Webster’s dictionary defines “sabbatical” as “a recurring period of rest.” The biblical idea of Sabbath and sabbatical is a bit more involved. The ancient Hebrews observed in their creation story that after the work of making the world was done, God took a day off. If the maker of heaven and earth, not to mention the one who keeps things going, can take a day to reflect and rest, so can the rest of us.
Unfortunately, in Jesus’ day, the Sabbath had become something of a burdensome institution. Jesus was constantly at odds with those who enforced a sort of Sabbath orthodoxy. In fact, it seems in a few instances that Jesus went out of his way to provoke controversy so that he would have an opportunity to present his own views about the meaning of the Sabbath.
And what he said is still profound and significant. He taught that human beings were not created for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was created for us.
In other words, there is something inherently healthy about stopping to rest. Of course, that’s not the only thing that can happen on the Sabbath. Whether Sabbath happens for you on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, those days are not just good for a break from work, they are also an opportunity to worship. It’s a chance to connect with God, however we define God. It’s also a time to reflect on what it means to be a human being in this world God has made.
It is good for us to do these things. I’m not going to lay any heavy science on you, but people who regularly take time for purposeful rest live longer. And I believe those who make worship a component of that rest live better.
I bring all this up because I have been granted a sabbatical leave by the good folks at Auburn First Baptist Church. Several years ago the members here took notice that while the work of ministry may not be strenuous, it can be stressful. The church decided that ministers after serving six years would be eligible for a three-month sabbatical. I marked my sixth year the first of June.
My sabbatical plan is pretty simple. My wife and I are going to visit a variety of congregations in the region and experience how others are doing worship. I am curious to observe how other preachers are dealing with their texts. I am interested to know how music functions in different traditions and different settings. I want to see how worship leaders incorporate art and liturgy into their worship services.
And of course, I am going to rest. Other than a determined effort to get to church on time, I plan on observing no deadlines. No sermons due, no Bible studies prepared, no meetings arranged, and no weekly writing – and that includes this column.
I’ve been writing this column now for nearly 10 years. To date, I have not a missed a week. I have written while on vacation, and even over Christmas holidays. The column is an important part of my life and ministry, and so it was important to stay at it.
But now it’s a time for a sabbatical, for a recurring period of rest. This will be the last column submitted until I return to work after Labor Day. And no, the irony of that does not escape me.
May this time for all of us be a time filled with the promise of Sabbath.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
A retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published five books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).