What portrait of a life of faith do you carry with you? Mine tends to focus on doing: praying, reading and studying scripture, participating in church, loving my neighbors, working for social justice and peace, and caring for creation. What tends to be an afterthought in my action-centered portrait is a practice of not doing that is fundamental to our faith: Sabbath.
Sabbath rest is an essential and formative part of Christian life. It goes hand in hand with all the doings that define Christian faith by bringing us back to the gifts of our finite, non-superhuman bodies. It is also a practice that we need now more than ever as we are all doing the strenuous work of piecing together life with several years of pandemic behind us and ongoing social, economic, and climate justice issues before us.
In this article, I want to offer some concrete suggestions for starting a Sabbath practice. These suggestions are aimed at helping church members (and leaders!) begin practicing Sabbath rest even in small ways so that more members of our communities—ourselves included—can take a holy break.
Expanding Christians’ Sabbath Sensibilities
One of the things that can hold Christians back from starting Sabbath is a restrictive understanding of the practice that makes it unfeasible or depleting to do. If we envision Sabbath for Christians only as attending church worship—which can require significant labor for some and be impossible for others—or only as time off of work—which is nonexistent for some and the only time available to do errands and chores for others—we can quickly end up with practices that are anything but Sabbath.
Scripture presents an expansive, multi-dimensional image of Sabbath:
- It is not just for human beings; nonhuman creatures (Exodus 20:10), land (Leviticus 25:1–5), and God (Genesis 2:2–3) also get to participate, as biblical scholar Ellen Davis underscores in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.
- It is not just about an absence of labor; as biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann shows in his book Sabbath as Resistance, Sabbath challenges economic systems that idolize wealth and promote exploitation (see Deuteronomy 5:15 and Amos 8:4–6 and Sabbath as Resistance, pp. 1–19, 58–68).
- It is not a rule that only matters for one day of the week; as American history and Christian spirituality scholar Lauren Winner notes in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, in the Sabbath commandment’s framing of the time as “to the Lord your God” (Ex 20:10) lies a call to live all the time that we have been divinely given “toward God” — an insight from Jewish Shabbat teachings and traditions that is instructive for Christians for Winner (pp. 8–11).
- It connects us with both our beginning in God and our end in God; as Winner points out, Sabbath in Christian tradition also includes celebrating Jesus’s resurrection (p. 12), which illuminates God’s new creation (see, for example, Romans 6:4–5 and 8:22–23).
Sabbath in scripture goes all the way to the heart of who God is and who we are with God. It evokes restful relationship, restoration, liberation, vitality, and fellowship with God. It reconnects us with the sacred worth of our lives and the life of all creation.
This rich theological ground opens many avenues for exploring how Sabbath can minister to your life. If you aren’t sure where to begin, here are a few questions to get started:
- Where are you laboring—physically, emotionally, mentally, socially? Where do you need rest?
- How do exploitative systems impact your life? Where do you need liberation?
- Where do you need to embrace being a finite human person?
Sabbath Where You Are
An expansive “why” for Sabbath can be an important step in discerning a meaningful Sabbath practice, but sometimes the hardest part is figuring out the “how” of Sabbath. People’s lives, circumstances, and commitments differ. The “how” may be a process.
But it’s okay if it’s a process. Sabbath can be a practice that meets us where we are. Sabbath can be a practice that grows and shifts with our lives.
Three factors to consider for how you might develop a Sabbath practice are:
When and how much time would make a sustainable Sabbath for you? Maybe it’s 30 minutes on a Wednesday lunch break. Maybe it’s an hour or two on Saturday morning or the window of time when your kids are at school on Friday. Maybe it’s Sundays or Mondays. Maybe it’s a half-day block that alternates between Tuesdays and Thursdays from week to week. Think creatively about your hours, days, and weeks, and choose a time that sustains you and that you can sustain.
Which people in your life do you need to work with to create time for Sabbath? Maybe you need solitude for your Sabbath. Maybe you need time with a loved one. Maybe you want a Sabbath that makes space for both connection with others and alone time. Have a conversation with people close to you, and consider ways you might support one another in practicing Sabbath.
What does your body need to participate in Sabbath? What kind of Sabbath practice is sustainable and sustaining for your body? Maybe your body needs a chance to be still. Maybe your body wants to connect with creation. Maybe you need a half hour for your body to transition from work to Sabbath rest. Tune in to your body, and identify specific ways to care for your body’s needs in your Sabbath practice.
Sabbath Practice Ideas
Here are some ideas for shaping a Sabbath practice. They are inspired by the sources above as well as by the examples and spiritual practices of other Christians. They encompass both not doing and being. You can devote your Sabbath to one or more than one. Whether you try a practice below or come up with your own, the key is to rest.
- Sleep – Take a nap; get up later than normal; lie down and rest, even if you do not sleep
- Tech break – Turn off your electronic devices; take a break from the internet or social media; spend time in a low-tech or no-tech environment
- Chore/errand break – Take a break from the labor that goes into managing your household; let the cleaning and other chores wait; save errands for another time; go somewhere else away from your living space
- Shopping/buying break – Take a break from shopping and buying things; spend time in a place with free admission
- Be with creation – Go to a park; walk or sit in nature; observe birds, butterflies, flowers, or other creatures; have a picnic
- Be with loved ones – Spend time with family members or friends; tell stories; share a meal
- Be in solitude – Spend time alone; go somewhere with few people
- Be in silence – Take a break from conversation; practice silence
- Be in your body – Move mindfully or restoratively; sit or lie down
- Worship and fellowship with your faith community – Attend church or a small group gathering; pray and worship; connect with your community
Tips for Sticking to Your Practice
- Put it on your calendar or planner – This will help you remember and better plan for your Sabbath practice. Another suggestion that Lisa Brown offers for ministry leaders in “Healthy Boundaries for Ministry” is to “communicate sabbath days” to your ministry setting.
- Build support for your practice into your life – Do what you can to set yourself up to keep your Sabbath, and adjust your practice as needed to work for your life and circumstances.
- Share the prep load – If your Sabbath practice requires some advance preparation, ask for help or collaborate with family or friends to make the preparations together.
- Don’t be afraid to let it be a process – If you try a practice and realize it’s not working, try revising it or shifting to a new practice.
Sabbath is one of the best gifts God has given us. Are you ready to take your holy break from doing?
If you already have a Sabbath practice, do you have additional tips for those who want to start Sabbath? Please share your practice and ideas in the comments below!
Helpful Books on Sabbath
Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017.
Davis, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.
Winner, Lauren F. “Shabbat/sabbath.” In Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline, pp. 1–13. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2007.