By Nathan Winstead
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is about the same as living in New York City.
OK, I’m kidding. I cannot count the number of times I’ve introduced myself and made that joke. It couldn’t be further from the truth! Instead of living in a quiet suburb, I live in the city that never sleeps.
A Culture of No Rest
New York City is known for many things, but rest is not one of them. People don’t come here to relax. They come to visit landmarks, see Broadway shows, and stay up all night to drink in all that the city has to offer. Rest? Not so much.
NYC is a difficult place to live. I live in a 350-square-foot apartment, with a roommate, paying what could be a healthy mortgage payment, in a fifth floor walkup building. That means that 88 steps welcome me every time I come home. I do not own a car and neither do most of my friends. Everything is expensive. There are people everywhere—eight million people are crammed into a small area, all fighting not only to survive (which is hard enough), but thrive. The most talented people in the world come here to make a name for themselves. This is the testing ground. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
The difficulties of everyday life and the pressure to succeed exist everywhere, but in NYC the level is turned up to 11. In response, many eventually burn out and leave.
In the midst of living in such a stressful place, I followed God’s call to help plant Everyday Christian Church (everydaycc.com) in upper Manhattan. If the culture of the city wasn’t bad enough, the sometimes unhealthy culture surrounding church planting does little to help. It says that you will need to put in at least 50-60 hours a week, that you don’t really have a day off, and that your family life will probably suffer. On top of that, you’ve asked everyone you know for start-up money, so you’d better be successful! (Sorry, Aunt Elizabeth. We tried!)
Ironically, in the city that never sleeps, God has taught me the gift of Sabbath rest.
Not Law—a Gift
Two years ago God introduced me to the ministry of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and their clear, practical teaching about practicing a 24-hour weekly Sabbath. This stands in such stark contrast to the culture of NYC and church planting. Sabbath says:
• Stop—you are not God.
• Rest—you are not a slave.
• Delight—you are a child of the King.
• Contemplate—you are God’s treasured possession.
God actually built Sabbath rest into the very fabric of the universe. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:3).
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, one of the first things he did was command them to celebrate the Sabbath. In all of the Ten Commandments, God spent more time talking about Sabbath than anything else (Exodus 20:8-11). This was especially important for the Israelites who had been living in slavery for 400 years. Slaves do not get a day off, so God made sure to recalibrate their outlook on life. They were no longer slaves in Egypt. They were God’s treasured possession, and they deserved rest.
As we often do with God’s good gifts, the Sabbath was eventually perverted into another burden. But Jesus clarified for us: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Sabbath is no longer a law. It is a gift.
What Sabbath Looks Like
So what does it look like to celebrate Sabbath? My Sabbath is usually on Friday, since it’s one of my days off from work. Here’s what I often do:
Stop: I rest from my work. I do not check my work email. Our staff knows when my Sabbath is, so they don’t contact me regarding work. If they do, I am obligated to not respond until after my Sabbath. Even when work issues or problems come to mind, I remind myself that I will be able to get to them later. Sabbath reminds me that I am not God, so I should depend on him to take care of things. I must stop.
Rest: I sleep late. Sometimes I’ll even take a nap in the middle of the day. I’m not being lazy. I’m actually obligated to sleep, because it’s my Sabbath! Sometimes I also rest from social media, text messages, technology, etc. Sabbath reminds me that I am not a slave. I deserve rest.
Delight: I often find myself enjoying a café mocha from a coffee shop on my Sabbath, but the best way to experience delight is to get out into creation. Riding my bike in the park, hiking, camping, or skiing bring me great delight. When God rested, he did so to delight in all his creation. I think that he wants the same of us—to delight in his amazing creation. Sabbath reminds me that I am a child of the King, and he wants me to have a joyful life.
Contemplate: I write in my journal. Journaling has been a powerful spiritual practice for me since my mom gave me my first prayer journal in middle school. Sabbath is when I know that I will be able to spend focused time reflecting on my life and what God might be saying to me. Sabbath reminds me that as God’s treasured possession, my relationship with him is most important.
I have seen two of my close friends in church planting burn out after years of tireless service. While they are still in the city, they are unfortunately no longer leading in a local church. If I had not started celebrating Sabbath, I’d probably do the same, much less stay in NYC. Sabbath recalibrates what really matters: the kingdom of God. Sabbath recalibrates success: faithfulness to Jesus. Sabbath recalibrates ministry: Jesus will build his church.
Do you have a Sabbath? Why wouldn’t you accept this wonderful gift from your loving heavenly father? It may be extremely difficult at first. Like the Israelites recalibrating their lives from slavery to living as God’s people, you may be breaking addictions to work, technology, or cultural expectations. Your current life situation may even make it extra challenging. So find a sitter for a couple hours, turn off your phone, block out your calendar, do what it takes. Trust me, it will be worth it. Start by focusing on just one element: stop, rest, delight, or contemplate.
The difficulties of everyday life exist everywhere, but it took the pressures of New York City for me to realize my need for Sabbath rest. And instead of a growing sense of burnout, I am discovering a sustainable life, dependent on Jesus.
Your heavenly father is holding out the gift of Sabbath rest. Will you accept it?
Nathan Winstead is a pastor and worship leader at Everyday Christian Church in New York City (nwinstead.com).