Sabbath in the Suburbs

Q & A with MaryAnn McKibben Dana

by Sarah Ranson

The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, Virginia. She is the writer of numerous articles and essays as well as Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time. Church Health Reader spoke with her about the practical process of introducing an intentional Sabbath into an already packed schedule.

Sarah Ranson: Can you tell me a little bit about your year-long experiment with Sabbath and what prompted it?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana: Our family had dabbled in Sabbath practice for many years. What consistently helped us be more successful was to have some kind of accountability. We finally decided that we needed to just take a radical Sabbath and to make it a priority. I think people get overwhelmed thinking about Sabbath and believe, “I could never do that every week.” And so we decided to do this for a year, one day a week, and set aside our work, our errands, our chores, and our volunteering and just rest and play and be together.

I had looked around for resources on how to do a family Sabbath with all of the activities, sports, and things that press in on families today. Many of the books out there do not talk about the subject in a practical way. They talk about why it’s important, but not about how to do it. So the book grew out the desire to have that for myself, but also to share that with others.

What specific suggestions would you recommend for families who are interested in finding time for Sabbath?

The first thing is to start wherever you are. I have people tell me all of the time, “I cannot take a day-long Sabbath every week.” And I say to them, “Fine, how about half of a day, or how about two hours? How about an evening?” Or if the weekly rigor is not possible, maybe the Sabbath is every few weeks. We so often want to do it perfectly, and if we cannot do it perfectly we don’t do it at all. What I tell people is to start wherever you are.

Another thing that I encourage people to think about is Sabbath as a day to bring your life back into balance. For example, in northern Virginia where I live there are people who commute long distances to get to work. Maybe Sabbath is the day that you do not get in the car. You might be doing work around the house, chores or yard work, but if you don’t have to get in the car and fight the traffic it’s a way of bringing your spirit back into a sense of balance.

A third suggestion is to do things in life “Sabbath-ly.” This is a term I coined while writing the book. Even when we are engaged in our work and in the coming and going of our lives we can do that in a Sabbath way with mindfulness, gratitude and intention.

Do you think Sabbath is important for everybody?

People are very different. But I do think that if people are able to discern for themselves what kind of Sabbath is meaningful for them and pursue it, they would find incredible spiritual benefit. Studies show again and again that we need down time in order to be productive and creative. Sabbath is not just something that is commanded to us in the Scripture, but also something that the cycle of our own bodies suggests that we need.

I also think that Sabbath and issues of time have implications in terms of justice and economic issues. One of the gifts of the Sabbath reflected in Scripture with the people of Israel is that Sabbath was accessible to everyone. It wasn’t something only the privileged people could enjoy. That’s one of the radical things about Sabbath. It’s meant to be a gift for everyone. We need to observe a rhythm of enjoyment and leisure and step out of the production mentality.

Did your idea of Sabbath change as the year progressed?

We started out being outside and away from home a lot. We hadn’t yet acquired the skills of just being at home (for an entire day!) and letting our interests and desires and delights carry us. It was unusual for our family to have a day with nothing on the calendar so we didn’t know quite what to do with it. We had to ease into that process. One of the things that people sometimes say to me is, “We just couldn’t do nothing all day.” But Sabbath for anyone, and with children especially, is not about doing nothing. The prophet Isaiah talks about keeping the Sabbath as a delight. Sabbath is about is finding those things that delight us, ground us, bring us joy and connect us to one another. So Sabbath with our kids is very active, but done in a different kind of spirit than a lot of the coming and going of the rest of the week.

Sabbath can be a particularly hard practice for clergy and lay people active in the church. What would you say to those whose weekends, especially Sundays, are filled with church commitments?

Because I’m a pastor, we decided that for us Sabbath was going to be on Saturday rather than Sunday. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. And I think that we need to follow the spirit of that commandment in order to make it work. Now that we are past the year-long experiment we’ll often take Sabbath as a Sunday afternoon. We try and let Saturday be our getting things done day. Then after worship on Sunday we come home and we aren’t folding the laundry or doing other chores to get ready for the week.

Many of us are finding ways to take Sabbath in our own ways and I want to help people give language to that. The language we use to describe our experience changes and shifts what that experience is. Calling something Sabbath, naming it as such, gives it a different character. A lot of things we do could be considered Sabbath if we give ourselves permission to do so. They don’t have to be “holy” activities.

How has family life changed now that your year of intentional Sabbath keeping is complete? Did you find yourself reverting to old patterns?

A lot of people are interested in that! Now that our kids are getting older, they are getting more involved in activities that they enjoy and want to pursue. Sabbath is harder to come by. I am so glad that we set the foundation with this year-long experiment. We always come back to the conversation of when we can set aside Sabbath time again. Our kids hold us accountable for that, too. It does look different, but my advice to people is that it’s okay that Sabbath looks different as your circumstances change or as your family changes. Just be intentional about taking time in whatever way you are able to do that.


Tips for Planning Family Sabbath Time

  • How long will the Sabbath be?
  • When will it begin?
  • How will the Sabbath time begin: A time of silence? With a song?
  • Will the Sabbath be the same day each week?
  • When will the work that normally takes place on the Sabbath day occur?
  • If the timeframe needs to shift, how will that be decided?
  • Will Sabbath time involve a communal activity or will each person be on his or her own? Or a combination?
  • Will there be prayers or devotions or other traditions?
  • How will the Sabbath time end?

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