Wesley Spears-Newsome: Better Is One Day

We had been talking about Sabbath for a few weeks in the youth group before I challenged the kids to take a Sabbath day for themselves. One day with no work. One whole day with no performing or producing for other people. No labor, just rest.

A few more weeks after that challenge, only one of the kids had taken me up on it. When I asked if anyone had observed the Sabbath, one girl raised her hand. "I did," she said. "What was it like?" I asked her; I was genuinely surprised at this point that anyone had tried such a counter-intuitive thing as Sabbath, even though I had asked them to.

She spoke in glowing terms about her Sabbath day. She had connected with other people. She had felt joy and peace. She even volunteered that she had felt the impact of the Sabbath the rest of the week! "I felt better every day," she said. The experience had been so different from her regular life.

But when I asked her if she'd like to have that experience every week, she struggled to answer. I...it...it would be hard," she said. "I would have to give up so much."

Most of us would respond exactly the way that she did when given the gift of Sabbath, and I think about the gift of Sabbath when I read Psalm 84. Historically, of course, Psalm 84 adopts the voice of a pilgrim to the Temple in Jerusalem, that physical dwelling place of God. The psalmist speaks of one "in whose heart are the highways of Zion" and who has endured the arid valley of Baca. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, though, invites us to think of more than the Temple as the dwelling place of God.

In his book on the Sabbath, Rabbi Heschel points out that while "there is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe," that this "idea is taken to mean [God's] presence in space rather than in time." [Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath] He reminds us of the act that closes the first creation story in Genesis where God builds what he calls "a palace in time." The Sabbath, Heschel says, "is an opportunity to mend our tattered lives," a reminder of the world to come, that it is "joy, holiness, and rest." A single day of rest in God, one might say, is better than a thousand elsewhere.

Talking with the youth in our church has given new meaning to that famous expression from Psalm 84. One of the first things we did, when we started talking about Sabbath this year, was keep a 'time diary' for a week. I asked them, for one week, to keep track of how they spent every hour of every day. I was prepared for some fairly labor-intensive results knowing these kids, but what they reported to me still managed to shock.

Most of my youth were working almost two full-time jobs. The average time they spent working - that is, performing or producing for others in some capacity, paid or unpaid (usually unpaid) - the average time they spent working was 74 hours per week. I had one youth who reported working 93 hours that week. And then, when they came back next week, that same youth reported working even more than the week before.

On top of that, my kids reported an average of 52 hours of sleep each week, which is less than 8 hours per night. Teenagers really need 9 or more. They barely rested at all. The only kid who had a substantial amount of rest and sleep was currently on a two-week break from school because she's on a year-round schedule. During her two weeks off, she slept an average of 11 and a half hours each day. The youth were positively exhausted all the time.

Considering that, it was no longer surprising how dramatic a Sabbath day had changed the demeanor of the one youth who actually observed it. One day of Sabbath was worth thousands elsewhere! Each week felt like a thousand days when she was working that much.

Parents and adults aren't any different than these kids, though. In an Atlantic article called "Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore," Judith Schulevitz points out that there are lots of reasons for this phenomenon. [Judith Schulevitz, "Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore," https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/why-dont-i-see-you-anymore/598336/] Where we used to share relatively similar rhythms in American society, "our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers." Nearly 1 in 5 Americans hold jobs that don't have any predictability concerning their hours - seasonal jobs, rotating shifts, gig jobs like Uber or Postmates. Increasingly, algorithms determined the maximum number of people needed at any given hour to maximize productivity at the expense of workers. The norm for the so-called middle class now involves two income earners who are on call at all times for their employer. Now, friends don't see each other, spouses work opposite shifts, and even parents don't see their children.

The fourth commandment does not set firm, strict, and predictable boundaries on our time today; instead, the whims of the employer (or worse, 'the market') choose when we work and when we don't. Rest has become a commodity, a resource in the service of work. We take the weekend (if we have one) to recharge and get ready for another week of ceaseless labor. We take paid time off (if we have it), but we have to keep our phones at our sides to be ready to be called back at any moment. Even when a lucky one of us gets away with an actual vacation, we have to work twice as hard when we get back to make up for the lost productivity from our so-called respite.

Sabbath invites us to consider a different world - a world that revolves around rest rather than work. Some rabbis say that the two commandments for Sabbath in the Torah are different for precisely this reason. In one, you remember the Sabbath, and the other you keep the Sabbath. That is, you spend the first few days of the week remembering the Sabbath that you just had and you spend the last few days of the week preparing for the next one. Our lives should revolve around the Sabbath, not the workweek.

But, part of what makes this so hard is the lies that the world tells us about our work. When we were talking about Sabbath and work in our youth group, an odd pattern started to emerge. Our kids didn't even necessarily want Sabbath when they heard about it. A few of them, including someone who had worked 93 hours that week, said, "But fun work isn't work, right?" I heard in their remark the perverse adage, "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." The world tells us that we should find satisfaction, joy, peace, and beauty in our work. In all of these things are what we are supposed to find in Sabbath - in God! - not just in our labor.

How do we know that? A day in the dwelling place of God is different from a day anywhere else. One day is better than a thousand elsewhere, yes, but it also looks different. Consider the birds, as Jesus once said. Psalm 84 describes the house of God as being a place where Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself, Where she may lay her young at your altars, O LORD of hosts.

The insignificant sparrow, to say nothing of the human, isn't a commodity or a nuisance, but a guest in the house of God. In the Sabbath, we find release from being treated as a resource, as a pack animal. In the Sabbath, we get treated as we are - beloved creations of God. The rest of the world has no use for such things. Wendell Berry remarks that our society finds it impossible to value anything purely because of its belovedness. "It is impossible," he says, "to give an accurate economic value to the goodness of good work, much less to the goodness of an unspoiled forest or prairie or desert, or to the goodness of pure sunlight or water or air." [Wendell Berry, "God and Country," http://tipiglen.co.uk/godandcountry.html] The harmony and delight of Psalm 84 has no economic value, so in our society it doesn't need to exist.

It is at exactly this juncture where the church can, and must, step in.

In Minneapolis, almost a decade ago, Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church was about to die. [https://faithandleadership.com/minneapolis-congregation-finds-new-life-through-ancient-practice-keeping-sabbath] Maybe 30 people showed up in a sanctuary that used to seat 300. They had enough money to last two years if they were careful. So, under the leadership of their pastor, Rev. Kara Root, they did something radical - and very biblical. As a community, they started observing Sabbath together.

Two Sundays a month, they still worship as usual. On the other two weekends, they host an abbreviated contemplative service on Saturday nights. The following Sunday is a community Sabbath. Everyone takes a rest from work, obligations, and even formal worship. Parishioners got more sleep than they had in years, they started doing things together for the sake of being together, and really, truly resting.

What happened next? Six years later, they tripled their active membership, doubling weekly worship attendance. The church's finances improved alongside the improvement in people's lives. They birthed a new children's ministry and became stewards of great gifts to neighborhood ministries. Things aren't perfect and it's not like they transformed into a megachurch, but that wasn't the goal either. Their people have found the grace and joy of Sabbath for themselves.

It takes some work to accept the gift of Sabbath, though. As my youth pointed out earlier, she would have to give up a great deal for a day of rest. Sometimes that is as simple as giving up some non-essential commitments. Play fewer sports, attend fewer events, or spend less money. But for others, the sacrifice is greater. To obtain a full day of rest, they might have to sacrifice work hours, income, and even material needs. But again, that's where we can step in as communities of faith and make Sabbath possible for one another.

Psalm 84 confesses that a life with rest in God is better than life elsewhere. The psalmist is bold enough to say that they would "rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness." But, what about when becoming the doorkeeper in the house of God requires you to work less, make less money, and maybe go without?

One of the things I've done in churches where I've worked is literally pay people not to work! When someone was in a financial crisis and the church was helping them through that with the fund we'd set up to handle such things, one of the questions I'd ask is if they're able to rest. Inevitably when the answer is no, sometimes we have calculated the money made on weekend shifts and given benevolence enough to erase the need to work that weekend, so that someone could rest.

There's hardly anything more counter to our economy and our culture than paying somebody not to work. But that's exactly the roll that churches could play - if Sabbath is not possible for someone in your community, band together - make it possible!

That takes the whole community of the church trusting God. For some, they need to trust God instead of their labor. Do less. Rest more. For others, they need a community that they can trust to provide what they need. When we all trust God together, we can build that kind of church. We can build alternative economies that let us rest in God rather than collapse from exhaustion.

Indeed, Psalm 84 ends with the beatitude, "O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you." A world exists where we are not ceaseless laborers, cogs in a market machine, and a single day in that world is worth a thousand elsewhere. Because in that world, we trust and rest in God and become who we were truly meant to be - not just laborers, but beloved children of God.

Let us pray.

Blessed are You, God, who gives us the gift of Sabbath. Grant us rest and may we keep it. Amen.