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Over the last three weeks I have suggested that a biblical understanding of the Sabbath involves much more than choosing what not to do one day a week. Instead it offers a set of values that are intrinsically counter-cultural, reverberating in individual, familial, communal, national, and global contexts, with implications for the

In some very compelling ways, a biblical Sabbath offers a picture of God’s intention for all of creation, and is a vision of God’s preferred future.

That can all feel pretty abstract, talking about economic and social values, theorizing about the nature of time and what constitutes the good life. At the end of the day, Sabbath practice is about Sabbath living. It offers a window through which to glimpse a “different order of time,” as Judith Shulevitz said. It also offers a doorway through which we can enter into that different order of time, where we can actively cultivate the Sabbath values of presence, connection, and delight in our lives.

So this week I will offer some concrete and practical suggestions for how you might make space in your lives for this kind of weekly apprenticeship. I will frame my suggestions around the three values listed above: presence, connection, delight.

Presence

The Sabbath is about time. It intends to reveal to us how warped and unhealthy our relationship to time is. Our view of time is steeped in aggressively linear and economic analogies that promote speed and efficiency. It teaches us to break time into controllable bits we can manage on a calendar.

The Sabbath wants to bring 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 in our age of distraction and escapism, we rarely find ourselves truly present anywhere. The Sabbath can help!

Some suggestions:

  • 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. How do you (or your family members) respond to this adjustment? Discuss!
  • 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.

Connection

The Sabbath is like a doorway that weekly ushers us into more immediate and generative encounters. It slows us down and teaches 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 four 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.

Some suggestions:

  • 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/friends, made of ingredients raised locally and sustainably/humanely raised (preferably with food you bought directly from farmers; “outward” and “downward”).
  • Practice Creative Play with family/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” or “best”)
    • 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

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.

Here my suggestion is three-fold:

  • Write down all of the activities, places, people, experiences, or opportunities 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 or responsibilities), etc.
  • Design a Sabbath-day experience that makes space for you to experience something from #1 above, by resolving a barrier you listed in #2. On your next Sabbath, pick another one from each list! 

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.

What Sabbath practices have you found life-giving? How have you explored Sabbath living in your own context? Add your suggestions to the comments below!

Shabbat Shalom!
(Sabbath Peace!)

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Retreat Where You Are, maintained by the Mount Olivet Conference and Retreat Center. It is repeated here, with some modifications, with their approval.

Travis West

Travis West teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He sees teaching as an act of hospitality, making space for students to have meaningful encounters with the subject matter, their classmates, and ultimately the Spirit, in order to become more fully themselves. When he isn’t at work he can be found searching for wonder, whether on long walks through the fields near his house listening to Audible, or hanging out with his artist wife whose art and reflections perpetually amaze him.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is great. I love the suggestions. All of them, all three sets. And I love your general emphasis on Sabbath as about worldview in general. But the first set of suggestions are impossible for pastors, of course, not to mention Sunday School teachers. Which brings me to my question: is it not important to separate Sabbath from the Lord’s Day, that is, from Sunday? In the NT, the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, was not considered Sabbath, nor was the Sabbath day regarded as the day of Christian worship for the first Christians, because the resurrected Lord Jesus met his disciples and instituted the Eucharist on the First Day of the week. Thus, the Lord’s Day. I would suggest that the recovery of the gift of the Sabbath, which–you’re compellingly right–is necessary in general, should not repeat that same Sabbatarian mistake of equating the Sabbath (seventh) Day with the Lord’s (first) Day. It would be more possible for me, personally, to practice your three sets of suggestions on Saturdays. I guess my main issue here is not how to make Sabbath “easy” for whatever profession or lifestyle, but rather the easy (and dangerous) equation of (valuable) Sabbath with Sunday. All this not at all to question the great value of your general message.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      Of course, in this morning’s post you did not equate Sabbath with Sunday, it’s only that we might too easily assume it, as I confess I did at first.

      • Travis West says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment(s) again this week, Daniel. My wife and I practice our Sabbath on Saturday, partly for the reasons you name here, but mostly because I personally take the creation story at its word in his regard: the day itself was filled with life-giving power, and that is not necessarily transferable to a different day or time that is more convenient to our life. I’m not Pharisaic about any of this, though, and so I intentionally didn’t speak to which day or how long in any of my pieces, so as to allow readers to make their own conclusions.

        Also, I offered a response to your comment on last week’s piece on “time.” I’m not sure if you saw that or not.

        Shalom,
        Travis

        • Daniel J Meeter says:

          Oh yes, and I thank you for your thoughtful responses both weeks. Good stuff you are posting. I hope we get more.

        • Daniel J Meeter says:

          Is it possible for Christians to enjoy both the Jewish concept and worldview of Sabbath, centered on the Seventh Day, as well as the Christian worldview and time-view of the Lord’s Day, as we get, for example, in the theology of St. Irenaeus, and have them enrich each other?

          • Travis West says:

            I think so, yes. I am not specifically familiar with what you’re referring to in St. Iranaeus, but on the whole my response is a hearty “yes.” One of the ways in which I see the two world views converging and intersecting is in the Sacrament of Communion, which is one of those ritualized actions that ushers us into the “center,” into a place in which past and present and future collapse, and we brush up against the sacredness and power of Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension *as if* it were happening again.

  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    Thank you, Travis! This lifts my heart.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Daniel, for your comment, distinguishing the Sabbath from the Lord’s Day or Sunday. John Calvin made a sharp distinction between Sunday and the Old Testament Sabbath. He was strongly against trying to make Sunday into a Christian Sabbath. Calvin suggested that of the ten commandments, the fourth was unique in that it was the only commandment commanding a strict observance of an Old Testament ceremony. And of course, as the apostle Paul makes clear (Col. 2:17) the ceremonies of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in Christ. So Calvin’s Genevan catechism asks in Q&A 169, “Do you mean that this commandment properly refers to the Jews, and was therefore merely temporary? A: I do, in as far as it is ceremonial.” And so Calvin saw a different application of the 4th commandment from the Israelites of the Old Testament, with an abolishment of the ceremonial rest of the original command to keeping the Sabbath. That difference might be seen in the different treatment that the Westminster confessions (Sabbatarian) give to the 4th commandment from the Heidelberger. After all, who doesn’t enjoy going out for Sunday dinner at the Olive Garden?

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Thank you. This was a perfect essay for today.

    I hadn’t heard about and loved “Practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s hour-long cup of tea”. I will start with 20 minutes and try to work up to an hour.

    Thich Nhat Hanh’s quotes often end up on my front yard signs to entertain pandemic walkers. The last quote of his quotes that was posted in our yard fits your theme: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

    • Travis West says:

      Love that! Yes, it resonates deeply with my post today, and with a big part of what the Sabbath intends to do in us when we give ourselves to it. The “hour long cup of tea” meditation is quite a gift. I require my students in my Sabbath class to do it as well, but with one caveat: they must do it on the busiest day of the week in which it is assigned! It’s on those days that we need to practice presence, and to cultivate delight, the most.

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