The Sweetness of Sabbath

One big shift from our first term overseas to our second? We finally got serious about taking a weekly day of rest. When we were new as a family on the field, our initial experience was that the pace of life in Central Asia was much less frenetic than it was in the US. We didn’t feel the same need to protect a certain day for a sabbath rest. Life was more fluid, which meant our week felt naturally interspersed with pockets of life-giving and restful things. By the end of our first term, this had definitely changed. Language learning, team conflict, culture fatigue, online seminary classes, messy local relationships, security crises, and a newborn (number three) were all taking a toll. It took us several months to recover from the residual stress once we went stateside. And my wife still ended up spending a night in the ER five months in, with some kind of severe panic attack that had initially appeared to be something much worse.

We felt the Lord was being crystal clear with us. We needed to get serious about sabbath again, about building in a day of rest for our family, and about pursuing a concept we came to refer to as sustainable dying. Yes, we are called to die for the gospel, but perhaps it would better honor Jesus if we died more sustainably over forty years as opposed to four? We eagerly read the books Reset and Refresh by David and Shona Murray with wide eyes as we read about all these ministry folks burning out in their forties – while we had just entered our thirties and were experiencing all of the same symptoms. In this sense, I’m not sure we’re so very different from all of our millennial peers in ministry. We’re all hitting this point pretty early.

I remember being struck by the concept that God did not create us as disembodied spirits, but as embodied humans. This means we have God-given, good limitations to our work and our physical bodies. To pretend that these limits don’t exist is therefore not honoring to God, but is to live in rebellion to his good design in his creation. I had been living out of sync with the fabric of God’s creation, which has a good, but limited nature. I had been living this way for as long as I could remember, pretending that if I regularly pushed my body beyond what was wise, God would give grace and it wouldn’t matter for me – was it not for the sake of the ministry, after all?

We were also hit hard by the idea that we don’t rest because the work is done. We rest because the work is never done. This is particularly helpful for confronting the challenges of the fluid and never-ending work of the mission field. When you don’t have regular work hours and you are surrounded by a sea of lostness, it’s awfully tempting to let ministry come into every part of the day and the week. But this can mean that the missionary never actually rests from the work. There are always more pages of vocab to review, more calls to make, more invitations to respond to, more emails to send, more broken things to attempt to fix. But resting because the work is never done shifts rest from being something that we’ve earned to being something that is proactive. It becomes an acknowledgment even that though there’s so much more work to do, we can’t possible do it well if we don’t refresh our bodies and our souls.

We leaned into the biblical theology aspects of rest. We rest because God rested, and we want to be like him. We rest because he commanded Israel to rest and in that command we see his good designs for them. We rest because Jesus rested in the tomb after completing his atoning work on the cross. We rest because we’re not saved by our work, but by our souls resting in the work of Jesus. We rest because the new creation is coming, where rest will be perfected. And we want to be a preview of that day to our local friends and foreign colleagues.

And practically, at this point, we also rest just so that we can stay out of the ER for a little bit longer. We’ve flirted enough with serious anxiety issues to realize that it’s serious business to guard against their going mutant and taking over.

We try to guard our Saturdays as our regular day of rest. It’s taken quite a while to find out what actually works for our family – and what actually works for Central Asia. The age of our kids affects this (8, 6, and 2), meaning that it’s important that plan some kind of outing or activities on our rest day so that they don’t go stir-crazy. We usually go out to eat somewhere and try to spend time at a park. My wife and I will often find quiet corners of the house to get in some reading. We’ll also do some different kinds of work, but only if the work feels refreshing because we don’t do it every day. Washing the dishes and listening to a language history podcast is in this category for me.

The issue with Central Asia is that the more you are known, the more you are called, texted, and visited (even unannounced) by your growing circle of friends and acquaintances. And this is a culture where there is little to no understanding of a “day off” from relationships and people. Locals get quickly offended if you don’t answer your phone right away. This makes a sabbath day a little tricky. But we discovered that there is always one acceptable excuse to not answering your phone and your gate. I’m so sorry, we were out of the city at that time. We began to see that the locals did have a method for regular rest, one connected to their all having ancestral ties to certain mountain villages. Everyone here has a village, even if they live in the city. The wealthy ones even build new picnic houses in mountain valleys in imitation of village life. Almost all city dwellers, rich and working class, get out of the city regularly, even once a week for some. This is a common practice all over Central Asia, as I’ve learned from speaking to colleagues in other countries.

A couple of years ago we started chewing on the idea of finding a picnic house that we and our team could rent and use regularly. After two years of praying, some of our partners secured one recently. It’s a small cement, plaster, and tile cabin with a green lawn area and a small fruit tree orchard. We split the rent with four other families so the cost is extremely reasonable. Now we aim to make the forty five minute drive into the mountains twice a month or so, and to spend our other days of rest at home as usual. So far, it’s been wonderful. The chance to be up in the mountains, in the cooler weather, the silence, the green, has been life-giving. Having grown up in Melanesia (as somewhat of a pyro) I’m also thrilled at the chance to build campfires with my kids. They’re not big enough yet for spending the night at the picnic house to be more restful than coming back home, but we’ll get there soon.

Previously, we and our colleagues had leaned very heavily on trips out of country for rest and vacation. But with regular security crises and the sheer cost of travel across international borders, we were already wrestling with the need to get better at local rest. Then 2020 happened. And suddenly the whole world was closed off to everyone, not just to those of us serving in this corner of Central Asia. We heard one refrain from so many of our believing friends back in the West: Yes, it’s been hard, but we are thankful for the chance we’ve had to slow down. Life was crazy before the lock-downs.

Figuring out rest for any of us Westerners, hard-wired workaholics as we are, is quite challenging. Figuring it out in a foreign culture and in a year like this one, well, let’s just say it’s only by the grace of God that we have been able to find some restful rhythms. And yet our creator did make us for this, so at some point I believe all of us will start to feel a day of rest becoming more natural – and we’ll wonder how we ever did without it. We are beginning to taste this reality ourselves. When our Saturday is necessarily claimed by something unavoidable, we feel sad about this and brainstorm about how we can compensate for it. Other weeks, like this one, we push hard and work with freedom, knowing that a day of rest is close at hand – and I’ll get to sit around a campfire in the mountains with my kids… which is mostly restful. If only we could get the two-year-old a little less enthusiastic about throwing things onto the fire.

Photo by Julien Moreau on Unsplash

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