Last week I was on a spiritual retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove. In talking with the others there, I was struck by the fact that many of us work until we drop, and we don’t actually rest until it is forced on us by the breakdown of our mental, physical, or spiritual health. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in some form of full-time ministry or not. From a CPA to an Air Force chaplain to a retired pastor, we were asking ourselves, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” We all seem to think we are too important and too busy to rest.
It also hit me that we don’t really know what spiritual rest is. We use our vacation time for visiting family, frantic trips to tourist destinations, or accomplishing projects we’ve put on the back burner. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they aren’t restful. Even working in a ministry that has a fairly generous vacation policy, I find myself rationing out my days for the least interruption to work and the most efficient use of my time.
After a busy season of ministry, Jesus told His disciples, “‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while,’ for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31 ESV). Physical rest and leisure were on His agenda (though the crowds interrupted their plans). Luke reports that Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:15). If Jesus needed regular retreats, don’t we? We can all recite Matthew 11:28: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and yet we don’t actually take the time to get away with Him. A daily quiet time and weekly worship service is not enough to give rest to our souls.
There has been a movement to restore the concept of sabbaticals to the church, and that’s a good thing. However, even in churches where that does not seem possible, I would contend that pastors still need to schedule a regular time of spiritual renewal at least every year. Even if it is just one week away from the church and without any interruptions, they need to come away and rest and seek spiritual renewal. And I think all of us could benefit from making that a part of our annual routines.
As I’m about halfway through my sabbatical, I think the lesson I most need to learn is to just rest. On the first week of my sabbatical, someone asked me why it was being called a sabbatical and whether I was working on a project. I felt guilty that the honest answer is, “No, it’s a sabbatical because the office is not supposed to be contacting me during this time.” However, the scriptural basis for the sabbatical is the Sabbath rest. It’s the academic world that has co-opted the term to make it mean something else.
Though my inclination is to keep busy doing things, I hear God saying to me, “Just relax and enjoy. Life is not about productivity and accomplishments.” [Ironically, that came to my attention soon after reading a quote from a minister who said that “God ministers His Word to us… exclusively through the Scripture,” which I think is a gross oversimplification.] He gave us the Sabbath to set apart time for Him. It’s not meant to be a day of planning, preparation, and productivity, but of rest. “On the seventh day He rested,” and so can we. We can build the regular rhythm of rest into our weeks and months and years.
It’s okay to stop and rest and listen for a while. As Jesus told Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). Spiritual food is more important than physical nourishment. We need both, but we may not feel the spiritual hunger nearly as quickly as we notice our empty stomachs.
My thought for today comes from Jonny Diaz’s song, Just Breathe: “Let your weary spirit rest. Lay down what’s good and find what’s best.” Regardless of how much good we are accomplishing or how many people we are pleasing, we need to stop and rest and seek God’s best. We might be surprised by what we hear from Him.
“Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16b).
“Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7).