In last week’s Retreat Where You Are reflection, “A Sabbath (Re)Orientation,” I suggested that the Sabbath is more of a value system or a way of living than merely a day of prohibitions. The Sabbath is the “master builder” and we are its “apprentices” in the lifelong pursuit of wholeheartedness, presence, gratitude, and joy—as opposed to busyness, irritation, and stress.
The reason we say “no” to work, commerce, social media and mindless distraction is to enable a more profound “yes” to our lives, to the work of the Spirit, and to the presence of God in our neighbors and the earth. Since we are formed so deeply by forces of distraction and consumption, a weekly “NO!” to that whole cultural apparatus is required in order to cultivate in us the fruits of the Spirit, and for us to grow in Christlikeness. The Sabbath, then, is an essential practice of Christian discipleship.
I imagine thinking about the Sabbath in this way may be new. I also imagine that the response to last week’s post may have included the following: “Okay, I’m with you, but how do I actually do that? How do I practice that kind of Sabbath?”
Well, I am glad you asked!
This week I will offer some concrete and practical suggestions for how we might make space in our lives for this kind of weekly apprenticeship. In order to do this, I will identify three characteristics the Sabbath cultivates in our lives, briefly describe them, then offer some practical suggestions. The three characteristics are presence, connection, and delight.
The Sabbath is about time. It intends to reveal to us how warped and unhealthy our relationship to time is, steeped in aggressively linear and economic analogies that promote speed and efficiency, and teach us to break time into controllable bits we can manage on a calendar. The Sabbath, in stark contrast, brings us into the present moment, which of course is the only moment that truly exists, the only moment in which we can live. The past and present do not exist outside of our memories and fears. But we rarely find ourselves truly present anywhere. The Sabbath can help!
- Cover up all of the clocks in your house each Sabbath to create a “timeless” day. Your experience of time will thus be shaped by the sun and your body’s desires (hunger, restlessness, thirst, fatigue). Notice what happens in you when the clock can’t rule your life.
- Practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Hour-Long Cup of Tea.” Practice being truly present to, and fully delighting in a cup of tea (or coffee, hot chocolate, etc.) for an entire hour.
- Read poetry. Slowly. Repeatedly. Out loud. Attend to the words. Learn to see the world as the poet does. Some recommendations: Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, David Whyte, Ross Gay, Lynn Ungar, Ada Limón. See also the anthology Poetry of Presence.
- Put your phone/devices on airplane mode and stick them in a drawer. For the whole day. Every week.
The Sabbath is like a doorway that weekly ushers us into more immediate and generative encounters by slowing us down and teaching us more fully to inhabit our own lives—apart from distractions and our work identities (whether we have jobs or not). When we learn to be more present to our lives, we do so in particular places and with particular people. Further, a Sabbath framework celebrates the intrinsic value and uniqueness of each element of God’s good creation—land, animal, human, and celestial. The Sabbath is an invitation to truly connect with each part of creation, in order to deepen our gratitude and wonder of the Creator. I try to connect in 4 directions on my Sabbaths. Upward (with God), inward (with self), outward (with others), and downward (with the earth). They can happen altogether or in activities designed for a specific kind of connection.
- Journal (“inward” and “upward”):
- What am I grateful for today?
- What do I sense the Spirit calling me to cease from?
- Why do I say “yes” when I want to say “no,” and visa versa?
- What core belief/story influenced my response/reaction to ____ situation?
- Go for a walk—in creation (“downward” and “upward”; “outward” if with others, “inward” if alone).
- A park, a beach, a mountain hike, a lake, a forest, a field, etc.
- Notice colors, smells, sounds, sights, textures. Soak it all in and delight in the beauty you notice.
- Cook a meal with spouse, family or friends made of ingredients raised locally and sustainably, that is, humanely raised, and preferably with food you bought directly from farmers (“outward” and “downward”).
- Practice Creative Play with family or friends (“inward” and “outward”).
- Draw something with your foot or mouth or non-dominant hand (emphasis on creativity and play, not on perfection or “doing it right”)
- Make up a game together and play it.
- Play a favorite game from your childhood—and play it as if you were still that same child!
Delight is that elusive rush of energy and presence experienced by a human being fully alive to the moment. It is often experienced when someone partakes of an activity that brings them great joy, that is often shared with people whom they love, for authentic connection multiplies delight.
For this one my suggestion is three-fold:
- Write down all of the activities, places, people, experiences, or memories in which you delight.
- Write down the barriers you have set up in your life or heart that prevent you from experiencing delight. This could be a belief (I don’t deserve delight/happiness), a habit (self-sabotage), your relationship to time (too busy, too many commitments, responsibilities), etc.
- Design a Sabbath-day experience that makes space for you to experience something from #1 above, by resolving the barrier you listed in #2.
The Sabbath is, above all, a gift from God to each of us and all of creation. Receive the day, in all its giftedness. And as you do, may you grow in presence, connection, and delight as you are apprenticed in the ways of God by the Sabbath.
Dr. Travis West is the Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary, where he teaches innovative courses on the Sabbath, Old Testament narratives, and Biblical Hebrew.