How do we practice Sabbath-keeping?

Why do we need Sabbath? I was given a review copy of “Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World” by A.J. Swoboda It’s taken me several months to get through this dense work that bridges the gap between the academy and the lay person. The book is easily readable and well written, but with meaty content and small print. It’s the most holistic book I’ve read on the Sabbath and most extensive argument as to why and how Christians should practice it. While many of the books on Sabbath I have encountered speak of people’s personal experiences or view Sabbath from the lens of spiritual formation, Swoboda takes it further by exploring topics like Sabbath’s intersection with good health, with technology, with our economy and with poverty.

My favorite section of the book is called “Sabbath for creation” and explores how Sabbath-keeping is not only good for us as humans, but good for the environment, the land and the critters. For example, Swoboda notes that not only humans (at least Americans) struggle to rest, but we offer no rest to our livestock. And this is a detriment to our health. To increase milk production, dairy cows are given little rest in between pregnancies and are milked during their pregnancies. Pregnant cows’ milk contains higher amounts of sex hormones, which may affect cancer rates. (Because this strikes me as possibly controversial, here is the study cited by Swoboda: “Turns out your ‘hormone free’ milk Is full of sex hormones” by Josh Harkinson).

In contrast, God extends the Sabbath command to animals. In Exodus 20:8-11, God says that on the Sabbath “you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” If dairy cows were given more time to rest, it would not only be good for the cows, it would be good for our health. In keeping with this command, Swoboda and his family give their chickens a day of rest, in which they collect no eggs. Giving your animals a rest is a lovely sentiment. Still, Swoboda’s section of Sabbath and creation left me wondering what I could do to extend Sabbath to animals and to the land. I’m not involved in agri-business and I own no pets. What does Sabbath-keeping mean for me in relationship to creation?

Swoboda appears to respond to this critique with questions for reflection at the end of every chapter. In the chapter called “Sabbath and the critters” he invites readers to consider, “In what ways might you be able to provide rest to animals by means of your consumption practices?” I wish I could sit down and dialogue with Swoboda about this question. He has a clear passion for creation care that shines in this section of the book, with greater knowledge than I have. I don’t know how to begin to answer this question. Then again, maybe I do. To stick with the example of dairy cows, I could buy from a local dairy farmer and could ask them how much rest they give their cows. I don’t want my lack of knowledge to be a cop-out for Sabbath practice.

Swoboda notes several times just how challenging Sabbath-keeping is. “Sabbath does not always pay off the way we wish it would. Resting is costly.” Sabbath rest can feel threatening, especially when we lean into solitude and silence. The demons of our lives arise in times of quiet. Maybe this is why our culture is so restless. I’ve noticed in my own Sabbath practice that I get impatient with what feels like idleness. I get bored playing with my toddler, I feel restless when sitting in silence to pray. I so badly want to be productive, to make Sabbath productive. But Swoboda reminds us that Sabbath is not “the day we get to do whatever we want or whatever feels right. Sabbath is to be cherished as a delight in itself, not something we use to get elsewhere. … We do not love God because God is useful to us. We love God because God is worthy to be loved.”

And yet, in the end, Sabbath turns out to be very good for us as humans – good for our health, good for our relationships, good for our work, good for the marginalized, good for the land. Sabbath is hard but worth keeping. Swoboda’s book has inspired me to renew my commitment to Sabbath-keeping.

RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas.  She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.