Published On: October 18th, 20214312 words21.6 min read

Our world needs rest. This is something that’s becoming more and more obvious these days as our culture squeezes as much as it can out of as little as possible – all the time. People’s spirits/souls are running on empty, our environment is barely alive, and we just keep going. Enter A.J. Swoboda, a pastor from Portland, Oregon. A.J. sees this reality and decides to voice his concern and a solution. What is that solution? It’s found in the Bible, and it’s called Sabbath rest. This week we’re joined by A.J. as he talks about his new book, Subversive Sabbath, and what it means to rest.

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*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.

Isaac Dagneau:
With me today is pastor, professor, husband and father, and author AJ Swoboda from Portland, Oregon. We’ve actually had AJ on the show before, way back in episode 16, which is crazy. So it’s really good to have you back with us again, AJ.

AJ Swoboda:
Isaac, it’s a joy to join you. Thank you for having me.

Isaac:
Yeah, for sure. You know, if someone’s been faithfully listening since episode 16, I mean, they deserve a prize. That’s awesome. But for those who don’t know you, AJ, or didn’t hear that first conversation, who are you? What are a few things that you could say about yourself that you think others should really know. And I think you should mention your chickens if you still have those, or not.

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah, man, I can’t really do an intro… Any biographical information about the story of my life includes our chickens. Yeah. So, we live here in urban Portland, and I pastor a church called Theophilus, and my wife and my son Elliot live pretty close to where they filmed Portlandia, at least that kind of area.
And yeah, we got some chickens in the backyard, and I get to pastor this wonderful community. I do some writing too, and written a number of books, and I teach as well at a couple of different seminaries. I run a Doctor of Ministries program at Fuller Seminary on the life of the Holy Spirit, and get to do some fun stuff. But basically, it all comes back to the chickens.

Isaac Dagneau:
It really does, eh. And did you grow up in a Christian home, or did you come to faith later in life, or how did that work?

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah, no, no. I was not raised in a Christian home. In fact, I was raised in a really kinda classic, progressive, Pacific Northwest household. Had two parents in the medical community. My dad’s a doctor. Mom’s a nurse. Middle upper class, privileged kid. Raised in a family that really didn’t identify religiously at all, and I had an encounter with Jesus when I was 16 years old that really turned everything around.

Isaac Dagneau:
Wow. That’s awesome. AJ, you’ve just written a book called Subversive Sabbath. Now, to help us understand what this book is all about, I’m wondering if you, instead of just asking you to summarize what the book’s about, can you first just explain the problem that you’re addressing, or that you see in this world that made you have to, in a sense write a book that helps provide a solution that you’re giving?

AJ Swoboda:
Hmm. That’s a great question. Well, I think the real driving force behind this book, the problem that it’s seeking to address was a problem that I observed a couple years ago, when I decided to preach on this idea of biblical rest for three weeks in our church. And I’ve preached on things that have upset people in our church. I’ve preached on sexuality. I’m pretty – I’m very conservative. Preached on marijuana, ’cause we live in Portland, and I got to talk about that and stuff. So, I’ve upset people. And I decided I’m going to preach on Sabbath, ’cause our church is tired. And I preached for three weeks on the Sabbath, and I’ve never had more people upset than when I preached on rest.
Now, it was so fascinating to have the rationale behind why that’s the case is that obviously, as Americans, North Americans, we worship our time. And time is one of those things it’s really hard to submit to Jesus with. And I was in a council meeting with the people in our church that do the church finances, and I had this epiphany that as a pastor, if I was to break like nine of the commandments, if I was to steal money from the church, I’d probably lose my job. If I had committed adultery, I’d probably lose my job. If I committed murder, I’d definitely lose my job. And I had this epiphany, this dark epiphany that scared me to death, that if I don’t take a day of rest as a pastor, I’ll probably get a raise.
It’s literally become the one commandment that we have looked at and said, “We don’t need you anymore.” And that problem, I think, is playing itself out in our entire culture. We have forgotten the idea of biblical rest.

Isaac Dagneau:
Wow. That’s good. And you know, it’s interesting you say that, because recently I was talking with Andy Crouch on indoubt. He wrote a book called The Tech-Wise Family. And he actually, one of the commitments he gives is talking about this idea of rest. And when I asked him, which out of these ten commitments is the most important today, he did say the same thing. He said it’s this day of rest, because we are wringing our culture out with all of the stuff that we’re constantly doing, constantly. So that’s huge. And that epiphany, if you would’ve actually broken this commandment, you would get a raise. That’s crazy.
Now, AJ, we read about the Sabbath, obviously, many times in scripture. Probably the most popular place is what you just mentioned, in the ten commandments, where God says to keep the Sabbath day holy. And you know, he even, Moses refers back to creation, in a same way, God made the world in six days, and on the seventh day rested. So, you should do the same thing.
Now, I feel like most people, and I’m including myself in this AJ, that we sort of have this vague, or sometimes this weird ambiguous idea of what the Sabbath is, what it means. So, I’m wondering if you just help us flesh out, what does Moses mean here? What is the Bible getting at when we talk about this idea of keeping a Sabbath day? What is that?

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah. Well, first of all, just to address, there is this vague concern that a lot of Christians have that the Sabbath idea is basically akin to those Old Testament commandments against eating bacon. And at the end of the day, I can assure your audience I eat far too much bacon to concern anybody that I’m bringing back some kind of Judaic legalism.
But the truth is, this commandment, this invitation to the Sabbath, we don’t primarily do it because it’s in the law. We do it because it’s literally built into creation. I mean, when God created the world, and instituted Sabbath as day seven, first of all, I want to point out that the Sabbath is the first image of the gospel in the Bible. Adam and Eve were created on day six. Day seven was the day of rest. And it should not escape our attention that for Adam and Eve, their first day of existence was a day of rest. God began their life with rest. There is no better image of the gospel of Jesus. We first rest in Jesus, and out of that get our work done.
When God says- it’s interesting in Genesis 1-2, the only think in Genesis 1-2 that is called holy is not humanity. It’s not the sun. It’s not the stars. It’s not pomegranates. It’s not mangos. The only thing that’s called holy is the day of rest. And that image of holy is the work Cadoche, is this image of something that’s set apart for something sacred. And I think ultimately, at the end of the day, God’s plan was that humanity would know how to take a day a week and just stop and be in the presence of God. And listen, what happens when we don’t do that? Creation starts falling apart. If you remove anything else from creation that God has made, creation will die. You take the water away, we’ll die. You take the light away, we’ll die. You take, you name it. You take it away, we die. You take the Sabbath away, we’ll die.

Isaac Dagneau:
Wow. So, you say that, we need to have a day of just rest. But I mean, I don’t even think our culture, at least speaking of some of my peers, Christian peers, what is rest? Does rest mean hopping in a van and going downtown and having a fun day? Does rest mean just staying at home, not watching anything, and just sitting? I don’t think so, but we’re just so unfamiliar with this idea of rest.

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah. Well luckily, we have a Bible. And it turns out the Bible is actually really helpful in that regard. When my family keeps the Sabbath, we do a Sabbath one day a week. We don’t sweep the yeast out from the kitchen. We don’t do this sort of, a lot of the ritualistic … I should say, not the ritualistic, but the sort of purity laws that were included in the Old Testament. Those we’re free from. But the principle of the Sabbath remains. And I think Jesus actually answered the question quite brilliantly. He said, “When an ox falls into the grass, is it better to give life or to take life?” Is it better to help the ox out, or is it better to let the ox die? And I think the principle lies in that section, and that is, what is life giving should be what the Sabbath is all about. Whatever is life-giving is what the Sabbath is all about. That does not mean, as many of your millennial listeners that may be listening may think, that does not mean that it’s a day to binge watch Game of Thrones.
And the reason I say that is, we’ve got to take into account not just the invitation to rest, but all the other biblical stuff. For example, whatever is good, and right, and pure, think about these things. It’s not the day to baptize our individualistic narcissism in some commandment in the bible. It’s a day to do the rest of the things that God has invited us to do as well, and to do those faithfully.
So, I’ll tell you what I love to do on the Sabbath. I love to watch a movie with my family on the Sabbath, and I love to read a book. And we eat pancakes, and we go on long walks, and we go hiking. And I’ll tell you, it is all life-giving.

Isaac Dagneau:
That’s awesome. That’s so good. Now, I think some of what you just said will kind of flow into this next question, but you say that personal Sabbath keeping is a spiritual discipline, and it’s also a form of social justice. So, when you’re talking about the ox falling, life-giving, so obviously life-giving is social justice in a sense. But I wonder if you can kind of flesh that out, that Sabbath keeping is a spiritual discipline, and a form of social justice.

AJ Swoboda:
Well unfortunately, and this is a reflection of our cultural milieu really. When we see these horrific actions taking place, for example the shooting in Florida, or you see these horrible things taking place, you notice this interesting tension that progressives hate: that conservatives are praying. And conservatives look at progressives and think they’re compulsively being activistic. And I think in the biblical text, we do not find any legitimate separation between prayer and activism. That is, that to actually pray is a form of activism. Now, prayer has never been given to us as an escape from this world. That’s why Jesus said pray that your Father, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed … Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.”
I think that the Sabbath provides for us God’s provision for a form of activism that says stop and trust in God.

Isaac Dagneau:
Wow. Yeah. Now, that goes counter everything the progressive culture I live in says about activism, because activism is do, do, do, fix, fix, fix.

AJ Swoboda:
But Sabbath actually says before you compulsively go and think that you can create the world in your image, why don’t you stop and be in the presence of God and allow Him to shape you to be the kind of person who can shape the world.
I heard this famous, I can’t remember who it was, but he’s a famous Christian activist who said, “For every hour of protest that you give, make sure you give an hour to prayer.” And I think that there’s a powerful invitation in the Sabbath to stopping and simply allowing God to shape us.

Isaac Dagneau:
That’s so good. AJ, obviously you’re familiar, at least a little bit I would think, with the sort Christian culture – at least in Portland. When you look around, maybe to fellow pastors, Christian professors at the seminaries and so on and so forth, do you see a good chunk really trying to live out this Sabbath day each week?

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah. Whether we’re doing it or not is one question. Whether the hunger is there is a different question. And what I’m seeing is a level of hunger for people to deal with the Sabbath, and engage in the Sabbath, that I’ve never seen before.
Interestingly enough, often the people in the Christian sphere who are most critical of the Sabbath are often the theologians and the academics. Now for a variety of reasons, now I’m an academic, so I can understand that world. But interestingly enough it is those who often have the greatest critique for the Sabbath that are the ones who get a sabbatical every seven years. What I think is hypocritical is for an academic to ever get a sabbatical and not desire that everybody else gets a break too.
And the truth is, when we think about the Sabbath, the Sabbath has to be enacted by people in power for it to work for everybody, because if people in authority don’t do it, then nobody else is going to get it. It’s like Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A, which I have all sorts of feelings about, but they close every stinking Sunday for people to go home and be with their families. And I think, whether we’re doing it or not, we all need to understand that the Sabbath is not just about us. It is about everyone else too.

Isaac Dagneau:
Yeah. That’s so good. In your book, which I haven’t read yet, but I’m looking around online about it. It looks like you make a connection between Sabbath keeping, and there’s this connection with local communities as well. So, I’m wondering if you can explain what that connection is. What are you kind of getting a there, when you mention this idea of connecting with local communities?

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah. Well, in the Jewish tradition, still to this day, when there’s a synagogue in the city, there’s this implicit kind of commitment that often Orthodox Jews will make, and that is, you will attempt to live within walking distance of the synagogue. And the reason is that on the Sabbath, to drive to Synagogue is work. So, to go to synagogue, you’ve got to walk. Now, to walk, you’ve got to walk with other people, so you’re invited, they’re called “eruv” lines, which you’re invited to live close to the synagogue so you can walk there with your friends as you go to synagogue.
What a powerful image of how a day of rest invites us to be in the neighborhood. It invites us to walk around. It invites us to not be traveling all over the place and being everywhere else. It roots us in a certain place and says “Be here. Be in your home. Be present.”
In a fragmented world where we’re all doing way more than we should be doing, we need a day to come home. I love that on the Sabbath, I know that a big part of the Sabbath for me is always that it is God’s invitation to me to get down on my knees and get into my son’s collection of Legos for a couple of hours. ‘Cause my six-year-old loves Legos. And you know what the Sabbath does? It brings me back down to earth.

Isaac Dagneau:
Yeah. That’s so good. You know, this may be situational, this next question, but I’m wondering if you can speak into it. So much of the way that we are just kept in this routine of do, do, do, is our smartphones, and being online. So, we have our emails. We have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. We have all this stuff to keep us going. Would you, what is your experience and what do you suggest Christians do when they desire to hold the Sabbath day? Should they be continually in on that?

AJ Swoboda:
Hmm. Well, yeah. The technology has basically become, in the words of one theologian that I read, I mean, it’s graphic language, but “Our smartphones are lubrication for our economy of slavery.” I mean, it’s just making our slavery to activity easier. And I advocate in my book, and this certainly is not something that everybody can do, and there’s certainly nothing in scripture that commands it, but is one day a week, the Sabbath should be a day that we learn how to turn the phone off.
And it is, Isaac, almost, it is really hard to do that. And the truth is, the people who invented this little smartphone, which it turns out you can turn these things off, you have to hold the button down for five seconds, but right before … It’s interesting that they’ve made it so that when you turn your smartphone off, they flash a little apple with a bite taken out of it, like you’re back in the Garden of Eden or something, and you’ve been eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil all week long. And it’s totally intentional on some level.
The truth is, we treat our phones like they fill our souls. And we are more faithful to our phones than we are to keeping up with the Holy Spirit most of the time. And I think we need a day to turn these suckers off, and literally plop ourselves into the presence of Jesus, and say, “Jesus, what do you have to say to me? Not my notifications, not my Twitter updates, not my Facebook feed. What, Jesus, do you have to say to me?” It is a radical act of disconnecting from the world, and reconnecting to the vine of Jesus.

Isaac Dagneau:
That’s so good, AJ. Yeah. Two more questions before we can wrap this up. You say that God may actually do more when we do less, which is sort of this interesting statement. So, what are you getting at here, when you talk about this?

AJ Swoboda:
Yeah. Well, actually this is the character of God. What’s interesting is that when you look at the story of creation, when God created Adam and Eve, day seven was a day of rest, and it was the culmination of God’s creation. You know, most people say that humanity is the climax of creation, day six, failing to recognize that there was one more day in creation, the day of Sabbath. And I agree with Heschel, Abram Heschel, who says that actually the Sabbath is the climax of God’s creation, and the Sabbath is the day where all things are at harmony with God and with one another.
But what does God do at the end of creation? God takes a day of rest. What does Jesus do at the end of the passion week, on Saturday? He rests in the grave. Jesus, when he recreates the world, lies in a borrowed grave for a whole day. And it just seems to me that every time God wants to get something done, He takes a day off. And the truth is, we think that our work is more effective than God’s rest. And God’s rest is always more effective than man’s work. And in our rest, God can actually accomplish way more than we ever could in our work.
That does not mean that we don’t work hard. When you read Exodus 20, the invitation to rest is simultaneously an invitation to work. You work six days, and you rest one day a week. And you can’t call it a biblical Sabbath unless you’re simultaneously giving yourself to work. You need the work as well. So, it’s both. But the truth is that God’s character, every time God wants to get something done, He takes a day off. ’cause man’s rest, work is never as effective as God’s work, and we, as Christians, need to begin to learn that God really can work in our rest.

Isaac Dagneau:
That’s so good. In all the pages you’ve written in this book, and not just the pages you’ve written, but your sermon series, all of your thinking on this topic, what is the one thing about Sabbath keeping that you, at this point right now, that you think is most important? What should we know as we’re listening right now? What’s the one thing we should know?

AJ Swoboda:
That I’m a hypocrite.
So, I’m talking pretty confidently about the Sabbath here. But I want to close by saying I’m talking confidently, but this is one of the hardest things about the life of God for me to do. And the truth is, even in writing this book, Subversive Sabbath, I almost burned out. Catch the irony of that, the irony of burning out talking about the Sabbath. We, if we are North American human beings, this is going to be one of the hardest parts of the life of God for us. We can do prayer, and Bible study, and go to church and be masters of that, and still not know how to stop, and be still, and know that God is God. But it is so critical, because in a world that is exhausted, it is so tired right now, the church should be the one place people know where they can go and find rest in Jesus.

Isaac Dagneau:
Yeah. That’s awesome. Thank you so much AJ. If you’re listening, and you’re interested in AJ’s new book Subversive Sabbath, which today our conversation was just a little scraping from what you can find in this book, I’m going to put a link on our episode page that you can find. But you can also hop on Amazon, and search it, or just searchSubversive Sabbath on Google. You can also check out AJSwaboda.com, where you can find out more about AJ, some articles, other books that he’s written. Even, you can jump on indoubt, and scroll down our archive, and find episode 16, where AJ talks about creation care as well. But anyways, I want to thank you again so much AJ.

AJ Swoboda:
Isaac, and thank you for your work and your service to God’s people with this.

A.J.’s newest book (the one we’ve been talking about) is called Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World.

Dr. A.J. Swoboda
Dr. A.J. Swoboda Pastor of Theophilus
Dr. A.J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He is the lead mentor of a Doctor of Ministry program on the Holy Spirit and Leadership at Fuller Seminary and teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at a number of other universities and Bible colleges.

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