By Ken Chitwood 5-11-2016

Fresh from a breakfast of piping hot spaghetti on toast and loud laughs, the employees at Joyclas Farms headed back to work for the day on the New Zealand dairy farm. There was important work to be done.

The smell of sweet silage hung in the air and the strikingly iridescent grass of the paddocks shone in the early morning sun. We drove past a patch of turf that was unwieldy and overgrown. As yet jejune in my dairy farming apprenticeship, having grown up in the Los Angeles area, I wondered aloud why this pasture was different than all the rest.

“That field is lying fallow,” said Lawrence, one of the farm’s owners. “It will be rich for the heifers to enjoy next season.”

Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.

When fallow, the field is at rest so that it can serve its function to feed the heifers for years to come.

Just as fields need to lie fallow, so does all creation — including us. In a world that is rife with addiction to busyness, it is imperative that we rediscover the lost art of re-creative rest. Only then can we effectively serve and yield fruit for the Kingdom of God.

Justice work is good work. It is a high calling. It deserves great effort and exertion. But in today’s world, if our work in the realms of social justice mimics the exhausting routine of the fiercely competitive struggle for wealth and power, we would do well to take a moment to consider the biblical rhythm of Sabbath.

The esteemed rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath that the holy day serves as a “sanctuary in time.” The invitation of the Sabbath is a summons to dwell in the eternality of time, he wrote, to turn from “the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

From the foundation of the world, God wove together time in such a way that it would be lived in a rhythm of rest and work. The fabric of the universe has Sabbath rest stitched into it, and the concept has served as the cadence for agricultural, pastoral, and industrial work for ages.

And yet, we still often feel oppressed by our labor — estranged from our loved ones by the demands of daily toil, and surrendering to a constant stream of messages, demands, and obligations.

Through all of it — the good work and the slavish exertion — we are alienated from our selves, severed from the Sabbath that the creator of the cosmos intended for us to live in and out of.

Karl Marx wrote that capitalism is self-destructive because it lacks rational control. In its greed and all-consuming power, it is a draining mechanism that sucks dry the very lifeblood of its primary means of production: people. The expression #TGIF — “Thank God It’s Friday” — is a sad testament to the fact that work is, for many, oppressive, alienating, boring, and dehumanizing. Even the good work of Kingdom construction can be degrading to the sinews of human life.

The call to those who labor, in whatever calling, is to both rest from their work and work from their rest. It is to seek asylum in the “sanctuary in time.”

Ethicist and theologian Darrell Cosden points to the importances of rest in his book Earthly Work. He wrote,

“Sabbath, rather than being the opposite of work, becomes the very thing that characterizes our work. For from rest and godly reflection comes genuinely humane work. When we are reflecting God properly, therefore, all our work will be seasoned with Sabbath.”

By submitting to the Sabbath, we find protection in its vaulted and sacred chronology. We re-orient our being and our vocations in such a way that we readily admit our ultimate worth is not founded in what we do, but who we are because of what God does — creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

Compassion for the world and practice of the Sabbath for the body and soul are intimately interconnected. We cannot serve the world without setting time aside for re-creative rest. We cannot do re-creative work from a place of exhaustion and burnout.

In our current culture, this is downright subversive. We carry a pervasive idea that we are defined by the volume of our work or the sweat of our brow. But sometimes the best way we can celebrate labor is to rest from it — to discover relaxation, restorative delight, and a sense of the sacredness of time itself.

In New Zealand I enjoyed going out on the farm to do some solid hard work, to get my hands dirty, to feel like I did something with my day. But the best part of my time out on the farm was breakfast, when we took an hour or so to rest from the milking and feeding and eat some spaghetti on toast, drink some coffee (salted or not), and shoot the bull.

It was one way we let the fields lie fallow, but it made all the difference.

Ken Chitwood

Ken Chitwood (@kchitwood) is a religion scholar with interests in global Islam, religion in the Americas, global Christianity, and the interplay between religion and pop culture. 

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