What Does It Mean to Practice Sabbath as a Missionary?

by Amy Young on October 17, 2016

I believe in the importance of Sabbath. Unfortunately, for many of us, the idea of Sabbath is familiar and foreign. It’s a word we use often, but one we don’t know how to have it be a part of our reality on the field. I’m a member of The Sabbath Society because I need this virtual community to remind, invite, and walk with me in the practice of Sabbath. I’ve asked the founder of The Sabbath Society, Shelly Miller, if she’d answer a few questions I had for her. She was game! Below is our conversation.

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What drew you to practicing Sabbath consistently? 

Loneliness. I know that probably is the last thing you expected me to say but it’s the truth. I was living with my husband and two children in a small southern town on the East Coast, surrounded by extravagant beauty and yet feeling completely alone. We were making more money than we’d ever made in our two decades of marriage and ministry together, experiencing tangible fruit from our labor. Our kids were thriving. No one would’ve known I was walking around with a permanent ache in my heart.

When you live in a place where your values are so completely other than, it can leave you feeling isolated and desperate to belong. During a routine prayer walk, Sabbath was the curious answer God gave me for loneliness.  Shortly afterward, I began curating a community online called the Sabbath Society which has grown to nearly one thousand. God used a weekly rhythm of Sabbath to show me that I was trying to fit in when I already belong.

The approach to Sabbath seems to be (very sadly) laced with shame, how do you combat potential shame? What unexpected freedoms have you experienced? 

Because I am the child of an alcoholic, I’ve learned to discern the voice of shame through years of practice with discerning the voice of God for true identity. Shame triumphs when we believe our worth is tied to productivity. Guilt and shame as a response to rest isn’t God’s voice we’re hearing.

When God created the seventh day, it was the first time he called something holy. And when he made Sabbath the fourth commandment, he asks us to remember to keep the day holy because he knows how easily we’ll forget.

Sometimes we confuse holy with perfectionism and a set of rules. But Sabbath is not a spiritual hoop we jump through, it is God’s generous gift for each of us. If we believe we are loved and know we belong, then there is no shame or guilt associated with rest. In the same way God creates each of us uniquely, the way we rest is unique to each of us too.

What freedoms have I experienced? On Sabbath, I can choose to pull weeds because it restores my soul and helps untangle mental knots. Gardening doesn’t always feel like work. But to my husband, pulling weeds is definitely laborious. Jesus says, my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Easy and light are the measuring stick for restful activities. Sometimes gardening feels hard and like a sore back so I read a book on a park bench instead.

How does stage of life play into Sabbath?

Implementing rhythms of rest can be challenging depending on your stage of life but more than your circumstances, the courage to persevere means rest will eventually become easy and light. For those in the throes of parenting young kids or full time ministry, rest seems elusive, more like a fantasy reserved for the middle aged or retired. Responsibilities are ceaseless.

Evaluating our yeses and nos to good opportunities while keeping expectations realistic are important for those in the narrow seasons of life. There are circumstances where saying no isn’t an option but we can still trust that the lines have fallen for us in pleasant places, even when the lines are narrow. The way you rest may be different than your neighbor and comparison is the thief of joy.

How did you see your Sabbath practice change after you moved overseas?

Shortly after moving to London, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the city takes a noticeable Sabbath on Sunday, the day I choose to rest. Less traffic, quiet neighborhoods, the sound of shoes from pedestrians clicking on pavement echo off tall buildings reminding us of the vacancy of humanity among the streets. Though my husband is an Anglican Vicar serving in a thriving church, Sunday isn’t a work day for me. And Friday works better for him. We each protect our day of rest by creating boundaries and honoring them.

Too often “Sunday” and “Sabbath” are used interchangeably. For many missionaries, Sunday is more of a work day. What ideas or invitations do you have for them when it comes to practicing Sabbath?

When God created the fourth commandment, it meant death if you broke the rules of Sabbath. And when Jesus was crucified on the cross, He set us free from how Sabbath should look. Jesus is Sabbath and therefore all our questions about how we rest are found in Who we worship. Holiness inhabits our intentions when we choose to set time apart. God created each of us with unique attributes and the way we rest is unique to each of us too.

Choose a window of time on another day of the week. Sabbath isn’t about resting perfectly but resting in the One who is perfect. Use cloth napkins for dinner, reserve a special drink for your day of rest, eat carbs you normally don’t allow yourself or take a walk in a new neighborhood. Whatever you do with the time you choose for rest, make it different and set apart.

How might your book Rhythms of Rest be a drink to a thirsty soul on the field?

Much of work on the field is fulfilling but it is also solitary, isolating, and draining. Rhythms of Rest will extend permission to rest for those who are tired, broken and weary. If you have daydreamed about being sick so you can rest for a day in bed, this book will be a respite. If you find yourself dreading conversations or dodging time with friends because you just can’t bear small talk, Rhythms of Rest is an exhale for your tired heart. If you often wonder why God has brought you to a place where you feel so other than, Rhythms of Rest will remind you that you that you don’t have to fit in because you already belong.

Shelly, what a helpful conversation. Thanks for such an invitational tone, it helps me to come as I am to this practice and not feel I have to “look good” to impress others about how spiritual I am.

What does your Sabbath practice look? How does your stage of life and ministry flavor it these days?

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About Amy Young

When Amy Young first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you and watermelon. Often the only words needed in life, right?! She is known to jump in without all the facts and blogs regularly at The Messy Middle. The tag is “where grace and truth reside.” People tend to be drawn to grace, grace, grace OR truth, truth, truth. Either side doesn’t require much discipline, do they? Instead they foster auto-pilot living. But real life happens … in the messy middle, with both. It can be maddening, right? But also exhilarating! She also works extensively with Velvet Ashes as content creator and curator, book club host, and connection group coordinator. Her book Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service was written with you in mind. It also has two companion resources: 22 Activities for Families in Transitions and Looming Transitions Workbook.
  • Nancy Ruegg

    Hello Shelly AND Amy! I followed Shelly’s link here from her blog, Redemption’s Beauty, and see YOU, Amy. What a delightful surprise! As for today’s topic of Sabbath rest, I found this sentence personally helpful: “The way you rest may be different than your neighbor and comparison is the thief of joy.” Though I would not find weeding restful as Shelly does, I do enjoy reading and writing on a Sunday afternoon, but take a rest from social media. That statement about comparison could be applied to many areas where we tend to compare. A good reminder: comparison is the thief of joy. So true!

    • Nancy!!! So great to see you too :)! The word on comparison is one we need again, and again, isn’t it :). So easy to be judgy or feel judged. But if we are focusing on God and not others, ah, that is where the joy is!

  • For many years in church ministry, we had Mondays as rest days. Now that we’re doing something different, we have more of a usual weekend with some rest time. I’ve had to do some shuffling to get it to where it works, but it’s good now.

    Rest is always a challenge with children anyway, though. One thing that helps with Sundays for us is having traditional easy meals. We always have pelmeni or vareniki (i.e. an easy meal) when we come home from church, then in the evening we have popcorn and a movie in place of a real dinner.

    • Love hearing what others do, Phyllis! Funny how meals can be one of the hardest parts/hurdles for Sabbath. Easy meals so life giving, eh?!

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