This Labor Day weekend, we took some time to talk about taking a day off…just like many of you are doing today. Life was meant to run at a certain pace, to play to a certain beat. If we don’t get the rhythm of life right, thing are much more difficult than they might otherwise be. Keep reading to learn a powerful tool that will help us keep on beat with the rhythm of life. Happy Labor Day.
Keeping the Beat
When playing the drum set, one of the first things you learn is how to play “time.” Indeed, much drum set music as a part in an ensemble will have several measures that are blank with the exception of a line with two little dots right in the middle which indicates you’re supposed to play “time.” Now, if you don’t know music lingo, you may be wondering why the drummer is supposed to beat on a clock. Let me explain.
Playing “time” means you play a stylistically appropriate steady beat intended to help the band stay on the beat or “in time.” Now, in most cases, playing time is pretty straightforward and not terribly interesting. You’re just keeping the beat while the band does all the fun stuff. And, for drummers whose internal sense of time isn’t terribly strong, the more basic they can keep their time playing, the better.
Some drummers, though, like Carter Beauford of the Dave Matthews Band, have a particularly strong grasp on the beat and have developed a style in which they introduce a lot of color and variety into their time keeping. For these drummers and the bands they support, as long as the beat is clear, the sky’s really the limit in terms of the variety they add to the music. They can play endlessly with the rhythm because the beat is solid.
Well, this is Labor Day Weekend. What does Labor Day have to do with the djembe and keeping a steady beat? We’ll come back to that. Do you know why we have Labor Day? Labor Day came into being around the turn of the 20th century during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. The short version here is that employers and employees were trying to adjust to the new reality of industrialization, and in the early years at least, the employees were bearing the brunt of the learning curve. On the farm—where most Americans worked not many years before—you worked seven days a week and often twelve- to fourteen-hour days, but there was a natural beat to things that kept life right in rhythm. Industrialization, however, brought with it a new beat to which the rhythm of the farm didn’t translate. For millions of Americans, life fell out of rhythm.
That, combined with very dangerous working conditions, made for a volatile situation. The article on Labor Day at History.com describes it like this:
“In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a faction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.”
After a particularly nasty and painful strike and an overzealous response by the government to put it down, Congress made Labor Day a national holiday to recognize and celebrate the American worker as a kind of peace offering.
The bottom line here is that this was a bad situation on every level. Forget about all the practical and legal problems with such a pace of life, we were never intended to operate at a pace like that. Life usually moves along at a pretty good rhythm, but only when it keeps the beat. Falling into a rhythm like this of work-work-work-work-work-work-work results in our losing the rhythm of life.
God designed us for a different rhythm. If you’re going to keep the rhythm of life, you’ve got to know the right beat. Different beats have different names. I mentioned the beat of the farm versus the beat of the factory a minute ago. In Latin music there is the Son Clave pattern and the Rumba Clave pattern, both of which form part of the musical foundation for much Latin music. The beat God designed for our lives has a name too: Sabbath. It’s a pattern that goes like this: work-work-work-work-work-work-REST. If we want to get our lives right, we’re going to have to learn this beat.
Fortunately, the Scriptures have a great deal to say about this particular beat. We find the concept of Sabbath all over the Bible from Genesis to the maps. It is perhaps most well-known from the Ten Commandments, but that’s hardly where it is first introduced. The idea of Sabbath first appears right at the end of the creation narrative.
If you’d like to follow along with me, we’re going to start at Genesis 2:1 and then hop around a bit from there. At this point in the creation narrative, God has created everything we see and don’t. There’s just one more thing left to do: Rest. Listen to this: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” Now, there has been much ink spilled on these words and what they mean, but the most important thing to know for now is that this pattern of work and rest was something God built into the very fabric of creation.
Still, as foundational to creation itself as Sabbath is, it doesn’t come naturally to us. That’s part of the effect of God’s curse on Adam for eating the forbidden fruit. It brought drudgery and futility to work, whereas before it had been life-giving and balanced. Sin knocked us out of beat. We lost life’s rhythm. We needed some help getting back on track. As a result, God laid out the beat for us in the Law of Moses. God essentially said, “If you want to stay in life’s rhythm, this is the beat you need to follow.” More specifically for our purposes, He enshrined the concept of Sabbath in the law in Exodus 20:8: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
With this, the Sabbath went from something broadly culture to, for Israel at least, something legal. Working on the Sabbath (which for them was Saturday) was now against the law. But, if you look closely, the clear legal aspect of the Sabbath isn’t the only thing going on here. The legal lines drawn around the Sabbath were intended to give everyone a day off for rest and worship. Look carefully. It includes servants and sojourners in the rest. Today we call those groups the poor and aliens…probably illegal. Think for a minute about all the jobs filled mostly by people who are either poor or immigrants or both whose services we expect to be able to access all seven days of the week. The legal definition of the Sabbath also called for the ethical treatment of animals. You couldn’t just work your ox until it died because you didn’t want to stop. You had to give even your livestock the day off. There’s a broad wisdom to the Ten Commandments that goes well beyond their legal or even purely religious significance. Keeping a rhythm as complicated as life is tricky, so God was defining it very carefully here.
There’s one other important thing to notice here. Where does God root the practice of the Sabbath for the people of Israel? Does He root it in something contemporary or else simply religious in its significance? No, He doesn’t. He roots it back in creation. It’s like He wasn’t giving them some new command here so much as He was reminding them of the proper beat to help us keep on the rhythm of life.
And here’s the thing: This is serious business. When we were playing around with the djembe a little while ago, when I lost the rhythm, the beat fell apart. I remember a jazz band concert when I was in high school when I accidentally flipped the beat over on its head and was essentially playing backwards to the rest of the band for a few bars before I got straightened back out. The director’s eyes were as big as saucers for a minute. Later, though, we just laughed about it. Losing life’s rhythm, though, is no laughing matter. When our nation was struggling to figure out what the new rhythm that came along with the craziness of industrialization in its early days, a whole lot of lives fell apart. You see, unlike with the djembe, losing the rhythm of life isn’t something we can just easily pick back up and start going again. If you lose the rhythm of life, you can lose life. That’s a big part of the reason that God later added a consequence to Sabbath-breaking for the people of Israel in Exodus 31:15, namely, the death penalty: “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death.” This is serious business.
But, if we keep it, if we stay in beat, the rewards are pretty rich. A few hundred years after this, through the prophet Isaiah, God laid out some of the rewards for staying in beat. Check this out in Isaiah 58:13: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly…” In other words: Stop trying to take life’s rhythm and apply your own beat to it. If you were to go sit in with the rhythm section of a band specializing in Latin music and said, “I don’t really like the Son Clave. Let’s try this other rhythm I made up last night,” you’d be either laughed off stage or else just flat kicked out of the group, because not only are you not going to be in rhythm with the group, but you’ve rejected the rhythm that’s fundamental to their whole musical style. And if you tried to make this change during the song, everyone around you would lose the beat and the song would fall apart.
When we stay in rhythm, though, “…then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Have you ever listened to a song that had a really good groove to it? It just makes you feel good. The right groove can calm a bad mood and provide an emotional lift in even the tensest of situations. Stores research carefully so they can play music that will leave you wanting to stay in the store and shopping longer…and buying more stuff. When we get the beat right for life’s rhythm, everything falls in the groove. To put that more directly: Sabbath keeping brings blessing to our lives. God, through Isaiah, lays out three here. Keeping the Sabbath brings us joy—that unshakable sense of wholeness which comes as a gift from God when we get the rhythm of life right. Sabbath-keeping also brings peace. The phrase is “ride on the heights of the earth.” Generally, in Isaiah’s day, cities were built on the tops of hills or mountains so they would be more difficult for enemies to attack them. The idea here is that the people would dwell in safety in their cities. Expanding this idea out some, when we get the rhythm of life right, our lives will be filled with peace, with shalom—things will be as they are supposed to be.
Finally, there’s this promise of God feeding the Israelites “with the heritage of Jacob your father.” What on earth does that mean? Well, what was the heritage of Jacob? Was it not the various promises of life and blessing God made to the patriarchs of Israel? Okay, but how does that apply to us? Well, what was at the heart of those promises? It was to use them to bring blessing to the world around them. Simply put: They would be blessed to be a blessing. Think about it like this: Have you ever been around someone who just got life right? They were always in rhythm. They never dropped the beat. How did you react to this person? For starters you were probably at least a little jealous of them. You wanted what they had. But, deeper inside perhaps there was a desire to be more like them. Maybe you even made some adjustments to your life in order to gain something of the substance they enjoyed. Friends, when we get life’s rhythm right by keeping the beat of the Sabbath, we’ll do the same thing in the lives of the people around us. We’ll draw them closer to Jesus—bringing them the blessing God promised—because of the example we are setting. Or, to put that in terms we’ve been using all morning, our grasp of the beat will be so strong that it will pull them back into rhythm even if they’ve been drifting in and out of it for a while.
There’s a problem here, though. You see, Israel took the ideas about the Sabbath expressed in the Scriptures and ran with it in a very legalistic direction. To put it contextually, Jewish religious leaders began to argue that in order to get Sabbath-keeping right, everybody needed to play the same song in the same way with the same instruments and the same harmonies and so on and so forth. They wanted essentially a monotone world. They swapped the beat of the Sabbath and the rhythm of life and tried to lock everybody into place. This wasn’t what God had intended, though. There’s a comedy rock band called the Axis of Awesome. Their most famous routine—with a minor language warning you can look it up on YouTube—points out how every single hit pop song is based on the same four chords. They prove their point by playing a few dozen well-known pop songs from a number of different genres, songs that nobody would argue all sound the same, all using the exact same key and chord progression. Now, the joke is that all pop songs sound the same. But they don’t. Indeed, with a basic chord framework in place, there is an endless amount of variety you can bring to an individual song. The same thing goes with something like the Son Clave pattern we talked about a bit ago. If you get that one beat down pat, the rhythm you can apply over the top of it goes on forever. I’ve got drum method books that have hundreds of options of rhythms you can play over that one beat.
The Jews forgot this by the time the first century rolled around, so Jesus had to remind them of it. In Mark 2:27 in one of the many confrontations Jesus had with the Pharisees over the nature of the Sabbath, Jesus said this: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” On Jesus’ part, this was a clear claim to a co-equal status with God the Father and the Jews understood Him as such. This was the kind of stuff that ultimately led them to conclude He needed to be put to death. The point for us, though, is that Jesus was claiming authority over how to interpret what the Sabbath meant and what kind of behavior was appropriate on the Sabbath and what wasn’t. And His declaration essentially robbed the Sabbath of much of its religious substance. It was not to be treated as some mere religious exercise that people had to do in order to check that particular God-box off their list in order to be on good terms with Him. Man was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath, with is creation-designed 6/1 pattern was intended to be a gift for humanity. God was giving something to us, not demanding something from us. With the Sabbath, God was giving us a steady beat on which we could improvise with the various rhythms of life. It offers us the chords to play on which we can make an endless variety of music.
Okay, that’s all a lot of Scripture, but what does it mean? What are some things we can conclude about the Sabbath based on what we’ve seen this morning? Well, let’s start here: The idea of the Sabbath is not primarily a religious one, but a creational one. The practice of Sabbath, the 6/1 beat of work and rest is rooted primarily not in some law, but in the original order of creation. What that means for us is that getting legalistic with the Sabbath is exactly the wrong approach to getting it right. Since the legal aspect of the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, there is no one particular day of the week on which we must cease all our labors and sit around doing nothing. Old cultural fights about whether or not stores can be open on Sundays were well-intentioned, but misguided in their application. For starters, the Sabbath, properly understood, refers to a Saturday, not a Sunday. So, if legalism is the goal, we’ve already failed. I happen to think Sunday is a right and proper day for worship, but some people have jobs that prevent them from being able to do that. It may not be ideal, but it’s reality, and I don’t think we can say they just never take a Sabbath. The reason for this is, again, the Sabbath is part of the created order of the universe, not some box we have to check to keep God happy.
Taking this forward a step, the Sabbath is not about limitations or restrictions on our behavior at all in spite of the fact that it has tended to be interpreted as such by both Jews and Christians, ancient and modern alike. Remember what Jesus said? The Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. The Sabbath is about space and freedom. It is about creating space in our lives for things other than work. It frees us from some of the futility of work and creates margin in our lives for worship, recreation (which, by the way could be better pronounced re-creation to point us toward the fact that we are part of the remaking of creation after the manner God intended for it rather than the mess sin has made of it), and generally pursuing the good of the kingdom of God.
One last observation here: The Sabbath is ultimately about rhythm. With a healthy practice of Sabbath in our lives, we tune our lives to the beat of creation which God established in the beginning. It tunes our lives to the beat of our God. Once we have that beat firmly in place, the variety of rhythms we can play over the top of it are truly vast. The Sabbath provides the beat for the rhythm of life.
Yeah, but how do we actually incorporate all of this into our lives? How can we get back on the beat if we’ve lost it? We all know the rhythm of worshiping on Sunday mornings—we wouldn’t be here otherwise—but what else is there? How about this: If you find yourself never taking a single day off from work, start doing so. And just so we’re clear: There are more ways to be “at work” than when you are in your place of employment. If you want to get the beat of the Sabbath right, be intentional about regularly taking a day whose singular goal is the restoration of your soul and the worship of God. Don’t put anything on the docket for that day that doesn’t advance one of those two purposes. If you have family at home, include them in your day because you will restore your soul best when you do it in ways that include them. And, just in case you think you somehow won’t be as productive if you don’t get that one extra day of work in, consider the example of Chick-Fil-A which has incorporated the practice of Sabbath into its corporate approach to business. It is growing at an incredible rate and pretty much has only McDonalds in its sights as a meaningful competitor any more…all while operating 52 fewer days per year than any of its competition. It sure seems like they’ve got a pretty powerful beat driving them forward; something their competition doesn’t have. The Sabbath provides the beat for the rhythm of life.
Running forward with this a bit, taking a Sabbath doesn’t necessarily mean not doing any work. In fact, if we find ourselves asking that kind of question, we’ve already missed the point. It means pursuing activities which will be restorative of our souls. If that’s yardwork, do it. If that’s crafting, do it. If that’s sitting around doing nothing, do it. If that’s spending time with your family (something I highly recommend), do that. The rhythms of life are many, but as long as we keep them in beat with God’s grand symphony, we’ll be in good shape. The Sabbath provides the beat for the rhythm of life.
In this same vein, something the Sabbath can and should be used for is doing good and worshiping the Lord. While all of our lives should be offerings of worship to the Lord, the Sabbath offers us a time to step away from the normal grind to give worshiping the Lord—especially alongside the body of Christ—our focused attention. Think about it like this: In a jazz piece, when the ensemble gets to the solo section, after an individual player has jammed for a while, the whole group will play through the basic tune again before anybody else solos as a way of resetting the beat. It makes sure everybody is on the same page and ready to go again. That’s what corporate worship can do for our lives. It’s what Sabbath can do for our lives.
The Sabbath provides the beat for the rhythm of life. If your life isn’t in rhythm, if you’ve lost the beat, it’s time to get back on it. If your life is in a place or running at a pace when you are exhausted all the time, it’s time to think about some ways you can change that. Which activities can you give up? None of them will be easy. After all, you’ve chosen them all for a reason. But, given that the alternative is for your life to eventually fly off the handle into chaos, wisdom would seem to point pretty insistently in this direction. If pausing to worship the Lord alongside other believers is something that is happening only occasionally (once a month or less) instead of regularly (which for most Christians today means only twice a month or more), then it’s time to make some changes. You’re falling off the beat. And when you don’t have the beat, the song of your life isn’t going to develop properly. If intentionally doing good for other people in the name of Christ is happening only when you get around to it, if you aren’t making intentional investments in the people or community around you, your life’s rhythm is leading you astray. It’s time to get back on the beat that will see your engagement with the kingdom of God happen a whole lot more frequently. There’s only one beat that can do all of this: the Sabbath. The Sabbath provides the beat to the rhythm of life.