When the polar vortex hit Minnesota, our weekend crawled on for six days, Jan. 26-31. Where we live, even the mail was suspended on the coldest day. My kids kept asking, “Will there be school tomorrow? What about the next day?”
Between the Los Angeles teacher’s strike, a measles outbreak in Washington state and the 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown, forced sabbath isn’t exclusive to the Midwest. When we reach the point of absolute stopping, many of us have time on our hands like we haven’t in awhile: time to talk to each other and to ponder. (It can’t all be filled by Netflix.) What, then, shall we talk about? There’s no avoiding discussion on the causes for the break in our schedules, the unusual breathing space, the unexpected togetherness. Might our minds or conversations eventually wander to what this imposed rest also reveals about God and our neighbor? Here are three things to know about sabbath.
1. God wants all people to rest.
The commandment to keep the Sabbath holy—set apart—is one of the top three. Martin Luther’s explanation emphasizes that the Sabbath is for hearing God’s word. Scripture tells us God rested on the seventh day, and since we are made in God’s image, that gift of rest is for us too. God made you and loves you—you can rest in that. God’s word might also provide a rebuke to one’s ego: if even God rested, who am I to think I don’t need it? Living into this gift is a process, a journey of setbacks and sometimes unwelcome forced realizations, as J. Dana Trent describes in For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship, and Community. This is the case with each of the commandments, isn’t it? They put us in our place, and God in the divine place as well.
2. Sabbath is a justice issue.
It’s unjust that some people can’t take time to break on a regular weekly basis, or even in extraordinary circumstances, such as when it’s dangerously cold outside or when it’s necessary to care for their bodies or family members. Not every child of God has a safe place to rest or work that pays them enough to take time to recover. Surely part of honoring the sabbath must be speaking up, voting and defending everyone’s need to rest and recover. Members of Isaiah, our faith-based community organizing group, advocated for earned sick and safe time ordinances in our metro area, in effect this January during the extreme weather that shut down schools for most of a week.
3. Sabbath has an end.
Whether it was the weather, a furlough, a medical or family leave, how did you feel on your first mandated day off? What about by the end? We enjoy a break—in fact, we need them. But we also want to be doing meaningful things like learning, working or caring for others in some way. My daughters and I re-read Malala Yousafzai’s The Magic Pencil during that unexpected week off and talked about all the factors that keep kids, most often girls, from attending school around the world. We also discussed the nonprofit our congregation houses that helps adults find work. The gift of sabbath is not honored when some people never have the means to live out their vocations, learning and caring for others.
A forced sabbath can focus us on what really matters. Connecting with each other, caring for our neighbors and remembering to rest to honor God’s goodness might be the best discoveries of unplanned time off.