What They Don’t Teach You In Seminary, Part 3: Practicing Sabbath
During my seminary years, teaching the theology of Sabbath was not scarce. In Old Testament courses, pastoral theology courses, and chapel services, I heard some excellent theological thinking on the Sabbath. I rarely saw sabbath practiced in community. The distance between thought and practice can become quite a chasm. Good ideas about the Sabbath can become one of the greatest obstacles to actual Sabbath observance.
In my last post, I suggested that the form of seminary syllabi and their demanding reading and writing schedules may contradict a life of prayer. I believe theological training should be rigorous and challenging. After all, seminary graduates are training to be physicians of the soul in local parishes. With eternity at stake in families and personal lives, there should be rigorous training before a pastor enters parish ministry.
But that training is not solely scholastic training, learning how to read and write well. Seminary gave me a wonderful gift in learning how to become a better reader and writer. I believe that’s a precious, sacred gift. But reading and writing untethered from regular prayer is dangerous. Knowledge puffs up and cannot bring rest to the soul.
Prayer Is The Work
Beginning the practice of sabbath in seminary is an urgent matter. Rigorous training in prayer and the rhythms of rest are essential for faithfulness and longevity in parish ministry. Try resting for an entire day when you have a stack of work to do. It’s discomforting, at best. Most people give in to that discomfort and resume working to relieve their anxiety. Pastors should be trained to live with that discomfort, knowing that attention to prayer is not what precedes our work, it is the work itself, as Eugene Peterson says.
Consider the implications if seminary students neglect the practice of sabbath during their years of training. If students learn patterns of constant labor without sacred rest, do you think they are unlikely to unlearn these patterns when they enter the demands of local parish ministry? Translation: ’Physician, heal yourself.’ Yet I fear that would-be physicians of the soul become sick with hurry and busyness in their seminary years for the sake of academic performance. What good is it if you gain M.Div. summa cum laude but lose your soul?
Sabbath Keeping in a Stressful World
The statistics of pastoral burnout are alarming and they seem to rise each year. Ministry dropout rates are approaching 50% in the past year. In my seminary years there was plenty of warning about the barrage of needs and requests in parish ministry, but in some instances, it was implied that discipline with regard to academic productivity would be a training ground for the intensity of parish life. What about practicing the Sabbath instead as essential training for the demands of parish ministry? What if obedience to the sabbath command were taken with even greater importance than midterms and finals?
It has been said that more than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel. Through years of exile, diaspora, and persecution, the Sabbath preserved Israel as a people. Abraham Heschel represents the gift of Jewish wisdom and Sabbath practice in these words:
The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms of time, as architecture of time…The meaning of Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 6-10, emphasis author’s own).
Just like all human beings, seminary students must learn the discipline of ‘turn[ing] from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.’
Discovering the Sabbath in Community
It was in the middle of a beautiful spot in creation that I stumbled into the beginnings of sabbath practice. On an ordinary day in the middle of my seminary years, I saw a friend lying on the grass in front of Duke Chapel in the bright spring sun. I stopped to hang out for a few minutes and soon the discussion led to sabbath. Of course I knew the fourth commandment, but I had never spoken with someone who took the practice so seriously. It prompted a question within me about my own observance of the Sabbath. Then my friend asked a bold question, ‘what if we began practicing the Sabbath right now and every Sunday regardless of what assignments are due?’ That conversation happened on a Thursday afternoon. By Sunday I was trying a new observance of sabbath—no homework, only worship in church and resting the remainder of Sunday.
Soon, observing sabbath on Sundays grew into more rest and enjoyment of community life in worship. My roommates and I began hosting an evening of prayer at our house. Friends came over as we prayed for one another, prayed for the nations, prayed for our futures. Monday to Saturday was excellent scholastic training for me. But those Sundays in worship and prayer have sustained me far beyond my seminary years.
I certainly haven’t practiced the Sabbath with perfection, but ceasing my work for 24 hours has become a regular discipline in my life. Even when I’ve treated the Sabbath more like a day off than a day centered in worship, I’m grateful there’s at least the practice of stopping. And it’s only by practicing the Sabbath—not constant thinking about the Sabbath—that I’ve learned to embrace the gift of Sabbath more fully. Even when I haven’t kept the Sabbath well, I can see that over these ten years, the Sabbath is keeping me. May it also keep seminary students and future pastors as they prepare to serve Christ and his Church for many years to come.
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