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Don’t forget to breathe

This month we asked our bloggers to share how they are caring for their bodies and souls in the midst of the demands of ministry. Here are their stories.

Wearing my helmet, goggles and jumpsuit, I stepped through the doorway, fell flat on my face, and flew. For the first time in my life, I was skydiving – approximately 3 feet off the ground.

I was in a skydiving simulator – basically a giant fan at the bottom of a 10-foot-wide tube – being blown off the ground by an absurd amount of air. Looking at the pictures afterward, I was almost unrecognizable because of how the wind distorted my face. The wind didn’t surprise me; my inability to breathe did.

One of the last pieces of advice the instructor gave our group before we headed to the simulator was “don’t forget to breathe – there’s plenty of air.” But when there’s so much air moving so quickly that it lifts you off the ground, it feels like you’re swimming in water. My brain started sending signals to my lungs to “hold your breath” just like it does when I dive underwater. After about 30 seconds, I realized I wasn’t breathing. I remembered that I was literally surrounded by air, and took a big gulp – surprisingly, I didn’t drown.

This all took place on a cruise ship traveling to Bermuda. It was my family’s big attempt to get some high quality rest together after many months without time off from work. I really felt like I needed it –I probably needed it weeks earlier.

When I got back from the vacation, I had received the rest I needed. But it wasn’t the exotic location, the exciting experiences, the entertaining shows, the excellent service or even the endless supply of desserts that helped me find rest. I ended up finding real “rest” by sitting on a chair overlooking the ocean while reading a book, getting lots of sleep and being in the company of people I loved. Those experiences made the difference between having a “vacation” and having Sabbath rest.

When I think of difficult topics in religion, Sabbath isn’t high on that list. Maybe that’s because we’ve given up fighting about it. Or maybe it’s just not interesting. In reality, I find Sabbath-keeping to be a very complicated and difficult topic. Moving past the “Saturday or Sunday” debate, I find that Sabbath hits home for a lot of people I know in the ever-increasing demands made on their schedules by their employers. This is part of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the commodity society of endless productivity.” The commodity society sets up another god, an idol, which we call “money” and Jesus calls “mammon.” Money causes anxiety, violence, conflict, fear and (most importantly) “restlessness.” If God commands us to take a Sabbath (and if Jesus’ yoke is easy and burden light), then our loyalty to God will put us in direct opposition to the commodity society around us, often with real consequences for our ability to meet the most basic of our needs, such as food, water and shelter. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that I find Sabbath-keeping to come up as frequently in pastoral care conversations as do the topics of health, marriage or death.

Historically, Protestant Christianity has placed a high value and held rigid views on the Sabbath. Protestants were expected to work hard (hence the term “Protestant work ethic”), but Protestant churches also expected congregants to keep the Sabbath, most often from midnight on Saturday to midnight on Sunday. You might still hear about “blue laws,” which were the civic and legal embodiment of this set of beliefs – and it’s still common for sales of alcohol to be prohibited on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard and read stores of farmers and fishers who would be out working as hard as they could up until the strike of midnight Saturday night and who were back to work 24 hours later, but who wouldn’t break the Sabbath.

Today, I find views on the Sabbath to be less rigid. I don’t find it problematic that the blue laws are going away because I don’t particularly value coerced religious observance (even when it’s supposedly my religion that we’re coercing people to follow). What I do find problematic is employers who overwork their employees, who pay them less than a fair wage and who abuse them. Call me old fashioned, but I long for a world where everyone has the chance to have one day off each week and time to spend with their families nearly every day.

Our souls need a break – they need time to breathe. If your employer doesn’t allow you one day each week – just one – without any work-related activities, then they’re interfering with your spiritual health. I also think this is true if you’re self-employed.

Advocating for this kind of world, where everyone has the ability to have a Sabbath day, is an essential part of my role as a pastor. It’s one area where Christian values are decidedly at odds with the prevailing profit-focused, experience-hungry “commodity society” of the United States: Taking a Sabbath means, for many businesses, not making a profit for a day. Time is money.

I’ll admit that I say this from a position of privilege: My budget is unaffected by working an extra day each week. But I say this primarily to people of privilege: If you’re an employer and you’re asking an employee to work seven days in a row (or asking them to be “on call,” or texting them with questions on their day off), you’re injuring their soul. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not worth the money. Christian business owners ought to care for their employees not because they’re required to do so, but because those employees are children of God – children of God to whom Jesus commanded us to show love.

Clearly, I think it’s important for everyone to get that Sabbath day. But having a Sabbath won’t do us any good if we don’t make good use of it. I’m still working on this part myself. What I have found to be true is that there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between recreation and Sabbath. Sometimes relaxing with Netflix is Sabbath-keeping, other times binge-watching an entire show will do more damage to your soul than an 8-hour-shift at a big-box store. This week, I found Sabbath rest by working in my garden all afternoon; for other people that would be torture (or a regular day at work).

In general, I find it helpful to do the things that give your soul some room to breathe. It’s more than taking your mind off of things – it’s giving yourself a chance to just be, and to just be in God’s presence. Sabbath is surely different for everyone, but I find that things like watching TV, conversing with friends and playing video games are fun – but they’re less helpful for finding Sabbath rest than activities like coloring, gardening, endurance sports (running, walking, swimming), and playing or listening to (instrumental) music. There’s just something about resting the language centers of our brains that, I believe, makes us more open to spiritual connection.

The world around us is a lot like that skydiving simulator. We are surrounded by rushing winds that constantly jostle us around. It’s loud. It’s distracting. And we are often prevented from recognizing that all around us, the very air that we’re so desperate to breathe is constantly flowing and available.

Because we serve a Sabbath-keeping God, we are freed from the need to give in to the anxiety of the world around us. We don’t have to lie, cheat and steal to get ahead because we trust in a God who provides Sabbath rest for us. The hectic pace of our world shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying Sabbath. (If you find that you can’t get the Sabbath rest you need, seek help – working together for greater spiritual health is one of the primary reasons the church exists.) Sabbath rest is essential. Without it, we’re lost. But the potential for Sabbath rest is all around us.

Don’t forget to breathe.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.