how to do nothing

There’s this story about Jesus healing a crippled woman in a synagogue on the sabbath. There were all kinds of rules, then, about what you could and could not do on the sabbath, and healing was very clearly against the rules. It wasn’t so much that it took too much out of the healer to heal one crippled woman, it was more that the synagogue staff really needed ONE DAY off from the crowds of sick and worn out people seeking healing and relief. Jesus is in a synagogue on the sabbath, receives a crippled woman seeking healing, lays his hands on her and says “woman, you are set free!” And the woman stands up straight and walks out of the synagogue healed.

The bosses of the synagogue are non-plussed: “Don’t get the wrong idea!” They shout to the crowds who saw Jesus heal the woman. “We don’t heal on the sabbath here! There are rules and regulations about all this! Take your crippled mothers and leprosy-ridden children home and come back during regular business hours!”

I studied this story with some of my favorite theologians -the Jr. High youth of Manassas Church of the Brethren circa 2013 – and their reading of the text is, to date, the most profound I’ve heard.

“Wait a minute,” the middle schoolers said. “The guys who got mad at Jesus, the bosses of the synagogue, wasn’t their job to make sure everybody followed the rules? That was sort of their work?” “Yes,” I said, wondering where they were going with this. “Well, then weren’t THOSE GUYS doing EXACTLY what they got mad at Jesus for doing? Weren’t THEY working on the sabbath?!”

Blam. Jr. High theology is the best theology.

In another story about a similar thing, Jesus heals someone else on another sabbath and, when the synagogue bosses get predictably angry at him for breaking the rules, he says “DUDE. YOU GUYS. The sabbath was made for PEOPLE – it’s for our own good, meant to be a means of grace. People weren’t created for the sole purpose of following the rules of sabbath. Don’t y’all know by now that I AM GOD? I can break the rules if I want to. And, uh, if I’m breaking the rules and I’m God, then you should probably pay attention to how and why and in what ways rule-breaking makes sense.”

I have spent the last month on sabbatical from my work as a pastor. I haven’t had any earth-shattering revelations about myself or the world. I just…rested. I prayed, I read, I hiked. I spent a lot of time doing nothing with my dog, and staring at flowers in the process of blooming. I saw friends I haven’t seen in years. I got to be Dana, instead of Pastor Dana.

I love being a pastor, and I love my congregation, so the distinction I felt this month between the two – Dana and Pastor Dana – sort of surprised me. It surprised and pleased me to recognize that I have managed to build a life that is still rich and full even without my work, which often feels all-consuming. It surprised and delighted me that in 31 days, I did not once feel bored or lonely. I felt curious and unencumbered, relaxed and attentive to the world.

I sat down yesterday to write a sermon for the first time in several weeks and the weight of my work settled once again on my shoulders. This job is a half-time commitment, 20-25 hours per week, but that doesn’t come close to capturing the mental and emotional responsibility of caring for the spiritual well-being of several dozen folks, or working alongside them to exist as a community of witness and faithfulness. I don’t know how to describe the work to people who have not done it. It is consuming. Pastors are in danger of allowing the work to consume them, body, mind and soul. I have been surprised and pleased this month to realize that I have actually been doing a decent job of avoiding that.

In his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” Thich Nhat Hanh says “When we are caught in notions, rituals, and the outer forms of the practice, not only can we not receive and embody the spirit of our tradition, we become an obstacle for the true values of the tradition to be transmitted. We lose sight of the true needs and actual suffering of people, and the teaching and practice, which were intended to relieve suffering, now cause suffering.”

That’s what Jesus meant when he told the angry bosses that the sabbath was made for people, not the other way around. Traditions, rules, habits, practices intended to relieve suffering end up causing it when we pledge our allegiance to institution and ritual instead of the spirit…instead of the Spirit.

My congregation paid me a month’s salary to step away from the outer forms of practice, to take a break from being their pastor and re-orient myself to the true value of our tradition, the real purpose of our work and witness. It’s a privilege, I know, but it shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves rest. Everyone deserves sabbath. It is a gift and a grace and – more than that – the rhythm of work and rest is written into God’s design for life.

If you haven’t rested for a while, why not? Maybe it’s because circumstances aren’t allowing you; but maybe it’s because you, like me, get caught in the outer forms of practice, the rules and regulations, the inhumane pace of modern life, the lie that your worth lies in your productivity. Here’s a dispatch from my small re-orientation, a tiny bit of advice from a mostly-rested body: take a vacation day. Use your comp time. Don’t answer email on your day off. Stop participating in the destructive falsehood that humans are not worthy of rest, that our value lies in what we DO or accomplish. It’s what I’m attempting.

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