I am currently on sabbatical living among and observing various expressions of Christian community. In the future I will blog about what I am discovering regarding Christian community – particularly among the marginalized, but at the moment I’d like to consider the appalling inefficiency of rest.
If I confess that God made humans with intention and foresight (“fearfully and wonderfully” as the Psalmist puts it), I must either concede that God created terribly inefficient creatures, or that there must be some purpose in dormancy which is built into creation. I think it is safe to say that every living thing has regular periods of sleep, hibernation, dormancy or some kind of inactivity.
Humans appear to be genetically programmed to go dormant every single day of our lives one third of the time. If anyone tried to market a computer or car or appliance that only worked 2/3rds of the time it would be laughed right off the market (Mac users please exercise restraint in tossing jabs at us PC users). Since God neither “slumbers nor sleeps,” (Psalm 121:4) and since we are made in the image of our Creator, it stands to reason that there was some purpose for God deviating from making a creature that does not require sleep. Seems as though humans are not like God in that critical respect – that of 24-7 work (Jn 5:16-17).
We do know, however, that this sleepless God chose to “Sabbath” after making the universe. The resting of God was completely voluntary. It was not because God was exhausted after all that ex nihilo “Let there be …” stuff (Gen. 2:3). God chose rest – perhaps to give us an example. Because in addition to building dormancy into creation, God commanded that humans were not to work one full day in seven. Genetically we’d already lost our ability to function 1/3 of the time, but then God had to go and tell us to do no work one seventh of the remaining time that we could otherwise be productive.
Add to all this the dozens of feast and festival days – several of which included the command to “do no work,” and you’ve got a workforce which is, either by design or command, inactive about half of the time! The computer game “Age of Empires,” where we get to play God, would be pretty boring if your entire population did nothing half the time.
Now with a labor force which is only available to work 50% of the time you’d think God would be pretty insistent about snappy productivity during those few waking hours of work each year. There’s plenty of being fruitful, multiplying, subduing the earth, and having dominion over every living thing to get done (Gen. 1:28). Oddly, however, God commands an agrarian Israel to a sabbatical year. No planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting for a full year – not just once in your life, but every seven years. If an adult worked for 50 years of their life, five of those years would be sabbatical years.
So here’s what I am only just beginning to learn about the beauty of regular periods of dormancy.
Identity: Our work can get perversely attached to our sense of identity and worth. We can very easily begin to think that we are what we do. I believe that the genetic and Biblical call to inactivity aids us in separating our identity from our activity. Our personhood is not defined by our work.
Trust: Think of it. Every year agrarian Israel relied on a good harvest to live through the winter, spring and summer before another harvest was available. But God told them not to plant anything for one full season in every seven. That means that after they’d harvested crops in year six, they had to survive somehow until the harvest came in year eight. This required dependence on God.
For a variety of reasons, in my sabbatical period we have experienced a diminishment in income and an increase in expense. We are learning how to trust God for daily bread in deeper ways. While here in the UK, where housing costs (along with many other things) are more expensive, we are dependent upon the generosity of communities to provide for us. We are being stripped of our sense of financial independence and self-sufficiency.
Measurability: For many in the West and certain parts of Asia productivity is measurable. Results, outcomes, growth and production are things toward which we strive (I find this a bit less so in many African and Latin American cultures). Sabbath denies us the indulgence of measuring our outcomes. We must satisfy ourselves with internal growth, more space for intimacy with God and relationship with others. These things are hard to quantify. We must learn to be content with things which cannot be counted – deeper encounters with God, time to spend with a friend, rediscovering what it means to be a member of a family, and space simply to “be.”
While I have not quite yet entered into a state of transcendent, sabbatical bliss, I have begun to slow down just a little and am learning to separate my sense of self from my work, to grow my dependence upon God and others, and to deny myself the measurability of productivity.