Keeping the sabbath & the cult of busyness
When was the last time someone gushed to you about how busy they were? They might have sighed, or shaken them head, or even lamented. But then they took off again for yet more busyness. Being busy has become a bit of a cult religion in our modern world. We lament it, and yet we can’t quit it. We wear our exhaustion like a badge of honor. Or, more insidiously, we insist that everyone should be so busy. If they aren’t, well then they don’t deserve the good things that we all expect. Laziness has become a sort of snarled curse word. No one wants their tax dollars going to support the lazy.
Never mind that as a society we’re chronically sleep deprived, highly stressed, and more medicated than at any other time in history. We must keep doing, and going, faster and faster. It’s the only way (we’re told) to get ahead. Never mind that we are badly in need of rest, stillness, and joy.
What we’re losing in our rush
There is more to life than an endless cycle of soccer games, overtime, and meals balanced on the steering wheel of our cars. We might be making more money, and buying more stuff, and doing more things, but we’re losing out on living life. We are losing out on the richness of life, and on a great deal of joy in our continual rush to the next big thing. Take a deep breath, slow down for just a second and ask yourself this question: when was the last time you thought how much better things would be when something happened (you got a raise, a new job, a new house, the kids were older, etc.)?
We’re losing our ability to live in the present, and to love what we have. It’s not all our fault, we are bombarded 24/7 with messages telling us how much better life will be when we get that new expensive car, the house, the vacation, our kids get into Harvard. But we do it to ourselves as well, and to each other. We’ve accepted the narrative and so we spend our lives regretting the past and waiting for the future.
And we’re losing the ability to connect with the Universe, the Divine, the great Other that is bigger than us but which speaks so quietly in the still places of our hearts.
Sabbath Rest: The Old, Old Story
There was once a people as busy, greedy, and discontented as we. (Hint: that’s pretty much all of humanity, for all time.) (Their story is found in Hebrew scripture, what some Christians call the Old Testament though that term is misleading.) They made an agreement with a deity to serve only that One, and that One would care for and guide them in return. The One they agreed to follow set out a law for them, to govern and guide their lives in a healthy way. The centerpiece of that law was a requirement that every single human being, and even their animals would spend one day a week not working. The weekly sabbath wasn’t just about relaxation, it was a holy day dedicated to God and a witness to a different way of living; it was set aside for rest, for drawing close to their deity, and for enjoying one another.
Why humans need rules about rest
They were given two reasons for this radical requirement: the first that they must rest because the One who had made them had rested in their work. (The first creation story in the book of Genesis gives an account of the work of creation over six days, and rest on the seventh day.) That because we human beings were made in the image of the Divine; we too should rest. And the second reason was that they must rest, and everyone with them (slaves, employees, everyone) must because they had been slaves. Because they had once been given no choice to rest, rest was required of them and those they would have power over. And in this way the Jewish people would be formed by their practice.
Tradition & practice
Early Christians observed Sabbath as well, and we should note that while Jesus nuanced some sabbath teaching (like any good rabbi) he in no way abolished the practice. He is famously quoted as saying that “the sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the sabbath.” Which rather implies that humans might just need sabbath.
Observant Jewish people still keep it from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, some Christians observe the day on Saturday, others on Sunday. But you do not need to be either Jewish or Christian to keep sabbath.
Sabbath was a pretty radical concept when it began, and I would argue it might be even more radical today. We are absolutely rubbish at stopping, or even slowing down. I vividly remember my mother, when I was a child, spending a rare afternoon reading, or relaxing, and then lambasting herself for “wasting” time.
It took me years to realize that enjoying myself wasn’t a waste of time, and that sometimes the best use of my time was a nap, even at 40 years old.
Creating Space for Sabbath Rest in your life
When I was a kid, keeping the sabbath day holy meant keeping it boring. That however wasn’t the original intent of keeping Sabbath.
Human beings need rest. Not just eight hours of sleep rest, either. We need time for our brains to process all the information we’ve been pouring into them. We need time for our souls to catch up with our frantically moving bodies. Our relationships need us to stop doing other things long enough to spend some time just being with people we care about. Our whole selves need permission to stop producing or consuming every waking moment.
When our calendars are entirely filled, and our houses are so full we have to rent storage units to hold our excess stuff we’ve got a problem. Our lives are over stuffed. We’ve been told that the next event, experience, or object will bring us happiness. But the fact that we’re still frantically collecting them says that’s a lie, and that deep down we know it.
But we need more than just rest, or space for quiet. We desperately need connection with the Other, with Divinity. We are wired for wonder and awe, and without a chance to connect with that which is bigger than ourselves we wither. Whatever you might call it, Mystery, God, or the human spirit, we need it.
We can make space in our lives for rest and refreshment. It is possible to connect with Holiness deep within ourselves, and the Divine in each other. We can get off the hamster wheel and take a break, if only for a little while.
Steps to a Keeping the Sabbath as a Family
The Jewish practice of sabbath got sadly warped by our Christian ancestors into a draconian thing to be suffered through. Church services that dragged on for hours on end, and then having to sit totally still and listen to yet more religious readings in our stuffy clothes without a lick of joy in sight pretty much killed the sabbath observance in American culture. But our ancestors got sabbath wrong and no matter your own religious beliefs you can learn from good sabbath practice for the good of your own life.
Set An Intention
We’re not Puritans anymore. We’re not required to keep sabbath. So you have to want to stop, to create empty space. Do you want more time for yourself and your relationships? Do you want to schedule time for self care and rest into your week? Are you willing to say no to some things so you can say yes to health? If so get really clear with why you want to create a sabbath. Because that will directly impact how you structure your rest.
Decide: When Is the Sabbath?
Traditionally Saturday (sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday) is the Jewish sabbath day, and for Christians Sunday is traditional. However, practicing sabbath does not require that you stick to a particular day. I am an ordained Christian priest, Sunday is not a day of rest or renewal for me. It is a day of leading worship, meetings, and work. My family does sabbath on Saturday because of this. If you want to observe the sabbath of your faith tradition stick with the traditional day. But this is not at all required.
If you either cannot practice sabbath on your tradition’s day, or you don’t have a tradition that includes sabbath you get to choose. Take a look at your family’s schedule and figure out when would work best. Sabbath doesn’t have to be 24 hours, (though that is ideal) any sabbath is better than none. It doesn’t have to be on Saturday or Sunday. Since Sunday is a work day for me, and my partner works a Monday through Friday job, so we chose Saturday for our day of rest. Figure out when will work best for your family. But I would suggest at least half a day, less than that won’t really do you much good.
Set rules to guide your practice
When you talk about Sabbath the very first question out of people’s mouths is usually: What are sabbath day rules, or what are the correct rules for the sabbath? So let’s get clear. Religious sabbath observances have guidelines intended to help the practitioner do sabbath well. However, those vary even within Judaism or Christianity.
There simply is no one right way to do this strange thing called sabbath. The rules aren’t the point. Having a sabbath, a break, a rest with Holiness is the point. The rules around sabbath practice are just a framework to help make that happen. Don’t get so hung up on a rule that you let it destroy the very thing you were trying to create.
Jews or Christians should talk to their community leaders (your rabbi or priest) about your sabbath practice. The truth is we religious geeks love talking about this stuff. We love questions, and we love helping you shape your home practice in a way that is faithful and helpful for you and your family.
Guide, do not punish
I know I just said that rules aren’t the point, but rules are helpful. Whether you come from a faith tradition with guidance on how to practice sabbath or not, rules will help you.
Far from being confining rules simply help us discern what will sabbath look like for you and your family. There are lots of ways to do this and I will give a couple examples below to help you along. The sky’s the limit. What matters is your goal, and your family’s own situation. You may want to build your framework around what you will not do on sabbath (no chores, no homework, no spending money). But you may find that building your framework around what you want to do will work better for your family. Below are two examples and the families that use them. These examples are meant to be a guide or starting place, not a prescription for your own family.
Sabbath Example: The Collies
The Collie family has two kids, both parents work outside the home and they are heavily involved in sports and other extracurricular activities. But everyone’s stressed out and tired and not a day goes by without bickering. The Collies decide they want to set aside Friday after school through Saturday at noon for their family sabbath. They agree to extend that through Saturday dinner on days when the kids don’t have games. They set the following guidelines for their sabbath:
- No homework
- No phones, all phones in a basket (plugged in but turned off) in a kitchen cabinet.
- Friday night dinner is mandatory for all family members, but sleepover guests are welcome.
- No TV or video games allowed during sabbath.
- Friday night is board game night.
- No alarms allowed Saturday morning.
- Everyone is expected to join in making and enjoying Saturday breakfast, no grumpy holdouts.
- Everything else is negotiable as needed (teenagers you know).
Sabbath Example: The Robins
The Robins are a childless couple who are active in their community, work high pressure jobs, and both have side gigs they love but spend too much time working on. They are tired, and burned out, and feeling more like roommates than a couple these days. They decide that Sunday will be their sabbath. In preparation they set aside Saturday as the day they’ll do house chores, grocery shopping, and whatever else needs to be done to keep things running for another week. They both really dislike structure and too much restriction so they decide to set all positive “rules.”
- We get up early and worship with a funny little group of people whom we love.
- Naps are encouraged for as long as desired in the afternoon. (And other things too, adults!)
- Travel, festivals, concerts, and other fun activities are all OK if we’ve got the energy! (But no pre-purchased tickets that make us feel obligated to go.)
- We eat what we want, no guilt or cooking is required (delicious takeout baby!)
- Accepting invites to hang out with friends is encouraged.
- Netflix and chill is in order if it’s been a long tough week.
Your Sabbath Rest
Setting up your own set of rules will be a process. Don’t expect to set things out and then never change them. Instead, make some initial decisions and then see where things go. Play it by ear and be willing to make and learn from mistakes. You might find that having Jean and Timmy over is great, but that some friends are way too much stress and work. Going to the zoo on a cool fall day might be a great idea, in the hot grumpy summer you might decide to hole up at home.
Learn from what works, and remember to keep your eye on your goal, not on the rules.
Five Simple Steps:
- Identify a block of time to set aside for sabbath.
- Make a list of life draining things you don’t want in your sabbath. (Think about this as boundary setting or more specifically setting boundaries for your family!)
- Next make a list of life giving things you do want in your sabbath. These might be family activities, food, religious services, spiritual practice, or just play.
- Review these lists as a family and form a family covenant to keep the draining things out, and add life.
- Take steps to prepare. This will look different based on your choices. You might want to make a “jail” for cell phones and computers if those are being banished. Or stock up on baking supplies or board games if those are things you want to include.
- Give it a try!
I’ve been using a tool for the last six months that has helped me get intentional about my life, including Sabbath each week! If you’d like it to help you remember to practice Sabbath in your own life get it here!