The Holiness of Time

For where shall the likeness of God be found?  There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God.  There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea.  Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.   ~ Abraham Heschel

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord.  For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather your crops.  But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.  Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.  Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines.  The land is to have a year of rest.  Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you – for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land.  Whatever the land produces may be eaten.       Leviticus 25:1-7

These verses describe the principle of the Sabbath Year or the Land Sabbath.  This principle is rich in meaning and, in my opinion, has great relevance for today.  We may not be able to apply the Sabbath Year principles to the land in the same ways that are presented here in Leviticus but I think we can and should take the principles and apply them to the ‘land of ourselves’.[1]

There is an overarching principle that is at work in God’s proclamation that the seventh year is to be a ‘sabbath to the Lord’.  It is the same principle that applies to the Sabbath itself: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy’ (Gen. 2:3).  The seventh year, like the seventh day that it is based on, is holy – it is ‘to the Lord’.  What God has pronounced as holy, we need to take seriously.  Very few Christians know what to do with the Sabbath.[2]  Fewer still understand the meaning of the Sabbath Year.  Both deal with hallow time.  Time set apart.  For what?

Land in fallowness … reminds us that the world (land) has a life of its own from the Creator, that it may not be farmed to death or used up to human advantage and indulgence.  Beyond that, the fallowness necessary to land, which leads directly to the Sabbath principle, invites pondering of a whole way of existence that is infused with listening, waiting, and receiving.   ~ Walter Brueggemann [3]

In this paper I wish to examine and understand the Sabbath Year as a Biblical paradigm – a way of living.  In order to do that, we must first examine the Biblical data.  When we do that, we will quickly discover that the Sabbath Year and the weekly Sabbath that originated in creation areinextricably linked.  We must therefore understand the Sabbath principles if we are to understand the Sabbath Year.  To help inform us about these ‘time’ events, I have chosen to put particular emphasis on the orthodox Jewish interpretation of Sabbath principles.  It is from the ancient Hebrews and from contemporary Jewish interpretation that we can gain much understanding for the integration of the Sabbatical Year into our lives.

Turning from the Biblical framework, I will then present a brief sampling of current sabbatical experiences in industry and ministry.  Much of this comes from personal interviews and first hand research.  Finally I will share personal reflections and insights from my own sabbatical experience which I am still enjoying as I write.  As I reflect, I hope to transfer the Biblical paradigm of the Sabbath Year to our present day ‘work-ministry’ – a term I am using to describe our usual day-time activities.  In describing it as ‘work-ministry’, I am making no distinction between working in a church or mission and working in an office or laboratory or working in the home or going to school.  As Christians, this is all work-ministry.

The granting of sabbaticals has been a long-standing tradition in the academic professions.  In the last few decades, we are seeing an expansion of the practice to other professions and industries.  A recent (1997) article in a human resources magazine (HRMagazine) states that sabbaticals are fast becoming the norm in Silicon Valley.[4]   HRMagazine also reported in a 1996 article that about 10% of large companies currently have formal sabbatical programs while many companies of all sizes offer unpaid leave with job security on an informal basis.  Sabbaticals are most popular at law firms, computer companies and consulting firms, where burnout is often a problem.[5]

I believe that Christians should be setting the standard for sabbatical practice in the workplace.  The call to a regular practice of sabbatical boils down to an issue of honouring what God has called holy.  God has pronounced certain times as being holy unto Him.  Dare we dishonour what God has called holy?

Examining the Biblical Data

In addition to the basic text in Leviticus 25:1-7, there are other relevant scriptures that relate to the Sabbath Year. We find in Exodus 23:10-12 a companion text:

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused.  Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave.  Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed.

We also find the law of release in Exodus 21:2-6, whereby a Hebrew servant “is to serve you for six years.  But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.”  Another important passage is found in Deuteronomy 15:1-18 which begins with the injunction:  “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts”.  The passage goes to explain the legal parameters of such cancellation, but more important, provides the principle behind the law:  “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (v.11). The rest of the passage repeats in greater detail the Exodus 21:2-6 passage of releasing Hebrew servants after six years of service.  Again it is important to capture the Godly intent of this law of release:  “And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed.  Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress.  Give to him as the Lord has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.” (v. 14-15)

We read in Jeremiah 34:8-22 the account of King Zedekiah making a covenant with all the people of Jerusalem to proclaim ‘freedom for the slaves’ (v.8) – an apparent reinstatement of the practice of releasing Hebrew servants, presumably after long neglect. (v.14)  We read in the story that King Zedekiah and the people break their covenant and take back their slaves.  This results in God’s severe judgment:  “You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen.  So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you declares the Lord – ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine.” (v.17)

We must also affirm the institution of the weekly Sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11 as the basis of all Sabbath principles:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all you work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Finally, we must realize that the pattern of weekly Sabbaths and the rhythm of Sabbath Years are pointing somewhere.  They are not just an endless loop of days and years but they point to the Year of Jubilee.  We read in Leviticus 25:

Count off seven sabbaths of years – seven times seven years – so that the seven years amount to a period of forty-nine years.  Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.  Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.  The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines.  For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.  In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property. (v.8-14)

The text goes on to explain the return of property, the cancellation of debts and the redemption of servants – a marvelous year of freedom and release.  Throughout this passage we get glimpses at what is behind these remarkable commands.  As to why land is to be returned to its original owner, God says: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” (v.23)  As to why servants are to be released, God states:  “Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.” (v.42)

Isaiah picks up the Jubilee theme in 61:1-3:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

As these images find their way into the Gospels – particularly Luke 4 – they become associated with God’s eschatalogical reign.[6]  Jesus, quoting from the Isaiah 61 text, declares Himself as the fulfillment of the Jubilee principles of freedom and release.  In the same way that Jesus transformed the Jubilee, which dealt with resting the land, redistribution of land assets and the cancellation of debt, into an eschatalogical ideal, so perhaps the Sabbath Year may have broader implications for the Christians of today.

As one reads the texts that speak of the various Sabbath times and Sabbath laws, one cannot help but be impressed with their complexity.  These texts are rich in meaning and significance.  In them, God evidences concern not only for the land, but the marginalized, the aliens, the temporary residents, the servants, the slaves and even the animals.  This is clearly a social edict, a political edict and an economic edict.  It is above all else, an issue of stewardship – again and again we are reminded that we are the Lord’s.  The land is God’s – all of creation belongs to the Creator.  We are to live as stewards of creation, not as owners.  We are to live respectfully, in harmony with all mankind.  We are to pause and remember that we do not labour for ourselves, we labour as ‘unto the Lord’.

There is much more meaning here than we can ever uncover.  It is all intertwined and interconnected. God has the big picture in mind while we can only see bits of it. Although we cannot fully comprehend all that God intends, the rich themes of these passages seem to say something about how we ought to live our lives.  God is presenting a way of ‘Sabbath living’ to us.  We should pay attention and grasp, as much as we are able, the import of His commands.

No discussion of the Sabbath Year would be appropriate without first understanding the nature and significance of the Sabbath as declared in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:8-11) The weekly Sabbath provides the foundation upon which to understand the Sabbath Year.

The Weekly Sabbath

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all… It is not a date but an atmosphere.   ~ Abraham Heschel [7]

Keeping in mind that this paper is not an investigation of the weekly Sabbath but of the Sabbath Year, what follows is but a brief summary of some of the Sabbath day principles.

For too long I have viewed the Sabbath as a day to be refreshed and recharged for the week to come.  Is that not why God rested?  To get ready for the next week of hard work managing His new creation?  The answer, of course, is no.  God did stop but He did not need to rest.  His ‘body’ does not wear down and wear out like ours does. Rather than being a day of rest at the end of a long work week, the Sabbath is to be viewed as the celebratory climax of each week.

Heschel writes, “To see the Sabbath as a day of recuperation so that we might go out on Monday strengthened and refreshed is to view the Sabbath in the spirit of Aristotle, not the Bible.  The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.  It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”[8]

God rested on the seventh day to enjoy what He had created and to pronounce that it was good.  He rested from His work to establish a pattern of living for His creation.  Our lives are not to be filled only with work.  We are Sabbath people and we have a Sabbath way of living.  God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Gen2:3)  It is this pronouncement of the seventh day as being ‘holy’ that we must understand if we are to grasp the significance of the Sabbath.

Day after day we labour and work and produce.  On the Sabbath, we are arrested in our work by the holiness of the day.  There would be sufficient cause for us to rest on the Sabbath simply because God rested.  He, as Creator, sets the pattern; we, as creatures, follow.  But the fact that God not only rested but pronounced the day as holy is too significant to miss.  The Sabbath is much more than ‘creative cessation’.[9]

What makes the Sabbath holy?  It is not simply that work stopped. Stevens makes the point that the Sabbath is not the absence of work but experiencing the joy of God and entering into God’s work.[10] Just as Jesus engaged in Sabbath work by bringing people to healing and rest, our observance of the Sabbath does not require a total shut down of activity.  What makes the seventh day holy is that God made it holy.  God blesses the Sabbath and makes it holy because God is holy.  It is God’s actual ‘being’ – His holy presence – that makes the Sabbath holy.

In his book, The Elusive Presence, Samuel Terrien says that the theology of God’s Divine presence is more important that the theology of covenant.  This is because a covenant between God and humanity is possible only if God chooses to be present to the chosen people.[11]  The Sabbath is not primarily about us being fully present to God and Creation, but about God being present with us.  It is this ‘God with us’ who shows us how to be fully present and alive and human.  In the Sabbath, we exercise the presence of God.[12]  This presence can be very ordinary, even boring.  This presence can be thunderous and awesome – eclipsing all that we could have even imagined.  This presence may be completely silent.  This presence is full of mystery.  This presence may cause ecstatic responses or the peace-filled sleep of one who is loved and protected.  This presence may cause healing and relief or the pain of cleansing.  It is a presence that cannot be fully articulated.

Brueggemann suggests that the Sabbath is a ‘covenantal work stoppage.’[13]  We are to remember that God’s world is not a place of endless productivity, ambition or anxiety.[14] This is absolutely true – but, I would suggest, that it is so much more.  It is not just stopping, it means rest.  Many of us stop from our usual labour on the Sabbath, but few of us actually rest.  Abraham Heshel writes:

Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath.  Although usually rendered as ‘rest’, menuha is much more than withdrawal from labour and exertion.  What was created on the seventh day?  Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose.[15]

Stevens, in a profound statement of irony, warns that “Even the attempt to experience Sabbath can become work… Sunday is often the most hectic and stressful day of the week, the least restful.”[16]  And Brueggemann, in his commentary on Exodus, suggests that Sabbath is not about doing ‘sabbath-related’ things.  It is first and foremost about not-doing.  It is a “disciplined and regular withdrawal from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion.  Sabbath is a daring recognition that, with the change in sovereigns from Pharaoh to Yahweh, unrewarded and unrewarding expenditure of labour is no longer required.”[17]

The Sabbath is also about joyous recreation.  Stevens writes that the Sabbath reveals the heart of God as One who enjoys being God.  He rested to enjoy His God-work, His creation.[18] This sets an important pattern for our observation of the Sabbath – it is to be enjoyed.  We can have fun.  Many of my most enjoyable Sabbath times come when I am outdoors – hiking a trail, sitting at the water’s edge, looking at the mountains, fishing, reading.  Like God, I enjoy His creation.  Other times, I enjoy building things.  I find much refreshment of spirit in building a sand-sculpture on the beach or putting up a fence in the back yard or helping one of my children create a play toy.  Although I do not fully understand how the process works, and even though I am not directly in communication with God (i.e., through intentional prayer or Scripture reading), I feel refreshed – I feel a wonderful sense of contented rest.

Sabbath, then, is a time of stopping; a time of entering into God’s rest; a time of recognizing God’s presence with us in a more intentional and profound way; a time of being fully present to this God who seeks to be present with us; and a time of joyous recreation.

These are but a few of the themes we could explore.  There is so much more to say about the Sabbath but perhaps we can catch the profoundness of the Sabbath with the following Jewish legend[19]:

“At the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvot, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession.

    • And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah?
    • The world to come.
    • Show us in this world an example of the world to come.
    • The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.

According to the Talmud, the Sabbath is me’en ‘olam ha-ba, which means: somewhat like eternity or the world to come.[20]

The Jubilee Sabbath

Count off seven sabbaths of years – seven times seven years – so that the seven years amount to a period of forty-nine years.  Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.  Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you.  Leviticus 25:8-10

If the weekly Sabbath is the foundation for the regular practice of the Sabbath Year, then the Year of Jubilee is its culmination.   Although a full discussion of the Year of Jubilee is beyond the scope of this paper, its obvious and direct link to the Sabbath Year, demands that we spend some time investigating its themes and implications.  I would refer any who are interested in a fuller discussion of the Year of Jubilee to Maria Harris’ rich and provocative book, Proclaim Jubilee – A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century.  Harris presents the major themes of Jubilee as fallowness, forgiveness, liberation, justice and jubilation.[21]  We should not lose sight of these as we investigate the Sabbath Year, particularly as we attempt to draw principles for a ‘Sabbath’ way of life.

Harris summarizes Jubilee’s core teachings as follows:

            You shall let the land lie fallow, that is, you shall practice Sabbath;

            You shall forgive debts, letting forgiveness in;

            You shall free captives and proclaim liberty;

            You shall find out what belongs to whom and give it back;

            You shall hold a great feast, learning to sing the canticle of “Jubilee”[22]

Jubilee foreshadows the end-time era of forgiveness, freedom, justice and jubilation.  It is a wonderful picture of what this world will be like when Christ returns again and restores God’s creation to its former and intended glory.  Jubilee begins, however, with the decision to pause and to let the land lie fallow.  It begins in stillness.  It begins with a Sabbath Year.  To be precise, it begins with a regular pattern of Sabbath Years.

The first seven verses of Leviticus prescribe a condition essential to the rest of Jubilee.  If there is to be a year of the Lord’s favour, and if people are to receive a garland instead of ashes, they must keep a yearlong period of complete rest, during which the land is to lie fallow.  They must hallow the land so it will know the blessing of re-creation and so the poor might eat of its yield.  But they must also rest themselves, in order to listen and answer the voice of their God.[23]

The Jubilee is the awaited event, but what I want to focus on is the preparation for the Jubilee.  God has decreed a rhythm of living that must be in place before the Jubilee can occur.  It is this pattern of observing the Sabbath Year that I want to emphasize as the primary consideration of sabbatical year principles.

The Sabbath Year

One of the first questions that is asked of the Sabbath Year is, “Was it ever observed?  Did it, in fact, take place?”  Although we have no direct evidence that the land sabbath was observed during the preexilic period, we do have ample evidence of an agricultural fallow year from the period just before the common era.[24] The discussion of whether and how often the Sabbath Year was observed must, however, play a secondary role to a discussion of what God intended by the institution of these very particular laws.

In the primary passage describing the Sabbath Year, Lev. 25:1-7, we discover that during the land Sabbath of the seventh year, the soil was to be rested – planting, plowing, and harvesting were forbidden.  During this year, as the land lay fallow, no landowner could lay exclusive claim to anything growing on its own from the previous year.  Instead, everyone was free to eat of the land, regardless of who owned the property.

In the declaration of the land Sabbath, God pre-empts the legitimate questions of the people about how they are to live during the fallow period.  The short answer is that God will provide.  The longer answer is that God will bless the sixth year harvest to the extent that it will provide food for the entire seventh year and eighth year, promising that they will continue to eat from the old crop (ie., the sixth year crop) until the harvest of the ninth year comes in. (Lev. 25:20-22)  What an incredible promise!  But the promise is for those who obey the Sabbath Year principles. Beyond the obvious resting of the land, what are these Sabbath Year principles that need to be obeyed?

There are at least three aspects to the land Sabbath as described here in Leviticus.  It was in part an acknowledgment that the land needed a rest – a stewardship issue.  It was also a declaration that God was the ultimate owner of everything – a religious issue.  It was also a gracious accommodation for the poor of the land – a moral issue.

To properly understand the Sabbatical Year we must understand the special place that God’s promised Land holds for the Jew.  The Mishnah Tractate Shebiit (The Sabbatical Year) concerns the special agricultural and commercial restrictions which Israelites living in the Land of Israel must observe every seventh year.  In his study of The Mishnah Tractate Shebiit, Newman writes:

For the priestly writer of Leviticus, the seventh year, like the seventh day, is sanctified.  Just as God rested from the work of creation on the seventh day and sanctified it as a day of rest (Gen. 2:3), so too God has designated the seventh year for the land’s rest.  Implicit in this view is the notion that the Land of Israel has human qualities and needs.  It “must observe a Sabbath of the Lord” because, like the people of Israel and their God, it too experiences fatigue and requires a period of repose.  In Jewish thought, the Land of Israel, unlike all other countries, is enchanted, for it enjoys a unique relationship to God and to the people of Israel.  That is to say, God sanctified this land by giving it to his chosen people as an exclusive possession.  Israelites, in turn are obligated to work the land and handle its produce in accordance with God’s wishes. During the year set aside by God for the land’s rest, farmers must refrain from those agricultural activities by means of which, in other years, they assert their ownership over the land.  In this way, Israelite farmers every seventh year acknowledge that the Land of Israel ultimately belongs to God alone (see Lev. 25:23) and that they enjoy its fruit only as a gift from Him.[25]

The crucial elements for our understanding are:

          The seventh year is holy.

          The land has a special relationship to God and to the people of Israel.

The land requires rest.

The Sabbath Year is an acknowledgement that the land belongs to God alone.

Newman goes on to explain a second, quite separate view of the Sabbath Year that emerges from Deuteronomy:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.  This is how it is to be done:  Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite.  He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the Lord’s time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed.  You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you.  Deuteronomy 15:1-3

In explaining this text, Newman writes:

Cancelling outstanding debts every seventh year serves to prevent poor Israelites from becoming destitute if they accumulate debts that they are unable to pay.  The principle underlying this social legislation is that all Israelites have a right to share in the material benefits which God provides.  Therefore, God takes special interest in protecting the needy, those who do not enjoy the prosperity promised to all Israelites living in the Land.[26]

Just as God reminds His people that the land really belongs to Him (in Lev. 25), here God reminds His people that He is the God of all commerce and trade as well.   Again, He shows His heart for the poor by forcing those of power and of means to give up what legally belongs to them and hand it back to those who lack power and lack means.

As we explore the historical context of the establishment and observance of the Mishnah Tractate Shebiit, a powerful principle emerges that is central to the Jewish understanding of the Sabbath Year.  Mishnah, completed in Palestine at the end of the second century C.E. came into being at a time of crisis in the life of Israel.  The Romans were in control and the Temple was in ruins.  But for the Mishnah authors, the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Israelite control over the land did not sever the bond between God, His land and His people.  Every seventh year Israelites still must leave their fields fallow, thereby affirming that they are God’s chosen people, to whom this land has been given as an eternal possession.[27]  The observation of this land Sabbath was a powerful testimony in the midst of a world gone desperately wrong, that they were still God’s people and that the land was still God’s land.  It was a witness to God’s presence with them, and in this we hear appropriate echoes of our discussion concerning the weekly Sabbath.

Rabbi David Shapiro approaches the Sabbatical Year in a way that, although different in focus, is complementary to Newman’s approach.  He notes that the command to observe every seventh year as a Sabbath unto the Lord is first mentioned in Exodus 23:10-11.  These verses, coming as they do at the end of a series of laws (Ex. 23:1-9) assuring justice to the beast of burden, to the humble and lowly, and culminating in the guarantee of equality to the stranger, help us to determine the intent of the Sabbatical year as the year in which the divine demands for justice are to be fulfilled.[28]

These themes of justice and equality have been picked up by non-Jewish writers as well.  Stephen Mott states that the “distinctiveness of the Hebrew institution was that fallow ground was for the poor…The concern was welfare, not horticulture.”[29]  Christopher Wright summarizes these themes of social concern:

The dominant feature of the law (of debt forgiveness) ….is the humanitarian concern for the impoverished – extended now not only to the landless poor, as in the case of the original fallow year, but also to the landowners under increasingly heavy burdens of debt.  We are thus presented in this particular economic sphere with an ethical pattern familiar in biblical thought –the fulfillment of one’s obligations to God by means of discharge of one’s responsibilities for one’s fellow-men.[30]

Although we can see that the Sabbath year, like the Sabbath day, was intended as a year of rest, the Jewish understanding of this holy year goes much beyond a time of greater rest and leisure.[31] In fact, as we continue to investigate orthodox Jewish interpretation, we find surprising insights to the purposes of the Sabbatical year.  Rabbi Shapiro believes that there was a higher motive in the divine institution of the Sabbatical year:

Above all the institutions of the Torah, the Sabbatical year aims at liberating man from his kinship with the earth, in favour of a new relationship with God and his fellow-creatures.  By prohibiting the tasks associated with husbandry, the Torah has for a complete year broken the chains that tie man to the earth, so that he rises above the natural order itself.  No longer dependent upon its rigorous laws, he receives his bounties directly from the hand of God Who commands His blessing upon the land so that it produces a threefold crop to make provisions against possible starvation.  In this year, man, freed from bondage to soil and nature, is borne ‘upon wings of eagles’ to live in the presence of his Maker as he once did in Eden.[32]

This was a year in which more time could be focused on God and less on the demands of simply existing.  This was a year which allowed greater participation in the fulfillment of religious duties.[33]  This was a year that allowed greater companionship.  This was a year that made service to the marginalized a focus.  This was a year that reminded the Jews that God had blessed their land and had given the land to them for stewardship.  This was a year in which God reminded the Jews that He still owned the land.  This was a year that God reminded His people to love the poor and the stranger – that He was in their midst in the form of the poor and the stranger.  This was a year when the people were released from their labour to consider the God of their creation. This was a year in which God said, “Stop looking at the ground and look at me.”

With respect to the Godly intent of practices governing the release of debts in Deut. 15, Rabbi Shapiro writes:

After learning the lesson of the Sabbatical year and achieving his freedom from the shackles of soil and nature, man can truly begin to think of his fellow-man as his brother.  It is then possible for him to regard his fellow not as an object of legal claims, but as a person deserving of love beyond the strict measure of the law.  In a spirit of warm-hearted generosity he is prepared to say:  “I give up my claims against you.”… The proper observance of the Sabbatical year girds a man with spiritual fortitude, enabling him to accept the divine commandment, to waive his own rights, and not to be deterred by the possibility of an eventual loss from coming to the aid of a brother in need.  The Sabbatical year has the power of lifting man above his own nature.[34]

I find Newman’s and Shapiro’s insights into the Sabbath Year to be fascinating and entirely appropriate as a basis for the discussion of comtemporary Sabbatical principles.

Contemporary Sabbatical Practices and Principles

In 1988, Eugene Peterson took a 12 month sabbatical. Peterson’s stimulus for a sabbatical was fatigue and frustration.  In a letter to the congregation explaining the need for time away, Peterson writes, “One of the things I fear most as your pastor is that out of fatigue or sloth I end up going through the motions, substituting professional smoothness for personal grappling with the life of the Spirit in our life together.[35]

Peterson conceptualized his 12 month sabbatical as both a harvest time (writing two books) and a desert time (prayer, reading, silence, solitude and hiking).  He returned with renewed energy and passion for the pastorate.  His church was likewise refreshed and more confident upon his return.

In 1994, the editors of Christian Century asked ministers to write in about their sabbaticals.[36]  They found that most sabbaticals fell roughly into 4 categories:

  1. Encounters with other cultures and with Christian communities in other countries, especially less developed ones.
  2. Research or writing-either independently or as part of formal education.
  3. Directed reflection on personal and spiritual issues.
  4. Recreation and rest.

Most sought to combine several of these activities into their leave, which lasted 2-4 months on average.  The positive effects that ministers experienced from their time away included:

Greater insights into Scripture or ministry.

Renewed passion for their work.

Greater sense of thanksgiving for their ministry.

Opportunity to be and not do.

Experiencing a different rhythm of life.

On the Internet there is no shortage of information about sabbaticals – either reports of people who have been on some kind of sabbatical or opportunities for sabbatical leaves.  As with the article in Christian Century, most reports and opportunities fall into the following categories:

Academic  – formal education or research/writing

Travel – often with an educational component

Humanitarian/Compassionate – usually in less developed countries

Usually, a certain amount of relaxation/rest/leisure/recreation is included in each of the above categories.

Sabbaticals, which have long been a core benefit in academia, are catching on in the high-tech industry, where long hours and intense projects can lead to burnout.  Sabbaticals provide a hiatus from workplace stress that is estimated to result in disability costs of $75 billion per year.[37] Stress is a serious matter amongst Canadian corporate executives. In the spring of 1997, researchers at Ontario’s Laurentian University studied the personality, demographic data, stress and working behaviors of 400 randomly selected executives from large Canadian companies. The results of that study paint a startling portrait:

Rather than revealing a mental profile that is a blueprint of surety and strength, the study suggests that the fight to get ahead – or even to keep pace – has become a life or death proposition for far too many executives… Eighty-eight percent of executives surveyed indicated elevated levels of stress and/or unhealthy personality traits, including psychopathy and/or a predisposition toward serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease – levels higher than those found in the general population.  In addition, almost half of the participants showed significant tendencies toward manic depression or some other mood disorder – again, a much higher proportion than is found in the general population.[38]

It is precisely because of this kind of stress and pressure that some corporations are turning to sabbaticals. Bachler, who conducted a survey of workplace sabbatical programs in 1995, suggested that sabbaticals can alleviate burnout and morale problems, ease the burden of downsizing, provide opportunities for personal growth and career development and help workers balance their personal and work lives.[39]

Sabbaticals in Practice[40]

Apple, the computer giant based in California, offers a six-week paid sabbatical leave after every 5 years of employment to give employees in an intense industry an opportunity to relax and recharge.  A side benefit is that co-workers have a chance to learn other skills while backing up those on leave. Cashing out the sabbatical benefit is not an option.

The Frank Russell Co., a pension fund consulting firm based in Tacoma Washington, began its sabbatical program in early 1996 allowing associates with 10 or more years of full-time employment to take off eight weeks of paid leave, to use all at once or in smaller blocks of time and for whatever purpose they wish.  The president summarizes the rationale as one of renewing the mind and spirit of the associates in an industry that counts on keeping minds sharp and active and growing.

Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco has two types of sabbaticals:  the Volunteer Leave program (minimum 10 years of service required) which allows up to  6 months of paid leave, and the Personal Growth Leave program (minimum 3 years of service required)  which is paid for up to 3 months.  The company receives about 40 proposals per year most of which are rejected because of budget constraints – a set amount is designated every year for the programs and when the money is depleted, all other proposals are rejected.  Proposals that actually require a full-time commitment are more likely to be chosen.  This betrays a bias against recreation and rest as a valuable part of a sabbatical.

Arrow Electronics, with 5,200 employees, offers six weeks of continuous paid vacation after seven years of service.  Employees must contribute at least two but no more than seven weeks of their own vacation time. Since its inception, four years ago, about 960 employees have taken a sabbatical.  Kathy Marx, manager of human resources at Arrow, says the sabbatical program gives them a competitive edge over other companies, keeps employees longer, provides unique growth opportunities for those covering the one taking the sabbatical, and creates enormous good-will inside and outside of the company.[41]

One of the most creative sabbatical programs I have ever heard about comes from the $3.4 billion greeting card giant, Hallmark.[42] Hallmark has a 180,000-square-foot innovation facility adjacent to its sprawling headquarters in downtown Kansas City.  Its two floors are packed with studios that support a range of crafts that include beadmaking, ceramics, engraving, and leather tooling. Hallmark also owns and operates Kearney Farm, a spacious Victorian farmhouse outfitted as an artists’ studio, with a barn equipped for woodworking, blacksmithing, and other crafts.  Both the innovation facility and the farm are for sabbaticals – for “creative renewal”. The company offers what may be the most sophisticated array of creativity-enhancing programs ever assembled. They are intended to be a “burst of change to help keep the creative juices flowing.” One participant writes, “If we were told to stay in our cubicles and create all the time, we’d dry up.”  Hallmark offers two sabbatical tracks. In the first, teams of roughly 10 people spend four months exploring a new skill such as stitchery, engraving, papermaking, glassblowing or ceramics. They give up their day-to-day duties and relocate full-time to the innovation centre or farm.  The second track involves smaller teams (3-4 people) who devote six months to an intensive learning mission about a specific social trend such as computer technology, angels, masculinity and spirituality. People who participate in this second track often emerge with a different sense of themselves and a new sense of mission.

Paediatrician Laurence Wedderburn sold his medical practice at the age of 50 to spend one academic year at the European Bible Institute north of Paris, France. He returned to a modified practice choosing to specialize in learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders rather than continuing in general paediatrics.  His sabbatical goals were to do full time theological study in a Christian community setting. He cited a long list of positive benefits, including being freed from the mundane matters of maintaining a home and a medical practice, a freedom to minister spontaneously, learning to cope with much less (he and his wife lived in a small dormitory style room for the entire sabbatical), a broadened awareness and respect of cultural diversity, a greater appreciation of the medical benefits back home, a heightened awareness of ‘guardian angels’, an opportunity to see new parts of the world and making new friends.  He could think of no negative results.

Joan Wedderburn, Laurence’s wife, a teacher of almost 25 years, arranged her sabbatical time by use of the “4 over 5” plan offered by the Board of Education. Under this plan, she accepted 80% of her salary over a 5 year period, with the freedom to do whatever she chose in the fifth year.  Her seniority and teaching position were guaranteed but not necessarily at the same school.  Her intent was to have a true sabbatical and not to enroll in classes at the European Bible Institute like her husband.  She planned to “watch the grass grow” but discovered that God had other plans as she quickly became the unofficial ‘den mother’ for the students living in residence. She was sought out for counselling, mentoring and general ‘mothering’.  This was a very enriching experience for her.  Among the many positive results, she includes the following: friendships that continue to the present; a growing tolerance for different people, churches and food; more courage to minister and evangelize; and a deepening of her spiritual life.  In particular she reflected on the positive effect the sabbatical had on their marriage:  “Our friendship, appreciation and love for each other and the ability to communicate in good times and the not so good times deepened.”  Like her husband, she had no negative results to report.

Amongst churches and denominations there is every possible permutation and combination of the key sabbatical variables, assuming that sabbaticals are granted in the first place:

Length of service required before a sabbatical is granted

Length of sabbatical

Purpose of sabbatical

Degree of financial support by the sabbatical granting institution

Some denominations provide 2 weeks of paid study leave each year.  Individual churches offer 3-4 months of paid or partially paid leave after 7 years.  Others provide 6 months after 6 years but at reduced levels of pay.  Still others provide 6 months of paid leave after 10 years.  Some go as high as 1 year after 12 years of service.  Many churches have no formal policies but will entertain reasonable proposals for a sabbatical leave.  Sometimes a sabbatical leave is granted for acute health problems (heart attack, exhaustion, emotional breakdown, cancer) while sometimes it is granted following a tragic life event such as loss of a spouse or loss of a child.  In a very recent survey conducted by South Delta Baptist Church, 7 out of 11 churches contacted had formal sabbatical policies.[43]  In spite of this survey, which was heavily weighted towards larger churches, I suspect that most churches in Canada and the U.S. do not have formal sabbatical policies.

The Baptist Union of Western Canada has an official Sabbatical Leave policy, while the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada does not.  The BUWC understands a sabbatical to be “leave from employment responsibilities for the purpose of spiritual renewal, academic pursuit or recreational activity.”[44]  The funding formula includes participation from the minister, the minister’s church and the Baptist Union amounting to two-thirds of the minister’s salary. Employees are eligible for up to four months after 10 years of full-time service in the Baptist Union and following 5 years in the particular situation where the sabbatical is approved.

The Arizona District of the Church of the Nazarene has instituted a uniquely Scriptural sabbatical policy:[45]

Every seventh day a Sabbath Rest.

Every seventh month a week of Sabbath Rest.

Every seventh year (at a local assignment) a seven-week Sabbath Rest.

This is viewed as a God-ordained, Biblically mandated, cyclical season of renewal for the minister and the ministry.

The Intermountain District of the Church of the Nazarene provides 5 weeks of sabbatical time after 5 years of full-time service in the same local church. A sabbatical is defined as an “extended time away from routine ministry for the purpose of renewal, retooling, and receiving a fresh vision.”[46] The local church provides full compensation and benefits during this time as well as a love offering to assist in travel and other expenses.

Ministry related sabbaticals (full time church or para-church workers) are almost always understood as being a time of productivity.  Although rest and restoration are understood as legitimate reasons for desiring a sabbatical, it seems that, almost universally, there must be a productive element to the time away.  The question, “So what are you going to do on your sabbatical?” must be met with an appropriate response to legitimize the leave.   Typically, the response is to go back to school, to take courses that will further ones’ skills and knowledge; or to research a particular aspect of ministry or area of scholarship that again will enhance the personal development of the sabbatical taker; or to serve in another context, usually in a Third World country, and thereby broaden one’s personal experience and world view.

Another question is often asked or implied: “How will the minister taking a sabbatical benefit the church (or para-church organization)?”  Again, one is forced to justify the leave on the basis of tangible improvement to the sabbatical-granting body.  Typically they might perceive benefit by being the eventual recipients of knowledge and experience gained by the sabbatical taker.  This is particularly true if the research involves an area of knowledge that is directly applicable to the church – as in a new model of church government or a new model of church growth and planting.

Peterson comes down very hard on the church for not granting pastors true sabbaticals.  Instead, Peterson claims that most pastors, if they get any time off at all, get study leaves for the purposes of taking courses at universities and seminaries.  These, he calls ‘bastard sabbaticals’. They are not what true sabbaticals are intended for – “a time to be silent and listen to God, not attend lectures; a time to be in solitude and be with God, not ‘interact’ with fatigued peers.”[47]

I think Peterson has a point but overstates it – perhaps deliberately.  Sabbaticals can be a time for silence and listening to God and also a time of new learning, of renewing the mind.  Peterson himself described his sabbatical as a time of harvest and of desert.  My harvest time is taking courses at Regent – an activity that I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Reflection on Sabbath Year Principles

In this section, I want to focus on selected themes introduced in the previous sections.  As I read and reflected, as I talked to people and to organizations, and as I was immersed in my own sabbatical experience I was impressed by certain principles and surprised by certain concepts.

In the Sabbath Year, there is a connection with and a reverence for the land that has been lost in our western culture but that is very much alive among many of the world’s people groups. The Hebrews of the Promised Land and the First Peoples of North America have much in common.  In 1854, when the Squamish were forced to transfer ancestral Indian lands to the U.S. federal government, Chief Seattle asked prophetically:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?  If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?  This we know.  The earth does not belong to the humans; humans belong to the earth.  This we know.  All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.  Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.  The humans did not weave the web of life; they are merely strands in it.  Whatever they do to the web, they do to themselves…. This earth is precious to God, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.[48]

Chief Seattle’s words reflect a deep theological insight.  Our connection with the land is by way of the Creator.  The land and all of humanity is a creation of God.  We were created not merely to co-exist but created to live in an inter-dependent harmony.  Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.  Could it be that whatever has been deemed ‘good’ for the earth is likewise ‘good’ for the people of the earth?  Can we apply the concept of the sabbath for the land, i.e., the fallow year, to humanity?

Just as God teaches us that the land must lie fallow every seventh year, there is another land, the land of ourselves, to which we must attend.[49]  We are to let ourselves, the land of our bodies, lie fallow too.  Certainly, this is the Sabbath principle that was initiated in creation, distorted by the rules of man and later clarified by Jesus.  We have already talked about the need for a regular, weekly Sabbath.  But I would argue that there is a need to honour the concept of the Sabbath Year – perhaps not 12 months every seven years but some regular sabbatical time away from the routine of our work-ministry.

Perhaps we can contemporize the Sabbath Year’s commands as applying to ourselves:  For six years you shall produce and work hard.  But in the seventh year you are to have a sabbath rest.  You shall not plant or prune or produce or sell or manufacture.

In Western Society, we do much better at grappling with space than with time.  Work, productivity, industry, output, assets are all tangible expressions of space.  These are things we can get our hands on, things we can see.  But as Abraham Heschel so correctly points out in his wonderful book, The Sabbath:  The Bible is more concerned with time than with space….it is more concerned with history than with geography.[50] Heschel continues by stating that Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.  Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time.[51]

Time is a concept that is much harder for us to understand – at least to understand as the Bible presents.  To God, certain ‘times’ are holy.  We know little of ‘holy time’.  We only know of time as a definer of activities – at 6:30 in the morning, sleep stops and the day begins.  By 7:30 a.m., we need to be on a bus or train or in a car.  By 8:30, we need to be at our desk or in a classroom or on the factory line.  At 10:15, we stop our work for 15 minutes to drink coffee and talk with fellow workers and then we continue to work until lunchtime.  And on and on it goes.  Even Sunday is delineated by time constraints: Sunday School at 9:30, Worship Service at 11:00 and to be finished no later that 12:15.  We live according to time.  We do not live in time.  We know little about time that is holy.

Essentially, the Sabbath Year, like the weekly Sabbath upon which it is based, is a teaching about time and about dwelling in time.  Sabbath, as we have already discussed, is not so much about observing a prescribed passing of time, but of learning to be in time.  We are time dwellers – with a finite beginning and end.  But in that temporal reality we are called to be present to God, to creation and to ourselves.  God knows that we have more chance of being present during times of sabbath.  God knows that we get caught up in the affairs of the world, in the affairs of our self-importance.  To be sure, we are to be present to God every moment of every day but that is a discipline that we may not realize until we are fully present with Him at the end of our earthly days.  But God provides practice for being present in the discipline of the sabbath.

My daughter is taking piano lessons.  She is in the fifth year of the rigorous Conservatory program.  She is supposed to practice 45 minutes every day.  Most of the practice times are met with some resistance.  During these times she is not fully present to the music she is learning.  Every once in a while, however, she ‘clicks’ – she becomes attuned to the music – and then the practice is transformed into joyous reality – being fully present, enjoying the music, enjoying herself.    And this is a promise of things to come, when she will sit down at the piano for the pure enjoyment of the music, for the pure praise of God her Creator, not because she has to, but because she has the privilege of exercising a God-given gift.

Perhaps it is similar with the sabbatical.  We practice being fully present with our God and His Creation.  Most of the time the worries of our self-importance get in the way – even on the Sabbath.  But sometimes, by God’s graciousness, we enjoy the reality of being fully present – and in so doing we catch a glimpse of what Heaven will be like.

The sabbatical should never be seen as replacing the weekly Sabbath but it has the potential for so much more.  There are life issues that we all face that simply cannot be dealt with in one Sabbath day.  Some issues require weeks and months:

-learning how to rest after a lifetime of driven activity

-learning how to receive from God and from the land

-time to refocus, to find our bearings and re-establish our footings

-time to reconnect with God, with family, with friends and with ourselves

-wrestling with God over major course-corrections in life

-time to attend to our physical bodies

-time to ask “How am I doing?” “How is it with my soul?”

-time to reflect on and attend to our spiritual development

-recovery

-refreshment

-recreation

There is no doubt that this list is heavily influenced by my sabbatical experience.  I am sure that you can add to this list your own particular issues.  Fundamentally, though, a sabbatical is a time to be fully aware that God is with us and in us and all around us – and He loves us.  It is a time to make ourselves fully available to this ‘God with us’ – freed from the demands and distractions of our normally, too-busy lives.  It is a time when we can become aware of being God’s creation, a creation that He enjoys.  It is a time when we can enjoy being God’s creation.  It is a time for true play – play that has no other purpose than to enjoy the life that God has given us.  It is a time to reflect on the incredible significance of being at play with God – we are created in His image; we are His beloved.  It is a time to reflect on the wonderful concept of truly being at home in God.

Immediately following the laws describing the Sabbath Year and the Year of the Jubilee in Leviticus 25, God clearly spells out rewards for obeying these laws (Lev. 26:2-13) and punishment for disobedience. (Lev. 26:14-39)  What I find fascinating is the concept of the enforced land sabbath in verses 33-35:

I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you.  Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.  Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; and the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths.  All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.  Lev. 26:33-35

I wonder if we do not see in this enforced sabbatical a parallel to what is becoming all too common in our age – the phenomena of emotional, mental and physical breakdowns.  Is it possible to view these breakdowns – literally an enforced rest  – as our body’s reaction to the disobedience of God’s rhythm of life?  Certainly as God’s creatures, we have God’s laws at work in our bodies.  (Here, I am taking bodies to refer to our complete personhood, comprising the physical, emotional/mental and spiritual elements that make us into the persons that God has created.)  Does it not make sense, that if we ignore God’s rhythms of life we might suffer the consequences of that disobedience?

As I have researched, interviewed and personally reflected on my sabbatical experience, I have been struck by the net-impact of the sabbatical.  The decision to take a sabbatical has significant implications not only for us personally but also our families, close friends, our religious communities, our place of work and I would argue, for society at large.   At work here is a concept of connectedness[52] that encourages us to see the sabbatical as part of a much bigger picture:

  • The sabbatical experience has connectedness in time – it will forever affect the future.
  • It has connectedness in relationship – it will have significant impact on how we relate to family, friends and work associates.
  • It has connectedness to spiritual pilgrimage – it will become a significant part of our ‘journey’.
  • It has connectedness with space – the discovery of our relationship with creation, in general, and land, in particular, can be very healing.
  • It has connectedness with imagination – it is a wonderful time to release and cultivate creativity – it can become the ‘field of our dreams’.
  • It has connectedness to ourselves – a chance to reassess, rediscover, and revive.
  • It has connectedness with God – as we avail ourselves to His presence and as we ourselves become truly present to our Creator.

When I begin to think along these lines, it is easy to become carried away and begin to see connections and implications for family life, church life, community life, business, politics, culture, and society.  I begin to see connections with crime, education and the arts.  I imagine what regular periods of sabbatical would do for, not just our personal spirituality, but the spirituality of the nation.

If we take seriously Rabbi Shapiro’s thoughts that the Sabbatical year positively inclines us to love our brother and, in warm-hearted generosity, to give up our claims against our brother and essentially to lift us up above our own natures, then the net-impact of the sabbatical looms large indeed.  If we could regularly be brought to the point where we are lifted up above our own natures, the sabbatical experience may not only be a good idea but an essential part of truly living.

Peterson talked about the positive impact his sabbatical had on the health of the congregation.  I know for a fact that my sabbatical has already brought much growth and confidence to the young pastor who is fulfilling my responsibilities.  When another one of our pastors returned from sabbatical some years ago, he came back refreshed and strengthened but he also came back with an increased passion in the pulpit and an increased zeal for the lost in his preaching.  That sharpened focus has impacted the congregation to this day.  For some, a sabbatical means the difference between ‘bowing out’ or staying in the ministry.  The significance of such an event is incalculable.  Who knows how many souls will have been affected by such an opportunity?

I doubt if my wife and I will ever again be able to spend as much time with our children as we have in the last few months.  One of the many good gifts of this sabbatical time is the gift of simply enjoying our 10-year old, Erica, and our 8-year old, Julia.  Freed from the demands of work-ministry and freed from the demands of trying to keep up with far too many relationships in our loving community back home, we have had the privilege of spending virtually every day together for several months.  It is impossible to place a value on such a privilege.  And the marvel of it all is that we have indeed enjoyed our time together.  I can’t remember when there has been less tension, less ‘moaning and groaning’, less whining, and fewer tears than during our Sabbath time together.

One of the clearest Sabbath year principles is that the land does not belong to the landowner but to God.  Likewise, the Hebrew servant belongs not to his master, but all belong to the Master Creator.  The Sabbath Year is a way in which God puts us in our place – reminds us who we are and who He is.  The principle is directly transferable to the marketplace.  It reminds us that although we may be on the payroll of IBM or MacDonalds or Regent, that they do not control our destiny.  They do not dictate our earthly journey.  They are not our masters, emotionally, spiritually or physically. They simply control what we do during set hours of the week.  Would not the sabbatical reinforce the principle, both to management and employee, that we are the Lord’s and He is ours?  It would seem to me that this would be a very healthy paradigm in which to work and manage.  I fully understand that the principles and ideas being discussed here have more relevance to those who appreciate God as Creator and Sustainer of life.  Although sabbaticals have merit in and of themselves, the broader spiritual significance of, and justification for, sabbaticals will likely be lost on those who themselves do not have a relationship with God.

Newman presented the interpretation that the observation of the Sabbath Year by the Israelites was a powerful testimony, in the midst of a world gone desperately wrong, that they were still God’s people and that the Land was still God’s land.  Could our sabbaticals be similar testimonies to our secular, non-Christian, non-God-fearing society?  Could the granting and taking of sabbaticals testify that we are the Lord’s no matter where we work, no matter what happens, no matter who is in control and no matter what social customs dictate?  Imagine the reaction, if every seven years you took time off to be with God – not to be productive – simply to be with God.  Imagine your reaction if your employer told you to take some time off to be with God.

Perhaps taking a Sabbatical is like going to church.  Every time we gather for worship on Sunday (or some other day of the week) we testify that God is with us.  Worship services are a testimony to the world that we are God’s people and that God is with us.  This declaration to the ‘unbelieving nations’ is just as important as what takes place inside the church.

Is it possible to draw the parallel between the Sabbath Year resting of the soil and the sabbatical resting of the soul?  The soil is inseparable from the rest of creation. It is that part of creation in which plant life originates, is nurtured and sustained.  In the Genesis sense, it is the origin of human life as well.  The world depends on the soil for its food.  The soul is inseparable from the rest of our body.  But perhaps it is that part of the body in which spiritual life originates, is nurtured and sustained.  The body depends on the soul for its spiritual food.  Perhaps the soul, like the soil of the land, needs a regular pattern of extended sabbath rests.

We are encouraged by the prophet Isaiah to “Call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable.” (58:13)  It is to be a celebration – a delight – a joy.   Somehow, we have lost that concept in centuries of man-made rules and ideas of what the Lord’s Sabbath should look like and feel like.  In the Christian churches of the West, particularly, we have lost the connectedness of the Sabbath to all of spirituality.  Too often, the Sabbath is seen as a set time to accomplish a limited set of tasks – go to Sunday School, go to church, pray, read God’s word, sing in the choir, visit relatives and eat.  Somewhere in the list of activities we have lost the wonder and joy of celebration. Celebrating our life in Christ.  Celebrating God’s presence with us.  Celebrating our connectedness with the rest of God’s creation.  And so a walk in the woods, or laying in a grassy meadow, or dangling your toes in a stream, or raising a toast to friendship, or reading a book, or playing with your children may have more to do with the original meaning of Sabbath than the structured 60 (or 90) minute worship service we experience on Sunday mornings.

Is Harris right when she postulates that “today the Christian religious world doesn’t know what to do with Sabbath”?[53]  She suggests that one of the main reasons for this is that we do not understand the central importance of communal celebration to the Sabbath.  We do not know how to celebrate together because we are essentially disunited.  We are disunited economically, educationally, racially and religiously.  We do not know how to ‘be’ together.  She may be right.  Sundays have become a model of separation, not unification.  We separate from our work worlds and from all the relationships we have in that environment to go to church.  At church we are inherently separated from other churches and denominations – separated by space and labels.  At church we further separate into our individual ‘zones of comfort’ with like-minded, and often like-looking people.  The Sabbath, however, is a symbol of communal celebration – of bringing God’s people together for the common purpose of celebrating God’s presence with us.  It is meant to bring us together.  The sabbatical experience has a profound way of making this happen.  Most often, a sabbatical experience involves leaving one’s relational community –whether that be the work place, the neighbourhood, the extended family, the social club or the congregation.  Most often you leave behind those who have relied on you and on whom you have relied for love and affirmation.  The sabbatical time causes you to value those relationships.  What you have taken for granted becomes precious in its absence.  Upon return, there is a new found significance in celebrating our communion. The sabbatical elevates our sense of belonging to our home community.

But something else happens in sabbatical – you encounter new people, different people, with whom to celebrate communion.  These are people, and perhaps cultures, that you would never have encountered had it not been for taking a sabbatical.  There is a richness in experiencing the diversity of community.  We were delighted to discover that God had provided two Australian families for us to commune with upon our arrival in Vancouver.  We did not know them but quickly became friends because of our bond in Christ and our bond of attending Regent.  Although we talk about studies and what we left behind and what lays ahead, mainly what we do is celebrate together by sharing meals and sharing experiences – very simple and yet strangely profound.  We long to celebrate together.  This is true whether we are children or adults. God has made us to celebrate our communion with Him and with each other.  The sabbatical, in a sense, frees us to celebrate with others wherever we are.

Our sabbatical has been a wonderful experience of connecting with each other, with new friends and with God. I have been renewed, refreshed and stimulated. We have never been healthier. We have enjoyed the land like never before.  We have seen God provide and protect.  We have experienced the diversity of God’s kingdom through Regent and the many different churches we have attended.

Although we are anxious to return to our home and church, we do not want to return to our fast-paced, driven lifestyles.  This sabbatical has shown us a better way.

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——-. “Sabbath,” in The Complete Book of Everyday Spirituality, ed. Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

 

Terrien, S. The Elusive Presence. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

 

Tillson, T. “Is Your Career Killing You?,” Canadian Business 70 (Sept.1997) 78-81.

 

Wright, C.J.H. “What Happened Every Seven Years in Israel?,”  EvQ 56 (1984) 129-138,193-201.

 

 

 

[1] Maria Harris, Proclaim Jubilee – A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) p. 25.

[2] Ibid., p. 33.

[3] Quoted in the Foreward of Proclaim Jubilee by Maria Harris, p. X.

[4] Judith H. Semas,  “A Break From the Hi-Tech Grind,” HRMagazine 42(Sept. 1997) 122.

[5] Elizabeth Sheley, “Why Give Employee Sabbaticals? To Reward, Relax and Recharge,” HRMagazine  41(Mar. 1996) 58.

[6] Sharon H. Ringe, Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) p. xiv.

[7] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951) p. 21.

[8] Ibid., p. 14.

[9] Harris, p. 30.

[10] R. Paul Stevens, “Sabbath,” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, ed. Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997) p. 865.

[11] Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence. (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) p. 3.

[12] Harris, p. 29.

[13] Walter Brueggeman, “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), vol. 1, p. 845.

[14] Harris, p. 30.

[15] Heschel, p. 23.

[16] R. Paul Stevens, Disciplines of the Hungry Heart. (Vancouver: Regent College Reprint, 1993) p. 187.

[17] Brueggemann, p. 846.

[18] Stevens, “Sabbath,” p. 864.

[19] Heschel, p.73.

[20] Ibid., p. 74.

[21] Harris, p. 19.

[22] Ibid., p. 20.

[23] Ibid., p. 21.

[24] Harris references 1 Macc. 6:49, the historian Josephus and the Jubilee scholar Yoder as a defence of the practice of a fallow year, p. 22.

[25] Louis E. Newman, The Sanctity of the Seventh Year: A Study of Mishnah Tractate Shebiit. (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1983) p. 15-16.

[26] Ibid., p.16.

[27] I am indebted to Newman’s discussion of this important historical perspective, p. 20.

[28] David S. Shapiro, “The Sabbatical Year,” Tradition 7 (1965)  p. 45.

[29] Stephen Mott, “Sabbatical Year Principles for Welfare Reform,” Christian Social Action  6 (1993) p.35.

[30] Christopher Wright, “What Happened Every Seven Years in Israel?,” EvQ 56 (1984) p. 137.

[31] Newman provides a thorough discussion of the Jewish laws guiding allowable activities in his book, “The Sanctity of the Seventh Year”. There was increased rest but not a complete cessation of work.

[32] Shapiro, p. 49.

[33] Shapiro, p. 46.

[34] Shapiro, p. 51.

[35] Eugene Peterson, “Desert and Harvest:  A Sabbatical Journey,” Leadership 9 (1998) p. 71.

[36] Editorial, “Taking A Leave:  What Ministers Did on their Sabbaticals”, Christian Century 111

(1994) p. 302.

[37] Christopher J. Bachler  “Workers Take Leave of Job Stress,” Personnel Journal 74 (Jan. 1995) 38.

[38] Tamsen Tillson, “Is Your Career Killing You?,” Canadian Business 70 (Sept. 26, 1997) 79.

[39] Bachler, p. 38.

[40] The descriptions of sabbatical policies for Apple, The Frank Russell Co., and Wells Fargo Bank are a summary of information provided by Sheley, p. 59-60.

[41] Linda Micco, “Arrow’s Sabbatical Program Helps Boost Retention, Prevent Burnout,” HR News Online (July 15, 1998) www.shrm.org/hrnews/articles.

[42] The following description of Hallmark’s sabbatical program is taken from Charles Fishman, “Sabbaticals are Serious Business,” Fast Company 5 (Oct. 1996) 44.

[43] Richard Wilson, a Deacon at South Delta Baptist, Tsawwassen, conducted the survey and kindly shared his results with me. The need for a sabbatical policy at South Delta was prompted by the forced leave of absence, after 17 years, of their senior pastor.

[44] From the Baptist Union of Western Canada Yearbook – 1997.

[45] From the Church of the Nazarene web page – 1998.

[46] From the Church of the Nazarene web page – 1998.

[47] Peterson, p. 73.

[48] Quoted in Harris, “Proclaim Jubilee,” p. 23.

[49] Ibid., p. 25.

[50] Heschel, p. 6.

[51] Ibid., p. 8.

[52] Maria Harris’s discussion of ‘connectedness’ started me thinking along these lines, p.7.

[53] Harris, p. 33.