This winter I enjoyed a luxurious three-month sabbatical, escaping New York’s cold and snow for North Miami Beach. I learned some things from this, my third sabbatical in 43 years of ministry. The first sabbatical was (voluntarily) unpaid and I worried away most of its precious time wondering whether I should have left the job I had left in hopes of getting another. The second one was on a stipend and so I had to produce a product. (I did walk some of the Appalachian trail in addition to finishing the project.) Neither time did I achieve the holy rest of Sabbath. This last time was different: I emptied out. I saw horizon. I changed.
As a writer as well as a pastor, I have written often about Sabbath keeping in the 21st century. I might even know something about spiritual rest and genuine leisure. I see each as the strongest possible opponent of oversized capitalism. I am activist about less activity. Maybe I am even a spiritual activist. I goofball more than most of my peers – and I do so because I know how important my rest is to my work, my leisure is to my productivity. I also suffer from a God complex, and resting more than God did is therapy for that condition.
As a community organizer, my bible used to be Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. That text tells us how to get power and make change. It advises all action all the time. I am more interested now in getting calm enough to make change. I’m interested in more reflection rather than more action. I am less than impressed with action’s track record.
Since so few people get a sabbatical it seems right to thoughtfully appreciate it. Here are my ten rules for radical Sabbatarians to get the most out of the experience:
- Lose the guilt early. Rest is a gift from God. When you don’t rest, you more than risk idolatrous behavior. You get too tired to think, much less act.
- Accept that some people are going to be jealous. Of course there will be jealousy. Way too few people get a sabbatical at all. Most people work more than one job. Be quiet about it and don’t mind the loneliness that comes from not being able to share your joy.
- Find out if you really know how to do nothing. You may not. I know I’m not good at it. I took my three-month sabbatical over four months and worked a week a month out of my office. The rhythm suited me I loved the chance to go back and nurse my anxieties about all that’s going on in our world. The periods of work within the sabbatical created a tension-release dynamic that ended up giving me more rest than I realized it would when I came up with the plan.
- See how long every day you can play tennis, ride bikes, take walks, have coffee, eat lunch, take a nap, go swimming. If you can, fill your day with these pursuits until at least 3 p.m. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to sit down with a beverage and answer email then. What seemed a digital mountain at dawn looks more like a small hill later in the day.
- Don’t wear a watch or carry a phone or a calendar. Off the clock is off the clock. People used to go to sleep at sundown and wake up at dawn. Why not? Why let electricity define you? Sabbatical allows you to write on unruled paper and to color outside the lines. Accept the freedom. It will likely benefit more than just you.
- Imagine yourself an escapee from the prison of the dominant narrative: “You are what you do.” “If you don’t do it, no one else will.” “Hard work is the route to justice.” Imagine another narrative: “I lift heavy lightly.” “The Spirit thinks I am precious.” “I am here to enjoy Spirit.” “I am here to relax.”
- Bask in the renewable energy of a large narrative. You are a creature. You are not in charge of the universe. You are enough. You are alright. You are the child of a kind parent. You don’t run on power supplied at a cost by a utility company. You are not an extractive resource, like oil. Like solar and wind, you are a renewing resource. There is energy enough for you – and it is free.
- Don’t worry about whether you can maintain any of these habits when you are back at your job. Don’t think much about the end time. Treasure the now time. Work is work; play is play. Sabbath is Sabbath. There are six other days in the week, also divine.
- Write letters to your distant cousins, aunts, uncles, ex-husbands, former friends. Hope that you get something back that is as interesting as what you sent. Observe the forgotten. Notice what you think you have already seen.
- Keep a dozen emails in your inbox that you can’t figure out how to answer. Stay reminded of the undone and unfinished, even the unfinishable.
A good sabbatical allows a person room and time for contradiction, freedom from getting everything right – and a renewed and renewable sense of humor about all narratives. If you are powerful or fear you are powerful (or even wish you were powerful), a sabbatical can be a relief. In a good sabbatical we learn to play again. Work is anything you have to do; play is anything you want to do. We see the horizon we have lost. We get in touch with our inner tortoise. We stop taking ourselves so seriously – and begin to understand a truer nature, the one that comes more by gift and less by effort.
The last two weeks of my recent sabbatical were spent in Provence, France. There my eyes filled with red poppies. I never saw so many of those delicate flowers and will likely will never see them while on sabbatical again. (After all, three sabbaticals are probably enough for one life of work.) The poppies were already fading as we left to come home. I, too, had blossomed with the poppies, yet felt was ready to go back and dedicate myself to the great fade that life is. After the long work, of course, comes an even longer rest. Life does have rules.