Last spring, I was doing what I believe many of my fellow clergy might do, and that is to begin to wonder what exactly we (my congregation and I) should be planning in the way of activities and programs for the congregation for the upcoming fall/winter season. Like many of us, I prayed about it. I had lots of ideas, but nothing seemed quite right. Then, one beautiful spring morning, as I was driving to my church and pondering what to do, I felt as if God was saying to me, “Your people are tired, they have worked hard, they are a little disappointed in the fruits of their labours, and they are slightly discouraged. They don’t need a lot of busy-ness, they need time to rest to simply be—time to come back to basics.”
“But,” I said, “the church isn’t growing much and we’re operating very close to the line financially: how can we rest? And besides, I like the busy-ness.” Again I felt God say to me, “Precisely, that is why all of you need Sabbath Rest—a whole year’s worth.”
I spoke to my wardens and my advisory board, and—surprisingly—they all concurred: it would be good to take a Sabbath Year. I then began to study what the Seventh Year Sabbath means exactly, and how it could work in our congregation in the coming year. I discovered that there are three aspects of the Seventh Year Sabbath:
Release of the Land
God proclaimed that, in the Seventh Year, there were to be no crops planted: the land was to rest. At the same time, the land by its very nature would bring forth some produce. This produce was to be shared amongst households, masters and slaves, the needy and the vulnerable, and the stranger. During this Seventh Year, the people were to trust in the Lord’s provision. It is this trusting in the power and provision of God that brings us back to basics, that God will “give us this day our daily bread.”
He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved all this wealth with my own strength and energy.’ Remember the Lord your God, He is the one who gives you power to be successful. (Deut. 8:17-18)
This year, we have applied the concept of the resting of the land to our congregational life. For one year, we will stop the busy work, the big events, the major projects. We will step away from all of this busy-ness, and simply rest in the presence of the Lord. We want to take time to see where God is, and ask what is truly important for the kingdom in this place. Sometimes we get ourselves so overcommitted, that we just don’t have a sense of what we are really doing and why. This year we will stand back from the noise, be still, and ask what is God’s will, not ours.
Release from Debt
In the Seventh Year Sabbath, sometimes referred to as the Year of Release, there is a release from debt. The texts I read were not certain if this meant release from the entire debt (as in Jubilee) or if it meant release from debt obligations for the Sabbath Year, a year in which there would be no harvest income generated. Whichever way it was intended, one would be debt free for at least a year.
Taking this concept into our church life, we cannot (unfortunately) be free from certain debt obligations that we have. That being said, it is understood that this year we will not push our people about financial issues: this year we will have no financial campaigns, no carrying on week after week about the budget. And we have agreed to trust that our people will share what they can.
Curiously, we were tested right at the beginning of our Sabbath Year. There was an electrical fire which, although not huge, caused enough damage that insurance was involved and of course there is a deductible which understandably was not in our budget. Without asking, people have responded with donations toward this deductible.
There is another form of debt to consider. In some translations of the Lord ’s Prayer, it is written, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” As a congregation, are there people whom we believe to be in our debt, if so, can we let this sense of debt go, release our debtors, set them free? We can ask this same question on a personal level as well.
Release from Slavery
God said that in the Seventh Year Sabbath, all slaves were to be released if they wished to be. Furthermore, the slaves were not to be simply set free, but were to be given enough provision that they could begin new work as a free person, and become financially independent. In essence, these slaves were to be given an opportunity to begin a whole new life if they chose to accept their right to freedom.
We have taken this release from slavery and applied it to all of our volunteers (except the wardens). Everyone has been released from any form of responsibility or commitment to work in the church. Those who are happy to be involved and delighted to share their gifts and skills are welcomed and encouraged to carry on. On the other hand, those for whom their work in the church has become a drag and a “have to do” are released. So far, we have lost only one person—and gained six willing hearts. An unexpected outcome is the inspiring sense, when going into the sanctuary on Sunday, or attending a meeting, of knowing that everyone who is there is there because they want to be present and to participate.
Slavery, like debt, has another side to it. It includes those amongst us who are vulnerable, whose lives seem boxed in, as if they are chained to a past that has no future. How can we, with God’s help, break their chains, set them free and provide them with hope for tomorrow. This is a requisite of the Sabbath Year.
How is it going for us so far?
At this point in time we not far into our Sabbath Year. I have not as yet heard one complaint. I have, however, heard lots of reminders around: “Remember this is our Sabbath Year, let’s keep it simple and easy.”
We are making every effort too to reclaim the Seventh Day, the Sabbath Day, and, this is reflected in our worship, our communication, and our focus. Again, people are talking about it and claiming their Sabbath Day.
I have only recently become aware of the sense of mutuality that is emerging. There is a developing Sabbath Spirit: we are all in this together, supporting and encouraging each other to keep the Sabbath.
Our newcomers are intrigued by our Sabbath keeping and feel quite relaxed, coming into this atmosphere of rest and simplicity.
In my study on Sabbath Rest, I read that the word rest in its original context does not mean so much sleeping or napping as it does abiding with God. So the Sabbath Year of Rest is our time to truly be with God. It is our time to stand back and try to see ourselves, through God’s eyes.
My hope is that, when we come the end of our Sabbath Year, we will be refreshed and renewed, encouraged and energized in the power and presence of God. We will be able to define what we missed, what we didn’t miss, what is important to us—and what God is preparing for us.
My prayer for those in my charge during this our Sabbath Year is this:
May Christ make his home in your hearts. May your roots grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. May you have the power to understand, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness and power that comes from God. (adapted from Ephesians 4:17-19)
A Sabbath Year. A good idea? So far, so good. Thanks be to God.