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Sabbath in the Summertime
Is true Sabbath rest possible in the midst of water-skiing, barbecues and camping trips? A challenge to us to rethink what vacation means.

Repose. I love that word. Joyful stillness. Dignified calm. Deep-down serenity. It is not languor, nor listlessness, nor sluggishness. There's mettle here. Hard resolve and sturdy discipline. Repose is being fully awake and yet not moving a muscle. It is being wholly aware and yet not straining one thought.

Repose is rest on purpose.

Hyphenate the word—re-pose—and it means something else again: to pose once more, to take your position over.

Most of us need to re-pose into repose.

Dogs can do this, and cats, and oxen, and birds. Dumb beasts are the perfection of form when it comes to repose. They have a rhythm and instinct for it. Traveling once with a small group, I came across a pride of lions in the savannahs of Africa—nine felines stretched beneath a canopy of acacia branches. Each was a sculpture of repose. None slept. There was not even a hint of drowsiness in their demeanour. But neither was there a hint of anxiousness.

Each looked as if, at any moment, it could coil and spring into pure ravenousness, a wild terror of tooth and claw. Each appeared completely aware of our presence, just indifferent to it. They were lions at rest, not lions at war, and nothing at that moment was going to change their minds about that.

Yes, animals are good at this. Humans, not so. Our pose is mostly two things: headlong busyness and mindless collapse. We live between the hurricane and the doldrums, but rarely in the zephyr.

If I'm not careful, my days fluctuate between rush and sloth. The rush is not fruitful, the sloth not restful and each pushes the other into a downward spiral of exhaustion.

So I must re-pose, and repose. This has a biblical name: sabbath.

Reclining with Jesus

I have a new Bible hero of late: Lazarus. Mary and Martha's brother. Most of his story is told in John 11—Lazarus's sickness, Jesus' (reposeful) delay, Lazarus's death, Mary and Martha's upset with Jesus, Jesus' own upset ("Jesus wept") and, then, the pièce de résistance: Jesus' command to a corpse, "Lazarus, come forth!" What follows is a miracle of power and wonder: a man four days dead, pungent with rot, rouses to the voice, obedient even in death. Death must loose its grip and give up its prey. Lazarus comes forth. That's the story most of us know. But it's the story after this that I've cottoned onto. Afterward, next time Jesus is in Lazarus's town, the family hosts a banquet in His honour. As they should. It is a gala event, a hullabaloo of food and festivity and, I should think, endless and dramatic retellings of the story—"and then Jesus started crying and I thought, 'Oh no, what could this mean?' But next thing He's standing up above that sepulcher like Moses on the mountain and in a voice like thunder … ." Everyone wants to be there.

And not just to see Jesus. They want to get a peek at Lazarus too. Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of Him but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him (see John 12:9-11). I think it was Nietzsche who said that if Christians wanted him to believe in Jesus they'd have to start looking more resurrected. Well, Lazarus is looking more resurrected, and it's having its effect.

Lazarus has become a kingdom magnet, a firebrand evangelist, a holy menace. That's why he's my hero.

People want to see Lazarus every bit as much as they want to see Jesus, and some want to trust in Jesus every bit as much as Lazarus trusts in Him, and some want to kill Lazarus every bit as much as they want to kill Jesus. Lazarus has become a kingdom magnet, a firebrand evangelist, a holy menace.

That's why he's my hero. He's what I aspire to be. Lazarus does all that by doing nothing. By repose.

Watch: Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Him (see John 12: 1-2).

What kind of a God do your neighbours see when they see you? A God who invites His children to rest? Or do they see, in the blur of your coming and your going, a Pharaoh-like god, driving His subjects under the watch of taskmasters to make more bricks, more and more, to gather your own straw? A god who never lets you stop?

If we want them to believe in Jesus, we're going to have to start looking more resurrected. And maybe the best pose for that is repose, simply reclining with Jesus. It made Lazarus dangerous enough.

Restless leisure

It's summer, and a good time to start. By which I mean to stop. But as earth warms and sky shimmers what's needed is something besides the pursuit of mere leisure.

What's needed is Sabbath.

My definition of Sabbath is simple: Imitating God in order to remember we're not God. God was the first Sabbath-keeper, the first to step back from His work and simply relish it without making more of it or brooding over it. And God invites us to go and do likewise.

Leisure, on the other hand, is rest without God. We neither imitate God in our leisure nor remember we're not Him. That's why so much of our leisure, whatever else it may be, is seldom restful. It's seldom reposeful. It's often as tiring as our work. Indeed, the very word we've chosen to describe our seasons of leisure reflects this: vacation. Meaning: to vacate, evacuate, create a vacuum. Vacations are not about being present and full. They're about being absent and empty.

So the re-pose and the repose I speak of is not mere leisure, not just an extended time at the lake cottage or more barbecues on the sundeck. Such things are fine, but such things can easily become a mere vacating, where the one thing needed is the one thing missing: God-centredness. Sabbath is not just rest. Sabbath is reclining with Jesus.

Who runs the world?

I wrote a book on Sabbath called The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath (Thomas Nelson, 2006). I was at pains writing it to avoid two things: a pharisaical legalism, where the glory of Sabbath gets ground down to a dust pile of rules, and a post-modernist vagueness, where the practicality of Sabbath and how it can change our lives gets lost.

Along the way I made several discoveries, both theological and personal, but this was the keystone: Sabbath-keeping is rooted in and gives rise to a conviction that God is sovereign. Either God is in control or He's not. If He's not—if I am, or you are, or the prime minister is, or the UN and the World Bank are—then who can rest? We ought to be worried, and very, very busy.

If matters are in the hands of anyone other than God (or in no one's hands), then there is no rest, not just for the wicked but for the righteous, too. There's just no rest altogether. The only sensible pose in such a world is wariness and fretfulness and Mad Hatter franticness.

That is if God is not God.

But if God be God, then there's time enough. If God be God, then in repentance and rest is our salvation, in quietness and trust is our strength (see Isaiah 30:15). Philip Melanchthon once said to his friend Martin Luther, "Today, Martin, you and I will discuss God's governance of the universe." To which Luther replied: "No, Philip. Today you and I are going fishing, and we'll leave the governance of the universe to God."

Poems, axe-heads and flint knives

But let's get practical. How do we practise the sovereign presence of God and learn to leave the governance of the universe to Him? Here are a few ideas.

Write a poem. I'm not kidding. Poetry forces attentiveness—watching, listening, reflecting—that forces a slowing down. In this, it's akin to prayer. Paul says in Romans that we can know the sovereign nature of God—"His eternal power and divine nature"—simply by paying attention to "what has been made" (Romans 1:20). The person who rushes through an art gallery will never learn to appreciate the artists' genius; likewise, the person who never stops to behold a leaf or a child's ear will never delight in God as Maker and Ruler of Creation. Such beholding goes deeper and further when we shape it into a psalm or song or poem. So writing a poem (it doesn't have to be a good one, and no one else besides you has to see it) is a lovely Sabbath practice, a way of "being still and knowing" God (see Psalm 46:10).

Dwell in the company of those who can make axe-heads float. An Elisha story, terse and cryptic, is narrated in 2 Kings 6. Elisha heads up a school of the prophets who undertake a building campaign. In the course of hewing wood at river's edge, one of the men loses an iron axe-head. "Oh no, my lord!" he exclaims. "It was borrowed!"

I see in this story a reverse image of Jesus' parable about the man who willfully, defiantly, buries his talent, his "borrowed" thing, and returns it unused. In the Elisha story, the "borrowed" thing gets buried in the using of it. This happens, I think, more often than the other. For every fool who buries his talent there must be ten faithful servants who lose theirs by using it: the singer who sings herself silent, the teacher who teaches himself dry, the caregiver who cares until she's numb.

Now what?

In this story, Elisha—"the man of God"– cuts a stick, tosses it into the water and the axe-head pops to the surface. Strange. Yet maybe not. The unnamed man dwells in the company of those who, by some holy alchemy, can make leaden things buoyant.

Much of our week is spent using our gift to the point of fatigue, until it gets loose in the socket, dull at the edge and very, very heavy. And then it just flies off the handle, hits the muddy water and sinks out of sight. Unless we dwell in the company of those who, by their closeness to God and by their compassion for us, can make heavy things buoyant, it might just stay lost.

It is worth noting here that Jesus, to the dismay of the religious leaders, thought the Sabbath an ideal day for being this kind of community—those who lift stumble-prone oxen out of pits, who restore withered hands to wholeness, who make blind eyes bright, who unbend bent backs.

It's a good Sabbath practice to dwell in such company.

Get circumcised beneath Jericho's shadow. God has a fistful of strange battle tactics—ordering Moses to stand all day and night with his hands aloft, making Jehoshaphat's choir go before his infantry, stripping Gideon's militia down to an unarmed raiding party. Maybe the strangest tactic, though, is His counsel to Joshua just prior to invading Jericho: take a flint knife and circumcise all the warriors (see Joshua 5:1-9).

Rely utterly on the Almighty. Sing God's praises.

"Okay. So what you're saying is, in view of the battle line, I'm to reduce my fiercest soldiers to a colony of limping, groaning invalids?"

God orders it anyhow, saying He's rolling back "the reproach of Egypt." Among other things, that must mean God intends to reform the slave mentality Israel acquired under the rule of taskmasters. The world of slaves is narrow and precarious: Trust no one. Rely only on yourself. Watch your back.

But now Israel must learn a different way: Trust God completely.

Depend fully on Him. Keep your head high. Rely utterly on the Almighty. Sing God's praises.

But this will require an object lesson to drive it home. Try this: circumcise all the fighters and make them lie down in the presence of their enemies. Make them be still and know God is God.

What has this to do with Sabbath and summer? Simply this: we don't really learn to trust God until we trust Him at the edge of Jericho. When life is comfortable, safe, abounding in good things, our faith is sometimes no more than a will-o'-the-wisp.

It's when finances are shaky, health is uncertain, the church is in conflict, our business is sputtering—it's then that faith shows its mettle.

Some of you are camping so close to Jericho this summer you won't even enjoy a moment of it for all the anxiety you feel.

Is that how God would have it? Writing Psalm 23 Maybe all this comes together most vividly in the life of King David.

Ever wonder when David wrote Psalm 23? What was the occasion? I have a theory: the day his son Absalom overthrew the kingdom.

… especially here in the valley of the shadow of death, God watches and protects.

It's a wild guess to be sure. But there are two clues that David turned Absalom's overthrow and his own forced evacuation into Sabbath.

The first clue is in Psalm 23, verse 5: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows."

In the presence of enemies, with an insurrectionist son sitting on his throne and a bitter old rival throwing curses and dirt on his head (see 2 Samuel 16:5ff), could David have reflected back to those early days of shepherding and remembered that even here, especially here in the valley of the shadow of death, God watches and protects? That God puts goodness on his tail and leads him finally to something far better than an earthly palace: the very house of God?

The next clue is in the account of the overthrow in 2 Samuel 16:14: "The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted. And there he refreshed himself." And there he refreshed himself.

This was arguably the worst day David ever had. But in the throes of it, he didn't simply collapse. He refreshed himself. The word in Hebrew for refreshed is nephesh. It has another meaning: the soul. Literally, David restored his soul (see Psalm 23:3).

David, I think, did more than take a shower, put on fresh clothes, barbecue a steak and play a game of pool.

David, I think, practised the sovereignty of God. And maybe, just maybe, he wrote a poem and left the governance of the universe to God.

Mark Buchanan is a pastor and writer in Duncan, B.C.

Originally published in Faith Today, July/August 2007.




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