Two weeks ago today I began observing a technology Sabbath. It started out as just a convenient way to catch a break from social media, the news, and my phone, but as I deeply experienced the Sabbath I began to appreciate both the reality of my connection to information technology, and the full meaning and purpose of the Sabbath day.
The first couple of hours of each Sabbath have required a great deal of mental adjustment. For just over 24 hrs I cannot take pictures of cute things my cat does, tell somebody about a thought I have, organise anything, ask people to hang out with whom I have no established plans, watch netflix, or browse the web. My hand or mind automatically reaches for the location of my phone (which is usually within a metre of me at all times) an incredible number of times within the first couple of hours, highlighting just how much I use it. I realise I have become dependent on instant communication with other people or google, and reach for these before I have even given myself a chance to think about something or resolve it using the resources around me.
One Sabbath, in lieu of Google maps, I had to find and use an A-Z map of my city for the first time ever. I checked the supermarkets, the garage, the post office, the library, the newsagents, and three charity shops before finding a dated A-Z in the fourth charity shop I looked in. We are now so dependent on the internet to find our way that some folk didn’t know what I was referring to when I asked for an A-Z and others looked at me as though I had taken a wrong turn out of the 90s and should probably go back there.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exodus 20: 8-10)
The ten commandments state that the Sabbath is to be kept holy which means: no work. Although my Sabbath began not as a ‘no tech’ day rather than a ‘no work’ day, the two have very quickly come to mean the same thing. Most of my work is generated online and by mobile phone – this is where I am contacted by those who want me to do something, either as part of joint projects or favours for friends. Many of my colleagues and/or friends don’t know my actual address and wouldn’t call round unannounced even if they did. When I put away my phone and laptop, and after the initial discomfort of being truly alone, I enter a state of bliss because I know that for just over 24 hrs the demands for my time and attention will stop. And it is not just direct demands from other people that stop – the pressure I put on myself to stay connected, keep talking, reply immediately goes, too. I am with myself and God, with no distractions.
Giving myself a true rest from the demands of life means that I am more able to show up for what I have in the week because I know that the day of rest is there, waiting for me, every single week.
So far, both Sabbaths have involved lots of reading, praying, and daydreaming. I have tapped into a skill I thought I had long-ago lost: the ability to get completely absorbed by a book. This is not a skill I mysteriously lost sometime around aged 15, as I had imagined. Rather, the internet has had me so hooked that I have been unable to concentrate on a book for longer that a few minutes. With internet access I read for five or ten (or two) minutes and then compulsively check my social media accounts, my phone, my whatsapp, etc. There is no way to enter ‘the flow’ of reading a book in these circumstances. Perhaps this call to observe the Sabbath is part of God’s call to lose that addiction.
There is something wild about a technology Sabbath in the 21st century. Unplugging and unwinding brings us back to a place of relying on the space around us for sustenance, information, restoration, entertainment, and relaxation. Without the steady humming of electricity through laptop screens and the compulsive thumbing of phone screens, I am more able to hear the small whisper of God and God’s movement in space and time.
I think the Sabbath was an incredibly beautiful gift. It is a built-in time of wilderness each week where we can meet God without distraction, think without having to act, and check in with what’s true rather than what is pragmatic. Part of the gift of the Sabbath is that it is commanded, which takes the responsibility from us. We can throw our hands up to our boss, our friends, ourselves and say “God commanded it: that’s why!” If it were an optional bonus, then it would be much harder for those who want to observe it to do so – and I think God probably knew this this very well about us.
Jesus was challenged about his disciples picking corn on the Sabbath and he said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2: 27) . Jesus understood that Sabbath was a gift from God for the good of human beings. He only advocated breaking Sabbath due to physical need: “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?… he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat.” (Mark 2: 25). Need sometimes necessitates breaking a commandment because, ultimately, commandments are there for the good of human beings.
When the Law is interpreted through the love of God, it simply gives us space to breath, and a structure to hold us as we navigate what it means for our lives.
It is now nearly 7.15pm, which gives me just over an hour until the Sabbath begins. I will go to the shops for food now before the lighting of the candle, before sinking in to God’s gift of rest. Have a blessed and restful Shabbat and see you out the other side, refreshed and ready to plug in for another six days.