Christian reflections

Rest is Best

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Our son loves Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It’s a PBS Kids Show that shamelessly capitalizes on my generation’s nostalgia over Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood by replacing Fred Rogers with an adorable animated tiger. He even wears a cardigan sweater.

Yeah, it’s cute.

Each episode features a different toddler-friendly jingle that helps kids learn a lesson. There’s the upbeat, “When you have to go potty, STOP and go right away!” It got us through some rough days of potty training. There’s the quiet and comforting, “Grown-ups come back…” which teaches children that Mom or Dad will always return to pick them up from the nursery or preschool. And then there’s Daniel Tiger’s wise father’s song of advice for when illness strikes the family: “When you’re sick reeeest is best. Rest is best!” (All together now!)

Our son parrots these songs back to us daily. When I pick at something on my dinner plate, he chirps up: “You gotta try new food ’cause it might taste gooo-oood!” When my husband asks for my help finding something, Lincoln starts in with: “Try to solve a problem yourself and you’ll be pro-o-o-oud!” When I am stubbornly trying to fit eight bajillion Legos in a bin designed to hold only six bajillion Legos, Linc brings up the jazzy ditty: “When you’re feeling frust-ra-ted, take a deep breath and try again!”

Our house has become the Daniel Tiger Ministry of Preschool Propaganda.

Yet every once in awhile I’m fairly certain God is using our son and Daniel Tiger to remind me of something I’m having a hard time learning on my own.

The third trimester of pregnancy is no joke, and I tire easily these days. Every once in awhile I have to take a time out and lie on the couch for ten minutes before I can resume the pastoring/working/cooking/cleaning/mommying that makes up my life. When Lincoln catches me lying down, he always asks, “Mommy, are you sick? Do you need to west?” [At Linc’s preschool hearing assessment, the assessor said we should be concerned in another year if he keeps saying his ‘r’s like ‘w’s. I refuse to be concerned about this. It is adorable and I hope it continues through high school.]

“I’m not sick, buddy,” I’ll say. “Mommy needs to rest just for a minute.”

He will then find something to cover me up – his red blankie, an afghan, a towel from the laundry basket, and firmly but gently scold me with a Daniel Tiger tune: “Mommy, when you’re sick, weeeeest is best. West is best.”

You know what? He’s right. And not just when I’m feeling extra pregnant.

Scripture teaches us a pattern for avoiding burnout, caring for our souls, and making space for God. It’s called Sabbath. It’s a beautiful, weekly, life-giving favor of rest. It’s so important God commands it. It’s so necessary, it comes every single week.

My husband, son, and I are serious Sabbath junkies. Working in ministry as we do, Sunday is a work day so we take Fridays as our family Sabbath, a day dedicated to resting in God. On Fridays we don’t go to work. We don’t check our email. We don’t show up on the church’s campus unless someone literally has died and one of us is doing the funeral. [There are, of course, necessary exceptions like staff retreats and wedding rehearsals, but when these crop up, we do our very best to carve out another day for our Sabbath.] It’s not legalism that makes us hold this day as sacred, it’s grace. As Eugene Peterson would say, the Sabbath is only for “playing and praying.”

Keeping the Sabbath will always mean sacrifice. One pastor I know said that, for his family of seven, every single person had to give up something they loved for them to keep the Sabbath as a family. In order to say yes to God in this unique way, we have to say no to good things. We have to stop our striving and sit still, and when we do, we will feel all the things we were too busy to feel during the week. Frustrated. Confused. Lost. Nihilistic. Perhaps that’s one reason we’re all so bad at Sabbath.

It’s understandable that keeping the Sabbath is one of the biblical commandments most Christians ignore. It’s a busy world. There’s a lot to do. In ministry, yes, but also in business, in parenting, and in just existing. Someone has to get dinner on the table, feed the kids, pay the bills, fix the car, get the job done. It’s true now, but it was no less true when the 10 Commandments were given to Moses. People didn’t have savings accounts back then. They couldn’t just heat up dinner from the refrigerator. Sabbath is and always has been hard to keep.

Isaiah 30 puts it this way:

15 This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:

“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
    in quietness and trust is your strength,
    but you would have none of it.

I get this. Daryl and I are religious (ha! pun!) about keeping our Sabbath free from busyness, yet we start off nearly every Friday in a funk. There is so much to be done. How dare we take a break? I wake up remembering a church-related phone call I meant to make, the dry cleaning I forgot to pick up, the sermon that is not yet quite polished enough for Sunday.

I think about the week ahead – how will we ever get through all of those appointments? what about Lincoln’s ear infection? why on earth did I sign up to speak at MOPS the same week I’m doing preschool chapel?!? – and panic. I want to run to my laptop. To pick up the phone. To send justonemoreemailIpromisethenI’llbedone. Daryl is the same. We inevitably wake up grumpy and snappish. Happy Sabbath!

This is normal. Peterson calls it “Sabbath sickness.” It’s a natural human reaction to the weekly whiplash that happens when we are forced to cease from our striving. It’s a natural reaction to remembering that we aren’t omnipotent. That we can’t control the universe. That our doing will never be enough. That work will always remain.

Sabbath puts us face to face with our own mortality. Ouch.

But as we wait and watch and pray and play, God starts to creep in. He’s been there all along, but we’ve drowned him out with meetings and podcasts and errands and all the work there is still to do. Yet on Sabbath, when we are still, we begin to hear his voice. It’s like Elijah, up on the mountain waiting for God. All these natural disasters storm past him – an earthquake, a fire, a violent wind. God is not in any of these. Then there comes a still, small whisper. It is the voice of God. God doesn’t often shout. We don’t often quiet ourselves enough to hear him.

The Sabbath reminder that we don’t have to run the world because, in fact, we are loved by the One who does brings joy and healing each and every week. On my Sabbath we remember our identities as God’s beloved children first, and parents or pastors, professionals or play-date-arrangers a distant second.

Daryl and I love what we do, and we work hard at it. But when Fridays roll around, we are so ready for Sabbath. Ready for God’s reminder that the work is his. That the world is his. That we are his.

By late afternoon our Sabbath sickness has faded and been replaced with joy, contentment, even wonder. My husband and son and I have time to look one another in the eye, to really listen, to spend time in Scripture and in prayer and in playing and in laughing. In hearing and being heard. It is a gift. Every single week, it is a gift.

Maybe Daniel Tiger is on to something. At least once a week, every week, rest is best.

 

For more (and far better writing!) about Sabbath practices, check out:

Marva Dawn’s instructional classic: Keeping the Sabbath Wholly

Eugene Peterson’s pastoral biography: The Pastor

Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s Jewish perspective on the practice’s ancient roots: The Sabbath

 

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