The Weekly Practice:
ONE DAY A WEEK WITH NO WORK
When the work finally stops, if it even does stop, we find ourselves looking for something. We are restless in the moments we set aside for rest, and there is movement in the moments we intended for stillness. The first thing a Sabbath teaches us is that we don’t very well know how to stop. The most dangerous thing about our frenzy, our anxiety, our busyness, is that they are self-perpetuating. Without intervention, we will stretch until we are thin and then even thinner, and at the end of ourselves we don’t suddenly snap back, we just disappear. The Sabbath is thus first an act of resistance.
We stop. We stop and see that while our work is good, we have mistaken it. The work that should be a way to love our neighbor has become a way to justify our existence. So whatever that work is, on the Sabbath we pause. Not because the work is finished, it never is. The difference between the rest of God in Genesis and our rest in Sabbathing is that God has completed His work. God rests to stop and see his finished work, but we rest to stop and see that we are not the ones who can finish our work. Completion is not ours, not yet. And there is the first upward turn of the Sabbath – to look for our generous, worker God who finishes our work on our behalf. The one who finishes us. The one who has pronounced, “It is finished.”
But Sabbath is not just resistance, it is even more so an act of embrace. Like God, when we rest from work we survey creation, and in that pause we remember how amazing it all is. In the pause from work we remember that in fact there is so very much more to our life than our life of work. The beauty of friends, exercise, nature, art, hobby and inefficient time begin to come slowly back into focus.
So in the Sabbath we leave the world of doing, and reanimate the world of being. At least sort of. There are still many things one must do in order to be well. But while the Sabbath takes work, it’s a different kind of work. Abraham Heschel said that one who works with their mind will Sabbath with their hands, and one who works with their hands will Sabbath with their mind.
Tips: I usually look to sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday for my Sabbath, and my best times of Sabbath have been characterized by a great deal of planning and preceded by lots of trial and error. It may start with a good dinner and lots of drinks with friends late into Saturday evening. A big breakfast but still arriving in plenty of time for the worship service on Sunday morning is important. Ideally lingering afterwards with no place to rush off to. The afternoon is perhaps filled with a hobby, a long nap, a walk in a museum or art gallery, a novel or collection of poetry I have been meaning to get to. Long walks through the neighborhood or city, an hour at a good restaurant, a baseball game on the radio, a room at the library for deep study, or a time of silence in nature also all do well. Losing my phone is also a best practice.
At best there is a rhythm, even a rut to it, and of utmost importance are some friends in the same rut. I happen to be at a time in life where this has evolved beautifully into family dinners at my parents’ house each Sunday afternoon. We take turns cooking, the kids play relatively unsupervised. We linger, we joke, we rest.
Whatever it may be for you now, the importance of community in Sabbathing can probably not be understated. The ways that friends bring rest to each other cannot be manufactured elsewhere.
Perhaps you work at this by organizing the same group of people that meets for a lunch or supper every week. This can be especially important for families, so the kids can play together and parents can enjoy relational time. In the spirit of Heschel as adapted to parenting, lead parents (if one is typically home during the week) might consider taking some of their Sabbath apart from the kids and the secondary parent should consider spending a good deal of their Sabbath with their kids. (For example, writing is a Sabbath activity for me, and at the moment I am writing this with one hand while my four-week old sleeps in the other.)
In my line of work (corporate lawyering) there is rarely a span of hours that passes without receiving a work email. I don’t turn on my email on the Sabbath because it would be sinful to read and reply. To the extent that is a debate, I’m uninterested in it. But it’s also not a hard question for me. I turn off my email on the Sabbath because I’m in an impassioned pursuit of the white space that comes with disconnecting from that. That is holy ground because it is so set apart. If you are in a job that does ask you to be on call, expectation-setting goes along way. Giving people an emergency number if they really, seriously, actually need to call you can help. Some seasons of work will be different, different jobs we need to look to different days for Sabbath, but in general we are looking for the rhythm of Sabbath something we constantly fall back into.
Our goal is not to feel good about ourselves because we follow the rules, it’s to pursue the presence of God – often some good rules will guide us there, like bumper rails down the lane. Similar to fasting, good Sabbathing requires practice, preparation, adjustments and pivots. It’s something we have to work at, but the rest of the soul is worth working for.