Sabbath Keeping

I often joke that I’m only happy when I’m working. It’s only half a joke, really. I’m happy at other times, of course–I love sharing coffee with an old friend or traveling with my kids. But I seriously love working.

Not just any working–I have had jobs in my life where I watched the clock tick and wished for the hands to hurry up. I have had jobs where I came home and sobbed every night for weeks. Those jobs were generally ones where I was working with miserable, disengaged people and couldn’t figure out how to get them onboard. But when I’m working with a great team to solve interesting problems? I could do that every day. Most of my friends are people I met through work. Solving problems gives our brains a nice hit of dopamine and other happy chemicals. Getting those happy chemicals alongside other people can cement the bonds that we share. We end up being friends in other dimensions of our lives, raising our children alongside each other, comforting each other through loss, celebrating joyful transitions. But for me, it usually starts with working.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my church is having a conversation about Sabbath and Rest. We had a guest speaker, Anita Amstutz, several weeks ago, who preached from her new book, Soul Tending: Journey into the Heart of Sabbath. Her book has been available for people to borrow, in anticipation of her return for our church retreat soon. So folks have been reading that book and talking about what it means to rest. It’s a challenging topic for our congregation. We’re a very doing church. Faith without works is dead and all that. We have a ton going on, from a food pantry and kids’ club for families who come to that, to advocating for just policies at the local jail next door, to growing and canning tomatoes. One member, who has been on staff at other churches, recently remarked to me that our pastors work harder than those at any other congregation she’s been part of. They have to, I think, to keep pace with our members. Both at a congregation level and a household level, we’re tirelessly working. I fit in well here.

To say that I’ve been … I believe the Christian-ese term is “personally convicted” by this conversation about Sabbath would be an understatement. I am the worst at Sabbath. I am so bad at it. Terrible.

I eagerly read this book, hoping it would offer me some kind of helpful framework for getting my mind around Sabbath, but it was honestly a bit frustrating. I’m impatient with overly nostalgic worldviews–of which, I think, we have far too many right now. Her call to resting by making things by hand or baking bread probably holds a lot of charm for her, but those things don’t count as rest for me. They’re productive. They’re creative. They aren’t restful.

I’ve been thinking about this particularly in relation to theater work. It’s a conundrum.

I’m the worst at Sabbath when I’m working on a production. We generally rehearse Sunday-Thursday, and on Thursday night, I always smile and put on a brave face and say to the actors, “Have a great weekend! Get some rest!” But I’m antsy all weekend, waiting for us to get back together and back to the work. Part of this, maybe, is that my directing schedule has built-in periods of rest. I don’t typically close one show and immediately go to work on another. I’m sure that prevents burn-out, much as I would like to be working significantly more. But I wonder also if I’m just wired for a certain approach to life. “My object in living is to unite / My avocation with my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight,” as Frost says. There are times when the work has felt like a kind of Sabbath. Holy experiences are part of rehearsal. The theater is a space that is sacred and apart, and also the heart of the community. It is the place where I rest, deep in the work, from everything else in my daily life. It is the place where I have quiet in my mind, and deep focus. It restores me–when I spent a week working at the Rose on the Much Ado remount, I felt like the work was restoring me to myself. But it is also a lot of work. I returned home both energized and exhausted–and hungry for the next project.

I think this is in part because we often frame discussions of Sabbath as a reaction against work that is grasping and acquisitive. “Take a break from the rat race and try out watercolor painting!” is the prevailing message. Sometimes I tell myself that it doesn’t apply to me because creative work is different. But, of course, in the Biblical description of why Sabbath, God is resting from the most creative labor possible. So that’s no excuse.

I have found some peace in the past year in finding permission to relinquish work that is not life-giving. When I can say, “No, this is not something I need to take on right now,” I buy myself a Sabbath of the mind, in some sense.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Just that it is a problem that rolls around in my mind sometimes, and right now, it’s particularly in focus.

Working so hard to figure out this Sabbath thing.

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