We didn’t think a lot about Sabbath keeping as I grew up on our southeast Wyoming ranch unless it was in the vein of the “ox in the well,” (Luke 14:5).
Jesus had challenged the Pharisees that it would be acceptable to heal on the Sabbath just as you would rescue your son or an ox if thus trapped.
Not only did we literally have a bovine fall in a well one time (though it was on a Friday), we had lots of other concerns that kept us as busy on Sundays as any other day. My great uncle even had the saying, “If every day was Sunday, we’d work ourselves to death,” about the propensity of things to come more than proportionately unglued those days.
Suffice to say it was a situation my town-bred mother didn’t appreciate about life in the country. The majority of the few tears I ever saw her shed came at her frustration at the lack of support she received in getting her three sons to church on a regular basis. But Dad had cattle to feed and it seemed they got sick on Sunday at least one seventh of the time. Only after the couple moved to town in their early 50’s did my mother prevail.
At 18, under the influence of some true and good hearted Christians and on the cusp of my conversion, I began to learn of God’s plan for a rest from one’s work. I interpreted it as a sanctifying of the day. As an adult I also appreciated that what’s right for God is also good for man. Without a day set aside for such rest life would seem like 365 consecutive days of pressure, details and plates to keep spinning.
Great theological drama ensued once in the 70’s as I helped staff a college ministry’s holiday camp in Colorado. Interrupting the normally quiet and pious routine that Sunday, Jan. 1, 1978—the Broncos playing in their first ever AFC conference championship game vs. the hated Raiders. Complicating matters, numerous Minnesota kids were in attendance and pulling for the Vikings over the Cowboys in Game 2.
The older staff, in one of the great wise determinations ever, set up a community TV and said we could watch, but only one game. As society has became more secular and recreationally-crazed in the decades since, I‘ve never forgotten that prudent decision with God and balance in mind.
When attending seminary in the early ‘80’s, my wife and I made another choice that really worked. We said we’d toil like miners six days a week, but we would do no homework on Sunday. Instead we attended church and a small group that day, napped and took walks. We passed our classes at year’s end.
Destiny then put me back in the ranching environment these past 30 years. Instead of 35 miles to church as in boyhood, we’ve lived only three miles away from our small, rural congregation so church attendance hasn’t been an issue. Sabbath keeping however, has. Is there a holy approach to feeding cattle every Sunday from Thanksgiving to Easter? Do our workers deserve consideration? Exodus 23:12 says even “your ox and your donkey” get time off. Does the land merit a respite?
As regards animal care, there are simply certain responsibilities that cannot be shirked. My yearling steers are like a herd of four-legged prize fighters. I tend them religiously on all the routine 35 degree, 20 mph-wind, old snow-on-the-ground days so that they’ll be able to stand up to the occasional blizzard and negative wind chill situations where a man would perish unsheltered in a few hours.
I pulled up the pipes to a windmill and made repairs one Sunday morning this past June as the tank nearby stood dry, finishing in time for church. At least I don’t look for extra work to do on the Sabbath which would be true for most of my neighbors, though during calving or harvest seasons, all bets are off.
Range land managers have discovered what the Israelites knew 3,000 years ago. Leviticus 25 speaks of resting the land every seventh year—“. . .The land is to have a year of rest” (v.5b). The specialists note the benefits of grass periodically sprouting, growing and going to seed for a season without having to draw on root energy to restore the part of the plant that has been grazed. A corollary strategy called rotational grazing cuts pastures into many smaller paddocks. These confined areas are intensely grazed by large numbers of animals for just a few days two or three times per summer before the herd moves to the locale next door. While productivity increases, the land is restored. Again, what’s right for God is good for man.
A higher calling in one’s personal life would be what I call the mini-Sabbath. Surely applying the “rest amidst the labors” principle isn’t solely reserved for Sundays. My wife’s and my new literary heroine inspires us in these things. Precious Ramotswe oversees The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Alexander McCall Smith’s lovable series of novels set in modern day Botswana. Mma. Ramotswe always has just the right mix of wisdom, courage and common sense to process the everyday mysteries set before her.
And one of the secrets of her success—several times a day her life shuts down for a cup of her famous bush tea as she steps back from the pressures of her life and the demands of her profession. Thus regenerated, she always summons the grace to complete her task.
With or without the bush tea we can adapt her example for spiritual ends. We can briefly but regularly remove ourself from the race, thank God that he is with us, remind ourselves that things usually turn out well and ask for renewal before figuratively merging back into the oncoming traffic of our day.
Dan Kirkbride is a rancher in Chugwater, Wyoming.