The Fourth Commandment

By Liz Zivanov

I’m in the final two weeks of a four-month sabbatical. It’s been a journey of surprises, joys, challenges, changes, rest, adventure, and much reflection. I’ve discovered family in Romania and made new friends there; I’ve spent unstructured time at home with my cats, Hooker and Cranmer; I was welcomed into a religious community for six weeks; I learned about the art of fine furniture making and about the gift of humility; and I’ve vicariously enjoyed the Hawaii vacations of the many friends who cared for Cranmer and Hooker and enjoyed some down time in Paradise.

When I left the parish on March 10, I thought I knew what the four months would look like but I was also ready to be flexible and allow events and travels to happen, even if they weren’t scheduled. And I was and continue to be so grateful for the gift of this sabbatical from my parish.

There is one issue, though, that has continued with me from the beginning of my preparations: The comment that was sometimes said in jest, sometimes in appreciation, sometimes in anger: “I wish I got a sabbatical!” Or in semi-private conversation: “How come she gets a sabbatical and the rest of us don’t?”

Sabbaticals used to be known only in the academic community. They were seen as a time for writing, for study, for research. Sabbaticals in the clerical community are still somewhat of a novelty, and are often misunderstood.

This misunderstanding is not surprising, though, considering the difficulty our society has with the concept of sabbath. When we think about Sabbath, we think about God resting on the seventh day after the work of creation. For many centuries, Christians have observed the Sabbath on Sundays by going to church, having family time, and generally resting from the rest of the week. This Sabbath time rarely happens any more. Various sports and performing arts and other enrichment activities keep children busy on Sundays, even in the morning. Parents have opted to allow secular organizations to determine family schedules because they don’t want their children to miss out on an opportunity. Adults work on the Sabbath. They go into their offices, they work at home; they are too busy to take time to relax.

Most parish clergy are all too aware of the competition that Sunday School and church are in with secular activities. The importance placed on these activities is such that they are seen as crucial to a young person’s success in their adult life. (I did serve in one community where the churches came together and put pressure on the local sports leagues to stop scheduling events on Sunday mornings. They succeeded.)

Parents and other adults have difficulty stepping off the treadmill for any length of time; children and young people watch the behavior of their elders and buy into it as well, scheduling every day with meetings, practices, and other school and extra-curricular activity.

There is no Sabbath any longer for so many Christians and Christian families. This is not about taking vacations. This is about taking time for rest, for stopping, for day dreaming, for worshipping God. It’s about taking time for silence and for listening to God.

What I knew intellectually before my sabbatical and have learned since being in the midst of sabbatical is that we people of God actually do have control of our lives. The problem is that we have passively turned that control over to secular institutions. We talk about how we “can’t” take time off or come home for dinner or get the family together without great efforts at planning ahead and synchronizing calendars. We do this to the extent that we will not step back and take control of our own time and our family’s time for emotional and spiritual health. To put it bluntly, even God needed the seventh day for rest, but we seem to have more important tasks to take care of than God.

We have scheduled our own lives and our children’s lives out to the maximum so that we and they don’t miss any “opportunities” that might – just might – play a significant role in the directions of their lives. We’re afraid that we and they will somehow fail if we don’t keep up with the rest of the rat race.

When someone – like a member of the clergy – takes time for spiritual and emotional renewal, we get angry because that individual has dared to stop working. The real question though is why the rest of us will not reclaim control of our own lives and that of our children and provide for a regular time of Sabbath. Sundays, perhaps. Or maybe we could imitate the Mormons, who pledge each Monday evening for a family gathering, or the more conservative Jews, who actually observe the Sabbath and insist that their children observe it too, regardless of what else is happening on Saturdays. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a child who didn’t make it into college because he or she observed the Sabbath rather than play soccer. There have even been Olympic level athletes who have refused to compete on the Sabbath, and their observance has been honored.

It is a sign of strength, a sign of integrity, a sign of wisdom, a sign of faith to insist on a balanced life that includes regular Sabbath periods. Rather than insist that we “can’t,” we must instead have the courage to take back control of our lives and teach our children the importance of balance and rest. Those of us who claim to be Christians must focus again on the fourth commandment for our own wholeness and holiness. We cheat ourselves, we cheat our children, and we cheat our Creator by turning our lives over to the world instead.

There’s absolutely no reason to covet the sabbaticals of clergy or the Sabbath-taking of others. Each one of us has the power to claim a Sabbath for ourselves. God expects it of us, and God knows we are fully capable of honoring a holy time in our lives and the lives of our families. But each one of us must have the courage and faith to take that first step toward our own Sabbaths and sabbaticals.

The Rev. Liz Zivanov is rector of St. Clement’s Church in Honolulu, Hawai`i, a deputy to General Convention 2006, and president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Hawai`i. Her sabbatical adventures can be followed on Stopping By Woods.

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