“Sabbath isn’t really very practical these days,” said a mildly interested high school student on Sunday morning. Another chimed in, “That was probably something that was easy back when people were, like, farmers, you know?” Apart from the problematic misunderstandings of the life of a farmer and the fact that some people are still farmers, when it comes to Sabbath our young people have picked up what we’re modeling. We are too busy for Sabbath, too consumed with our tacit enthusiastic endorsement of the perceived meritocracy that is consumer culture.
Sabbath reminds us that the work is God’s.
God doesn’t actually need you. The kingdom of God is coming through the resurrection of Jesus, his promised return, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the waiting. Yes, by God’s grace the Spirit is working powerfully in our midst. But we cannot expect to burn ourselves out and bring it to pass. God’s kingdom is not the fruit of our frenetic work ethic. You’re not as indispensable as you think.
Sabbath-keeping displaces us.
We are tangled in a culture of consumption and production, and that cycle has become much more abstract in the digital world. When I was young, our family’s Sabbath-keeping involved staying away from commerce. But commerce now happens just as much on Amazon and Facebook as it does at the mall. We are more than consumers, and we are more than producers. We are image-bearers and disciples, following Jesus in the complicated life of a community of faith. Sabbath gives us the space to step out of the cycle we often aren’t aware exists.
Sabbath practice doesn’t need to be practical to be essential.
I feel righteously justified when I read a sociological rationale for a spiritual discipline. Nonreligious people observe Lent because it teaches them self-discipline or helps them lose weight. There are secular cases to be made for most elements of religious life. For lots of reasons Sabbath is inherently impractical. Setting aside a day has economic and social consequences. My 6-year-old misses class birthday parties on Sunday mornings, and will soon have more difficult absences if he plays organized sports. The difficulty and impractical nature of Sabbath rest does not negate the necessity of it. In fact, the impractical nature of Sabbath prepares us for the many upside down, impractical things that God calls disciples to.
Sabbath isn’t about you.
We want to capitalize on our rest. We’d like to think that sacred ceasing will increase our production the rest of the week, yielding us a net gain rather than loss. But Sabbath is about more than the individual. It’s about the entire community of faith. When I intentionally step back, I contribute to a culture that extends grace to others. Because I am learning to rest, I can create spaces to facilitate the much-needed rest of my faith family. Explaining why people shouldn’t expect a response from you on a certain day a week gives them the breathing room to experience Sabbath rest too.
One Simple Suggestion: Screen-Free Sabbath
My husband Jason and I sat down and talked about our jobs and our family. He is a teacher and I work at the seminary, so work for both of us means lots of time on the computer. Emails come at all hours. We decided that holy ceasing – our active inactivity – should be a screen-free Sabbath. From sundown to sundown one day a week, we power down our laptops and the web-based apps on our smartphones. We worship, read books, play games, take naps, and gripe when our children refuse to take naps. Some days it doesn’t feel like a gift because long to do lists wait for us. But I no longer stress that things won’t get done.
God is teaching me that I am not as indispensable as I think I am. God gives us important work to do. God also commands us to stop and decentralize ourselves. The gift of Sabbath allows us to simply be who we were created to be in the sacred pause – creatures at rest.
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Shari Oosting is the Associate Director of Formation for Ministry at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Prior to this, she directed programs and developed initiatives for Christian leaders in Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education, where she hosted the first two seasons of The Distillery and was one of the creators of The Thread. She is passionate about expanding the biblical and theological vocabulary of Christians and cares deeply about the Church. Shari and her husband Jason spend their hours outside of work playing with their four children—Asher, Ezra, Elia, and Ada.