During this Lenten season, as we’re encouraged to go within, I want to talk about Sabbath time, because I think it is a concept our society has either lost or is losing quickly. Now, there are some things I’d be happy with society losing (like world wrestling, or reality TV, or who-can-eat-the-most contests)… but I believe the loss of Sabbath time is actually detrimental, not just to our spiritual lives, but to our lives in general.
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There seems to be no historical basis for a Sabbath day prior to the Israelites of ancient times. Genesis 2:1-3 gives us the mythological context in which this practice began – God created the world and everything in it in six days and then rested on the seventh. This wasn’t because the Holy One was tired, but to model a day to rest and revel in the goodness of the world.
The Sabbath has been a cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times and there is frequent mention of the Sabbath throughout the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament). But what exactly is Sabbath about? And is it even applicable or practical for our lives today?
I originally entitled this message Sabbath: rest or vegetation? Because I think some folks would say that vegging in front of the television counts as Sabbath time, but that comes from a misconstrued understanding of rest and Sabbath.
The practice of Sabbath for Jews begins on sundown on Friday with a ritual to light the Shabbot candles, recite prayers and share a meal. The following 24 hours is time for socializing with family and friends, studying the Torah, sharing meals and family time, perhaps making love if you were a married couple, and worship on Saturday morning. Most types of “work” are prohibited on the Sabbath including cooking, starting fires, any sort of business, traveling and much more.The Sabbath ends at sundown on Saturday, again with a ritual of candles and prayers.
Joan Chittester, in her book In the Heart of the Temple, suggests that the purpose and intent of these practices is “to enrich life, to measure life, to bring reflection to life, to engender life with soul. Sabbath is for resting in the God of life and bringing more to life ourselves as a result… Sabbath [is] designed to be used to determine the meaning and substance, the purpose and direction of our lives. Sabbath should be those time-out days when we allow ourselves to look at life in fresh and penetrating ways….”
Jesus said that “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” In other words, this kind of time is important to our health and well-being. Why?
A friend tipped me off to this great book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Yes, it is basically a business book, but I believe the concepts it proposes make a strong case for Sabbath time.
Newport begins by talking about the difference between shallow work and deep work. Shallow work does not require much concentration or focus. Falling into this category are things like emailing, paying bills, filing, meetings, phone calls, anything Internet related, watching television, video/computer games.
Deep work, on the other hand, is anything that takes intense amounts of concentration and thinking. Writing, problem solving, brainstorming, art, study, practicing an instrument, and craftsmanship are examples of deep work. Newport suggests that “Any pursuit – be it physical or cognitive – that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.”
I believe that true Sabbath time is deep work. But, as Newport points out, deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, so as human beings we gravitate toward the easy work. It is the Principle of Least Resistance. But the shallow work is not particularly rewarding or meaningful (other than you can check it off your to-do list), whereas deep work is.
Newport shares the story of science writer Winifred Gallagher who “stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis.” In her book, Rapt, she talks about how the disease wanted to monopolize her time and attention, but as much as possible she would focus on what was good in her life instead – “movies, walks and a 6:30 martini.” Because she found that, instead of having a life mired in fear and trepidation, she found that it was often quite pleasant, this led her to investigate the role of attention in one’s life. What she discovered is that there is much research out there supporting the fact that it is not our circumstances that determine how we feel, but where we place our attention. If she had focused on her cancer diagnosis, her life would have become fearful, anxiety-ridden, and depressing. Whereas focusing on the good things made her life more pleasant. Basically she says, “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”
So, if we spend our lives paying attention mostly to the shallow things that draw our attention, how we feel about our lives and ourselves will be shaped by that. But, if we spend more time on deep work, things that inherently carry a sense of impact and importance, then how we feel about our lives and ourselves, who we are, will be shaped by that. It is the deeper work that will give greater meaning and purpose to our lives.
So, here’s the rub… humans are easily distracted, which means deep work is hard to maintain.
At the time of writing this sermon, I turned off my phone and checked out of email and the internet. I gave myself two hours of concentrated deep work time to write. But I found I often had to fight the urge to check email or my phone. This discovery was sort of unsettling.
Newport suggest that, “The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”
As I read this it sounded a lot like the creation of a Sabbath day with routines and rituals. A day that was created for the benefit of people because it would not just give them a break from work, but a break that was meaningful and purposeful as it involved the deep work of spirituality, the deep work of developing relationships, the deep work of worship and prayer, and the deep work of study.
I’ll grant you, that with our society the way it is, this model is probably not practical for most of us. So, I’m not suggesting that we attempt an entire day of Sabbath… but I do wonder if we could be more intentional about at having least SOME Sabbath (deep work) time during the week.
I also want to be clear that Sabbath time does not have to be solitary. Other people, with their thoughts, ideas and questions, help us to learn and grow so we delve deeper into our own thought processes.
You may consider worship to be Sabbath time, but worship is only ONE hour once a week. It’s a good start, but I believe that more Sabbath time will enrich our lives even more. How can we begin to schedule the deep work of Sabbath time, to focus our attention on the sacred in our lives?
I think Newport’s suggestions for deep work in business apply fairly well for Sabbath deep work:
- Schedule time for deep work
- Don’t always do deep work alone
- Learn to disconnect… go off the grid
- The mind also has limits to deep work… learn yours and temper it with downtime
Jesus was clear that Sabbath was not just about adhering to a set of rules for a holy day, it was a practice to help bring us meaning, fulfillment, and life in abundance.