Sabbath is rooted in a Hebrew word that can be translated, among other things, pause.
As Eugene Peterson points out in one of my favorites of his many books, "Working the Angles," sometimes we need to stop our working so that we can begin to see His.
I was recently visiting the small central Kansas of Greensburg, where my oldest son serves as a pastor. The town was made famous by its nearly total destruction by a EF5 tornado and the later reality TV series, "Greensburg." (TJ and Julie are featured in a number of the episodes, by the way) It is the kind of small town you can find all over the Great Plains of the central US.
One unusual feature is the town has been a focal point of a number of new techniques in building for residents and small business that make maximum use of new building materials, geothermal heating/cooling, passive and active solar, and the like. It is an odd mixture of an classic cowboy culture with high-tech green technology.
Then there's the issue of the town's emergency siren.
It goes off. Monday through Friday. At seven, noon, one, and then, again, at six. Like an old village bell from the Middle Ages. Time to wake up. Time to go to lunch. Time to go back to work. Time to go home.
But, true to our national character, the people of Greensburg largely ignore the siren. It's daily cycle seems to cry out messages like, "Everybody stop now and have lunch." But, since our entire culture is runs like one of our national monuments - Rush More! - people keep on working away.
I had this strange vision in my head. Like a glimpse into an alternate universe. The noon siren goes off and, all up and down the town streets, you see people coming out of stores and shops, locking up behind them, and heading off to lunch at one of the town parks or, if they lived nearby, maybe at their own homes.
Think of it. A pause in the middle of every work day. A pause to see the people who work in stores around you. A pause to be with friends and family. A pause to say, "Yeah, I know I could sell something right now. Sure, I could make a few extra bucks right now. But, all that can wait a few minutes on lunch."
The command to pause on the seventh day is the only one of the Ten Commandments that God felt needed an extended explanation. And, if that were not enough, he offers two different explanations. In Exodus 20, people are to pause because God Himself paused after the sixth creation day. God paused. We should pause. In Deuteronomy 5 people are to pause because they have been delivered from slavery. People are not cogs in the machine of building pyramids or financial empires. Machines don't rest. They don't need conversations or friends. They run until they break. Then you get a new machine. The life of slaves is like that. Your value is in what you can produce. You are operating units. Nothing more. Get over it. But, cast off slavery and things change. Free people, are not machines. Pausing reminds us and the world around us that we are not the pistons and gears of capitalism whose purpose is to work and to produce. Life is not always about doing. We are human beings, with the emphasis on the being.
We give lip service to being, to family, to relationships. But, no one ever introduces a guest speaker at church or at the chapel service of a Christian college or seminary by saying, "This person really knows how to rest." No, we parade accomplishments and work-products and doing, and only mention something like, "And, he/she also has a family. Three children. Two in successful ministries and one on a scholarship in Harvard. Great job, by the way."
It's not that we just don't observe a sabbath , or that we refuse to judge others about keeping a sabbath, the truth is we steadfastly insist on rejecting the idea of sabbath. As Christians, we live within a covenant where pausing on the seventh day is no longer required. But, we seem to have assumed "no longer required" means something like "no longer needed." One does not lead to the other. I am no longer required to eat vegetables and take vitamins. That does not mean they are not important and helpful.
If you've read much written by me, it is no surprise that I need to add that a sabbath, shabbot, or a pause is not the same thing as worship. The Jews understood the role of the tabernacle and later temple. In fact, setting aside a time for worship is, in the broad sense of a word, creating a holy time in your week. It is a holy time, but that does not automatically make it worship. A sabbath time is more like building on the foundation out of which worship will emerge. A sabbath is an intentional planned pause in the busyness of living in order to reconnect with the business of being alive. In a pause, the nonproductive moments, such as conversations with friends, watching white cotton-candy clouds scattered across a blue sky, holding hands with a loved-one, these moments rise to the top of the activities.
In a sabbath, the to-do list is replaced with the to-be list.
And, every so often, when we have learned the sweet discipline of pausing well enough, and practiced it long enough, and manage bring our hurried lives to be still enough, we will know that He is God. And, knowing God is the foundation of true worship.