Lesson 7: Sabbath and Self-Care
Feet, ankles, calves, and knees are what she sees first. If she twists to the side she can see their faces. I ask a Sunday School class to be the bent-over woman from Luke 13:20-21. For five minutes, we walk around with our heads lowered, and shoulders hunched and we are amazed at what we cannot see. We realize that every chore would require extra energy and that every moment must be slow because we cannot see where we are going. I cannot imagine what kind of life the woman had who could not straighten up for 18 years.
We donʼt know why the woman in Luke 13 is crippled. Of course, we can speculate. Her spine might be twisted with arthritis or she sustained a terrible injury. Her spirit may be burdened from terrible abuse or from back-breaking work. She is doubled over by grief or crippled by mental illness. I can always tell when one friend has many demands on her life. Her shoulders are hunched and she doesnʼt stand up straight.
But on the Sabbath, the woman worships. She may say, like others who deal with chronic pain, “Well, I am going to hurt whatever I do, but I can still go to pray, listen to scripture and put my life in Godʼs hands.” When she gets to the synagogue, Jesus is teaching. She does not call attention to herself or ask for Jesus‘ help. But he sees her and calls her over. Jesus says, “Woman, you are free!” He puts his hands on her, and she straightens up and begins praising God. It is an astonishing event.
The woman keeps coming to worship and without warning, Jesus changes her life. As Carol Bechtel comments, “It is a story that reminds us of the importance of just showing up — of consistently accepting Godʼs Sabbath invitation whether there is anything in it for us or not.” Just showing up in worship can change us. I remember an English college professor who became a pastor of the church where he and his family had worshipped for years. On his first Sunday as pastor, he shared that he had always sat on the fourth pew near the front and, even though he might be unable to recount anything about worship, each week he was always changed.
Some of us can identify with the woman who cannot straighten up. I know I do. Clinical depression has been a part of my life for decades. I keep it under control with medication and exercise but I know what it means to struggle through days when, even with regular self-care, it is hard to function. I vividly remember a Sunday morning when I wondered if I would make it through the hour leading worship. Somewhere in the middle of the first hymn, I realized that I was feeling a little bit lighter. God gave me what I needed.
I have known a number of people who stopped coming to worship when they were in a bad place in their lives. They think everyone else looks so put together and they feel a mess. One friend quit worship because she found it so tiring to put on a brave face, saying she was fine when her husband lost his job. People with marriage problems or with an adult child with mental illness keep a low profile and sometimes disappear. Certainly, there are times when we feel so raw that we cannot face anyone or it is inappropriate to share our burdens. However, it saddens me to know that those who absent themselves from worship miss the opportunity for God and trusted friends to lighten their burdens.
In a church that I served, Presbyterian Women began a tradition called “Sister Stories.” Two women were asked to share their faith journey each year at a luncheon or dinner. It was well-attended and was a means of Godʼs grace. One year, “Ann” talked about noticing that her teenage daughter was obsessively washing her hands and compulsive about putting things in order. Ann said that she knew that she could not help her daughter without getting help for herself. For some time Ann had been depressed. She got help. She found help for her daughter. Afterward, Ann was surprised by the number of people who contacted her to thank her for her honesty, because they or a family member were or had faced mental health issues. Ann‘s honesty helped others in the church know that they were not alone.
We honor God by keeping Sabbath, but God honors us by sending the Spirit in subtle ways in hymns, prayers or a womanʼs testimony about getting needed help. Sometimes, like the crippled woman, we are liberated, freed and blessed by Christ himself.