Beating Burnout: Sabbath Rest for Worship Leaders
By Mark and Carrie Tedder
Years before Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler allowed a microscopic camera down his throat and calmed our fears over laryngeal surgery I was on my way to see a specialist in Denver. My voice was shot. Three years of heavy international travel and multiple services at our local megachurch had taken its toll. Raspy tones and persistent laryngitis were an unwelcome duo in my vocal performance. I was failing at my job as worship leader. “Two more years or twenty. It’s your choice,” warned the doctor.
My wife was with me at the evaluation for my throat condition. As a fellow musician and helpmate of twenty years, she had already begun discovering the life giving properties of something I would soon learn more about and lean into: Sabbath rest. I had not. At least not yet.
The doctor put me on one month of total vocal rest. No singing. No talking. Not even a whisper was allowed. So we booked a last minute holiday to Hawaii. However, the trip from Denver to Honolulu had been miserable. On the airplane, I became feverish and began to develop a horrible rash down my neck and shoulders. Once we arrived and picked up our bags, we headed straight to the emergency clinic.
My wife explained to the doctor at the clinic why we had come to the island—to rest. “I’m afraid my diagnosis is only going to add to your despair,” the doctor said. “There will be no sun, no sand and probably no sex for you Mr. Tedder because you are going to feel rotten the whole two weeks you are here. You have shingles.” My Sabbath journey, however forced, had begun.
Rest isn’t just for other people
The whole concept of Sabbath rest is big. In fact, it ranks as number four on the Ten Commandment list handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. Scattered among the books of the Bible are Sabbath days, Sabbath feasts and Sabbath rests. In ancient times, Sabbath breakers faced stoning when its strict legislation was enforced. Artists wrote lyrics and musicians composed melodies for the day. In the New Testament, Jewish Jesus kept regular Sabbath; he often taught in the synagogues. A withered hand was healed. An evil spirit exorcised. And the disciples indulged in midday munchies on the Sabbath, stirring up controversy. Sabbath was even used as a measurement of distance and time. Overall, it is a broad theme throughout both testaments, old and new, as a thick blue thread woven into the tapestry of Hebrew history. And, it is a subject worthy of our exploration today because, like me, you may be a worship leader in need of rest and a sacred space.
In the beginning, rest?
The origins of Sabbath start at the very beginning, in Eden. Sabbath was God’s idea. It was a fresh, prehistoric, pre-sin concept. The moist earth from where God dug man’s DNA was only a stone’s throw of the first Sabbath. Genesis 2:2 says;
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing;
so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”
Sunrise of Creation: Day Seven woke to no construction noise. The Trinitarian crew had packed up the night before. Genesis says, “He rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” We don’t really know why God stopped. Here’s what we do know. He wasn’t tired. (Psalm 121: 3-4) He hadn’t run out of ideas. (Isaiah 42:5, Psalm 104:24) And he definitely wasn’t experiencing Creator’s block! (Job 38:4) Matthew Henry says in his commentary; “He did not rest, as one weary, but as one well-pleased with the instances of his own goodness and the manifestations of his own glory.” Mysteriously, God decided the work was complete. It was finished. There needs to be a time in your crazy, busy week too, when you must decide that your to-do list is done. Unlike Eden, your work might not actually be complete, but it can be ended. No more planning meetings. No more charting and uploading and notifying. No more conversations. And no more rehearsals. There is a time to stop. In fact, learning to cease is the first step in cultivating Sabbath space for your soul.
Learning to cease (questions to ponder):
1. What keeps you from ceasing activity and taking time to rest?
2. What does God’s Word tell us about Sabbath rest (see Bible verses in the section above)?
3. How would your life—and your worship leading—be different if you actually took a Sabbath rest?
A sacred space: set aside for a purpose
Ceasing is the first step in practicing Sabbath, but stopping work isn’t enough. The absence of toil doesn’t necessarily take our souls to the sacred space that God intended for closeness with him and refreshment for our tired bodies and souls. What else makes up Sabbath? Look at the second half of Genesis 2:2 and specifically focus on the phrase ‘made it holy.’
“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.”
What is holy? For starters we define God as holy. He is set apart. He is other. Revelation’s elders and supernal creatures cry out; “holy, holy, holy,” a chorus that remains number one in the celestial charts. Likewise, as worship leaders, we too echo heaven’s audience as we lead our congregations each weekend. Some of our songs include the word ‘holy’ don’t they? It becomes incredibly interesting then that within the account of creation something other than God is defined as holy. The Jewish writer Heschel in his book The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man says;
One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word, qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? How extremely significant that it is applied to time. There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.
Genesis 2:2 tells us that God blessed the seventh day and that he ‘made it holy.’ If God calls something holy, then we should too. At the very least we can conclude that the seventh day is set apart. When we quarantine an area and guard it against interruption, we are setting it apart. For example, bath time with your kids, a weekly coffee date with your best friend or balancing your checkbook religiously at month’s end could all be considered special or set apart. We value a certain activity or space above other competing elements, but to call something ‘holy’ is different. This holy space—Sabbath—moves from linear to multidimensional. Body and soul, mind and spirit, man and God; whatever language you use, inclusion of heaven and earth blend into our definition of Holy Sabbath.
A holy space (questions to ponder):
1. What constitutes a holy space?
2. How can you create more holy space in your life?
3. Name one thing you can do this week to create a holy space, Sabbath rest, this week.
Rest for the overworked The next time we see Sabbath in the Bible is when God gives it as a gift to the children of Israel. He announces to them in Exodus 16:23; “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest.” Rest? This was a completely new idea for this overworked people group. The Hebrews had been laboring 400 years and many down in the rock quarries of ancient Egypt. Generation upon generation knew nothing but slavery. There were no unions to protect them. There were no labor contracts to guard working hours. The people suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of the ruling Pharaohs.
Imagine yourself as one of those Hebrew slaves when you read the following passage in its entirety (Exodus 16:23-30). You might have been born near the coast in Alexandria. Your mother and granny were also born into captivity. Dad died working the docks. Rest is unknown to you. Or, as another example, use a more contemporary scene. You could imagine yourself as a dear North Korean brother who has narrowly escaped from a rehabilitation unit that you were born into. The frozen winter river became your path to freedom. Now, safe in Seoul, you experience a day off for the first time ever, and it is in this space that God wants to begin your healing. He longs to breathe life into your spirit and mend your brokenness. Whether it is from an Egyptian slave perspective or that of the persecuted North Korean, read the passage below.
Exodus 16:23 – 30: He said to them, “This is what the LORD commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’”
So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.”
Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
Sabbath as a gift (questions to ponder):
Do you believe that Sabbath rest is a gift from God to you (not just to people long ago)?
What prevents you from receiving this amazing gift?
Rest is about trust. Do you trust that God will provide for all your needs as you rest in him?
Rest is trusting God
When my longevity as a worship leader was threatened and we first started practicing Sabbath, in all honesty I felt a bit lazy. I did not consider Sabbath a gift. It was more of an intrusion. And after I felt better surely there would be no need for this ancient path. I did not weigh the seventh day with the same scales that a newly-released Hebrew slave or persecuted believer would have. How people respond to “ceasing and setting apart” varies. But what I didn’t realize was how desperately my whole being needed Eden’s gift.
How do you view ceasing and setting apart time? An overworked musical director whose self worth is linked to productivity sees Sabbath completely differently than that of an out-of-work musician whose work is a never-ending struggle to put food on the table. To one, stealing away from work is inefficient and squanders time. To the other, ceasing is an inconceivable luxury.
Ceasing and setting apart (questions to ponder):
What does ceasing and setting apart feel like to you? Is the tempo too slow?
Do you believe it is impossible to cease with your crazy church schedule?
List some of your initial misgivings. Be honest.
What do you do on a Sabbath?
If you manage to cease from your work of worship leadership and miraculously enjoy the space enough to consider it holy, what then is it that you actually do during Sabbath? The thought of 24 hours (really 12 hours if you factor in the need to sleep) without work is simply too much for some people. You may protest, “I wouldn’t know what to do all that time. I can’t just sit quietly and meditate all day!” That is a common response we get when speaking about Sabbath. What did God do on the first Sabbath? Let’s return to Genesis. I think we see hints within its pages of how the Creator filled his downtime (although the Creator really never has “downtime” as we know it). A brief sentence is repeated several times in chapter one of Genesis. Read through the chapter quickly. It is a sunset phrase. Can you spot it?
Write the phrase here: ___________
Capturing a fraction of heaven’s hue in his hand God created light. He bounced brightly burning balls across our vast universe. Darkness’ demarcation line was put in place. It was on Day One of Creation week that we discover our first clue to what God might have done on that first Sabbath. He stopped to notice, ‘‘God saw that the light was good.”
On Day Three, the Creator hand shaped our continents. On Asia minor and major he molded a great symphony of land castles. He planted golden grass on the African plains and fragrant fields of French lavender. He wrapped red around the trunk of the Indonesian lipstick palm as nearby mangoes dripped with sweetness. He instructed the salty waters of the great Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans to stay within their boundaries and as the orange sun disappeared into horizon water; again we see it. “And God saw that it was good.”
Moons cheered as they were chosen to reflect the sun’s light. Sparkling stars waited patiently in the queue for their given names. Intervals developed; thirds and fourth, augmentations and suspensions within the music of the spheres. And again on Day Four, “God saw that it was good.”
Warm ocean currents teemed with life on Day Five. Large-mouthed fish shaded themselves under giant water lilies of the Amazon. Salmon swam upstream in Alaska’s glacier melt. Winged flight was part of God’s plan on Day Five. Tiny hummingbirds zoomed, searching for nectar. Pink pelicans tried balancing on one leg while orange-beaked puffins nested high above Icelandic glaciers. “And God saw that it was good.”
Day Six was special. It was on this day that he made us. “Male and female he created them.” It was our beginning. Created as a watermark of the Godhead, we began our human history. And at sunset, the last day before the first Sabbath, it was particularly spectacular because a new word appears in our phrase. It is the word ‘very’. Genesis reads; “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
Can you hear the anticipation in Creator’s voice? We get a sense that God cannot wait for tomorrow. He is excited. It is you, his child that he longs for. At twilight he will wash the stardust from his hands. Soft again and ready for embrace because tomorrow—on that very first Sabbath—He will stop and delight in you.
Before the morning dew disappeared on Sabbath day, the Creator was delighting. There was so much to celebrate. He wanted to listen as Java’s hot orange lava hit the salty waters edge. Father, Son, and Spirit couldn’t wait to watch a purple crocus open. They discussed, maybe even had a little wager, on how long it would take mankind to discover the surprise they placed inside it. Who would find it? And how long would it take for it to become the most expensive spice on earth. Delighting and spending time with his creation. What a way to ‘do’ the day. What do you and I do on the Sabbath? The same thing God did:
We give ourselves permission to notice.
We take time to say, “it is good.” By turning off the news, the world gets suddenly brighter. By powering down our surroundings become more magical. When we wall up negativity, our lives become a miracle once again. We stop working and marvel at life on earth. We retrain our eyes to see what God saw so very long ago. We discipline our spirits to sing a new song. One whose lyrics remind us that “it is still good, very good.”
Discovering Sabbath and learning to keep it saved my vocal chords. It also breathed life into my soul and ministry. I pray that you too will experience the promise and power of Sabbath. It is here in the Sabbath space that He longs to meet with you. He loves you. He longs for you. Meet him there, and your tired, complacent or spiritually dry life will be forever changed.
Pack away your instrument and CEASE.
SET APART the time.
DELIGHT in your Creator.