Cutting Wood on Sunday

When I was a high school teacher, I loved cutting wood on Sunday.  Chainsaws, wedges, mauls, axes, and muscle were all employed with gusto to create brush burn piles or stack cordwood.  My sedentary work as an educator necessitated I do something else for rest after remembrance at my local church’s worship service.  Growing up in an assembly controlled by legalism, I had to grow out of the mindset that mowing grass or any other physical labor on Sunday was a sin.

On the other side of the globe, the Japanese are known for being an industrious people.  In the 1980’s the land of the rising sun set worldwide industry standards for work.  But something else came out of Japan.  The island nation has a word for extreme commitment to labor: karoshi meaning “death by overwork.”  But patterns of overwork are not relegated to one people group.  Eugene Peterson says it best:

Most of us spend most of our time in the workplace.  But without Sabbath . . . the workplace is soon emptied of any sense of the presence of God and the work becomes an end in itself.  It is this “end in itself” that makes an un-sabbathed workplace a breeding ground for idols.  We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce all relationship to functions that we can manage.  We make idols in our work places when we reduce work to the dimensions of our egos and control.

When we work we are most god-like, which means that it is in our work that it is easiest to develop god-pretensions.  Un-sabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives.  We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection.  We lose the capacity to sing “This is my Father’s world” and end our chirping little self-centered ditties about what we are doing and feeling.[1]

Leviticus 23:1-3[2] instructs the reader “six days you may work” indicating a creation pattern.  The Genesis command to manage and conserve creation, the fruit of one’s labor, is not to become the end-all of life.  “You are not to do any work” is a release not a restriction for our profit; The Creator has our best interests at heart.[3] “The seventh day is a Sabbath of rest” literally reads “rest, rest” in the Hebrew and is a literary devise for emphasis.  Production increases when people are rested; reaping requires rest.

What kind of work was Yahweh restricting or banning on the Sabbath?  The original word used almost exclusively in the Sabbath-rest-holiday discussion[4] is the term which means our vocational, God-given abilities.[5] God ceased His creative creating as Creator.  Jesus—God in flesh on earth—even rested from His ministry functions in Mark 6:30-32

Israel was an agricultural culture.  Their need of rest was to cease from practicing planting, sowing, reaping, any physical labor related to their six day routine.  The application is clear: we need to rest from our giftedness.  Here are five questions we should ask ourselves: (1) What is my vocation, calling, business, my normal work? (2) Do my Sabbaths include remembrance and rest? (3) Do I recall why my Sabbath is important? (4) Do I spend my Sabbath pouring myself into something else? (5) Do I allow my vocation, my work, to run my life?

God established retreat as Genesis law.  The third pre-fall blessing from God was creational, embedded as necessary in God’s world.  I learned from a farmer friend in South Dakota that his work tending the soil ended for one 24 hour period each week.  Larry’s individual commitment to Sabbath was based on his weekly work obligations.  The only one of the Ten Commandments not repeated in The Second Testament means that no one should tell another when to practice rest.[6] A liberal (or broadminded) approach to retreat must be based on liberty not legislation.[7] Respecting the convictions of others is important in The Church.  An individual’s decision to rest arises out of vocational concerns.  God-gifted business, education, homemaking, construction, or industry workers will direct their retreat in different ways.

A number of years ago, I wrote a poem to remind myself that retreat is crucial:

Lord, when the alarm clock stove clock and time clock demand my presence,

When the pace of life is hectic,

When I wish there were six more hours in a day,

When the traffic light is stuck on red,

And my family’s schedule demands I be in three places at one time,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, when people expect too much of me,

When the boss has forgotten about the eight-hour day,

When I am constantly at others’ beck-and-call,

When the cell phone, twitter, fax, and email all go off at once,

And I begin to hate the human race,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, when work occupies all my waking hours,

When television commercials say I must have more,

When my neighbors flaunt their newest toys,

When alcoholic does not apply but workaholic does,

And I decide to go to the office on Sunday to catch up,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, when money means more than people,

When I read The Wall Street Journal more than my Bible,

When overtime becomes my primetime,

When promotions and pay hikes are my ultimate goals,

And “looking out for number one” has become my slogan in life,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, may I refocus my life on you.

May I restore my thoughts in your Word,

May I refresh my schedule by meditating on all your blessings,

May I relax my activity every week to enjoy the life you gave me,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Rest is still important to Mark who continues to personally struggle with and yet teach the concept at Crossroads Bible College.

[1] Eugene Peterson. 2005. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. (Eerdmans): 116.

[2] See RETREAT: Naked in the Universe (Part 4) at

[3] Deuteronomy 30:11-16.

[4] Interestingly, Exodus 31:3 and 39:43 use the term as well in the discussion of building the tabernacle.  The term is repeated in the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:9-10 (see Leviticus 16:29).

[5] Andrew Bowling. 1980. melaka. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (Moody): 1:465.

[6] The Gnostics, who believed they had special revelation from God, tried to coerce people into following human-centered law.  But Paul explodes the falsehood in Colossians 2:16-23 citing The Sabbath as a person-friendly regulation benefiting the individual.

[7] Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are two passages that establish clear principle and practice of what theologians call “individual soul liberty.”  What is not commanded in Scripture is left to the personal direction of The Spirit in the life of the Christian.

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