“According to the Bible, what are we supposed to do on the Sabbath?” This is a question I got asked a few weeks ago after I gave a talk about sabbath. It’s a tricky question, because there isn’t any place in the Bible that offers a checklist of sabbath activities. And we should be careful if we try to craft such a list, because one of Jesus’ biggest conflicts with the religious leaders of his day was over their legalistic attitudes regarding sabbath.
American Christianity, of which I am a part, tends to talk about Sunday as the sabbath day, a day for corporate worship and rejuvenation before going back into the fray of week’s frenzy. But I like how Walter Brueggemann talks about the place of worship and sabbath:
“Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal form the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.”
In the creation account of Genesis 1, the arc of the plot is from chaos to sabbath—everything in its right place. Sabbath is the one thing called “holy.” Not even humanity, made in God’s image, is called holy. Holy means different. So one day out of every seven we do things differently.
Here are twelve ways we can begin to experience sabbath. By no means try to cram all these into your life right now. Choose one. Experiment. See what works. See what leads you into a deeper love of God and neighbor. We’re all wired differently.
1. Anticipate it.
Half the fun of Christmas is the anticipation. Half the fun of a wedding day is the anticipation. Mark it on your calendar. Look forward to it. Plan what you’re going to do.
Maybe one reason for our confusion about sabbath comes from the very graphic design of our calendars. A week is a collection of seven days beginning with Sunday. Why is that? That’s an arbitrary starting point, isn’t it? What if you could rearrange the calendar. Make Sunday the center point of the week. Take Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to look forward to all that you’re going to do (or not do). Take Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to savor and reflect on everything that happened (or didn’t happen). Rather than thinking about the week as 1+6, trying reframing it your mind as 3+1+3.
2. Bring your gift.
You are gifted, and you’re gift is for the benefit of your community. I find that clergy and church staff most particularly struggle here. When you get a paycheck from a church, Sunday is a work day. Or is it? Challenge that narrative. You’re not paid to do anything.
Your community identified particular gifts in you and has empowered you. Maybe its preaching and teaching. Maybe its organizing volunteers. Maybe its hospitality. Maybe its working with kids. Bring that with you as a means of being everything God has made you to be as you contribute to a greater whole.
Bringing your gift to the community cuts across the grain of our selfish gravitational pull to make sabbath all about us and our own self fulfillment or self enlightenment, which are the antithesis of true sabbath.
3. Write down your “so that…”
At a time when I was in between jobs, a mentor encouraged me to write “so that…” at the bottom of my resume. He wanted me to identify what all this was for—my experiences, my skills, my awards. What did I want from all of that?
Sabbath creates margin in our lives for our “so that.” We are not human doings. We are human beings. We do not exist for work. What does “abundant life” look like for you? That’s sabbath space. You are not your job. You are not your work. You invest 40-60 hours a week into something for what? Identify what it is you’re working for.
4. Put away your screens.
I once suggested this to a youth group, and the collective gasp in the room was audible. Put your smartphone in a sock drawer for 24 hours. Turn it off. Missing a dozen notifications has yet to kill anybody. At the very least, delete your social media apps for 24 hours. It takes about 30 seconds to re-install them the next day. Kill your electronic distractions, if only for one day a week.
Our smartphones are an insidious addiction. We simply don’t have to be present to everyone all the time. Our presence is more valuable to the people right in front on us. You may be surprised by what you find when you lift your eyes beyond your screen.
5. Eat differently.
Take your sabbath to mix up your menu. Be intentional about your food. Most days I don’t even think about what I’m putting in my body. It ends up being what’s most convenient or what my wife has planned for our family. Shake things up. Eat vegetarian for a day. Skip sweets for a day. Plan a special breakfast. Cook your own food.
Maybe you’re on a diet are trying get healthy, and you track your calories every day. Take one day in seven to pause that. Still be intentional. Don’t gorge yourself on junk. But celebrate. Eat joyfully.
6. Sleep differently.
Like those Snickers commercials, “You’re not you when your hungry,” you’re not you when you’re tired. Our bodies are wired to sleep a third of our day. When the work of the week impinges on that rest, we need to embrace sleep.
If you wake up to an alarm every day, don’t set an alarm on sabbath. Listen to your body. Wake up when your body wakes up. Take a nap. Start your sabbath evening by going to bed at a reasonable hour so you can get at least eight hours of sleep.
7. Don’t spend money.
In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, the sabbath commandment not only involves you not doing any work. It also involves participating in systems that keep others in sharing sabbath with us.
Spending money prevents others from participating in sabbath with us. For a season during and right after seminary I worked at a Starbucks. I could ask to be off Sundays, but it was never a guarantee. This was because Sunday morning was one of the busiest shifts of the week. At church I’d hear people rant about people not being in church Sunday morning. Meanwhile, our Starbucks was full of church people Sunday morning, not to mention the hundreds of restaurants in town that had to be staffed for the “after church” rush. When we purchase things on sabbath, we continue to participate in the 24-7 “anxiety system of Pharaoh” that Brueggemann talks about.
8. Make something.
Doodle in a sketch pad. Tend a garden. Work on a novel. Paint a picture. Create something with your hands. For years as a sabbath practice, Wendell Berry has written a poem.
Don’t do this out of obligation. This isn’t about fixing up your house because it’s on your to-do list. This is about the joy of creation because we are made in the image of the ultimate Creator.
9. Share a meal.
It’s powerful when we eat together with others. Something mysterious happens bonding us in belonging. This isn’t about entertaining. Not about putting out the fancy dishes. Plan a simple meal, maybe soup and bread. Enjoy one another’s company.
Hospitality to strangers is fundamental to the Gospel, to God’s order of the universe. Welcome friends, welcome neighbors, welcome strangers.
10. Go outside.
Several years ago I heard someone share how on Sunday evenings, rather than having programming at their church (this was a local neighborhood church), members sat on their front porch and leisurely walked the neighborhood sidewalks connecting with one another and their neighbors.
Have front porch time. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Go for a hike. Breathe in the fresh air. Feel the wind. Feel the sunshine. Be in God’s world.
11. Create a weekly ritual.
Have a candle that you light at sundown as a means of ushering your household into Sabbath each week. Have a certain prayer you pray together. Maybe together put your phones in a basket to be put away until the next day. Maybe prepare a special meal together. Likewise, create a routine for sundown on Sabbath for re-entry into the work of the world and the upcoming week.
12. Whatever you do, do it with others.
No where in the Bible are the words “my sabbath.” And yet, I frequently hear this language, especially from church staff people. “Friday is my sabbath day.” This isn’t sabbath. What’s really said behind this is, “This is the day nobody else tells me what to do. This is my personal refreshment day.”
There’s no doubt we need such rhythms of self care in our busy lives, but as the Bible describes sabbath, this is not sabbath. Sabbath in Scripture is always a corporate experience. Practice sabbath as a family. Practice sabbath as a church community. Invite your neighborhood into your sabbath rhythms. Sabbath-keeping is one more way we are bonded in community.
So what do we do on sabbath? We do well to carefully watch Jesus and pay attention to the things that Jesus did on sabbath. Passages like Mark 1 and Matthew 12 suggest that Jesus was very active on the sabbath. He was bringing order where there was chaos, healing, bringing wholeness, restoring human dignity where it had been broken. This is the starting place of what we do on sabbath.
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