by Nathan Brown
If we can find creative, engaging, and practical ways to offer Sabbath to people in our communities, we will likely find people who will want to share it with us. And we might well rediscover our calling to “speak of [the Sabbath] with delight as the Lord’s holy day” (Isa. 58:13, NLT).
In the November, 2015 issue of The Victorian Writer, author Andrea Goldsmith describes the challenges as a writer of trying to concentrate and focus in a world of too much information, “too much of everything all of the time.” She expresses her longing “for an off-switch or a safety overload-switch.”
Complaining about this to a Jewish friend, she was reminded of their shared childhood practice of Sabbath. Her article narrates her experimentation with turning off her phone and other devices and deciding not to check her e-mail on Saturdays, choosing instead to live a day each week disconnected and at a slower pace. Her conclusion? “To anyone who wants to reclaim an interior life, who wants quiet and extended periods of creative reflection, I would recommend you take a digital-free day each week. Those of you born into the digital world won’t know yourself, while older people will recognize a self from long ago, one you’ll welcome back—with relief.”
Probably both Goldsmith’s feelings of being overloaded—at least some of the time—and the Sabbath practice she rediscovered are familiar to us. But often our “busy-ness” is not something we give up easily.
A series of psychological experiments conducted at the United States’ University of Virginia in 2014 tested participants with periods of six to 15 minutes sitting alone in an unadorned room without distractions. They didn’t like it. Rather than sit in silence, two-thirds of the male participants, aged between 18 and 77, chose to self-administer electric shocks. They preferred experiencing something unpleasant to being left alone with their own thoughts.
Interestingly, the lead researcher did not necessarily blame modern phones and gadgets for this uneasiness, instead seeing the ubiquity and dominance of such devices as filling the human need to keep ourselves—and particularly our minds—perpetually busy.
That’s why Sabbath is a spiritual discipline, and perhaps why we so quickly fill even our Sabbaths with so many other activities, whether church-focused or otherwise. Even at the same time that we resent their intrusion and recognize the damage that “too much of everything all the time” does to us and to those around us.
So here’s one idea how we might be able to help each other experience a little of Sabbath as part of our worship services and perhaps other church programs: Let’s set up a phone check-in service in our church foyers, encouraging worshippers and participants to disengage their attention—and even detach physically—from their phones or other devices for the duration of the program.
This would, of course, be voluntary, and it would respect the fact that some participants have legitimate needs to be on call. The check-in system would have to protect the security and privacy of these devices. And no, Bible use is not an excuse: simply make printed copies of Bibles available as part of the service. A growing body of research shows that people read better, closer, and deeper when reading from printed pages, rather than on screens.
Such an idea would likely feel unconformable for many of us, and even be resisted by some. But that demonstrates its benefit. And with time and practice, it might be something we experience with growing appreciation.
If visiting a church in Southeast Asia, we would find a large rack at the front door, where worshippers are expected to remove their shoes and place them in a pigeonhole before entering to worship. It’s cultural, of course. When entering a temple or pagoda anywhere in these countries, one is expected to remove their shoes as a sign of respect for a holy place. But such an act is also a marker of entering into a different kind of time and experience.
The same opportunity comes with the invitation to let go of our phones and devices, if only for an hour. When we loosen our grip on them, we might realize the grip they have on us and begin to break that grasp. In a world dominated by screens, Sabbath and worship are invitations to a more human kind of interaction and pace; to a deeper kind of “delight,” something to which we might increasingly find worth in inviting others.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.