Sabbath, Sleep and Saying ‘No’ to Busy-ness

December 10, 2015

Sabbath. Is there another concept quite as daunting to write about as THE SABBATH? As a married mother of (almost) two, solo pastor, and orchestrator of a household, my inclination is to shake my head and smirk at the thought of an entire day’s rest every week. At least that’s what has traditionally been considered THE SABBATH. But as a pastor mom with a full plate (and an ENFP personality profile), my life rhythm tends toward the syncopated rather than straight-forward.

It may be obvious, but pastors work on Sunday. And pastors work on Saturday, and some weeks, pastors work Monday-Friday too. Moments of crisis, life and death, they don’t follow a strict schedule, so neither do I. It only took me a few weeks of full-time ministry (with purposefully part-time day care) to realize that my need for rest and rejuvenation is both essential and really tricky to manage. I know plenty of other folks whose livelihoods don’t follow schedules either, but this doesn’t mean that finding true moments of Sabbath are impossible; in fact, it means that finding Sabbath is an invitation to be creative and purposeful with each day.

Living off-beat means I must find a certain groove to the rhythm each day offers, but it also means I constantly fight off those feelings of guilt.

Here’s what I mean. If we’re honest, the Christian community relies plenty on guilt as a motivator toward all things “Godly,” including maintaining the Sabbath. After all, it’s in the 10 commandments! For many years, I allowed guilt to define my relationship with the Sabbath; no more, however, thanks in part to a course I took in seminary called Sleep, Surrender, Sabbath. I hope to offer a few ideas for others who find themselves overwhelmed (and feeling guilty) with the reality of a lifestyle rhythm that is unpredictable and not conducive to what has traditionally been considered Sabbath.

Let’s start with guilt: not only is it unhealthy, it’s unbiblical. Jesus calls us to lofty goals of love and compassion, yes, but never the burden of guilt. In Matthew 11: 28-30, Jesus frees us from the burdens we place upon ourselves and others: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So if you’re up for the challenge of holding Jesus’ truth against the many ways that guilt sneaks into your spiritual life, stick with me! What I’ve learned from Jesus, as well as from many other mentors and teachers along the way, has provided both the insight and motivation to reclaim Sabbath in my life sans guilt.

Over the years, I’ve developed a (syncopated) rhythm of Sabbath in hopes of honoring the rest and rejuvenation I believe to be inherent in the scriptural witness on Sabbath-keeping. My two biggest accomplishments? Learning to say NO to unnecessary busyness, and learning to say YES to sleep. Every. Single. Time.

Saying no to “busy” has come gradually, as I learn that the world will continue to revolve without me (and the floor doesn’t really need to be toy-free). I also credit two years spent living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a place where the rhythm of life allows for ample ways to waste time gracefully. The Lakota culture values being in the moment with others far above efficiency or productivity. This was a true grace for me to experience, and I continue to value finding ways of “wasting time gracefully” in the presence of others, which obviously means saying no to several other more productive demands on my time.

Sleep, for me at least, has been the more difficult accomplishment.

Travel back with me to my course on Sleep, Surrender, Sabbath about four years ago; much to our theological surprise, our professor devoted nearly two-thirds of class time toward discussing the science of sleep. I was a busy seminarian, yes, but certainly thought I’d discovered a decent rhythm to life after my time on Pine Ridge. As the humor of God would have it, however, I repeatedly found myself literally falling asleep mid-sentence while taking notes.

For me, this was an intellectual and spiritual wake-up call. I spent the next several weeks reading Dr. William Dement’s The Promise of Sleep in its entirety and journaling my sleep patterns. As it turned out, I had accumulated quite a sleep debt (look it up, it’s real!) by sacrificing only a few minutes of sleep each day. I also learned my individual sleep need amounts to about 8.5 hours of sleep/day. Although this varies for everyone, it’s common to underestimate one’s ideal amount of sleep, as I did for so long.

In the four years since this profound discovery, I’ve come to wholeheartedly believe that Sabbath can be kept on a daily basis, centering the beginning of each new day with a robust night of sleep. It’s the rhythm that maintains my spiritual life, especially as a mom. Yes, I’m the working mom who defies all expectations and actually gets 8+ hours of sleep, but I’m a mom who values Sabbath… so sleep over cleaning it is!

I’ve worked hard to get here (and have had to say no to plenty of really good things), but I’m growing more comfortable with the idea that Sabbath is less of a rule and more of a gift. It is a gift to purposefully say NO to everything that prevents me saying YES to plenty of sleep. And when I fail, which I inevitably do, I cling to Jesus’ truth: “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” So may we together dance into the rhythm of both the NO and YES in our lives, for our health, our vocations, our families, and our world.

About the Author
  • Emily Munger is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and is currently serving a small rural congregation in Columbia, South Dakota. She lives in Mina, SD, with her husband AJ Munger and enjoys (almost) every moment of being mom to Briggs, 1.5 years old, and baby-to-be. In her free time, she loves blogging, listening to NPR, meeting new people and connecting with old friends, exercising, and dreaming about a time she will reclaim her zest for travel.

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