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Contemplating Sabbath … Part 5

This is part five in a series discussing Mark Buchanan’s book The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. If you missed the previous parts, here are links to Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.

Chapter two focuses on the renewing of our minds. (See Romans 12.2) Buchanan makes the point that nothing really changes in our lives until we change our minds about it. Trying to change the way we act without really changing the way we think is useless. In fact, it often gets us right back where we began, or worse. It makes me think of the parable Jesus tells about the house swept clean …

 43″Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.

44″Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order.

45″Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

If we don’t reoccupy our minds with something heavenly, all the attempt to rest or change our behavior will in the end come to nothing. It is really true that we are called, as Christians, to have our minds renewed. We are not to empty our minds of all thoughts, but instead to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10.5), and make sure that it is appropriate and pleasing. (Philip. 4.8)

Buchanan raises an interesting corollary when he states: “God is more interested in changing your thinking than in changing your circumstances.” I won’t go into all of the support Buchanan gives for this statement, but I think it is a key principle. There are certainly those in the Christian community who promise that if we pray with enough faith, God will step in and change our circumstances to be whatever we feel we need at the moment. I believe that God is much more interested in reaching into our hearts and minds and changing our perspective in our circumstances. This may be accompanied by changed circumstances, or our changed minds may help us to improve the circumstances, but I don’t see either of these as guaranteed in Scripture. What I see is Paul with a victorious attitude while in prison, or being shipwrecked. Sure Peter was miraculously freed from prison, but Church history tells us that this was not permanent. (The story is that he was eventually crucified.) For every changed circumstance — miraculous freedom from jail, calmed seas, healings — there are also those whose circumstances are unchanged — Stephen is stoned, Paul is shipwrecked, Paul’s thorn in the flesh is not removed.

The last case here is an interesting one. Paul talks about fervent prayer for the removal of this thorn, but his prayer is not granted. We’re not told if it is physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, etc., simply that it is “in the flesh” and that it was a messenger from Satan. He is told “My grace is made sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” This is enough to change Paul’s attitude toward it, and he begins to boast in his weakness. (Read Paul’s description from which I have quoted in 2 Cor. 12.7-11.) I’m not sure why so many of us (Christians) seem intent on believing that God will somehow change our circumstances if we just pray in the right way, live the right way, or have enough faith. God is interested in the state of our mind and heart, not whether our circumstances are all we had hoped for.

What does this have to do with Sabbath? I’m glad you asked! Sabbath is about clearing our minds of our own agendas and the busy-ness of our daily lives. This is not done to create and empty void, but to create space for the Spirit to come in and change my heart and mind to be more like Him. How can I fight the consumerism, materialism, and selfishness of the world without dedicated time to refocus on the selflessness of a God who would offer His only Son for me, and send His Spirit to dwell in this humble temple? I desperately need time with my Creator and Sustainer if I am to become more like Him. Buchanan helpfully points out the distinction between Sabbath and leisure.

Leisure is what Sabbath becomes when we no longer know how to sanctify time. Leisure is a Sabbath without the sacred. It is a vacation — literally, a vacating, an evacuation.

There may be a time when leisure is appropriate, but we should not mistake this for Sabbath! Sabbath is not about things becoming less real, a drawing away from things. Sabbath is going to God with all of the things and spending quality (and quantity) time with Him getting His perspective to renew and replace our own limited perspective.

This is where things start to relate even more to my sabbatical. Part of the point of a sabbatical is getting a lot of work done on something different from my usual duties. I would never be able to do the work that I am accomplishing at Hershey Med. this semester if I were still teaching full-time. On the other hand, an important part of this sabbatical, at least to me, is to evaluate where I am in my career, including teaching and scholarship, and make sure I have a healthy perspective on this. This is why I am spending time this fall to travel and observe several of my colleagues at other schools in action. I want to evaluate what I am doing and restore a proper perspective. I have been part of academe non-stop since Kindergarten. I’ve been teaching, pretty much non-stop, since 1997. Summers can only go so far in allowing the reflection that I think is required to be the best teacher I can be, and glorify God in all I do. This, then, is a teaching Sabbath for me. The idea of a Sabbath year is also biblical! See: Exodus 23.10&11, for example.

My prayer for this semester is that the fertile ground of my mind will be renewed, and I will regain a godly perspective of my work. This is something only time with the Spirit can accomplish, and I am endeavoring to allow Him the time and space to do this work in me, thus resulting in inevitable change in my attitude and behavior, even if my circumstances don’t change.

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