Columnists > Soul Food

Sabbath master

Learning to rest, knowing that God never does

Issue: "The Dutch culture of death," May 23, 1998

When we were children, my younger brother was a Sabbath master. Maybe it was the contrast between us that made the quality so annoying. I was a biblical Martha. I took my role seriously and attacked work with fanatical obsession.

Randy had a much more laissez-faire attitude-like J.K. Jerome who said: "I like work: It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours: The idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart." My brother's approach to life just made me plain mad.

However, at an early age he already knew something about life that it has taken me years to understand:

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Work is never done.

A lot of it doesn't need to be done today.

If, while you are resting, someone else wants to run the country, let them do it.

We were a perfect pair, because while he played, I ran the country. I resented this, but I couldn't help myself. When we were no older than ages six and four, Mother would tell us to fill the woodbox for the stove. With a desire to accomplish the chore and please my parents, I would begin with the fervor of a crow attacking road kill. Go to the wood pile. Load arms with chopped birch. Stagger to house and up steps. Dump it in the box with a crash. Back to the wood pile.

And where was my brother? Sitting on the steps petting the dog and staring at the sun until he was dizzy. I stood in front of him with my hands on my hips and cut right to the quick with my most clever argument to get him off his duff: "I'm telling!" "Okay," he would say, resigned and unmoved, "I's too tiyad to work."

When we were a little older Dad would hire us for a dollar a day to pick the sweet clover out of the red clover.

The red clover fields bloomed with a thick carpet of purple flowers 18 inches deep, but among them grew tall imposters that needed to be pulled up by the roots before they went to seed and ruined the cash value of the crop. After the dew dried, my brother and I would head across the pasture to the field with a mason jar of water and a sandwich to sustain us until the field was done. We would begin to move parallel back and forth across the field taking it piece by piece with each round.

About a half hour into the work, I would look over to see how Randy was doing and he would be gone. At first I didn't understand how anyone could disappear so suddenly in an open field. I learned. He was taking a little rest. Lyin' down jes' a minute or two. On his back watching the clouds and listening to the bumble bees. Fuming, I would finally go on alone, a self-righteous martyr.

I have struggled with my attitude toward work all my life. With so much to do, how can we stop work and take a Sabbath rest? I was once struck by the question: If you wouldn't think of breaking the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," how can you regularly break the Sabbath commandment without a second thought?

Author Eugene Peterson says, "The technology of Sabbath-keeping is not complex.... It is not a day that proves its worth, justifies itself. Entering into empty, nonfunctional time is difficult and needs protection for we have been taught that time is money."

As I make plans for summer vacation, perhaps I need to consider whether I am honoring God by taking the physical and spiritual rest I need, or simply following the frenzied pace of daily life in a different setting. A true holiday requires that I look at work in a way that is radically opposed to my natural tendencies.

Until heaven, work will always be full of thorns, impossible demands, and incompetent co-workers. Since work will never be finished in this lifetime, it requires an act of faith to leave it alone.

While I am obeying God's command to rest, he will kindly run the universe.


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