Shabbat – Thou Shalt Chill Out!  

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                           Oct. 14, 2018

Isaiah 58:13-14; Exodus 20:8-11

She was like a cat waiting to pounce. Every cell of her body was on high alert, every muscle taut, her eyes intensely focussed. I braced myself for her inevitable tirade, not knowing exactly when it would come. I’m not describing an opponent—she was a passionate ally, coming to a leadership meeting of Amnesty International. Her rage was directed towards inhumane captivity and torture of conscientious objectors. But regardless of motivation, her angry disposition was not helpful. Not surprisingly, she only remained part of our group for a few months. She had burned out, and was beginning to burn others.

No matter who we are—social activists, parents, office-workers, self-employed, volunteers—if we don’t learn how to keep the Sabbath we will suffer and cause those around us to suffer. Rabbi Arthur Waskow has noted that we’ve made idols out of doing, making, profiting, producing and consuming.[1] We’re addicted to work. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “Sabbath is a gift, but we are so reluctant to accept it, God had to make it a command.” Thou shalt chill out.

Even our Presbyterian ancestor in the faith, John Calvin, who is credited with the Protestant work ethic, wrote, “ Work is good, but when we work all the time, work becomes a curse, not a blessing.”

The Presbyterian Church (USA) was so concerned about the need for Sabbath-keeping that it released a paper in 2000 entitled, “An Invitation to Sabbath: Rediscovering a Gift.” This is a quote from this paper:

For some, the need for Sabbath emerges as a cry from within. Exhausted, we yearn…to rejoice in those closest to us, or simply to play, to rest and be still, to delight in the goodness that we believe yet surrounds us.

For [others], the need for Sabbath names itself in quiet grief. Grief that we are moving faster and faster in our lives, but the only progress we seem to make is into a greater emptiness. Grief that the ways we have strained so conscientiously to live are simply not working. Grief that although we partake abundantly from the table our culture spreads before us, we come away from the table still hungry, as hurried and pressed as ever rather than nourished and renewed.

There are three parts to Sabbath-keeping. The first is rest—to be free from activity or labour AND to be free from anxiety or disturbance. There is a difference between rest and sleep. If we go right from activity to sleep to activity again, we will miss our rest and both our sleep and activity will be affected. Learning how to rest is crucial, but it looks different for each one of us. It may mean booking a quiet, reflective weekend once every few months. It may be taking a full Sabbath day off once a week. It may be taking evenings off. It could even be creating mini-Sabbaths throughout the day.

Janice Marturano leads workshops on Mindful Leadership. She explains how we hype ourselves up over a day so that, by the end of the day, our body is on high alert. If we don’t find ways to rest our mind and our body and bring down the energy level, we will start the next day at a higher point and simply keep ramping upward. But if we can find short breaks of mindfulness, we can bring down our adrenalin level so that our upward climb continues at a lower level.

I’m trying to remember to use what is called the reset breath throughout the day. It simply means to sit very still, exhale and not inhale until the body is ready to take in another breath. That can take several seconds. During the exhale, I try to notice where my body holds tension and to soften it. I’m also learning how to take advantage of my electric toothbrush, which has a 2 minute timer. Instead of thinking about the tasks of the day, and hurrying through my toothbrushing, I try to focus only on the brushing and give myself the luxury of 2 min. of mindfulness.

These are all little tricks that help me rest throughout each day, even if the day is full to overflowing. Rest is not a luxury—it’s a basic human need. Our physical, mental and spiritual health requires it both in large and small doses. Rest is also not an absence—it’s a conscious, quieting practice. On the 7th day, God created rest. If rest is that important to God, surely it should be for us as well. One writer has named the Sabbath as the greatest miracle of all that God created.[2]

The second part of Sabbath is rejuvenation. We need more than simple rest. Our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits all need exercise and nurture of one type or another. John Calvin wrote, “On the Sabbath, we cease our work so God can…work in us.” How can we best allow God to work in us? We each need different sources of rejuvenation and we each need to know what that might be for ourselves. It might be hiking, gardening, yoga. At Westworth, worship, faith exploration, small support groups, and music all offer nurture. Do you know what you need?

The third part of Sabbath is restitution. Leviticus refers to two types of sabbaticals, based on the observance of Sabbath. Every 7 years, there is to be rest for the land, when nothing is to be sown or reaped. Only what the land yields on its own can be gathered. Every 7 times 7 years, there is to be the Year of Jubilee, where debts are forgiven, property redistributed and slaves set free. It is a year of re-orientation of values and restoration of relationships.

There is little archaeological evidence that this actually happened, but the concept of restitution is still important.  When we have sufficiently attended to our own rest and rejuvenation, we are better able to notice the needs of others. We have greater ability to respond to arising needs and do what we can to contribute to the welfare of the land and all of Creation. There are days when we will be incensed at injustice, but self-care will help us turn this anger into a gentle strength of power, that will accomplish far more than tirades of rage will ever do.

Developing a practice of Sabbath-keeping lends balance and health to our lives and impacts the lives of those around us. As Abraham Joshua Herschel has said, “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”


[1] Rabbi Arthur Waskow, “Radical Shabbat: Free Time, Free People,” (Sojourners, May 1, 2000).

[2] Fynn, Mister God, This Is Anna (New York, Ballantine Books, 1974) p. 132.