From Exile to Hope: Back in the Sabbath again

From Exile to Hope: Back in the Sabbath again

March 22, 2023

Back in the Sabbath again

By: Pastor Nate Mason

Behold! My son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased!  

Noah Isaac Mason joined us this month.  As soon as we found out we were having another boy, we knew right away this was a Noah.  I’ve shared before that Noah was a surprise baby.  We had planned on having two, but then God laughed at our plans, so Isaac seemed appropriate. I now have the privilege of spending twelve weeks getting to know my new family. 

Privilege shouldn’t be exclusive, but it is

I found it hard to describe the experience of taking paternity leave.  Initially, I thought I felt “blessed.”  I once heard Rev. Scott Hibben define a blessing as “receiving favor in order to do God’s work.”[i]  In that light, this time has absolutely been a blessing.  It is God’s work to care for and love my family.  But that’s true of EVERY family, not just mine.  Every parent needs that time to establish a healthy foundation for a new family, but sadly, in this country at least, taking paternity/maternity leave is a rarity. There is no federal law requiring businesses to offer paid leave.  As a result, parental leave is something reserved for the upper middle class because we are the only ones who can afford it.  This is what makes things a privilege: when everyone needs access to something, but only a few actually get access.  That’s a privilege. 
In the ongoing discussion about privilege in our culture, we need to remember that privilege isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  We all need safety, security, access to opportunity, etc., but not everyone has those things.  Rather than believing others are coming to take away our privilege, we need to work to expand access so everyone’s need can be met.

Even then, work culture does a great job of pressuring people to giving up their leave.  As a pastor I get eight weeks paid and four weeks unpaid, and this is the first time I’ve taken the full lot.  Most pastors don’t even take their full vacation every year.  We feel a sense of duty and obligation to always be present for our congregations.  I had a clergy friend call me while Noah was still in the hospital, worrying that I was going to try and preach that Sunday.  That’s how far the work culture goes.  It’s just another sign that we, including clergy, aren’t practicing the Sabbath.  

Sabbath is more than rest, it is renewal 

I’ve written about Sabbath before, but my time with Noah has reminded me that Sabbath has so many more layers to it.  We often talk about the Sabbath Rest, and how holy it is.  Thank God I’m on leave, or there would be no time for rest!  My older two kids just finished up their spring break.  Their long spring break.  Their spring break that was so long I started to wonder if they actually just dropped out of school/pre-school and planned to live at home for the rest of their lives.  Not to over sell this point, but going from two kids in school/pre-school to three kids home all day was a bit of a system shock.  So not much rest has been happening at Casa de Mason, but this still has been a time of Sabbath.

One of the many super cool things about the Bible is that it was not written in chronological order.  Genesis 1:1 was not the first verse written down.  Archeology suggests that the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) was probably the first written account that made it into the final version of the Bible.  Go Deborah!  Rather, the Bible had its basis in tribal storytelling, and the Holy Spirit inspired these stories as they were needed to guide God’s people through times of trouble.  Most of these stories weren’t put together in an overarching structure until the Babylonian Exile.  

The Exile was an existential crisis for the Israelites.  Exile threatened to more than just annihilate God’s people; the Babylonians wanted to erase their entire existence from history.  This attempted erasure is what motivated the priests and scribes to start collecting all of their stories in written form.  As a result, the exilic dread can be found in all parts of the Hebrew Bible, all the way back to Genesis 1:1.  

Many of the stories found in Scripture were meant to bring hope to people in exile.[ii]  

 The Genesis 1 seven day creation story became popular during the exile.  Before that, the “God created Adam” Genesis 2 creation story was more prevalent.  The seven day story had two very helpful commandments that helped the people survive. First, it told us who we are.  We are “made in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:27)  It’s not that we look like God, or we are somehow like God in a metaphysical way.  The “made in the image of <insert divine name here>” was a title reserved for kings.  Caesar was “made in the image of Zeus,” Pharoah was “made in the image of Ra.”  God’s people lived in a time where they were told that they were slaves, they were expendable, they were doomed.  The seven day creation story countered that narrative by reminding us that we are beloved children of God.  We deserve to have life, love, and dignity. 

The second commandment was that of the Sabbath.  Take one day a week and gather with your people to observe the Sabbath.  It’s one thing to read a story telling us we are loved, it is a much more effective thing to gather with people who love us.  That’s what the Sabbath did, it gave us the opportunity to be with others like us, to remind us that we are not alone, and that we are beloved people.  

Sabbath reminds us of who we are

This time of parental leave has been an awesome opportunity to get together with my kids, and remind them who they are as Masons.  Which the whole family probably needed.  The other day Lily was looking at a book on Nelson Mandela, so of course I had to point out that President Mandela was a Methodist.  Lily then told me “I don’t want to be a Methodist when I grow up.  I want to be a scientist.”  Clearly, we need to work on drawing a line between Methodism and Fundamentalism in the minds of the youth!  Aside from the six year-old’s crisis of faith, we have spent a lot of time as a family reading books, baking bread, going to church together, all those things we find important as our family.  However, it has been a little draining on the adults.  I forgot how isolating parental leave can be!  We’ve had a host of people bringing us meals, and every person that drops by I try to corner in our entry way and force them to have a conversation with me.  

“I should get going, you guys probably need rest,”

“No!  We’re fine!  Please stay!  Talk to me about something that isn’t burp clothes or Paw Patrol! Please!”

We all need to spend time around people like ourselves.  “Like ourselves” can be defined anyway that is significant to you.  Age, beliefs, hobbies, interests, place in life, anything that is important to you can bond you to someone who cares about the same thing.[iii]  Years ago, one of my good friends walked up to me at church and said “Nate, I am a 45 year old man, I don’t care about looking cool any more, I want you to come and play Dungeons and Dragons with me.”  That was one of the boldest things I have ever witnessed.  It’s not often grown men display that level of vulnerability, nor do D&D players of older generations openly talk about playing.  We grew up with a stigma it’s hard to shake.  For the past eight years we made a monthly Dungeons & Dragons group that meets three times a year (this is a common thing in D&D circles).  That group helps me remember that I am more than a dad, more than a pastor, I’m a multifaceted dork with an inclination towards metagaming that the DM needs to watch out for.  It reminds me that I am me, I am beloved, and I am not alone.  

Sabbath is not Sunday Services

We put too big of an burden on Sunday.  We want to make Sunday our one day for religious stuff so we can have six days for other stuff.  We really want Sunday to count as the Sabbath.  Funny thing is, the Bible doesn’t say that Sunday is the Sabbath. That’s Saturday.  Always was, always will be.  We try to make the congregation play all the roles of a healthy Christian lifestyle, but it can’t be something it isn’t.  

Worship is a sacred act, open to all who seek Christ.  It should be a gathering place of all ages, all people, all cultures, all things.  It’s hard to find YOUR people in a crowd of ALL people.  I have been invited to do a lot of things in my decade+ of ministry.  I have gone golfing several times, hunting more than once, I even got the chance to go and feed buffalo with a congregation member.  These were all fun experiences that I cherish, but, with one exception, I have never been invited to do my thing by a congregation member.  That’s actually for the best.  I play the role of a pastor and not a member.  The boundaries that should be kept for healthy interacting necessitate that I find my sense of belonging somewhere else, but we need to create a culture of hospitality so members, or potential members, don’t feel isolated within their own church.  

Back in my youth ministry day, older church members would always complain that the kids were too busy in school activities to come to church.  It boggled my mind that the church has yet to see this as an opportunity to connect with young people!  

“These kids are gone every weekend to a marching band competition!”
“Well have you gone to see their performance?”

“These kids have basketball practice Wednesday nights!”
“Have you gone to see them play?”

We are so used to expecting people to do “our thing” that we forgot that we can absolutely try “their thing.”  We need to realize that heaping on more and more church programing might actually be getting in the way of people practicing their Sabbath.  

In case you haven’t found your Sabbath group, I want to tell you that you are a beloved child of God.  I’ve been saying that to Noah, Ezekiel, and Lily every day for the past 827662 weeks (ok Spring break was just 2 weeks but it felt like 827662 weeks).  I pray that you surround yourself with people who make you feel beloved so you can practice the true Sabbath.  

[i] I’m not sure if Scott snagged that from somewhere else, but I’ll give him full credit until I hear otherwise!
[ii] Hey, that’s a catchy name for a newsletter. 
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