The Dangerous Act of Sabbath Rest

Director of Church Relations Kutter Callaway reflects on President Mark Labberton’s book, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”

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For some, summertime is a season of rest from the various demands of ministry. There are simply fewer meetings, fewer programs, and fewer people competing for our attention. Yet, for others, the summer is no less demanding than any other time of year. I recall (not always fondly) my summers when I was working as a youth pastor. While my pastoral colleagues were enjoying more time with their families because of their lighter schedules, I was busy taking teenagers out of state and overseas for various camps and short-term mission trips. And this is to say nothing of the concerts, movie nights, white-water rafting trips, and "GAG" (guys-against-girls) Olympics that had become sacrosanct traditions at our church. These events simply had to happen because, well, they always had. Needless to say, my summers were filled with something, but it was certainly not rest.

The last summer I had the privilege of serving as a youth pastor, I decided, perhaps a bit naively, to blow the whole thing up. The pace had become unsustainable. Not only was I personally and professionally exhausted, but I began to question the effectiveness of this whole model of ministry. Sure, I was incredibly busy, but I didn't see any real transformation in the lives of my students. So my leadership team and I decided to try something different. We didn't go overseas or to any waterparks. We didn't go white-water rafting and we didn't have a single lock-in. Instead, each week our teenagers came together to clean up local parks, serve in soup kitchens, labor at the local food bank, hand out sandwiches to the homeless community in our city's largest park, help build a Habitat for Humanity house, and provide lawn care for single moms living within a five-mile radius of our church. We called it our "summer of service." It changed my life.

Six months later, for reasons that had largely to do with my reimagining of summer activities, I was no longer on staff at my church. Phrases like "ramping it up," "blowing it out," and "prime time" were used both to critique the perceived failures of my programming decisions and to project an ideal of what a thriving student ministry should look like during the summer. Our low-key acts of service just weren't cutting it. And even though I wish that it was, I know that my story is not unique, for it reveals a basic misunderstanding regarding not only why we gather together as the people of God, but also how that act of gathering ought to open our eyes and hearts to God's purposes in the world. What is more, it reveals a fundamental confusion about the intimate connection between our commitment to rest and God's justice.

I recently read Mark Labberton's book The Dangerous Act of Worship. An experienced pastor and a gifted preacher, Mark began his tenure as Fuller Seminary's new president in July. I wanted to share a short excerpt from his book that connects God's call to justice with God's command for us to observe sabbath-rest. Whether your summers are filled to the brim with activity or offer you a moment to just catch your breath before heading into the fall, I pray that you find Mark's words both encouraging and challenging. Even more, I pray that you find rest.

From The Dangerous Act of Worship (pgs. 99-100)

Practicing biblical rest in some pattern of sabbath-keeping is not a sign of abdication, nor arrogance, nor bourgeois indulgence. Instead it means we stop at least once a week to remember that we are not God. Whatever our passion for justice, whatever our successes or failure in seeking justice, we need to remember that even when we are most sure we are doing God's business, we are not God. Justice is God's business. We are simply invited to have a stake in what is God's, and God's alone, to bring about.

The history of Christian social justice movements is littered with examples of people who failed to practice this. To many activists, spiritual rest does not seem like it is doing anything. But that's the point. It's not doing anything except remembering and practicing what's most important: trusting God to be God over all. If we are just waking up to God and his passion for justice, we might think the first thing to do is get as busy as we possibly can. After all, there's injustice in the world, and God wants us to do something about it! This can quickly become the headline screaming at us each day. We might start reading Worldwatch reports, poring over Amnesty International descriptions of suffering and injustice, watching CNN's international coverage, and reading every Sojourners e-mail. We might attend meetings and community action groups several nights a week, working in soup kitchens, assisting in letter campaigns and giving financial support to the needs we see-and still feel like we aren't doing anything, at least not compared to the scope of the need. In some ways that's true!

In such moments we may start down the road to burnout, which can kill what God is fanning to life. Or we may become bitter and judgmental toward the inertness of others around us. We find ourselves on an airplane or on the commuter bus or with our church family in Sunday worship wanting to stand up and scream, "What are you doing about suffering and injustice?" Even a modest degree of awareness of the global scale of injustice can overwhelm us. Clearly, we are inadequate. All of us together are inadequate. Or we may give in to a third temptation, which is to surrender to inaction because this enterprise, even life itself, seems all for naught. This is when we need to remember the larger perspective that can save us. As Mother Teresa put it, "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."