J. Dana Trent is an award-winning author, speaker, minister, and teacher. She is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister. Her first book, The Saffron Cross, tells the story of her interfaith marriage to devout Hindu and former monk Fred Eaker. Dana participated in A Broader Public: Writing for the Online Audience with Lisa Evans and Evan Derkacz, editors at Religion Dispatches, at the Collegeville Institute in June 2017.
Susan Sink interviewed Dana about her most recent book For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship and Community (Upper Room, 2017). Together, they discussed what sabbath means in the 21st century and why most Christians get it wrong.
In today’s society, many people consider resting on the Sabbath a luxury. Could you define what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel means when he calls Sabbath a “palace in time”?
For Heschel, both historically and in today’s culture, time and attention are the ultimate form of wealth, and the Sabbath is built of attention and placed in time. In that way, it is a luxury! Time is humanity’s most valuable nonrenewable resource, so reclaiming twenty-four hours per week rebels against the dominant culture of production and consumption. To set an entire day aside for nothing but spiritual gain is to be wealthy in a way that transcends bank accounts. But time and attention spent in spiritual introspection is the enemy of our economic machine. In western, consumer-driven countries like the United States, the more people work, the more they contribute to economic growth. Sabbath activities like rest, shared meals, worship, prayer, study, and making love (as is decreed by Jewish law) do nothing to contribute to a capitalist society. When we observe Sabbath, we root ourselves in this precious, non-renewable and often squandered resource that we are typically too busy to truly embrace.
In your book, your discussions with Rabbi Bach on menuchah, seem crucial to your understanding of Sabbath. In a way, menuchah seems like the same thing as Sabbath to me. What is the distinction?
They are similar and certainly work in tandem. In Hebrew, shabbat, which is used in the Genesis creation narrative, is a verb that literally means “ceasing” or “to stop.” In Genesis, God ceased/stopped God’s work on the seventh day. Rabbi Bach adds that what is fashioned in this stopping on the last day is actually menuchah—or “sacred rest.” Menuchah, therefore, becomes not only a ceasing from our labors but also a lifting up and a celebration of everything in God’s creation.
The two words are beautifully tied together: God ceased creating, but in that very act of ceasing, rest was created for humanity.
Why do most people get Sabbath wrong?
We are our own worst Sabbath enemies for three reasons. First, we believe that our culture and economy is going to give us permission to stop working and rest. In the age of 24/7 activity, this will never happen, because ceasing from our labor does nothing to further the market economy. Our permission comes from God, who ordained Sabbath for us. Second, we avoid Sabbath because we view it legalistically; we think it must be done perfectly or in a certain way. This fear of failure—of not getting it right—keeps us from getting started. Third, we lack humility. Contemplative practice encourages us to face the big questions of meaning, our finiteness, and our imperfections. We’d much rather keep busy, because it makes us feel valuable, important, and needed.
You spend time in the book figuring out when to observe your personal Sabbath. You point to a very clear reality for most of us—we turn to preparing ourselves for the work or school week on Sunday afternoons and evenings. That can include checking emails, making phone calls, filling out a calendar, doing homework, or just “stressing.” Being realistic about Sabbath means finding a time we actually can step outside that world and focus on God, relationships, and God’s creation. How can people find that time?
This is the billion-dollar question! Sabbath is a gift that should be viewed for its essence, not its legalism. I came to this conclusion because Americans who work in service, retail, or food industries, work most weekends, and typically at minimum wage, which means they likely have two or three jobs. Clergy, too, are weekend warriors. Salaried workers often have company cultures that expect them to be “on” beginning Sunday.
So, I learned to approach Sabbath from a realistic perspective: there will not be a cultural, economic, or labor revolution overnight; we must now recognize the privilege of having a weekend day off in a 24/7 society. Next, my Sabbath advice is twofold: find a time that works for you and your family, and draw a boundary. By protecting that time, you are telling your friends, your boss, and whomever else, that you value sacred Sabbath time. You’d be surprised how well others accept that—and it actually gives them permission to do the same for themselves. It’s contagious.
Then, you have to figure out what to do on the Sabbath. What do you think are the elements of a good Sabbath?
The idea in Judaism is that you cease from everything you’d do in ordinary time. Nothing should be gained materially, but we should grow spiritually. Shabbat embraces menuchah so that we may be participants in the awe and joy of God’s creation. In For Sabbath’s Sake, I’ve defined that participation in three ways: rest, worship, and community. What makes for a good Sabbath can be as simple as a nap, a prayer, and a shared meal.
It’s about intention: doing something (or nothing) we don’t do in ordinary time, such that we are participating in meaning-making, reflection, reconnecting, and renewing. We love to make everything (including Sabbath) legalistic and complicated. But it’s actually quite simple: instead of trying to become Sabbath-keepers, we should just be Sabbath-keepers.
I’ve been saddened lately by how many people I know who are actively engaged in religious pursuits, whether as writers or teachers or in ministry, who don’t go to church. But reading your account of your “monkey mind” while you’re in church really startled me! Can you give our readers a sense of that and say how Sabbath can help quiet that stress in church?
In interviewing clergy, lay leaders, and leaning on my own experience for For Sabbath’s Sake, I gleaned that American churches have become far too over-programmed. This makes church (and worship) another set of to-dos, rather than a balm from them. When you pair the busy-church with our smartphone addictions, it’s the antithesis of shabbat. One way to curb this “monkey mind” (and American Christianity’s rapid decline) is to offer more blank space for authenticity, not committees. The Body of Christ is desperate for direction on how to make room and develop contemplative practices—in worship and otherwise.
Churches can and should lead the way on this. Instead of running its membership into the ground with 26 programs per week, it should embrace a healthy, well-rounded Sabbath of silence, devotional worship, and simple gathered community opportunities that shape the remainder of the week. When the Church leads the way on this, others will feel they have permission to do so as well. Less is more; Sabbath is about simplifying, not over-scheduling.
Community is an important point of your idea of Sabbath. How does Sabbath practice help?
Sabbath, because it’s about intention and attention, makes us aware that community is everywhere and not just limited to church. Authentic community happens—both inside and outside the church—when we are fully present with one another. This includes a shared meal with new and old friends, small-talk with strangers, uninterrupted time for a long catch-up with a loved one. Micro forms of community can occur on the bus, the subway, or even the grocery store line.
Community is formed any time we are present and attentive to those gathered around us.
Jesus lived this example time after time: preaching to large crowds, talking with close friends, caring for strangers in need of healing, being tender with curious children. Jesus was a master of community—because he operated in the moment, with no thought of a programming schedule, detailed agenda, or itinerary. He was simply present and attentive to the immediate needs, words, questions, and feelings of those around him.
How is your Sabbath practice going now?
I’m still a fledgling Sabbath-keeper. But, two things have happened since I began researching and writing this book: first, I’m more aware, and second, I have acquired a growth mentality when it comes to Sabbath. Growing up, I equated Sabbath with worship only, and I didn’t know why we attended church. Now that I know the why, I appreciate the how all the more.
I strive for a balanced Sabbath of rest, worship, and community. Some weeks are harder than others, but no matter what, I seek to be present, even if only for a “Sabbath moment” wherever, whenever, and however I can. I’ve learned that Sabbath is right before me; I only need to open my eyes. And, I get 52 chances per year to grow and shape my practice. Those are excellent odds for improvement.