Sabbath Practice

January 19, 2022

A new year has begun. As is tradition, the beginning of a new year marks a season of evaluating, planning, and setting goals for ourselves in the year ahead. Many of us have started new resolutions and practices as we embark on this new year. Others have already left our resolutions behind for one reason or another. Maybe we ran out of time, maybe the weight of still living through a pandemic is getting to us, or maybe we’ve just given ourselves the grace to realize that we didn’t really have any capacity to take on a new practice in this season to begin with.  

Or maybe, like me, you’re looking to invest in a practice that helps you reduce what you’re doing rather than add to that which you already have. After almost two years of pandemic, two and a half years of seminary grad school, and what feels like a lifetime of hustle, I’ve been in a season of trying to find ways to practice self-care, centering practices, and lessen the somewhat manic pace I’ve found myself keeping in recent days. If that sounds familiar to you, then I humbly suggest cultivating intentional sabbath as a practice into your weekly rhythm.  

What comes to mind when you think of the Sabbath? Maybe you have a legalistic concept of the Sabbath: a complicated list of dos and don’ts enforced by parents or your church growing up. Maybe you have gospel accounts which come to mind: stories of Jesus outwitting Pharisees who sought to catch him in complicated rules or regulations about the Sabbath and what work can be done on it. Perhaps it’s brand new to you or you’ve always thought of this spiritual practice as something that only belongs to Judaism and doesn’t really find application in Christian practice.  

“God’s ongoing mission to humanity is wrapped up in the concept of the Sabbath.”

Or maybe you recall the creation story from Genesis and how the Sabbath was given to humanity to define our rhythms of work through the lens of a rhythm of rest. The Sabbath was the original blessing given to creation—a hallowed space within the passage of time, blessed with rich significance and intended for remembrance. In the Sabbath, God manifested that which he wanted the creation to know about him: that God is generous, that God values rest and healthy rhythms, and that God will preserve the people of God throughout time. God’s ongoing mission to humanity is wrapped up in the concept of the Sabbath.   

This practice of a rhythm of intentional rest in a week is something that I have tried to cultivate over for the past year. I spent a semester studying and learning about sabbath practice, immersing myself in reading both biblical and theological arguments and from authors like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Judith Shulevitz, Walter Brueggeman  all in support of maintaining a sabbath rhythm as essential to a life of faith.  

I decided to really commit to trying a sabbath rhythm. My wife and I had played around with keeping an intentional sabbath over the past few years but had never fully committed to it. However, we both came to the conclusion that it was a need in our season of life, and we were able to carve out roughly similar times to practice sabbath. Since we were both pretty heavily involved in our church leadership on Sunday mornings, we chose to keep Friday evening to sometime Saturday as a sabbath practice.  

It was difficult at first. I had a lot of discernment to do. Once I truly put myself in a position of intentionally pausing my work rhythms, all sorts of questions arose. What qualified as work? What did I need to cease from? How much of the day could be planned and how much needed to remain free of structure?  

So much valuable learning came from engaging with these questions. One helpful rule I developed was the idea that “If you have to ask, it counts as work.” While there were some complexities that have continued to develop as a part of these questions, I found that the more I stick to that core rule, the more spacious the rest feels. Through submitting to the discipline of ceasing, reducing my pace, and practicing saying “no” to commitments for that one day a week, I find true rejuvenating rest. 

If we look to the creation account, we see that time was not meant to be our master. Time is not some universal law that we must bow to. Time is a created thing. Day and night, sun and moon, days and seasons, are things created by God as intrinsic to creation and being. We as humans have been given the task of cultivating all creation as God’s stewards. We should not be serving time, but rather befriending time, cultivating time, and caring for time. In his book, Becoming Friends of Time, John Swinton ties this process to slowness. He notes that when God came to earth as Jesus, God had to adopt the rhythms of time. The infinite God moved at the pace of three miles a day, the common distance one can walk in a day. Swinton says, “Becoming friends of the 3-mile-per-hour God…requires we adjust our understanding and relation to time. It calls us to be friends of time.” 1   

“We should not be serving time, but rather befriending time, cultivating time, and caring for time.”

I wish I could say that this practice is really easy once I developed the rhythm for a couple months. But the reality is that it is a difficult practice to maintain, especially in a culture that is focused on being on the go twenty-four seven. Everywhere you look in America, people are exhausted and desperate for rest. Everyone is moving at a nine-to-five pace, manically gripping the edges of their steering wheels as they pull through the drive-through at Starbucks, thirsting for rest but settling for a caffeinated divorce from the body’s tiredness. Would not God’s Sabbath rest speak to this society’s exhausted souls?  

One of the unforeseen, yet exciting outcomes was that people began to find out that I have a sabbath practice. This was one of my great fears in starting this practice. When I first began practicing sabbath, I would obfuscate when people asked me what I was doing on Saturday. I noticed I was feeling ashamed that I was taking a rest while others continued to work. But as I told more people about it, I noticed that it also became easier to keep that time sacred and invite some people to join me in the practice.  

Once we move from the state of service to time and into friendship with time, then time becomes love. Time spent with others becomes an embodiment of that love. Engaging in sabbath practice has been a step along that journey of befriending time for me. It has enabled some spaciousness even in the midst of very busy seasons and could be just the thing needed for this new year. If you’re looking for a change to make to your lives in 2022, I offer this as something to pray about including in your life. While it continues to be a challenging practice to maintain, it remains a space where I can consistently feel the presence of God meeting me and sustaining me.  

About the Author
  • Jackson Nickolay is originally from the North Woods of Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior, but has lived in Holland, Michigan for the last 6 years. He completed a Master of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary with a focus on worship design. He has a passion for living into the dual vocation of an artist and a minister and finds application for these callings in worship music, embodied scripture, theatre, writing, and liturgical arts. He is married to Hannah Barker Nickolay who also graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Western Theological Seminary. Together with some close friends they run a small liturgical arts company called Wayfolk Arts, which focuses on crafting liturgies, scripture enactments, prayers, songs, and blessings for small and large ecclesial communities. Jackson is also the co-host and co-founding member of the Podcast No Script, a weekly podcast which centers on unscripted conversations about theatre's best scripts.

  1.  John, Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time : Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), 73.  

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?