Blogging the Bible 20 – Exodus 15:22-18:27 – God doesn’t send hours just so we can work them all.

Sorry. I’m obviously missing my 13-year old son, on a school trip to France at the moment, and making up for his sense of humour. Sorry.

The gift of the seventh day

I remember that when I became a Christian, one of the things I really valued was discovering the Sabbath. It was great to find out that God didn’t actually want me to work every hour that he sends, and that rest shouldn’t be something that we only snatch when all the work is finished. It should be part of the rhythm of life, resting and enjoying life for its own sake but also so that we can be refreshed and strengthened for the other six days of work. When I started to take every Sunday off work – going to church, going for a walk or to a museum in the afternoon, then to chapel and a good meal – I enjoyed life more and got more done in the other six days of the week than I’d been getting done in seven before.

I know that as Christians we tend to see the sabbath as part of the Pharisees’ set of rigorous rules and ‘thou shalt definitely not, under any circumstances’ habit. But as Jesus said, the sabbath was made for us, not we for the sabbath. It’s God’s gift to us, the gift of the freedom to rest appropriately without guilt. And I hadn’t realised until I read it today that the sabbath is a gift to the Israelites in the desert before it becomes a commandment (that comes in tomorrow’s chapters). The assurance of the manna in the wilderness is that God can provide, and will provide for rest as well as work.

I know that for many people it doesn’t seem to work that way – that there are many people who are working constantly to feed families and pay rent. And that means that we have built a system that goes against what God planned for people. The society God calls for should make it possible for people to work to support their families at a living wage so that they can rest regularly and without guilt.

But I have the privilege of being able to take a day off each week; and I honour God not by trying to work through it but by receiving it as a gift.

Jethro’s leadership advice

Clergy seem to be prone to forgetting the sabbath idea more often than many people. Partly it’s because we care so deeply about what we’re trying to do. Partly it’s because there’s always more that ‘should’ be done in a parish than any conscientious parish priest can manage even without sleep and a day off. It takes confidence in the sabbath gift to stop and leave things for a day. God will manage the parish without me once a week.

I do like the character of Jethro in the Old Testament. Partly because it’s a name that makes me think of good solid, elderly countrymen. Mainly because he’s such a wise, supportive figure in the background of Moses’ story. We know he was a priest in Midian, but not much more. I can’t help wondering whether the time Moses spent in Jethro’s household helped to prepare him to meet God at the burning bush. I’m confident that Jethro’s in heaven, and I hope for the chance to talk to him one day!

Here he comes to see Moses, and gives him wise advice. Moses is exhausting himself by trying to lead and guide the people of Israel solo. Jethro gives him the permission to delegate – and to rest and focus on the most important matters.

I’ve been at a meeting this evening of the deanery standing committee which was really encouraging – despite the fact that we were talking about the fact that our priests are being spread ever more thinly. When I arrived here six years ago, the (then 14, now 13) churches of the deanery, serving a population of around 116,000, had 14 Vicars, and a few assistant staff. At the moment, we’ve got 9. And we have almost as many services, just as many meetings, funerals, school assemblies etc. Unless we can find ways to spread the work, we will end up like Moses – so busy trying to keep everything going that we’re exhausted and unable to focus on the important things which will serve the church and the world better in coming years.

The encouragement was that we were able and willing to think about how we might look to do things differently. But in the middle of that, part of the solution will remain that Vicars need to learn to rest and leave things to God, one day a week at least.

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