THERE are few people more qualified than John Mark Comer to talk about the impact of 24/7 living on our souls.
The pastor of a large and flourishing church in Portland, Oregon, and the bestselling author of The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019), he was burned out at the age of 33, and describes hurry as the great enemy of spiritual life.
He acknowledges himself to have been “a Type A workaholic running on ambition”, and recognises in himself “the guy bragging about being the first to arrive in the office and last to go home”.
Writing of the death of sabbath, not just in American life but in the developed world, he looks back to an age when entire cities were shut on Sunday, “a moment of calm to reflect on our lives”.
When that changed, he considers, “We lost more than a day of rest. . . We lost a day for our souls to open up to God.” His plea is about much more than shopping, though, aside of this book, it is interesting to reflect that the Keep Sunday Special campaign in the UK, originally upholding the right of all to a day of rest, has latterly been preoccupied with the struggle of the small shopkeeper versus the supermarkets.
It indicates a further losing sight, perhaps, of the sabbath principle. Mr Comer suggests that the digital age has had the biggest contribution to a life speeding out of control and dangerous: the constant phone-checking that leads to our “over-busy, digitally distracted life of speed”; a life ”lost in the black hole of our devices”; the statistic in the US that, by the age of 21, young men have already spent 10,000 hours playing video games.
He is motivated to keep the sabbath by the teachings of Jesus, into whose routine it was woven and who firmly told his disciples, as they drew censure for plucking heads of grain as they walked through the cornfields on the sabbath: “The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.”
Sabbath (shabbat) in Hebrew means stop. “Stop wanting. Stop worrying. Just stop,” Mr Comer advocates. “In the 21st century, we’re no longer legalistic about it. But very few of us know really what it is. Sabbath is largely forgotten by the Church. We have failed to integrate it into our lives as an element of discipleship.”
Quoting Genesis and the story of creation, in which God rests from his labours on the seventh day, he describes sabbath as “a gift from the Creator. Jesus was tapping into a practice as old as the earth itself. God built a rhythm into the DNA of creation.” There is zero correlation, he contends, between hurry and productivity: “This system is the way a brilliant mind designed our souls and society to function.”
Marilyn Hollingsworth enjoys Sunday-afternoon baking with her grandchildren
A study in the US has suggested that Seventh-day Adventists, who practise sabbath on Saturdays, live seven years longer and better than the average American, which leads Mr Comer to muse that an entire one seventh of the lives of sabbath-keepers is devoted to God. Shabbat can also be translated as delight, in the world and in God himself: a whole-life orientation towards God, something deeply life-giving and procreative, which “fills our souls back up with life,” he says.
The sabbath day is not, Mr Comer emphasises, the same as a day off to run errands, have a trip to Ikea, or go to the cinema. “All we do is rest and worship. There is no formula for this, no checklist, no schedule – it will look different to everyone.”
Nor is the worship element of sabbath restricted to singing and prayer: rather, it is worship in a wider and holistic sense of the word: “a grateful recognition of God’s goodness. In the Ten Commandments, God is calling his people into the rhythm of grace.”
And more than this, sabbath is about resistance, even an act of rebellion. Take the Exodus story, he says, where God tells the Israelites to observe and not just remember the sabbath day. “He reminds them: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. The Lord your God has commanded you to observe the seventh day. You are the first generation to grow up in freedom. Slaves don’t even get a day off.”
Rob Francis outside Shrewsbury Cathedral
From socks to smartphones, our homes are full of what the 24 million slaves of the world produce, Mr Comer says passionately. “We live in a culture of more. We now have so much crap we don’t need. Sabbath is an act of rebellion. Globalism and capitalism have made slaves of both rich and poor.
“One thing I can do is to do nothing one day a week, allowing slaves to rest for a day. By practising Sabbath, we can play a small part in justice for the world,” he says. “Sabbath is like a guerrilla war tactic against shopping and surfing the web. Draw deeply for a well and ordered life: unhurried, unharried. Have a walk in the forest; have dinner with friends.”
But to really enjoy it, he insists, you must slow down the other six days too: “find a rhythm, not just slam on the brakes for Sabbath. It is a way of life, of living with ease, gratitude, peace and prayer. People who keep the Sabbath keep all seven days differently – it is the climax that the week has been leading up to.
“Even though it is no longer a binding command, nine times out of 10 this is the best day of my week. It is the day I feel more connected to God, to my family, to my soul. It is like a less stressful Christmas every week. I never want to become a slave, or a slave driver again. It will take you a little time to master, but just begin by turning off your phone, with all devices put away, and start the feast of the next 24 hours.”
Dr Mark Scarlata, author of Sabbath Rest: The beauty of God’s rhythm for a digital age (SCM 2019), echoes that. He decided to restructure his life around a sabbath day, something that takes a lot of effort, he acknowledges, but that yields a transformation. “It did not come all at once, but slowly, week after week, I began to experience a different kind of refreshment and rest on the Sabbath,” he writes.
“And as I began to feel that rest, I realised that it was also breaking into other areas of my life and work. I began to feel human again. The more I disconnected from the digital world, the more I felt I was regaining control of my life.”
As he did so, he began to understand that his sabbath needed to include reconnecting to the natural world: going for a walk or a bike ride; cutting the grass: “Ceasing from activity one day a week can remind us that, as human beings, we are intimately connected to the rhythm of God’s creation, and charged with giving it a rest.”
For the Revd Geoff Hollingsworth, a retired vicar, being in nature and immersed in God’s creation is an important part of his recreation, and how he spends his Sundays. ”We think doing this throughout our ministry gave us a connectedness to God which renewed us for our weekly ministry,” he says. The sabbath that he practises has elements of his own childhood in the 1950s, not least sitting down for the Sunday roast around the dining table, and it’s a pattern that he chose for his own family.
“We didn’t do jobs around the house, or go to work. Instead, we spent time together, walking the family dog, reading, listening to music, helping with the preparing of the meal,” he says. “Often, we visited family and friends that day, or went out for quality time together: a long walk, or by the sea, enjoying nature.”
Inside the cathedral where Rob Francis attends a Latin mass
Now that he is in retirement, when every day could feel the same, the feeling remains similar. “We still don’t do household jobs, go to work, or into shops. We have our main meal midday-ish; in the week, it is evenings. We eat at the main dining table, not in the kitchen; we listen to the radio, often Classic FM, and it is often a traditional Sunday roast, the only time we have roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.”
It is about quality time to be with each other, listening, talking and sharing, he says. “We go in the garden or out walking, taking in the fresh air, feeling re-energised, refreshed and recreated in nature, ready for the week ahead and its tasks.” A Sunday-afternoon nap also emulates the practice of his parents and grandparents. Now his son and wife, with their three daughters, follow the same general pattern.
For Rob Francis, much of Sunday is spent on the train, a four-hour round trip that enables him to attend a traditional Latin mass. “That time is spent reading through the Propers for the day and making a good examination of conscience (in case I need confession),” he says. “I also listen to music and enjoy the enforced peaceful ‘downtime’ of my journey.”
Tea after mass is usually followed by a chance to catch up with friends (in a park near by since distancing was imposed). “When I finally return home, I try to keep the day to classical music, reading and walking with the aim of spiritual or intellectual improvement or consolation. I’ll usually try to pray more of the shorter Divine Office of the BVM than I would on a work day.”
He adds: “This all sounds very saintly and devout. I’m actually a 40-year old doom-metal fan who works in IT.”