3 Simple Ways to Start a Sabbath Practice

I am a fledgling sabbath-keeper. Though I’ve written a book about it, embraced my 52 chances per year to practice it, and have even preached it, I am a less-than-perfect sabbatarian.

And that’s OK.

But Americans think we have to be the best at everything. As my friend Rev. Elizabeth Hagan writes, “I’m a better do-er than rest-er.” Like her, we thrive on the “go big or go home” mentality. “Good enough” equates to mediocre, which is why our bookshelves are lined with tomes on mastering a craft and becoming our best selves.

I’ve spent the last two years trying to perfect the art of shabbat,or “ceasing” from labor. I researched it from both a scholarly and lay perspective; I interviewed countless clergy and a rabbi on scriptural wisdom and sabbath theology. Combining all the knowledge I gleaned, I wrote a 144-page how-to guide on keeping the fourth commandment. When For Sabbath’s Sake headed to print, I was confident I had mastered this spiritual practice.

But then it came time to talk to real-life folks about how to (realistically) keep sabbath in a noisy, 24-7 world. I had to boil down two years of research and writing into bite-sized bits of “be still” that a frenzied culture and community could digest. Nobody had time to hear me pontificate about how to “master” or “become” a sabbath keeper. In truth, I realized I hadn’t “mastered” or “become” a perfect sabbath keeper, anyway.

So instead of becoming, I decided to “be.”

I decided to invite others to catch glimpses of sabbath rest, devotional practice, and community whenever, wherever, and however they can. I call these “sabbath moments.”

We don’t have to wait for the calendar to bestow these “sabbath moments” upon us. We only need to be open to the Holy Spirit’s movement, and be willing to “see” the sacred among the ordinary. God has given us all the tools we need to catch eternity in a minute (or 15). Here’s how:

  1. Put away your phone. Research indicates that having a smartphone within sight drains your cognitive capacity. Stowing it for even 15 minutes gives you the opportunity to just sit, think, and engage your brain (and soul) in a meaning-making or thoughtful ritual.  
  2. Get more sleep. There’s no shortage of data on how sleep deprived we are. A delicious 15-minute sabbath nap can feel like an entire night’s sleep. Remember: “resting your eyes” on the couch with People magazine also counts. The point is that you lie down and relax sans screens.
  3. Talk with someone. I mean really talk—like face-to-face. When’s the last time you attended a community gathering (worship, civilian club, or activism event) and chatted with someone you knew or didn’t know well? Scientists have uncovered the correlation between increased social media use and loneliness. Being online tricks us into thinking we’re connecting in meaningful ways, but it actually leads to FOMO (fear of missing out) and the feeling of being alone.

That’s my 1, 2, 3 broad-strokes key to keeping sabbath: think, sleep, connect. Repeat.

There is a right way to observe sabbath—Jesus taught us this. Christ fought against the legal fiction that declared folks needn’t be healed or fed on the holy day. Instead, Jesus was “Lord of the Sabbath.” He worshipped, he prayed, he gathered people, and he served. Each sabbath looked a little different, but the core themes remained: rest, worship, and community.

If we follow his lead, we would be wise to try these baby-steps. Then, we just might catch a glimpse of eternity in the ordinary moment.

Think. Sleep. Connect. Repeat.

Rest. Worship. Community. Repeat.

The Rev. J. Dana Trent is an ordained Baptist clergywoman, award-winning author and World Religions faculty member at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, NC. Her work has appeared onTime.com,Religion Dispatches,Religion News ServiceThe Christian CenturyandSojournersHer second book,For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship, and Community,is available now. She loves naps with cats, vegetarian food, and teaches weight-lifting for the YMCA. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jdanatrent on Facebook.

Interested in a deeper conversation about sabbath?

Listen to Steve and Dana on Episode 36 of The #AskSteveAustin Podcast. Just click the "play" button below: