I was 37 years young when it happened. The summer before the incident, it had been a particularly hard summer for me personally due to an attack on me at a public event. Up to this point I had been a career pastor for 13 years, most of those years working at an Academy (a private Christian boarding high school) as the Pastor and Chaplain. Working and living on a high school campus was my dream job! Pouring into the lives of teens for 10 months out of the year, as well as dreaming up, initiating and completing creative and engaging activities, Week of Prayers, mission trips, Bible classes, Friday night vespers programs, Church services, afternoon activities, and working to mentor student leaders on campus. Not only that, but also working with community members and staff members to better the church environment we all were a part of. Summers were slower, but were spent with continuing education, planning for the next school year, creating and implementing church services for the staff and community on a weekly basis, and heading the youth department for a 10 day camp.
I kept this pace for 10 years, and I loved what I did. But this particular year I came into the school year already running low, due in part to the pace of all my activity. The other part was due to the attacks on me and my job (being a female pastor, which some find to be offensive) from certain people, and even from discussions on a broader sense in my denomination. Although these personal attacks over the years only made me stronger in some ways, they also were taking a toll on my morale. To add to the ticking time bomb within me, this particular year I had no help lined up yet to assist me with the 165+ students that would be in my care. I approached my supervisor with a request for help, telling them of the personal attack that happened over the summer. Things got busy and the help got pushed to the back burner. I thought, “hey, I got this. Just keep doing what you do! Get the students more involved to help out. Make this work!” And it did, for awhile. But unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing Adrenal Fatigue, and my body and soul were shutting down. Literally.
About 3 weeks into the school year, after a huge small group student led week of prayer, I was at the church service about to run through the service for the event, talk about who goes where in the service lineup, etc. and I couldn’t talk or think. My mind literally went blank. I was standing there and it was terrifying because I couldn’t do this simple task of walking thru the order of service. I literally could not talk. I looked at one of my colleagues in the circle, and they jumped to my rescue and ran through the order. I was bewildered. Maybe I just needed some time off. After my two days off, nothing was different. Simple tasks felt like marathons.
That next week I went to the doctor to get tests done, fearing the worst. As I waited for the tests to come back, I took some sick days thinking that they would give me my juice back. But it didn’t happen. I went back to the doctor and he said everything came back normal. I was fine from a physical standpoint, except for one thing: my adrenal glands were completely shot. The adrenal glands are what help you deal with stress and activity. Well, mine were completely empty. He diagnosed me as suffering from Chronic Burnout. I remember hearing that and thinking, “what? But that’s for older people. I can just finish these next 2 weeks and then rest over the next homeleave…” but my mind and heart knew better. I literally was broken. The doctor then gave me two options for curing this malady. One option was I could take a pill that would make my brain think that I was not at burnout – a kind of adrenal mask. The other option was I could rest, which is what my body and really more of my mind needed. So, I had a decision to make. I still remember being in that office and I literally asked myself “what would Jesus do?” And I knew the answer to that, because we have the example of what He did. He would rest. Just like all those times He went into the wilderness to pray. Or how He wouldn’t heal every single person all at once. Or how He rested from His work at Creation. So what would I do?
And this is an interesting question because I knew that if I did what Jesus did, it would be hard. Everyone would know. I may appear weak to some. I would have to advocate for myself. I would have to say “no”. And then the ego came in with suggestions like “all those people who say females shouldn’t be pastors will now have you and this breakdown to use as an example.” or “just take the pill and keep being going! No one will know the difference and you’ll still be loved…” and that’s where I had to stop and think: keep being what? The Savior? A hero? Was my activity really tied into being loved? If we’re working harder than Jesus did, there may be a problem. And ministry in this way may be a form of idolatry. I knew that if I took the pill, I would dishonor not only God, but my very soul. So I opted to fight for rest. To fight for Sabbath. To actually be a Sabbath-keeper.
The next couple of weeks proved to be just that: a fight. I had to get my doctor to write out his prescription for rest. I had to apply for Sabbatical as well as a Family Medical Leave Request. I had to approach my supervisor. I had to make lesson plans and find a sub. I had to keep asking for help, which many times is a hard thing to do for someone in my position. In fact, it takes a stronger person to ask for help than to continue to fake it. I had to announce to my church board and my students what was going on. I had the option to not do this. In many cases like this, people sometimes do this quietly and they just disappear for a few months. But I wanted to be completely transparent and honest with those around me for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted them to hear it straight from me and not have rumors flying around about me. Second, I wanted to give others permission to think about their own soul fatigue and give them a sort of model of how to stop – to kind of be an icebreaker in the subject matter of activity versus rest. And third, I needed to be in control of the narrative of this thing that was happening to me that felt beyond my control. I needed to thoroughly experience this concept of rest, and in order to do that I had to thoroughly be honest through the process.
After getting the approval for Sabbatical and limping through the end of the first semester, I took a 3 month Sabbatical to get my soul back. For that first month of my Sabbatical I lived in a cabin in the mountains outside of Ashland, Oregon. I felt like a skeleton making my way up there, with a car full of groceries, a few books and some clothes. For the first few days I felt crazy. There was no activity and no things for me to fulfill or do. There was nothing to distract my soul. My only “job” was to take care of myself, make sure I had wood for the fire, and enough food to eat. I realized quickly how much of my existence and even my identity had been about activity and going going going. I found myself sleeping at all hours of the day, waking up exhausted yet somewhat refreshed and feeling at times like a failure. But then as time began to slow down into evenings and mornings in the woods, and days became segments of light and dark, I began to heal. It occurred to me that at one point in human history, this is how it used to be: success was measured at the end of the day in (1) am I alive; (2) do I have shelter and enough wood for the fire; and (3) do I have food to eat. That’s it. Where did we make it more complicated? Where did we change the meaning of success and how did we get our self-worth all wrapped up in that? I began to live again. My soul began to breathe again. And there was no one to impress except the trees, and the crackling fire and the occasional deer. As I began to stop from all that activity and all the needs of everyone and all the fires to put out, etc. etc. etc. I began to get to the bottom of where all that thinking leads to and the idolatrous trap of accomplishments and I just stopped and became present to the fact that I am alive. That I am loved by God apart from all of what I can do. That I don’t need anyone or any activity to determine my worth. As I began to practice this new ancient realization and remembrance, I asked myself…is this what Sabbath keeping really is?
Sabbath in a lot of traditions is considered a day of rest. A day to go to church and worship with others. In Jewish or Seventh-day Adventist circles, for example, it’s also a day to refrain from “work” or things of the “world”. But for those who “work” on Sabbath (Rabbis or Pastors or other ministry leaders) what is Sabbath? In fact, is it possible to keep the Sabbath day and miss Sabbath altogether?
During and since my experience of my burnout and of my Sabbatical, I have realized some things about Sabbath.
- Sabbath is more about an experience than merely a day. Now don’t get me wrong: having a day set aside is important and necessary. But it is entirely possible to observe a day and attach the name “Sabbath” and still miss the experience of Sabbath. So when I speak of Sabbath I am not referring to a day, or to a fundamental belief. I am referring to an experience of Stop. An experience of Presence. An experience of Being. A day can help to sequester this experience, but a day doesn’t necessarily accomplish the purpose of Sabbath. Sabbath is so much bigger. In fact, what if breaking the Sabbath is really about not stopping?
- Why is it so hard for us to celebrate rest? When was the last time you heard someone proudly share about how much they rested and what a great experience it was (apart from the activity of vacation)? We get accolades for activity and deadlines met and things accomplished. But when was the last time rest was celebrated at this level? Or why do we at times feel guilty for taking a nap during the day? So I have toddlers and they need their nap time, right? I don’t judge them for that – I know that they need it and if they don’t get their rest, we all will suffer. Why don’t we give ourselves that same grace when we need to rest? Or at the end of the day many can feel like the day was a waste if nothing on their to-do list was “accomplished”. What if the thing to do on that day was nothing – aka experiencing Sabbath. Just being present in the fact that we are loved apart from our accomplishments. What if that was the thing to do?
- Practice saying no. To say “no” means to say “yes” to Sabbath. And once again, I’m talking about the experience of Sabbath rest. Rest for your soul. This is particularly true for those working in ministry or working for the betterment of people’s lives (education, healthcare, public service, etc). There is such a temptation to say “yes” to all the needs that are out there. Remember that Jesus said “no”. We are not the Savior. Jesus is and He still said “no”! So who do we think we are to have to say “yes” to every need that arises within our purview? If we say “yes” to everything we are saying “no” to something else, and many times that something else is something that we are responsible to say “yes” to. For example, when I had kids, I have had to practice saying “no” to things now that before I could say “yes” to. I could say “Yes” to certain things, but I must practice saying “no”, because if I say “yes” to those things, I say “no” to my kids, and therefore I say “no” to the responsibility God has entrusted me regarding my kids. I am the only mother they will ever have. Don’t be afraid to say “no” – this is a way to experience Sabbath.
- One more thing to think about when it comes to saying no. If I say “yes” to every need that comes my way, I am stealing from someone else who was created to fulfill that need. I rob them of the purpose that they were created for, and in turn I also rob myself of Sabbath because I am filling my 24 hour day with more time than I have, thus breaking Sabbath. But I am also stealing the opportunity from someone else to fulfill their God-given talents and skills for such a time as this.
- A true Sabbath – stopping from activity and ministry to refuel your soul – may look like laziness to those who profess to be “sabbath-keepers.” These people are also known as workaholics, but have masked their activity under certain guises that look like ministry, success, etc. And many times these things get wrapped up in personal self-worth. When I took my Sabbatical for instance, there were some who were uncomfortable with my decision to take a conscience rest. Some even seemed offended. It was interesting to me, because it had nothing to do with their lives. But then again, my journey into discovering true Sabbath and talking about it openly was either an invitation to others who needed the same, or it was an unspoken rebuke to those who were caught in the trap of activity and workaholism. So when you take a true Sabbath break, it may be seen as laziness from those who worship at the altar of activity.
- When looking at your life and determining whether you need to practice Sabbath, look at your time. In fact, what I have found helpful is to make a map of my time. Map out every hour of every day for a week. If different weeks look different, maybe make a map of your month, but once again you must account for every minute, hour, day, week, etc. It’s almost like you’re making a time budget line-item of your life. This is helpful because once you see on paper what your life looks like, it can give you permission to practice Sabbath. For instance, every one of us only has 24 hours a day. That’s it. We don’t get a credit card of time. We only have 24 hours. What is taking up that 24 hours? Am I getting enough sleep? Where am I putting my energy the most? Where is my Sabbath rest? I got this concept from a book called Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Richard Swenson. In the book the author talks about how each page on a book has margin. What is margin again? it’s the white parts on the page that have nothing on it. Margin is what helps a reader concentrate on the message of the page. Margin brings balance. So the author then asked: What does our life look like in regards to Margin? Or is every minute of every day filled up with activity? Margin is the spaces to breathe. I would even dare to say, Margin is Sabbath. So once you make out a map of your time, how much Margin do you have? Seeing it like this can give you permission to say “no” or it can also help you not feel guilty for having healthy boundaries of Margin.
- Some of us have grown up hearing the term “Keep the Sabbath Day…” Which comes from the Commandment to “REMEMBER THE SABBATH”. When I was a kid growing up, this phrase, “remember” was drilled in to our minds. It was thought that the word was used “remember” because we would forget it, meaning we would forget which day to worship God on. But what if the REMEMBER has more to do with “don’t forget where to find your worth.” “Don’t forget to stop.” “Don’t forget to take care of yourself.” “Don’t forget to remember that you are loved regardless of activity.” So what if “keeping the Sabbath” is the practice of remembrance? The practice of saying “no.” The practice of getting away for awhile like Jesus did. What if “keeping the Sabbath” is really about the fact that the Sabbath keeps us? That the Sabbath keeps us out of the rat-race of activity and out of the idolatry of ego? That the Sabbath helps us REMEMBER who we really are?
- Lastly: I don’t use the word idolatry lightly. As I said before, If I am working more than Jesus did, I may have a problem with breaking the Sabbath. If I use excuses all the time such as “I’ve got 4 more weeks to really push it and then I’ll take a rest.” or “If I don’t do this _______ the whole thing will fail and fall apart…” I may be living in idolatry to activity. Also be aware of ego. Ego will say things like “What will people think if you don’t do _________?” or “You’ve got to do this if you (a) want to keep your job; (b) keep moving up the ladder of success; (c) be seen as legitimate…” etc. We sacrifice many of our personal Sabbaths with the idolatry of activity and on the altar of ego. But remember this about ego: At the end of the day the ego is a deeper cry to be loved, valued and accepted as beloved. And these things can only be accomplished as we practice the rest that comes from taking a Sabbath. Ironically activity and going going going never appeases the ego, because there will always be something more to do, or another event to attend, or people to please. Instead, as we rest in the realization that we are beloved and valued and accepted right now apart from activity, the ego is silenced as our true soul’s needs are met. In my experience this ONLY happens as we practice Sabbath.
After my Sabbatical ended, and in my journey since, it has been quite a beautiful thing to continue to discover this concept of Sabbath. But I also have been aware of how much work and activity abounds, especially in church work, or in education or in humanities work. It is my hope and prayer that we all will continue to find Sabbath again, and give ourselves permission to rest, and breathe, and be loved. And in so doing, we will be fueled again and again to extend that message of love to the world around us, as we continue to experience it ourselves through the practice of Sabbath..