Make this the year you discover God’s gift of Sabbath. Suzanne Green talks to Shelly Miller about introducing a rhythm of rest in our lives
About a year ago, my 20-something daughter told me she would not be available the following Tuesday because she would be having her Sabbath then. Puzzled, I asked her what she meant – I thought Sunday was the Sabbath for Christians, and that the accepted pattern was: church service, Sunday dinner, time spent with family. But my daughter obviously had been taught a whole new meaning for the word and I was intrigued.
Since that time I have been on a journey to discover what Sabbath really means, why it is important, and what happens when we don’t make time for it. So I was pleased to be able to chat to author Shelly Miller about her new book, Rhythms of Rest, and about her growing online community, the Sabbath Society.
Shelly, I discovered that I needed to broaden my understanding of ‘Sabbath’. Can you tell me what the word means for you?
When God created Sabbath, it is the first time he called anything holy. So for me Sabbath means ‘set apart’ or ‘holy’. And when we think about Sabbath in terms of our everyday life, we have to consider how we can make time that is set apart; time that ushers us into the presence of God.
The whole point of Sabbath is that when we take our hands off our work, and off creation, we stand back and we remember why we work in the first place – why we are even here, or have breath. It is all God-given.
Sabbath is a weekly reminder that God cares more about who you are than what you do. It’s a once-a-week dinner date with Jesus, when we give him our undivided attention.
What drew your interest in Sabbath? How did your own personal journey begin?
I found Sabbath not because I was on some spiritual pilgrimage, but because I was terribly lonely. We were living in a small community in a resort town on the Atlantic called Pawleys Island, South Carolina. We were seeing a lot of fruitfulness in our lives and ministry, but I was feeling very displaced. It was like I was trying to fit into a culture where I didn’t belong. God used Sabbath to show me that though I was trying to fit in, I already belonged.
One day, just after Christmas, I was doing a prayer walk and feeling sort of empty and sad. I had the typical after-Christmas blues once the decorations were put away and extended family had flown back home. I was dreading the return of mundane Monday.
I’d had that warm, comfortable, cosy feeling that you have when you are surrounded by family: you don’t need to worry what your house looks like or what you’re going to serve for dinner. You are just who you are. And I said, “Lord, I really believe that you want us to feel that sense of belonging for more than two weeks of the year. I believe you want us to feel that way all the time – not just a week here and there.” I felt that I heard him say the word “Sabbath” to me. It was so out of the blue – it was not something that had been on my mind at all. So I knew it was God.
And as I began to ponder what Sabbath is, I realised that it is ‘other than’. It is the same sense of purpose and meaning that you have when you are on holiday with somebody. God said to me, “I want to remind you that you already belong. You are already known.”
I am starting to understand that Sabbath is not just about rest, but about spending time with God while doing something you delight in – being the person God made you to be. Doing something you want to do rather than something you have to do. Is that right?
People always ask me how I decide what to do. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. So whenever I think about something I want to do on Sabbath, that is my guideline. Is it easy? Does it make me feel light? The minute something starts to feel like work, it is not a good Sabbath activity.
If we are created by God for a specific purpose, and the way of discovering that purpose is through relationship with him, then we learn what we are missing in life through abiding with him on the Sabbath. A lack of intentionality when it comes to how we rest leads to a depleted life defined by what the world dictates.
How we spend Sabbath is unique to each of us. We might choose to take a walk, bake a cake, soak in worship music or pick up an adult colouring book. Strange as it may seem, wasting time may be our most productive action of the week.
Adult colouring books make me think of the current interest in mindfulness. Is there a link?
I think that term can mean a lot of different things, depending on who is saying it. For a lot of people, it’s a generic term that has nothing to do with Christ or fixing our minds on the things above. I would say that Sabbath is being mindful that Christ is the Creator, that Christ is the beloved. Our Father. The one who takes care of us.
Whenever you’re in a state of mindfulness, whether you are cooking or whatever you are doing, you are cultivating a mind that is abiding with Christ in a more intentional way.
How do we make ‘rhythms of rest’ part of our lives?
There’s a difference between routine and rhythm. When we get into a routine, we have a set way of doing things, for example when we brush our teeth. Every morning, we get up and get our toothbrush and clean our teeth. And if we don’t, then our breath isn’t very nice and we suffer the consequences.
But with rhythm we have more freedom. A rhythm is intention for a specific goal you have in mind. A rhythm for Sabbath would be: you have an intention to rest, you have a goal, and you have a way that you would like to rest. It’s going to be unique to who you are.
Someone might say, “I am really looking forward to Sabbath because on that day I am going to run five miles.” Now to me that would be torture. What I would say is, “I can’t wait until Sabbath because I want to spend some time out in my garden. Just to do some weeding – it helps me think.” But that wouldn’t be a restful activity for my husband. He would think it was awful. So rest looks unique for each of us.
Rhythm is a free-flowing thing. There is an intention about it, but life has interruptions. So if you get interrupted, it doesn’t mean you are a failure or you are going to have some dire consequence, like you would with a routine. Often people approach Sabbath as if it was a routine, rather than a rhythm. And it becomes self-defeating.
But if you say I am going to have a Sabbath rhythm, it means that you are going to adapt your Sabbath according to what’s going on in your world.
My intention is always to take a full day. But there are times when I can’t do that. The point is that you have to be intentional about Sabbath. If you aren’t, then it’s not going to happen and it will always be elusive.
Please tell me about the Sabbath Society.
Soon after I started investigating Sabbath, I started an online community through my blog. I initiated it as a way to stay accountable. Any new discipline is always easier when you are accountable to people – diet, exercise, discipleship, anything. So I thought, if I have a few people that want to do this with me, we will just see where it goes.
And after three years I have nearly 2,000 people who are part of the Sabbath Society. Every week I send out an encouraging e-mail with resources. These are basically just stories from my own life. I give ideas, suggest helpful books, Scripture, recipes to help make Sabbath doable, and links to current writings on the web about rest and Sabbath.
What would you say to those who like your idea but just don’t think it is realistic for them because of their work and other responsibilities?
When God created the Sabbath, he knew how busy we were going to be. He gave us a gift, to protect us. But we have said, “Well I am a little too busy for that” or “Maybe you meant that for them, way back when, but you didn’t know how busy we were going to be, Lord.”
This is the approach most of us have. For some reason, that commandment seems more like an elective. We think we can decide to Sabbath if we want to. I think this is because much of our identity and self-worth is based on productivity. We often don’t give ourselves permission to rest because we feel that we have to get everything done first: “When I get x, y, and z done, then I’ll take a break.” We congratulate ourselves on how much we can get ticked off our to-do list each day.
But when God declared a day of rest, when he was creating the world, it wasn’t because he was all finished with everything. It wasn’t a full stop. He is constantly creating because his imagination is immense. So the standard “I’ll rest when I get everything done” was not God-given. It is something we decided. God doesn’t say I will love you, promote you or value you if you do this, this and this. He died to set us free from working to become, or to be, better or enough.
There are two groups of people who have a hard time taking Sabbath: ministers and parents of young children. They are just exhausted and so many demands are put on both of these groups. Often we think that rest is for those in seasons of life that are easier. But God intended Sabbath for everyone. So for pastors, the Sabbath may be on a Saturday. I know that many people make Saturday their family day. It’s the day they take the children out and do something fun together. Or, each member of the family gets to choose how they will spend Sabbath. Young children might want to sit and do colouring or something else that is quiet, while parents do something that they enjoy.
If it seems impossible to make Sabbath part of your life, perhaps you need to start by making small changes; taking baby steps. We find joy in Sabbath when we understand that it is a gift for everyone, regardless of our situation.
You can learn more about implementing Sabbath in Shelly's captivating new book, Rhythms of Rest: Finding the Spirit of Sabbath in a Busy World (Bethany House ISBN 978 0 7642 1843 9)
+ Visit shellymillerwriter.com to join the Sabbath Society or find out more about how you can embrace Sabbath in your life. Go to @shellymillerwriter to find Shelly on social media platforms.
HOW SABBATH MIGHT LOOK
In an hour
- Pause for prayerful listening, even for a few minutes.
- If there’s a park or peaceful place to sit near your office, take your lunch outside, rather than remaining at your desk. As you sit, tune in to the sounds around you. Appreciate birdsong; notice the detail of God’s beautiful creation.
In a morning
- Spend extra time lingering in your pyjamas and read another chapter or two of a favourite book before showering.
- Take time out and visit an art gallery. Don’t rush past the paintings – allow yourself time to really look. Have a coffee in the gallery café and write out your prayers in your journal.
In a day
- Start with a walk, enjoying God and what is around you. Tell him what’s on your mind and listen for his voice. When you arrive home, put on some inspirational music and have a hot drink. Have a go at putting together that dried flower arrangement you have wanted to do since you bought the materials months ago. Allow yourself time to sit and read. Serve your family a meal (that you prepared the previous day) and use cloth napkins. Have cheesecake for dessert, and allow yourself to have some too.
Whatever makes your time feel different and “set apart” will provide restoration.