By: Jesse Dukes
On May 1st, I started a 3-month sabbatical from my role as one of the three lead pastors at our church, The Gathering. If you’re not familiar with what a sabbatical is, it’s an extended period of paid leave from a job or position for rest and renewal that is offered after a set time working in that position. For example, a lot of universities offer one year of sabbatical leave to professors after they have taught consecutively for six years at the university. Our policy at the Gathering is that after 10 years of working in full-time ministry, you are eligible to take a week of sabbatical leave for each year served, up to 12 weeks. I’ve been in full-time ministry since 2006, so I’m going to be able to max out the available amount.
If you’re thinking that this sounds like a very generous deal, you are correct. And I am incredibly grateful to be the first member of our team to be able to enjoy this privilege. But before you go too far down the road of wondering whether or not sabbaticals are a good idea, or if our policy is too generous or not generous enough… I want to give you some background on where this whole idea of sabbatical comes from. And more than that, I want to show you why it's more helpful to understand rest as a responsibility that is required of us, rather than a privilege that is earned by us, and what can happen when we ignore this responsibility.
1. Something is Broken
To do this though, I need you to consider the possibility that the current way that we view rest in our culture may be broken. Something surprising as I prepared to take this period of rest, was how when I told people about the plan to take a sabbatical, a lot of times their first assumption was that something was wrong. The first question often asked in response would be, “Is everything okay?” or a cautious “What happened?” And to be fair, I can certainly understand where they’re coming from. I’ve worked in situations where a senior leader started to show signs of burnout and breakdown, and the higher-ups had to essentially mandate a sabbatical as an emergency measure.
But just because this is common, doesn’t mean that it's normal or helpful. Author Brené Brown writes about how our modern culture has strangely turned the state of exhaustion into a status symbol. Today’s “crazy busy” work culture demands ever-increasing productivity and output from people, with less and less time for rest and recovery. And even when we have earned the privilege of time off, many studies show that workers in our culture don’t even use it.
Workaholism advances under the banner of seemingly positive values like dedication, drive, and diligence. However, Brown suggests that underneath all of that activity, and inability to slow down is a very real fear that stopping could somehow be worse than continuing the grind. She says:
A lot of people fear: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.
While there is nothing wrong with labor, drive, and productivity… our work, movement, and activity can become their own sort of narcotic that numbs the nagging discontent of disconnection that slowly builds up inside of us. The danger of this drug of constant “doing” is that it prevents us from feeling the full effects of our choices and lulls us into a false sense of security that these choices will have no negative consequences. But life doesn’t work that way. I suspect that on some level, we all know that the bill eventually comes due and you reap what you sow. But the question remains, when will we wrangle with the reality that there are inescapable negative effects that arise out of a refusal to rest?
2. More than Weekends, Vacay and Holidays
I expect that someone may object and say, “We already have enough rest though! We have two days of rest every week, which is twice as much as God prescribed for the Jewish people, who are where the whole idea of Sabbath came from.” And it’s a fair point, but I think what a lot of people don’t consider is that the Sabbath for the Jews was not an opportunity to rest, it was a requirement. Think about it this way, when was the last time that you were reprimanded, or held accountable for how you spent your time off?
Have you ever had the experience where you were outside cutting the grass on the weekend and had someone give you a dirty look because they knew you were supposed to be sitting by the pool, reading a book, or taking a nap? If you have a healthy work environment, this may happen if you were on vacation and still tried to log onto meetings or respond to emails, but most of the time, no one is going to say anything. But for the Jewish people, this once-a-week period of rest on the Sabbath was not optional, it was an obligation that carried real penalties if it was violated.
While most people are familiar with the once-a-week Sabbath of the Jewish people (which formed the foundation for our modern weekend), very few people are familiar with the concept of the Jewish Sabbath Year, which is the foundation for the practice of modern sabbaticals. Leviticus 25:3–5 explains what to do—or, rather, what not to do—on the sabbatical year:
For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year, the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.
And this year-long period of rest wasn’t just about the land, it was just as much (if not more) about the people working the land. Deuteronomy 15 lays out how on top of the rest given to the land, in this sabbath year servants were supposed to be freed and all debt was supposed to be forgiven. Can you take a second and think about taking a year off of your normal job duties? Imagine how it would feel to be able to devote that time and energy towards whatever your heart and mind imagined. What about imagining how it would feel to have no debt at all for a year, no pressing demand of a mortgage, car note, or a credit card bill. How would that change your life or affect your day-to-day choices and stress level?
3. Respect the Rest, Or Else…
While all of that was interesting, the part that got my attention the most was when I read what would happen to the Israelites if they failed to rest. My expectation behind all of this was that this idea of rest was like a bonus. It was a lofty suggestion, and something to hope for… but if you didn’t get around to it… no big deal. Boy, was I wrong.
In Chapter 25 of Leviticus, God lays out how the principles of rest and release were supposed to be woven into the fabric of the culture He was creating with the Israelite people. First with the sabbath year every seventh year and then with the Year of Jubilee which was a “once in a lifetime” event that happened every 50 years, and involved even more debt cancellation, feasting, resting, and even the return of property rights to their original owners, so that no family got stuck in a cycle of poverty and want for too long.
But in the chapter that follows, God gives commentary on what consequences will follow the people’s obedience or disobedience to these commands.
And what struck me again was that this idea of Sabbath isn’t some minute detail hidden deep in the heavenly HR code… it is arguably the central principle of the entire law of the Old Testament In Leviticus 26, like a fork in the road, you get two vivid pictures of what the future can look like depending on which path you take, and what choice you make. Down one path, people obey these Sabbath commandments that have been laid out, and there is peace and prosperity. There is an abundance of food, healthy families, and vibrant community. There is safety from enemies and deep abiding connection with God, one another, and the land the people live in.
But there is another path. And on this path, people ignore the commands to rest and release. On this path, people go their own way and exploit themselves, their neighbors, and their community as they constantly strive and stress their way through life… unable to stop, unable to let go, unable to slow down. And eventually, this road leads to disaster. There’s political strife, terrorism, food shortages, hostile foreign nations, and even new deadly and debilitating diseases. Which unfortunately doesn’t sound very different from many of the issues that we seem to face today.
But don’t misunderstand, these negative consequences aren’t intended to punish, they are intended to soften the heart and to help us see the error of our ways. They are a wake-up call, given so that we’ll relent of our restlessness and turn away from our lack of trust, to experience a way of life that does not produce people who are slaves to labor, but instead has a yoke that is easy, and a burden that is light. It’s a choice to be sure… but what hit me, was learning that in the end… rest is going to happen one way or another, no matter which path you choose.
The final consequence that is triggered by a refusal to rest and release is that the people are put into exile and carried off into slavery to a foreign nation. And then when the people are gone, and all the cities, land, and businesses that they devoted all their time and energy and labor to are in ruins and destroyed, the text (Lev. 26:34-35) says that then something will happen, that should have been happening the whole time:
Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.
The first time I read that, it hit me right between the eyes. Like God was speaking directly to me I heard the message loud and clear: Rest is not optional. Rest is a responsibility, and if you don’t learn to live wisely by listening to my voice and leaning into the rhythms of rest and release, then you’ll have to learn through loss and exile, but one way or another the rest will happen.
When and how it happens, is up to you.
It’s not my job to tell you what those rhythms of rest look like for you. We’re not ancient Israel, so there isn’t a strict code to follow with prescribed days and times that we must follow… but the principles underneath those precepts still very much apply to me and you today and the consequences of ignoring these rhythms are just as real. What I have learned, and I hope you hear today is that there is an important rhythm that we’re lacking in our culture beyond just weekends, holidays, and vacations. The sabbatical break is a vital component of healthy life and even business, and the research and data on this today backs this up. My hope is that you take some time to dial into the frequency of your heart and take a close listen to the Voice that speaks inside of you.
Over the next 3 months, I’m looking forward to an extended period of time to tune into that Voice and hear a lot of what I think I’ve been missing lately because of the crazy pace that I was on. Just in the first week, it's been amazing to sleep in, read books, go on dates with my wife and kids (separately!), and reconnect with God. Coming up, I’ll be going on spiritual retreats, traveling to visit friends, fasting, going on vacations, investing in our marriage, and doing a whole lot of just listening. I’ll be disconnected from emails and most social media, and reconnected to swinging on the porch and drinking coffee with friends in person. I would greatly appreciate your prayers on the journey though, and can’t wait to share what I learn along the way when I plug back in.
Blessings to you as you listen to your own rhythms of rest.