I am one of the pastors serving St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Williamsburg, Va. This year, during the journey through Lent, we are encouraging each other in the faith practice of Sabbath-keeping as a way to "Return to God, Rest in God, Discover Delight in God."
In that context, God the Holy Spirit has been speaking to me through some verses of Psalm 107 since it came up in the monthly schedule of praying over the Psalms. Psalm 107 has a liturgical character, with the author repeating the same structure of prayer and answered prayer. In each section of the poem, he names a situation of suffering from the peoples' history with God ("Some wandered in desert wastes"; "Some were sick through their sinful ways"; "Some went down to the sea in ships"). Then he gives words to their cry to God for relief and, finally, describes the relief God gave to them.
When I pray the Psalm, it speaks to me in metaphors. For instance, I have never literally "wandered in desert wastes." But I sure have experienced periods in the desert during my journey of faith, periods of spiritual dryness, spiritual emptiness. When the Psalm writer ends that section: "For [Yahweh] satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things"; I remember experiences of receiving abundant spiritual drink and food that has ended a desert period on my journey.
This time through, it is the second section of Psalm 107, verses 10-16, that have stayed in my prayer. The Psalm writer names the peoples' experience: "Some sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons." Why were they imprisoned? Because "they had rebelled against the words of God, spurned the counsel of the Most High." And so "Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor; they fell down, with no one to help."
This time through Psalm 107, with thoughts of Sabbath-keeping providing the context, I have been thinking about my experiences of imprisonment to hard labor. For me, often, a stretch in the desert comes because I am exhausted, on the edge of burnout. Why? It's because I have been working too intensely, for too long, without a break. I have been ignoring the healthy rhythm that God has built into creation - of receiving the gift of Sabbath time. Instead, I have been working as if it all depends on me, on my accomplishments, on getting everything checked off of my "to do" list. I find that I have again turned away from God and, because of my overly-active sense of responsibility, I have become a slave to my work, a prisoner in misery.
This is because I have been rebelling against the words of God. The Psalm writer describes me.
Imagine this: God loves us so much that God commands us to receive the gift of Sabbath time! God commands us to turn away from time devoted to worries about productivity, anxiety over accomplishment. God commands us to receive time for losing ourselves in whatever it is that gives us the greatest delight and joy in God! What refreshment comes from this! What energy Sabbath-keeping gives us, when we return to our work.
Return to God, rest in God, discover delight in God.
Pastor Andy Ballentine