Reflecting on… Sabbath and Saying “No”

“We almost always assume that the more we do, the more God is doing.  God’s rest is always more effective that human work.  God rests, and the world is finished.  Jesus rests in the tomb, and the world is being restored.  The Spirit rests on us, and the church is empowered.  The root sin of busyness is sloth—that laziness of spirit in which the muscles of intention, discernment and boundary have atrophied.  Sloth of spirit is the inability to say no and have boundaries.  The Sabbath straightens up our spirits and awakens us to the lull of the eternal ‘yes.’  Therefore, no is the language of intention.  A no creates healthy margin in our lives.  Jesus says no often in the gospels.  Being a Sabbath-keeper is basically the art of letting people down at a rate they can handle.  There are times we cannot meet the needs of others.  Not every need represents God’s call for our lives.  How freeing!  Jesus is Lord—we are not!” 

A. J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Non-Stop World, pp. 45-46.

Who among us likes letting people down?  There would have to be something pathologically wrong to enjoy being a disappointment to others.  That said, there is something dangerous about making a life goal out of never disappointing anyone.  It would be ignorant and arrogant to try!  As A. J. Swoboda observes, “Jesus is Lord—we are not.”  This is a point that needs to be made with a few church search committees.  The position description at my first church was four pages in length.  It was handed to me with the caveat that “no one was expecting me to do everything in the description.”  Really?  My assumption was that everything in that grocery list posing as a position description had been included for a reason.  Which item left undone wouldn’t result in disappointing someone?

Disappointment is almost always connected to unmet expectations.  I shared a meditation at the pastoral installation of a friend.  This church had a bumpy recent history and had been without a pastor for eighteen months.  The title of my meditation was “Prepare to Be Disappointed.”  Some people in the church weren’t amused.  I wasn’t being funny.  Jesus was my example.  In his time, Jesus may have been one of the most disappointing people on earth.  Despite his power and many miraculous deeds, not everyone was healed of sickness or delivered from evil spirits or had their empty belly filled.  What Jesus did consistently and without hesitation was the will of his Father.  At the end of the day, that commitment to the Father’s will and ways got him crucified.  His death—the result of his willingness NOT to do what the crowd clamored for–was for the eternal benefit of everyone called to the Father in his name.  If we call the people of our church or our children or our spouse to follow Jesus and submit to His will, we will most surely disappoint them. Thus, the dilemma: we hate to disappoint others but disappoint them we must if we want what’s best for our people.  Our longevity and fruitfulness in ministry will hinge on an occasional Spirit-led no.

This is where the wisdom and practice of Sabbath is so important.  I agree with Swoboda.  Busyness is laziness.  It is so much less costly and rigorous to overuse the word yes than it is to take the time to be discerning and set boundaries.  As I shared last week, the clarity of my calling and conviction to follow it emerged from my rhythm of Sabbath.  We cannot listen to the Spirit amidst the constant noise and unrelenting pace of local church ministry.  Sabbath allows the Father through the Holy Spirit to do triage on competing needs and opportunities.  In my weekly Sabbath, my to-do list and calendar were regularly reordered.  People were elevated above tasks, and on occasion the needs of people were deferred or entrusted to others.  Saying yes too often has a huge ego component.  We like being needed.  We like being indispensable.  Yet we are poor God substitutes.  Inevitably and ironically saying yes too much leads to disappointing others because we’ve overpromised and underdelivered. 

Sabbath costs us time.  Through the years, time has been cited to me as the most prominent barrier for observing a Sabbath.  When there is so much to be done, we don’t have time to do nothing with God.  That response–I know this firsthand—is a dependence tip off.  The question God is asking in calling his people to Sabbath is, “Can you trust me with the tasks, people and problems you’re leaving behind for a short time to listen to me?”  Sabbath and saying no are practical ways to express our trust in God.

Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, help us discern the motives behind our margin-less lives and overuse of the word, “yes.”  Show us where our yes is on occasion a refusal to trust you, others or the gospel.  Show us the wisdom of a strategic no so that we and the people we disappoint can grow in dependence on you!  Amen!