It began as a habit with my sisters. I like to play around with my clothes, my make-up, my hair. Try new ensembles. California is kind to that sort of thing, I suppose, but my judgment in fashion is far from impeccable, so I often approached either of my sisters - both far beyond me in taste, and asked, "Is this cute or stupid?" Had I gone beyond the bounds of good taste? Would the soccer moms tsk-tsk me in the produce section? Would the cheerleaders turn their upturned noses up further than normal? I did it often enough that I could barge into either of their bedrooms and announce, "I need a cute-or-stupid check," to get a final verdict on my way out the door. I could trust them. They loved me; they would not ridicule me, but neither would they, for the mere sake of my feelings, let me walk out the door looking like a train-wreck.
("Almost a month without a blog," you protest, "and this is what we get? The cute-or-stupid checks?" Bear with me, gentle reader. I promise I'm going somewhere.)
A week ago, I spent three days in the woods near Goshen, Virginia for the annual IJM staff retreat. I went for long runs on the misty mornings through stands of pine that favor the sandy soil. I went to bed tired and achy, halfway toasted from a bonfire, hoarse from singing the choruses to songs written before I was born. I slept out under Orion and the Seven Sisters and woke up cold and covered in dew. That was all better than good, but it was not the best.
Every year, IJM studies a spiritual discipline. This year's theme is rest. It's self-consciously ironic; you'd be hard pressed, on any given Monday, to find a more hard-core group of Type-A personalities congregated under a single roof than the staff of International Justice Mission. But, irony acknowledged, we went out of the city for three days, reading and praying and singing about the Fourth Commandment and its application to our complex and demanding existence.
Much of the talking centered around the rhythm of Sabbath. Every seven days, God says, stop what you are doing. Take off your yoke, acknowledge me, and just do nothing. Why seven? It seems arbitrary.
Mark Labberton, the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, was our guest speaker for the retreat. Mark suggested that the length of time was indeed arbitrary, but that the arbitrariness itself was significant. "God puts us on a leash. I don't think we can go any longer," Mark mused, "before we start to forget which one of us is God, and which of us is not."
I came away with many new truths to cobble into my daily life, but this one has been particularly resurgent. The sabbath is not just a cessation of work, nor a mere dutiful, religious observance. Like my silly cute-or-stupid checks, the sabbath is a reality check. Sabbath is an invitation to remember that I am human - neither more nor less.
I am not God; therefore, if I stop working, the world will go on spinning. And though I am not God, I am still God's; therefore, I have the responsibility to be no less than what I was made to be, "a little lower than the angels." The life I lead I live not for my own gain, or for ends beneath my heavenward calling, but for His pleasure and glory. If I can, every seven days, remember these things, I am markedly less likely to get myself in a fix. I can focus on being fully and merely a creature of God, with all the glory and blissful smallness that entails.
Sabbath is, in these respects, like looking into the loving eyes of my sisters and saying, "How am I doing? Is this working? Have I gone beyond myself again?" It's just that here, the stakes are far higher.