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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Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

This is the second post in an article series on individuality. Read the first here. This post is for those curious about what individuality means in the Judeo-Christian perspective, even if you don’t subscribe to it.


“That’s so him.” “Totally something she’d do!” “Who would’ve thought of that?!” These acknowledgements of individuality—what makes you, you—are not foreign to us. The existence of individuality in the human experience is indisputable.


Where does our individuality come from?


Well, this is a worldview question, with answers as numerous as the beliefs that exist on Earth. This post is specifically about the Judeo-Christian perspective and its regard of mankind and individuality. Though you may not subscribe to it, I’m inviting you to empathize and gain an understanding of how those that do see individuality from their point of view.


Mankind as An Image of the Divine


In the Judeo-Christian worldview, a person’s individuality is anchored to the very subject the whole religious system is about: God. The subject of individuality is front and center in the grand opening of its sacred text.


Creation, the beginning of the world, opens the Hebrew Bible in the first chapter of Genesis. It’s a much-debated chapter, but let’s set debates aside for a moment and consider the text through the lens of creativity, to see the narrative in the light of a creative process.


“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” it begins. The chapter narrates the creation of the world in six days, which builds up to the creation of mankind in the sixth. The text says,


Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”


Mankind is patterned according to God’s image, which is intriguing, because God prohibits the making of images, explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments. Other biblical stories show that mankind is in danger of carving a rock, assembling wood, or creating buildings, even if they were initially made for God, and worshipping these things instead of God. The biblical prophets write against this over and over again. There was to be no idol worshipped in place of Him, because no one thing can adequately represent the fullness of His character and glory. Nothing is big enough to fully represent who He is. But, in mankind there is an exception.


In the collection of essays Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, rabbi Abraham J. Heschel writes,


“And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The one symbol of God is man, every man. God Himself created man in His image.”


A person, a human being, is viewed with very high regard, because he is an image of the divine.


“Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah. Its holiness is not man’s achievement; it is a gift of God rather than something attained through merit. Man must therefore be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of Kings.“


This image of the divine is not limited to one person, group, or nation. It is present in every single person.


“…not one man or one particular nation but all men and all nations are endowed with the likeness of God… the divine likeness is something all men share.”


This foundation is also the Judeo-Christian basis of the equality of all men, the anchor of justice and how we ought to treat one another.


“This is a conception of far-reaching importance to biblical piety. What it implies can hardly be summarized. Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”


Power to Think and to Do


The concept mankind being an image of the divine is rich with meaning. One aspect of this is the capability to create, which is demonstrated by the Creator Himself. It is the capability to invent, to see beyond what is into what could be, and to work towards that destination one step at a time.


In the book Education, Ellen White writes:


“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”


The power to think and transform that thought into reality is the most baffling and fascinating trait of humanity. It mirrors the divine pattern as told in the Creation narrative.


Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.”


First there’s a thought, then words. The words become reality. And God sees what happens and calls it good. Finally, He names what He has just made. What is this if not the core of a creative process?


White continues,


“The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”


Those we admire, leaders of the world, makers and changers of society, display this power of individuality—to think and to act. They are thinkers for themselves, not reflectors of other people’s thoughts. They are masters of their circumstances.




Individuality and Creativity


In the last post, I emphasized that individuality is an asset in creative processes, in works that have no set to-do instructions, in the making of something new (as opposed to imitating an existing creation). Where there’s no other guide, individuality, your power to think and to do, is your only resource. Indeed, it is in these types of original work that individuality shines forth the most.


Consider this. When God chose to write His opening act, His first introduction to the world, His grand entrance, His chance for a first impression in the first chapter of the Bible, He chose a creative story, a narrative of Him engaging in creative work.


In that first chapter, God is the sole agent, the ultimate actor, and the decision maker. He stares at His blank canvas, a void and shapeless world, and He begins that journey of creating something new.


I wonder if this creative process is also a discovery, something like the times when we engage in creative endeavors and surprise ourselves at what comes out. Maybe there’s an elevated, divine version of this, because at the end of each creation day, God sees what He has done, pausing for a moment of reflection, evaluation, consideration, and says that it is good. It is almost as if He doesn’t completely know if it would turn out good, at least not as predictable as mass printing labels from a manufacturing process. The artist sees and is satisfied with what He has carved that day.


It is easy to take stories like these for granted, to miss the essence and mystery of the creative process. We take it for granted because when we read stories of how inventors create, we already see the results. Thus we think it’s inevitable, a classic case of hindsight bias. Of course the plane should look that way, it’s obvious! Whereas if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Wright brothers, going forward in time, experimenting and trying out designs, the final product could have taken a different shape amidst the thousands of decisions they had to make.


We already know how important the sun is when we read the fourth day of creation. The trees are already outside our windows when we read about the third day, so it does not occur to us that trees did not really have to work that way. Things didn’t have to work the way they do now, because the creator started with a blank canvas. Someone decided where to put the stars, the waters, the sky, and the eyes. They were design decisions, made by an individual with thoughts and intent, with power to accomplish them.


Most importantly, there was freedom. God had full freedom to choose how He would shape the world among numerous options. He could have chosen a million other combinations, just like a writer could start his book a thousand different ways, a painter beginning with a thousand different strokes. The shape that we see at the end is the culmination of a nonlinear process, the artist’s individuality, mind and heart at work, which is all hidden in that final painting.


It is no small matter that God’s grand entrance—a story of His creativity—is also humanity’s most baffling trait. Stories of human creativity and inventions inspire us. The creators of the world, the change-makers, are those who know how to mine their individuality.


Experiencing Creation


If mankind is made in God’s image, and the first thing He wants us to know about Himself is His creativity, then it must mean that He wants us to employ our individuality and creativity to its fullest measure. Could it be that in engaging in a creative process, we are mirroring divinity? Anyone who has engaged in creating something must know the magical wonder stored within the process, from inspiration to fruition. Could it be that Genesis 1 is an invitation for us to write our own creation stories?


Want more? See also Individuality: What Makes You, You, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.


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.