Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and a number of other universities and Bible colleges. Previous to this, A.J. served as a campus pastor at the University of Oregon. His doctoral research at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) explored the never-ending relationship between the Holy Spirit and ecology. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. A.J. is the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way (Kregel), Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology (JPTSup, Deo), and Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic). You can find his website and blog at www.ajswoboda.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.
What prompted your desire to start keeping a Sabbath?
I burned out. Nearly ten years ago, I was working as a college pastor. Early on, before we had our child, there were little to no boundaries that forced me (or my wife) to take a weekly Sabbath. Then I snapped. I remember it was a Saturday, and I had worked nearly eighty hours that week. No breaks. No rest. No nothing for weeks. And I woke up late from exhaustion from the night before only to miss a meeting with a student I’d had a scheduled meeting with for months.
She called angry. I felt disgusted with myself. And I almost quit my job.
With a sense of resolution that only comes about once or twice a decade, my wife and I agreed we needed divine margin in our life. Beginning ten years ago, we started taking one day a week to enjoy God, each other, and really good food and TV shows. Today, we take two days. I wish we could take five.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles or challenges?
There have been many obstacles to a life of sabbath-keeping, but none more than my own addiction to work. I recently read The Truest Thing About You by David Lomas, a pastor in San Fransisco. Lomas brilliantly weaves a breathtaking picture of what it means to be a Christ-follower. His point? There may be true things about me: I am white, I am an American, I’m middle-class, I play basketball, and I like kale. But nothing is truer than who I am—I am God’s Beloved.
As such, sabbath-keeping became my withdrawal from seeing my ministry and my work as the truest thing about myself. Sabbath-keeping, in the end, is the end of capitalism as we know it, for it reorients our life around who we are loved by rather than what we do, how much we make, or anything else.
On countless occasions over the years, I’ve grown depressed on the sabbath because I am not working. I have yearned to answer emails. I have craved being needed.
To sabbath is to protest false identity.
What scripture, community accountability, or practices have helped you overcome these challenges?
There are two practices that have proven time and again to be fruitful, life-giving efforts at sustaining a life of sabbath-keeping. First, we make pancakes on our first Sabbath morning. Years ago, I heard somewhere, there was a Jewish tradition of parents giving their children a spoon of honey on the morning of the sabbath as a way of connecting the sweet love of God to the rest of God. I admit, as a scholar, I can’t find literature on that practice anywhere. But I hold to it anyway.
The first thing we do is make pancakes on the sabbath. I have an agenda when we do this. My son is literally being discipled (as we all are) into the sweet, buttery flavors of God’s rest. I hope that as his tastebuds are connected to Sabbath in some Pavlovian way he will always imagine the rest of God as a sweet thing.
Secondly, I turn off my phone, my computer, and put my beeper and fax machine away. In the Bible, sabbath is not merely for the sabbath-keeper; it is simultaneously for everyone around the person sabbathing—the oxen, the workers, and the land. The closest my church is to actually living out Jesus Christ as its head in the flesh is the one day a week they don’t have a neurotic pastor lording himself over them.
It frees everyone around me to rest in God’s love too.
What, if any, benefits have you noticed in your physical, mental, and spiritual health since you began keeping a Sabbath?
Easy: I’m healthier, happier, and way more able to say “no.” Saying “yes” can be an addiction. Sabbath is my liturgy to remind me that I am not, as a pastor, a giant, massive, sign that says “yes”.
My doctor says my blood pressure has gone down, too. Also, my wife says I’m nicer.
How has Sabbath keeping affected your marriage, your family, and/or your ministry?
People don’t call me as much. This has actually been challenging. But by not constantly being available to answer my calls (particularly on the sabbath) it demands that others step up to the ministerial plate and take responsibility. I’m not the only person who should be caring for the church. A sabbath reminds us all of that.
Frankly, our sex life is better. Not perfect. But better. We laugh more, don’t take each other too seriously, and know how to be together and not feel like we are having to “perform.”
It’s a little bit like we are back in the garden with God. I dunno; I love it.
If you could share one encouragement with others, what would it be?
For me, the question that often gets asked is: what are the benefits? And I can understand what would lead someone to ask such a question. We are, as it has become known, a very pragmatic country. We do stuff as long as there are results.
But a follower of Jesus does not just do something of obedience because of the results. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has ever asked the question of why it is beneficial to pray for your enemies. What are the benefits of being generous?
We do it because God made us to do it.
I would encourage the reader to enter into sabbath a little less skeptical. I guess I’m saying turn off that little pragmatic American brain and just do it.
Often, in God’s Kingdom, the reward of obedience is just that: obedience. We are rewarded with the practice. I believe there are benefits—but starting is hard. Just do it as best as possible.