It was such a weird January this year. Normally I’d have that Spirax notebook out, drawing up my standard 7-day grid, calculating how best to fit 180 hours’ worth of goals into 168 hours a week. What’s most important? What has to go? Who do I want to be at the end of this year? Where can I make the most difference? Wrestling with God and a calendar and a calculator. So many good things to study, read, work hard at, make, sing.
Not this year.
2015 was a brutal year, the latest in a string of hard, cold, winter years. A Narnian winter, I’ve been telling people – always winter, but never Christmas. It’s been lonely, and physically tough going, and there’s been a lot to grieve. Not fresh grief for the most part, but the kind that’s a couple of years old. It takes you out every now and then, like a rogue wave coming from behind, suddenly thrashes you against sand, and the sky is a sealed lid on the ocean, and all you can do is hope that your held breath will last longer than the wave.
A little over a year ago, I fell apart. To do the job that I loved, I needed to stare into the abyss, into what I still fear is the coming dismantling of the social safety net in this country, and I couldn’t breathe under the heartache and worry of it. After one too many crying jags in a bathroom stall, I found myself sagging against a catering table, telling my boss that, inspired by Leviticus 25, I needed to take a Sabbath break for the good, biblical period of 40 days. She – Buddhist, perplexed, but very gracious – said I could. That was the start of my Sabbath year.
My 40-day break wasn’t enough. I came back to work and found myself still overwhelmed, angry at damn near everything, and unable to see a way through. The offer of a voluntary redundancy was more than fortunate; I’m convinced it was God-given. And so I said goodbye to my life as a bureaucrat and set up a wee small consulting firm, thinking that perhaps if I was working just a bit, under my own direction, I’d be able to cope. Except that it happened again: too hard, too much, and I’m crying in a carpark. I don’t cry at work – I get very clear and I stand very tall, and I cover whiteboards with all-caps project plans. Until I’m at the end of myself, apparently; then I cry. And so, last November, I stopped.
The idea of rest is baked into the biblical narrative from the very beginning. Genesis 2 starts with God finishing His creation work and resting – and blessing the seventh day for that reason and that purpose. In Leviticus 25, God sets up the concept of a Sabbath year. Every seven years, the Israelites were instructed to leave their ground to lie fallow, to not plant crops and just live off what the ground produced of itself. Every seven cycles of years, there was an extra rest year, the Jubilee.
A year of rest kind of sounds awesome, right? Here’s what I’ve learnt: rest doesn’t always look like a beach holiday. It doesn’t always feel like swinging in a hammock, listening to ocean breezes. Sometimes rest feels like a muscular, almost aggressive act. Sometimes, Sabbath rest requires as much active trust as anything you’ve ever done in your life.
To leave your fields alone, to not sow a crop, and believe that there will be enough food to keep you and all the people who rely on you alive for a whole year? To trust that what you’ve stored will be enough, and that when you go back to work, there will still be something there? To watch as the planting season comes, and others take the opportunity to grow something new, while you stop and breathe and don’t?
To leave a job you’ve worked hard to get, where many of your colleagues are also friends, and you do things that can make a difference for people in need? To watch as others apply for promotions you wanted? To see issues that break your heart get worse and worse, but to know that if you throw yourself against that brick wall one more time, you’re in danger of doing real damage to yourself and your marriage, and maybe even your kid? For me, there was no hammock, no ukulele soundtrack. There were white knuckles and sleepless nights, and – thank God – a few very important books.
But there were definitely no goals. In normal life, I love that stuff. I’ve installed a copy of MS Project on every computer I’ve used since 2006. I remember more vivid details about the day I learned to do a Work Breakdown Structure than I do about my wedding day. I have detailed opinions about the SMART acronym. But by January this year, the prospect of setting an actual goal filled me with a physical revulsion. And it was so weird that I finally – finally – stopped fighting to make things the way I thought they should be, and started to actually rest.
It turns out, Sabbath rest can be pretty glorious. Not in the sense that I’m winning any glory for myself, because I most definitely am not. There’s nothing going on in my life right now that bears any of the markers of a successful Christian life – or a successful secular life, either. If I die tomorrow, I’m going to look like a bit of a screw up, to be honest – a person who made a good start that then didn’t seem to go anywhere. But I have never been surer of my salvation, even as I’m absolutely sure that I’ve done nothing to earn it.
Sabbath rest required that I put stuff down. It required that I relinquish my plans for my career and our finances. It required that I give up my identity as a person who is strong, and who gets things done. Those things have never been completely true, but they’ve been true enough that I could hold onto them. But I had to put them down.
But God didn’t leave me empty handed. He measured out sleep, and birdsong, and poured them into my hand. He made the sun shine through our dining room window while I sat at the table and wrote a little. And He reminded me that while my plans may not come to fruition, His definitely will. His Kingdom has come and is coming – there’s nothing surer – and on the Sabbath day I rest in that, and on other days, I work towards that. But I do it all in the knowledge that my work is not necessary – He could to it without me – but a loving gift of inclusion from my Father, who wants me to play a part.
He’s so good.