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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Subversive Sabbath" (A. J. Swoboda)

TITLE: Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World
AUTHOR: A.J. Swoboda
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018, (256 pages).

We are a restless people living in a restless world surrounding by restless activities. This is an understatement. In fact, a widely accepted answer to the question of "How are you today?" is the word "Busy." Many would nod in agreement as if being constantly busy is a good problem to have. On the flip side, not being busy could even be viewed as taboo. Christians have also been caught up in this whirlwind of constant activity. Forgetting the commandment of the Sabbath, they are non-stop at work. As a result, many have trouble learning how to rest, substituting leisure and entertainment for true rest. The truth is, we are restless creatures needing to find true rest in God alone. Author A.J. Swoboda is spot on when it comes to identifying the true human need amid all the frantic happenings. The solution is simple: For one 24-hour cycle each week, stop what we ordinarily do over the week, and rest in God alone. It brings benefits not only to self but also to our neighbours and creation at large. How? This is what this book is about.

The author begins the book with a personal story of how a lottery windfall that was initially received as a godsend ended up breaking the family apart. It was a tragic case of how a family was unable to steward such a gift. This is not an uncommon theme among lottery winners. Some even wished they had never won anything in the first place. This is one example of how mankind fail to steward the gift of Sabbath; choosing to abuse the time of rest in exchange for more commerce; more activities; more work; more busyness. For Swoboda, he admits that "even thinking and writing about Sabbath has the power to heal the soul." If that is so, what about those who actually practices it? There is something very precious about such an ordinary day as a rest day. Like hidden treasure that lies in our ordinary backyard, the first thing we ought to take note is the way it helps us arrest the tyranny of a 24x7 time rush. Systematically, the author leads the reader through the basics of Sabbath, beginning with what it means for us. He addresses the biblical description of the Jewish practice of Sabbath, which urges us to remember the history, the significance of tradition, that we will not forget the great mercies of God. We are reminded of the example of God leading the way to teach us how to rest. We can even have sabbatical reflections over work. One may ask: Isn't that an oxymoron? He gives us a clue about what he means by pondering about how we will have jobs in the new Jerusalem. Work would essentially be perfect worship, and will not be seen in the same way as earthly work as we know now. How does that happen? In a nutshell, a proper understanding and practice of the Sabbath will give us a healthy framework to view work. We learn that work is not the ultimate but work itself in its true essence points us toward the Sovereign Lord. Plus, there are benefits in terms of health as well. Apart from the obvious benefits from overwork, regular rest promotes healthy lifestyles. Put it simply, the Sabbath shows us that it is ok to say NO to things that threaten to derail our rest. We learn that life is not simply about production efficiency or process expediency. It is much more than simply making a living. Once we learn how to deal with the Sabbath ourselves, we are ready to help others.

The second part of the book deals with the are of relationships; the larger economy and technology; and to be more conscientious of the marginalized in our society. It is easy for non-stop work to steal away time for our loved ones. Even church work can be quite exhausting. Heard of burn out? The issue is also compounded when the regular day of rest in many societies is Sunday, and Sunday might even be the busiest day of the week for Christians! In relationships, Swoboda addresses quite a wide variety of relationships. From sociology at large to working with children, there is always something that the Sabbath could be beneficial to, reminding us once again that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Not only does the Sabbath helps us build boundaries between non-stop action and rest, it establishes boundaries in relationships as well. The essence of Sabbath is this: Liberation. "If being alone with people is life giving, be with people. If being alone is life giving, be alone," so says the author.

Sabbath is particularly necessary for those of us addicted to a high-tech world and frantic lifestyles. We need a way to unwind, to keep the day holy, and to be intentional about Sabbath keeping. It is not simply the elimination of the "blue laws" that threaten Sabbath keeping. It is the addiction to a 24/7 mindset that never rests. Quoting Judith Shulevitz, it is a stark contrast that "Americans, once the most Sabbatarian people in the earth, are now to most ambivalent on the subject." He tells several stories of people intentionally bucking the commercial trend, to make as much profit as possible all the time. For one day a year, a month, or a week, these businesses stand out as a witness to a higher power. This can be applied to the world of social media as well, where all connections and no rest make one an addicted and drained person. Indeed, we will fail to seriously question: "How much information is enough?" The Sabbath reminds us that getting information is not the end of it all, it is the wisdom and discernment to know how much to get and not to get; when to retrieve and not to retrieve; and what to use and what not to use. These require a higher level of understanding and discernment. There is more. In an impersonal world, we tend to be too self-centered and self-serving. With the Sabbath, we are able to notice what is out of the ordinary and marginalized. For Christians, it is an important reminder that we are called to be a blessing to the world. In our world of busyness, we need moments like the Sabbath to remind us of that again.

On and on, Swoboda does not let up in showing us how expansive the potential of Sabbath keeping is. Sabbath keepers will do a better job in caring for creation as they had of themselves. Sabbath is that "string" moment in time that holds everything together. He tells of one example of a period of time when Chairman Mao of Communist China asked the rural population to get rid of swallows through noises, seeing them as "pests" that destroy their crops. In reality, the swallows actually help the farmers by eating up insects that harm their crops. It is an example of the delicate balance of creation and human beings ought to leave the natural order alone as much as possible. Imagine if creation never have a single rest day ever. That would be horrible. From land to critters; from the oceans to the fish; and to all of creation; we learn that Sabbath is far-reaching influence. Thus, failure to keep the Sabbath is tantamount to ruining the original pattern of life.

Sabbath is also not about creation. It is about honouring the Creator. The final three chapters of the book deals with this through witnessing of God; the worship of God; and the discipling of one another to pass down the practice of Sabbath.

My Thoughts
Books on the Sabbath have always fascinated me because it is a reminder to me about my own busyness and restlessness. We are wired for work but too restless to leave work alone on a regular basis. As Swoboda has shown us, it is tragic when we fail to let the Sabbath work for us. As the author moves from personal benefits to the wider community; and to the larger created world, he has shown us how pervasive the need for Sabbath in our world. This may be especially so for cultures that are too busy to even think about taking break. Busyness is not a sign of pride. It is a sign of aimlessness. Like a hamster on a ferris wheel, we could very well be spinning all kinds of activities but are still not going anywhere. Let me give three thoughts about this book.

First, the Sabbath is a necessary intervention for many of us stuck on the spiral of non-stop work and activities. That is why an additional book is more than necessary in an ocean of frenzy and anxiety. The current cultural caution about fake news and loss of confidence in what we read is a case in point. Rather than bemoaning on the lack of credible news or reliable information, perhaps, taking a break from all the Internet buzz could be a good thing. One thing I realize is that with the IPad and tablet revolution, people are not only consuming more, they are producing less. With that, we easily jettison our creative gifts and talents through the lack of engagement with our natural talents.  Even for preachers, being able to take a break for even one weekend without preaching brings lots of dividends in terms of sufficient rest for the long haul. We all need important interventions from time to time.

Second, there is an intention that moves outward from personal growth to the world at large and eventually to the spiritual realms of worship. Everything must start somewhere. For the taking of the Sabbath, without a proper appreciation of what it is and what it means in the first place, we will not be able to translate the benefits to the rest. That is why the first part of the book about the personal practices is a must read.

Third, we need Sabbath interveners throughout all of society. Whether it is in the Church or in the public sphere; schools or societies at large; the Sabbath is not just for Christians. It is for all of creation. When God rested on the seventh day, He is not just showing believers the way. He is pointing out the necessity for all of creation. This book proves to be a wonderful practical guide to make interveners out of us all. So, let's do our homework of Sabbath keeping first.

A.J. Swoboda is Professor at lead mentor of the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary. He is also director of Blessed Earth Northwest ministry, which focuses on creation care and Sabbath. He blogs at www.ajswoboda.com and tweets at @mrajswoboda.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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