity (bricks) is the capacity and willingness of this God to rest.”


Restless Sabbath


Is it possible that the way we do church resembles commodity culture more than Sabbath culture? If you replace the currency and rewards of commodity culture with church stuff, can we distinguish it from corporate work?


Does the way we do Sabbath resemble more the culture of production (producing programs, content) and consumption? Is it about advertising? Is it about wanting more (members, followers, attendance, broadcast audience), having more (baptisms, Bible studies), and owning more? Does the church’s pride lie more in the amount of tithes than the spiritual experience of the people? Does the church hold a culture that curries favor to the rich, the influential, the powerful, and famous? Does it value those who donate big money to church more than the poor?


The appearance is one of rest, but, says the poet, the social reality is one of restlessness, for the pattern of acquisitiveness is not interrupted, even on the day of rest.


The problem with these pursuits is when it turns human beings into commodities. Practically every church knows this problem—we “love” people until they get baptized. And then, everything falls apart. A baptism is a score to win in the church market philosophy, hence the investment is made. But once that’s accomplished, it’s time to reallocate resources. As it turns out, we never loved the person to begin with.


Do we understand what it means to minister to a person, to have the covenantal relationship that God is after, to cherish the long-term engagement needed for neighborliness? Does our Sabbaths reflect a culture of rest, not just physically, but relationally—restful engagement with God and His children?


Can’t we do both—pursue the metrics and love people? Maybe…not? Jesus says that “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24) I’m starting to think that wealth applies to church assets too.


The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity, which is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.


When the Lord of the Sabbath goes about building His kingdom, He centers it around the poor, the grieving, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, the refugees, the aliens—the ones who hold no “market” value, but in God’s eyes they hold great worth. He instructs us to invite those who cannot invite us back to dinner, because He’s trying to break us from the transactional world and turn into neighborly engagement. He tells His disciples that the widow’s two mites are the best offering that day, because they reflect the spirit of Sabbath the most.


He says to seek His kingdom first and His righteousness, and all the commodities will be added. But the key is that the orientation of the mind needs to turn away from commodities, and especially from seeing people as commodities.




When COVID ruled our lives and churches closed down, I felt rested in a long time because finally, I stopped hustling on Sabbath. Sabbaths at home not only freed me from the personal type of tiredness, but also the collective, institutional weariness of keeping up appearances, of pursuing metrics that actually diverted our eyes from seeing each other as human beings.


I realized that the restful time was a chance to focus on the main stage of God’s kingdom–the ones whom Jesus mentioned first in His first sermon. While some part of the church show went on, for the large part, I felt like my brain and heart finally had capacity to think about and feel for God’s often overlooked children.


Whatever normal we’re going back to, I’m not willing to let all of these go. Now to figure out how…


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Sabbath in the Time of Corona

Sabbath in the Time of Corona

I leave labor and load,

Take up a different story.

I keep an inventory

Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.


Wendell Berry, Sabbaths—1979, IV


If anyone is tallying up votes for the 2020 phrase of the year, “What day is it?” could give “You’re on mute” a run for its money. In quarantine, nebulous days, weeks, and months speed through us like a haze. And the cadence by which we previously signified time lost its rhythm, so it’s easy to lose track.


Along with the blurring of time, our various responsibilities also melt into each other as home becomes the command center of literally everything. We’re employees, employers, parents, teachers, and caregivers all at once, with thinning boundaries between each role.


Because of this, many are working longer and harder than ever before. When my workplace turns into a digital office, the net effect is, in fact, a more productive work force. Perhaps to compensate for our interrupted days, our work hours span a longer stretch of time.


This manner of working, I find, heightens a particular problem: it is hard to stop working.


When the end of the work day is undefined, and work hours can restart at any time of the day or night, you can really work until you drop. As a result, there’s a collective exhaustion that warns of an upcoming burnout, if it hasn’t happened already.


It is certainly not sustainable to live without boundaries. Is there a corrective, though, to our pandemic lives? I think there is at least one: the seventh-day Sabbath.


Sabbath as Technology for Living


For some of us, the ritual of the Sabbath—ceasing from work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown—helps mark life’s newly obscured rhythm. Even though it is an ancient practice, it is a relevant technology for living today.


In a Washington Post opinion piece back in May, lawyer Jay Lefkowitz reflects on how the Sabbath helps delineate the days of the week during COVID. It also helps separate the sacred—like worship, family time, and reflection—from the common. As rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”


But more than just the weekly Sabbath, the practice of delineating time—the ritual of mindfully entering and leaving sections of the day—is necessary not only to make us more resilient, but also to maintain our humanity. We are not an automaton that can produce 24/7. We need restoration and demand a greater measure of our lives’ worth than just how productive we are.


In exercising these time limits, we are in fact exercising our humanity. The ability to stop working, willingly, and to act with purpose is a strength of our personhood. For we may work, but we should not be enslaved.


Ceasing as a Mark of Personhood


In the book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Sigve Tonstad highlights the relationship between our humanity and the act of ceasing labor. Speaking of the biblical creation account,


“The account reports both a beginning and a completion. [Karl] Barth notes that ‘God does not continue His work on the seventh day in an infinite series of creative acts.’ The cessation and completion are markers of personhood and of a definite purpose.”


The completion of creation marks two things: someone who has agency in planning the scope of the work and who knows when that purpose has been fulfilled. In a work-focused world, we know too well that declaring a work completed is extremely hard. There’s always more to do and scope creeps everywhere.


Tonstad continues,


“Extending this thought, Jacques Ellul, the prolific French sociologist and theologian, emphasizes an understanding of Creation that attributes more than a causal role to God. A mere causal function does not have the means to stop the process. ‘A cause cannot cease to be a cause without ceasing to be,’ writes Ellul. ‘It must produce its effects to infinity. God is not a cause, then, for we are told that he decides to rest.’”


Here, per Jacques Ellul, he makes the contrast between a Being/person and an inanimate force/a cause. The cessation of God’s creation is an act of the will; no other force causes him to stop, like friction or a brake that decelerates a moving object. He stops, because He wants to stop. We may also call this, freedom.


Sabbath in the Time of Corona


Quoting Heschel again,


“Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Freedom. Independence. These are odd words to say in a pandemic. But in practicing the Sabbath—that regenerative time and space, guilt-free and restful—we may reclaim some of this freedom, even if it is just for one day.

Also read:

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Sabbath: The Pause in the Rhythm of Creation

Sabbath: The Pause in the Rhythm of Creation

All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full, says the King in Ecclesiastes. To the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. Vanity, he exclaims, because everything is temporary. I wonder if this was a lamentation or a poetic expression of his observations. In the eyes of an incurable optimist, however, as I am, the metaphor takes on a different light.


Isn’t it a wonder that the sea is never full? All the waters lead to the sea and yet they come back to us. They are transported to where they started, and round and round they go. As they ride in their atmospheric carousel, along the way, they bless all kinds of living things. The soil is dewed and refreshed, the trees drink freely, and the thirsts of creatures and mankind are quenched. Nutrients get transported from one place to another and dirt gets washed away. I am sure glad that the waters move and travel, even though they return to the same place over and over again.


Imagine riding a water molecule, witnessing the trajectory of its life cycle on this planet. The places it visits, the people it sees, the calamities it may take part in—these would make quite a story. When it ends up in the sea, the sun may kiss it and lift it up to the sky. It may get frozen there to return to earth or it may retire in the Arctic.


In an age of declining fresh water resources, I treasure this water cycle from land, sky, and sea as the largest desalination process our world has. There’s much good and meaning in this blessed movement.


The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. The wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. The sun may be doing the same thing every day, but boy, what would we do if it decided to not arise. How would we miss its warmth and light, and its life-giving power. The wind that goes from north to south carries pollens for the trees, moving animals and humans here and there—a life in transit.


Transience, it seems, is the essence of life. Life moves, and I think it is good that it does so.


The Rhythm of Nature


Nature hums in a rhythmic fashion, and we, humans, are still part of this dance no matter how much we exert our controlling powers. There’s a rhythm that we cannot escape—the rain that falls on us, the flight-delaying weather disruptions, the seasons that happen to us—we are subject to these things. One could take it as a depressive state, being trapped by nature, or one could instead surrender to the rhythm, understanding that it is much better to enjoy it rather than fight against it.


Part of this rhythm, the cycle of life, is rest, a period of dormancy, recuperation, and restoration. The land needs it to continue producing food, animals need it to survive through winter, and mankind needs sleep, among many other examples.


Wayne Muller writes in his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,


“We are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms that govern how life grows: circadian rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.”


“When we rest, we can relish the seasons of a moment, a day, a conversation… To surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies is to savor the secret of life itself.”


This dance of coming close and withdrawing, of giving and receiving, is the essence and joy of living. It is a principle of life, as expressed in The Desire of Ages by Ellen White:


“There is nothing, save the selfish heart of man, that lives unto itself. No bird that cleaves the air, no animal that moves upon the ground, but ministers to some other life. There is no leaf of the forest, or lowly blade of grass, but has its ministry. Every tree and shrub and leaf pours forth that element of life without which neither man nor animal could live; and man and animal, in turn, minister to the life of tree and shrub and leaf. The flowers breathe fragrance and unfold their beauty in blessing to the world. The sun sheds its light to gladden a thousand worlds. The ocean, itself the source of all our springs and fountains, receives the streams from every land, but takes to give. The mists ascending from its bosom fall in showers to water the earth, that it may bring forth and bud.”


White continues to liken this principle with the character of the Godhead in the Bible:

“In these words is set forth the great principle which is the law of life for the universe. All things Christ received from God, but He took to give. So in the heavenly courts, in His ministry for all created beings: through the beloved Son, the Father’s life flows out to all; through the Son it returns, in praise and joyous service, a tide of love, to the great Source of all. And thus through Christ the circuit of beneficence is complete, representing the character of the great Giver, the law of life.”

Sabbath: A Time to Receive


The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is synonymous with rest. As such, its inclusion in human life is incredibly appropriate. It is the dormancy to activity, the withdrawing to assertion, the restoration to production.


Going back to Muller,


“Many scientists believe we are ‘hard-wired’ like this, to live in rhythmic awareness, to be in and then step out, to be engrossed and then detached, to work and then to rest. It follows then that the commandment to remember the Sabbath is not a burdensome requirement for some law-giving deity—“You ought, you’d better, you must”—but rather a remembrance of a law that is firmly embedded in the fabric of nature. It is a reminder of how things really are, the rhythmic dance to which we unavoidably belong.”


To stop on the Sabbath when the sun sets on Friday evening requires a surrender, a certain trust, that things won’t fall apart when we’re not attending to them. This stopping can generate anxiety, because we may have been convinced of our importance and responsibility for six days. What if I don’t check my email? What if something goes wrong? We may think we’re indispensable.


Yet honoring the Sabbath is an art of quieting ourselves from these anxieties, a reminder that the world will not likely end because we stop for a day.


“We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us… enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world. The deep wisdom embedded in creation will take care of things for a while.”


The Earth has been here before us and will be here after us. That’s something we can take comfort in.


A Kind of Nostalgia


The Sabbath is meant to bring a kind of nostalgia—hence the words, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”—of another world in another time. The book of Genesis narrates that mankind was created last, when the rest of creation was finished. Adam and Eve came when the world was already done, to a finished world, and their first day was to be the Sabbath. In it, there was enjoyment, trust, and surrender, because God had done the creative work, and nothing unfinished depended on them.


The Sabbath today carries this memory from Eden. A glimpse of paradise, I’m convinced, because we too can trust the same power that created and sustained the universe to take care of everything for one day. We too can rest, and be carried away in this rhythm of creation.