My life before 2010: attend lecture, take notes, read, attend discussion group, pretend I understood the reading, take quiz, stress over exam, agonize over paper, submit everything,
CELEBRATE AND SLEEP FOR DAYS. Next semester: repeat.
I repeated this pattern throughout college and seminary. In a yearlong CPE residency, the pattern was modified, yet the process flowed the same way. One task replaced another until I arrived at the endpoint of a school holiday or CPE final evaluation, upon which great shouts of relief were heard throughout the land. Even when things were stressful, there was an end goal. I would know when I was finished. I would know when it was time to relax and savor life again.
Then I transitioned from an academic calendar to full-time ministry. Suddenly, all familiar patterns of progress were erased. There was always more to do. Weekends disappeared. Sabbaths were gnawed away.
No matter what I did, something else still needed to be done — and I was always less than a week from Sunday.
I wailed to my spiritual director at one point: “How do I know when I am finished?” In ministry, we might believe in Sabbath and a day off, but we also believe in a job well-done. Thus, when no one is saying “this is enough for now,” we begin saying “just one more thing — then, I’ll be done this time, I promise!”
Of course, we have the command for Sabbath written into our religious life. And yes, conversations about self-care and taking time off are seeping into the church. For that, I am grateful.
Yet, advertisers are already off and running with seductive selling points about “self-care.” I am struck by how often society’s notion of “self-care” comes attached to the follow-up line “because you deserve it.” The pedicure, the latest technology, the shopping spree — these are all touted as “something I deserve,” a reward for a job well done. And this is simply not biblical.
We take Sabbath not because of our achievements, but because of our limitations. I must learn to take Sabbath, not as a reward for completion, but as an acknowledgment that I am an unfinished work of creation myself, in need of the love of the creator who always will be stronger than my feats and more gracious than my deserving. I’m never going to finish the job of ministry. I’m never going to hear a grand authority claim “you are done.”
I need to celebrate Sabbath anyway.
If we worship a Lord who redeemed us before we even knew our own name, we cannot bind a sense of celebration to a sense of completion. The rewards of ministry come unbidden. This is ministry’s complication, frustration — and delight.
Unbidden, unheralded, by grace we receive beautiful rewards in this work, whether they come from a child’s unabashed hug or an adult’s encouraging note, whether they come in the sacred space of home communion or in the admission from a teenager that he actually was paying attention.
These rewarding gifts arrive in the middle of our to-do lists, in the middle of our weeks, with complete disregard for our greatest achievements and our most disappointing defeats. We do nothing to deserve them; yet, we must take the time to receive them.
Pope John XXIII is quoted as saying, “It’s your church Lord. I’m going to bed.”
I cherish this statement and believe its truth, yet I still spend my entire life trying to “let go and let God.” I will never be able to check this box off my list.
Still, God is asking me to celebrate the Sabbath. Thanks be for that.
KATHRYN LESTER-BACON is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.