Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 25, 2011

Living Sabbath

          I’m halfway through a twelve week sabbatical that is multi-purposed.  For one thing, I’m doing some writing.  Also, I’m seeking the type of renewal I’ve too often neglected.  I’m intent on regaining a sense of appropriate balance and movement between work and life, and will be sharing that with the congregation and in workshops.  I know, from what I read and what I hear, that the condition of feeling pulled among competing important and urgent things is a common affliction.  In other words, I’ll bet you from time to time neglect your own personal and spiritual renewal as well.

          That’s why I love this gospel story about Jesus. 

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.  Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.  (From Matthew 14)

          It’s one of my favorite Jesus stories, because in it he experiences what is common to most of us.  He is tired and he is grieving, having just heard about the beheading of his friend and cousin John (called the Baptist).  He must be sick of the crowds.  If there were ever a need for some alone time to struggle with an event and with God, this is it. 

          I imagine it was not unlike the sick feeling we all felt this weekend as we heard about the violence in Norway, except Jesus’ experience was so much more personal. 

          He heads away to a lonely spot, maybe a favorite place. 

          When he steps off the boat, there they are.  Can’t he just catch a few minutes, a half a day maybe, when he isn’t needed to do something?  For pity’s sake.

          Jesus looks at them, though, and he can’t just turn away.  He turns toward them instead and heals the sick, and then sees that they are hungry and feeds them.  All of them.

          This emotionally drained giver finds he has more to give, because the need is so great.

          Sadly, though, the lectionary reading ends there, with the count of how many were fed.  I think that’s exactly the wrong place to end it (my apologies to the lectionary creators).  I always make sure to read the next verse and a half:  Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

          Yes, after he’s selflessly taken care of others, Jesus sends the disciples and the crowd away and finally makes the time to be alone with his grieving heart and God.

          Sometimes you know you have to keep giving, even when you’re tired.  There are things that must be done because others are depending on you, and because it is right for you to do them.  But you can’t keep operating  that way forever.

          We must learn to tell the difference between what truly cannot wait, and what we must set aside to take care of our spirits.  This is rarely, in my experience, easy.

          I recently read this story by Terry Hershey.  “An American traveler planned a long safari to Africa. He was a compulsive man, loaded down with maps, time tables, and agendas. [Porters] had been engaged from a local tribe to carry the cumbersome load of supplies, luggage, and ‘essential stuff.’  On the first morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far. On the second morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far. On the third morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far. And the American seemed pleased. On the fourth morning, the tribesmen refused to move. They simply sat by a tree.  The American became incensed. ‘This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what is going on here?’  The translator answered, ‘They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.’”

          We can only go on and on for so long before our souls call out to us to stop and wait for a while.  To catch our breath.  To look around and see where we are and how far we’ve come and where we are going.

          Finding Sabbath rest and renewal doesn’t often come easily.  It may be more like a dance between the responsibilities and the peace that both call to us. 

          Like Jesus, we keep searching for the balance.  We do what needs to be done.  Then we go away from the crowd so that our spirits can be renewed.


© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011


  1. Being on an extended Sabbath (that is to say, retirement), I was talking about sabbaticals today with a friend. I said, here is what I don’t understand: in academia sabbaticals are used for writing or research; in church, the folks I have known who have gone on sabbatical have used it to produce work of some kind. But, that isn’t the Biblical meaning of the sabbatical year: a year when the land is left fallow. So, I suppose our Calvinistic heritage is to work on sabbatical, not to lie fallow.

    • Maggie, you’re exactly right. Clergy sabbaticals are all about renewal, and everyone must find her/his own path. Writing is very renewing for me, and something I don’t have much time for in my job (except sermon writing, of course). I’m also taking photos and doing other things that renew my spirit. I hope you’re finding renewal in retirement.

  2. As someone who recently was awarded a paid-semester off from my academic load as part of a university honor, I very much felt the many facets of a sabbatical during that time. Though I took the opportunity to finish a book that was a long-standing goal, I found myself relishing the renewal and refreshment of concentrated time to devote to a single project without undue distractions. I also felt a sense of intellectual growth and development that came from being able to integrate the many ideas, thoughts, and little epiphanies that had popped up in idle moments in my work-a-day world of teaching, administration, service, and research. Suddenly, I had the latitude and freedom to pull these things together and get a sense of the whole. Aristotle once said that the life of the mind is the most continuous of activities. In one sense, he is right. But in another sense, he is clearly wrong–at least for those of us living in a frenetic world of parceled out souls and lives of too many deadlines and ever pressing obligations that often compete and conflict with one another.

    I like to think that you (Melissa) are finding the time and leisure to better integrate scattered spiritual ideas, more thoughtfully reflect over extended periods of time on long postponed projects, and find those odd things in your surroundings or in chance encounters that remind you of what drew you to the ministry and how it can be enhanced. We congregants and friends will look forward to the telltale signs of a sabbatical well experienced in the things you share with us upon your return.

  3. Thank you for reminding us of the verse that follows. I have read many commentators who basically say get over yourselves and get back to work with no appreciation that everyone needs a sabbatical (or even just a sabbath day!). I was struggling with how to preach this text and still be true to what I believe God calls us to (wholeness & heath). Thank you for your words.

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