Jannah: Tell me about Sabbath growing up. What did you experience?
Sam: I can’t recall the word Sabbath being used as a kid other than reading the ten commandments. I can only recall it being a concept that was Old Testament rather than one that our church or family spoke about. Going to church on Sundays was certainly non-negotiable. So that alone marked it out as being different. And so, depending on a child’s enjoyment, or lack thereof, when it comes to church, that either made Sunday a day that was great—or not! For us, we’d get to take part in a worship service and see the friends that we wouldn’t see outside of church life, but there weren’t too many other things that marked it out as a day that was different to the other days. We would, however, have people over regularly, so there was hosting and hospitality. I’m from a big family, and more Sundays than not, we’d have people over. And there was a spaciousness to that. But we’d never really spoken about preparing for a whole day that was going to be different. That’s something that I’ve had to try and pick up.
Jannah: Did you have things that you didn’t do on Sunday, specifically, like shopping or sport?
Sam: I think there would have been certain things that we wouldn’t have done. I’m showing my age here, but a lot of shops weren’t open on a Sunday. I don’t think the supermarket was even open. I think it would have been the exception to the rule—and certainly not within small towns—for shops to be open Sundays or even Saturdays sometimes.
Jannah: Yeah, I certainly remember shops being closed on Sunday. There were definitely ways in which Sabbath was implicitly culturally supported that are different now.
Sam: I don’t have the narrative that some people remember in which it was a day that was bleak where they sat around with their arms folded on their laps and bored as anything. I was able to jump on my bike and tear off around town.
Jannah: There’s a lot of overlap with my reflections. Like you, I never really heard the word “Sabbath” in any particularly intentional way. Sundays were different though, definitely different. There was a simplicity to Sundays. Some of that was about what we “don’t do” on Sundays—sport did become an issue with my brothers a little bit as we didn’t play competitive sport on Sundays. And we would probably go a bit light on going to a movie or something like that—there was a sense of that day being a little bit separate. Not strong or rigid, but it was definitely there. But in terms of what the day was “for”, there was a strong emphasis on hospitality—company, food, a simplicity to the day. My memories are quite positive—of company and lunch and a meandering afternoon. Also, growing up, church was a bit more formal, so Dad would wear a suit. We would have to make an effort too! So, all up, the idea of Sabbath would come up for me too as a kind of formal term in the ten commandments and Bible stories. But I didn’t make any clear connection between the Sabbath and Sundays!
When you think about your theological learnings around the Sabbath as an adult, what are the compelling things for you—the new learning or the surprises?
Sam: The thing that stands out the most to me is that the spiritual disciplines are embodied. We do them with our bodies; we inhabit them. They’re practices and postures. And Sabbath is one that lasts for a really long time! It’s a 24-hour period when you do all of these bodily things. Sabbath reflects deep commitments or it’s designed to recover or grow those deep commitments if they’re not so deep. I picked up this book—Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. There’s a great phrase in there where she says that Jews do these things with more attention and wisdom than Christians, not because they’re more righteous or because God likes them better but, rather, because doing actions sits at the centre of Judaism. Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. I thought that was interesting. Now that might be a bit unfair on Christianity, but I think she’s trying to emphasise the point that our beliefs are not only strengthened and upheld through practice but they’re sometimes arrived at through practice. I see now that Sabbath has to do with an opportunity to deepen my beliefs. It’s a gift that—if I let it—will deepen my relationship with God in such a way that my intimacy with Him, my trust in Him, my sense of doing this collectively with others, will be strengthened.
Jannah: It’s about ways of knowing, of embodied knowledge. It’s an inversion of the modernist paradigm, isn’t it? Instead of saying “we believe it in our heads, and we know these things, and then we come to the practice of it”—actually, our bodies learn and teach us through the very practising of it.
So, when you talk about Sabbath as gift, what do you understand by that? I think, traditionally, some people struggle to see it that way because it can have a sort of negative aspect—we deny ourselves doing things. But gift implies freedom.
Sam: I think one of the reasons we struggle to talk about it in that way is that we’ve never experienced it like that. So, I think you’ve just got to do a handful of Sabbaths to change your palate and to go, “Wow! This is a gift that I had thought was actually an imposition!” You have to slow down bodily to even unwrap the gift; often, you didn’t even know you were missing it! This is what Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, is about. It’s pushing back on the relentlessness of a culture that wants you to continue to prove that you’re shaping your own identity and future, that you’re going to leave a mark on the world. You never get a break from that.
Jannah: Yeah, because it’s always all up to you!
Sam: But the Sabbath is what Brueggemann calls an act of resistance where we’re saying “No, I’m not going to do that.”
Jannah: It reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s use of the word “subversive” in terms of faith—a total countering of cultural values.
Sam: Another of the theological understandings gained through people like Brueggemann is around how Jesus reframed Sabbath around himself. That’s what stops it becoming the legalistic thing that it had become. You’ve got these wonderful interactions where he heals the man with the withered hand, and he gets in trouble and kicked out of the synagogue for it. Brueggemann picks up on the fact that he’s using Exodus language to say that a new Exodus is here. Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” [Mt. 11:30], and “yoke” is directly used at the end of that: “God has freed you from the yoke of the Egyptians” [Ex. 6:6] There’s also the moment when Jesus and his disciples are out walking in the fields; they’re eating the grain, and again, he gets challenged: why are you eating the grain? He responds, “Did you not know that David, when he was hungry, went in and ate the bread of the presence?” [Mt. 12:3].
You’ve got these parallels where Jesus is now reframing Sabbath around himself. He’s trying to break down the legalism that the Pharisees had brought to it. So, you get that famous line, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” [Mk. 2:27]. Sabbath was given to us—man wasn’t made for the Sabbath; you’re not to put the image of God under a gift from God and use that to hammer the image of God. But in our current cultural moment, I think we need to perhaps pay attention to the first half: Sabbath was made for man!
On the other hand, he doesn’t do away with it entirely. It’s actually beautifully depicted in The Chosen where the disciples are walking through the fields, and one of them starts to eat and all the others just stop and say, “Shabbat!”, and he starts spitting it out. And he turns to Jesus and says, “Sorry, Rabbi, I completely forgot what day it is. I’m just so hungry.”
And Jesus just looks around, and he pauses and he says, “No, you may eat,” and they all just tear off into the fields and start eating grain. But what’s beautiful is that Jesus doesn’t go, “Oh, yeah, what the hell, let’s all ignore it.” He considers it and goes, “No, here and now it’s right that we breach this in these sorts of ways.” So, I think for his day, “man wasn’t made for the Sabbath” needed to be underscored, and, in our day, “Sabbath was made for man” needs to be underscored.
Jannah: What also comes out in that exchange is the disciple’s fear that he was doing it wrong, or somehow overstepping the mark, or being indulgent. And that’s a useful segue into one of my learnings. I think I did have an implicit sense from our church culture that Sabbath is a kind of “we don’t do that” thing rather than the Sabbath as “for” all these things. I identify with the disciple who was actually expressing a more legalistic approach where he didn’t want to get it wrong. I think, traditionally, there have been some real models of Sabbath that have really focused on that—you know, no card playing, no dancing—where simplicity and spaciousness become legalism and suppression. The language of “worldliness” comes to mind. It’s useful for me to tease all this out because I do enjoy the simplicity of the day—the potential for silence and reflection.
It reminds me of parenting conversations around devices and screens where you can get into this whole kind of negative, “we don’t do this, and we don’t have this” approach. And the children are not going to be on board with it unless they have a positive framing for what you’re “for” as a family. What’s really helped in that conversation is to understand ourselves as a family that values conversation, and reading, and making things with our hands, and being outside.
This strikes me as very similar to the Sabbath where you actually need a positive vision of life together. That’s the only way in which you can embrace the denial of different things in a manner that doesn’t become legalistic and rigid. And, on the flip side, it frees us for feasting and celebration that can otherwise sound indulgent.
Another learning for me has been around the alignment of relationship with God as our creator. Questions around control and relinquishing control are huge. I had no real conception that Sabbath is really 24 hours. For me, Sabbath was “sort of” Sunday, not the night before carrying over into the next day. Marva Dawn’s book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, lays this out. She describes the Jewish understanding of Sabbath as beginning the night before. God is active in the night, of course, when we are asleep and relinquish all control, all activity, but God is still at work. And then we wake up in the morning, and we begin to partake in that work. This is really compelling. It gives such a stark sense of our total lack of control, and of God’s initiative, and of our joining in the work that God has already started.
Sam: And if we wake up at all (which is a gracious gift in itself!) we can wake up to the news that anything and everything has happened around the world…while we slept. That alone should make us a little more humble about what we’re in control of when we’re awake!
Jannah: I’ve thought a bit about the language around God “resting” on the Sabbath—it’s interesting because “rest” can imply a kind of “lack” as if God is tired and needs to replenish himself. It’s not really how God operates—it’s a very human framing of it, a state of tiredness in which God “needs” to rest. I think these are the limitations of language around that. So, is it the best translation that God rested? Or is it more that God took pleasure in his creation—that he enjoyed, or celebrated, or embraced it? Again, that sense of being “for” your creation rather than God being tired and needing to kick back and replenish himself. What do we do with this very human language around “resting”?
Sam: One of the passages in Exodus goes further than that. It says that on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed. It’s as if somehow, in these words, we’ve taken what the Sabbath does to us and projected it back onto God. Now we need a theologian here! But is the main point here that there is a capturing of the rightness of doing a season of work and then desisting from it—that something might take on its fullness in it being enjoyed in its completion?
Jannah: So, language just falls down in the face of what that might look like for God?
Sam: I think so, yes. We’ve got to be careful that we’re not just pushing the concept on God up-line from us. I think it also means that this isn’t a day that I collapse into so that I can just get my energy levels up so I can then charge off and do more. It means that we Sabbath even if we’re really rested. When we’re on holiday, we should Sabbath! It needs to look different to the shape of those other days. I think there’s something delightful that somehow God, in his own being, is refreshed through the rightness of a scheduled stopping, a seasonal stopping.
Jannah: And that’s what maintains the liberating aspects, the rightness, and the goodness of this way of doing things.
Sam: Speaking of liberating aspects, I’ve got a couple of phrases that help to give me a bit of a “check” around the Sabbath. My main one: it’s a day when I’m not trying to “get ahead”—in any area of my life. I’ve found this to be a nice little grid to run my decisions through. So, I don’t check my phone on those days other than if it’s a text for something social. I don’t check the news. I don’t check the COVID-19 statistics. If I’m reading, it’s not books to get me ahead or related to work.
I had a wonderful experience of chatting to a lecturer in pastoral theology. She’d written a book on Sabbath. She’d written lots of books on the spiritual practices. I was with a friend, and we asked her, what does a Sabbath look like for you? And she says, well, I’m often speaking on a Sunday, so it’s not Sunday for us. But my husband and I will take a Monday. And we’ll start pretty slow. We’ll have brunch together in a café, maybe we’ll come home, and I’ll read some trashy novels. We might have a nap in the afternoon or watch a movie together. My friend said that it must be awesome just to have a really nice, quiet day to catch up on reading. And she said, no, I’m not sure you heard me: I said, trashy novels! It was just a great moment when she showed that this was not a day for her to try and get a hit on her reading or to play catch-up.
Another thing for me is that it’s a day when I don’t want to feel pushed, and I don’t want to feel pulled. Does that make sense? I don’t want to feel pushed to do anything, and I don’t want to feel compelled to do anything.
Jannah: It strikes me how different this must look for different people. You’re someone who is often in demand to be “doing things.” So, is the question of obligation big in your framing—whether you feel you “should” or whether it’s something you want to do on that day?
Sam: I’d want to make the distinction that it’s God-centred rather than me-centred. It’s about what things are going to reprioritise God where He should be (and me) where I should be. And if this is bespoke, it’s because each of us will have certain things we struggle with, like the Rich Young Ruler [see Luke 18]. For some, it’s about not going shopping on a Sunday; for others, it’s about not doing any trades on a Sunday. To someone for whom those things are not an issue, they might be able to do that. But it’s about what is going to say: no, you’re no longer a little subject of Pharaoh who has to slave away every day. You are under Yahweh’s rule now. And he even gives you strange bread—manna—in double portion on this day. So, it’s whatever re-establishes that relationship.
For example, I’ll often trim a hedge or mow the lawns on a Sunday because I love it. I never get to do anything outside and physical during the week. We’ve got a patch of grass out the back, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to sit there afterwards with a glass of wine and look out on a fresh cut lawn—it’s life giving.
Jannah: And other people will feel completely different about mowing the lawn!
Sam: Yes, they will! Tell me about your learnings around Sabbath more recently.
Jannah: We’ve always tried to treat the Sabbath differently. There’s usually been a simplicity and a hospitality to the day. But, last year, we started to undertake a new learning around Sabbath. It really started off completely unintentionally—I want to say by accident, though I don’t think that’s actually the case! We had a young friend in our church, and she was really needing a long rest for a whole bunch of reasons. We prayed with her at church, and then thought, oh, let’s bring her back home. And we had a very quiet afternoon—we had lunch, she had a nap on the sofa; we just read and hung out in a very relaxed way. Then we had her back the next week and did it again! As we went along, we invited a number of others to join us. We started to generate new practices for ourselves and experienced new understanding simply through the doing of it—in exactly the way you and I have talked about. We didn’t go in with a plan really. To cut a long story short, we’ve developed a rhythm of doing this regularly. We have a focus on young adults, who often particularly enjoy being in a family home. It’s not a big crowd—five or six would be the maximum, and sometimes it’s just one or two. It’s also been nice to be attentive to who we see on a given Sunday and who we feel might benefit from coming. We’ve got a core group of about four or five, each of whom comes periodically.
One of the key learnings for us has been around how we move from hosting and being kind of “on duty” to partaking in the Sabbath together with others in our own home. That’s been a good learning, and we’ve decided okay, we’re not really going to be “on duty” here. It’s very mutual. People come and they contribute things for lunch; we provide the basics. Then we move to the lounge. This is a bit of a quiet time—people bring their books, crochet, knitting, etc. There’s no music; it’s very peaceful. Often everyone is in silence for a good while. John and I are also free to not be the hosts. We can go and sit in the garden, or have a nap, or go for a walk—we try and be as free as everyone else to rest. Often during the afternoon, someone will bring in coffee, and then we’ll end up chatting about whatever. The children join us—they’ll all have lunch with us, and then the younger two at least will bring their books or play a board game somewhere.
Sometimes, it does turn into pastoral conversations. Towards the end of the afternoon or towards the evening, sometimes someone has said: “Oh, can we talk about this thing?” or “Can you pray for me?” And that’s fine. But those conversations really emerge out of that time together. One day, a little while into this, one of our friends who was attending asked us: “So, why this? Why now?” We told her about how it began, and we all agreed that we were learning about Sabbath together by just doing it. And that this was a good thing!
Sam: One of my immediate thoughts, aside from that “That sounds great,” is that we are at a different life stage to you guys. Our children are younger and, partly for that reason, partly just personality differences, they require a bit more “hands-on”—they just interrupt you more often! An afternoon in our lounge with everyone curled up with a book is just not going to be a restful time for anyone.
There are several things that we’re trying to do with our children. And I’ve got to be completely honest here—full disclosure—thinking ahead to this chat has definitely helped Julia and me realise how poorly we have been sabbathing recently! So one of the questions we have returned to is: How are we going to keep marking this day out as different? Our kids are ten, eight, and six. So, a non-negotiable is that we go to church on Sundays. And we’ve tried to give some good explanation to that. We want to be in a space at least once a week where we are meeting with other people who love God, who are thankful to God for their life, and who understand the whole of their life because of God. We’re trying to frame it in that way because we realised that it was turning into “we have to go to church.” But we all understand that is what we do every Sunday. If we’re in Auckland, we’re lucky to go to our church with the people we know.
I think another thing is around the porous nature of my work. At an earlier time, I would have taken breaks during the week and then find that I needed to do something on a Sunday. There’s also my personality where I tend to bounce in and out of stuff. So, I would find that a great paragraph to add to my current essay would suddenly come to mind, and it ended up that my laptop was flying open most Sundays. I just had to put an embargo on it and just say, no, that’s off-limits. I don’t open my laptop for work on Sundays. It’s flexible though—if, say, Julia and I were thinking of going on holiday, and she asks me to look at some great places we could visit, then I’ll open it up and look for holiday destinations or something. So, it’s not “Is the screen open or not?” It’s “Am I trying to get ahead?”
We also don’t do a hard thing around screens. We restrict screen time during the week, but, actually, the weekends are a time that our children look forward to getting a little bit more screen time. We also do things as a family on that day: we might go and do something together or go and visit friends together. But we’ve got no hard-and-fast rule around screens for the children on that day. And I look forward to them getting the screen time because we all get to Sabbath. Often, it’s a natural thing to just curl up on the couch and watch a movie together with the children. Or we’ll watch Lego Masters over dinner on a Sunday night as we all prepare for the week. Little things like that.
Jannah: A couple of things come to mind in terms of the age of children—ours are 15, 13, and 10 now. Our culture doesn’t support Sabbath, generally, and things come up on Sundays—parties and events and things like that. We don’t say no to all those things. We do say no to going to them on Sunday morning. That’s just something that they and their friends have gotten used to over the years. We don’t do Sunday morning parties, and, sometimes, that’s been hard for them. But, for Sunday afternoons, we tend to take different situations on their merits. There is some to-ing and fro-ing with teenagers about what is and isn’t on Sundays, but, for the most part, it’s been quite relaxed. Rather than a legalistic thing, it’s asking, what’s underpinning all of this? How might that fit into a wider conception of the day?
In terms of screens, John’s made this beautiful wooden Shalom box, which is to put phones and watches in, particularly on Sundays. We try and do “screen lite” on Sundays because now we’re in a different phase. Technology and devices are a familiar challenge during the school week. So, we have our various things in place during the week around these, which, for the most part, goes ok. But one of the things we’re trying to develop is that Sundays are a time for a bit less “input.” There’s lot of great things to enjoy in the form of podcasts, music, etc.—there’s nothing wrong with that; but there’s just no end to it, and a lot of it is mediated through a screen. So, we’re basically trying to encourage periods of quiet when you can be making or doing, or active (or not!) but just not having noise around that. Our culture does not encourage our teens to have any silence, but I think it’s necessary for a variety of reasons. But it can take time to learn its importance.
One of our children often makes stuff in the shed on a Sunday afternoon—out of wood—which is really cool. So that in itself feels like a great Sabbath activity. He loves listening to podcasts while doing that, but we are encouraging him to get used to some times when it’s just him and the woodwork in silence. It’s about not having to be entertained all the time even with high-quality things. It’s not that any of these things are bad. But it’s allowing for periods of intellectual rest when you engage with the world in different ways. So, it’s small steps, but these are the conversations that emerge for us with young adults and teens!
Sam: There’s a fascinating resource that both Olivia (Witney, née Burne) and I really loved when we came across it last year called Reimagining the Spiritual Disciplines for a Digital Age—a small resource by Sarah Schumacher. One of the things that prompted Sarah to do the book was that she started noticing a number of secular commentators—sociologists, media commentators, psychologists—who were starting to put forward a case for what she realised over time were spiritual disciplines. These commentators weren’t giving spiritual reasons, but they were saying: you need to have some silence in your life; you need to have some solitude. She thought, “Hey, the church has got something to say to these.” So, she wrote this book about solitude, simplicity, and Sabbath. A lot of it was digitally driven, driven by the fact that we are now contactable in ways that we wouldn’t have been a couple of decades ago. So, she doesn’t take her phone to church now. She says it’s freed her to be to be present differently.
Jannah: Yeah, absolutely. It’s good to interrogate that supposed need because, actually, if we’re in church, we just don’t need the phone. Or, if someone really needed to contact you afterwards, you could just leave it in the glovebox of the car.
Sam: It can’t just be in your handbag—it’s got to be distant from you so that you’re not tempted. It’s outrageous. There’s something about phones and the relentlessness of them. We’re the first generation in history to be robbed of all those little silences—when you would sit in a doctor’s waiting room and just think about a conversation or arrive in a café five minutes early and just sit there waiting for a friend. All those little micro-gifts, micro-Sabbaths—they’ve been robbed from us. We need Sabbath more than ever.