Do You Need A Screen-Free Sabbath?


I am from the last generation to have had an analog childhood—a “Xennial” (the micro-generation between Gen X and Millennials born between 1977 and 1983 who had an analog childhood and a digital young adulthood). Sometimes referred to as “The Lucky Generation”, we had a childhood without parents distracted by smartphones. We often had to wait a day or sometimes an entire week to watch the next episode of our favourite TV show, went shopping at the mall, chatted with our friends—in person, and were fortunate not to have our teenage years rendered into a digital record.

These days, the first thing many of us do when we wake is check our phone. We begin our day with the news, a quick scroll through a social media platform or two and then again at breakfast, on the toilet and, if possible, as we commute to work. Some of us then work on a screen all day and come home to relax in front of a different screen. In the evenings, we binge on Netflix to unwind, while scrolling on our phones. Then off to bed, not to sleep but to Google celebrities and online shopping and maybe check Facebook one last time. Our screens, smartphones especially, allow us to have constant unrestrained access to information, entertainment and distraction.

A kingdom of noise
Author of The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and Garden City, John Mark Comer, describes our digital reality as living in “a world of noise”. CS Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters, originally published in 1942, now seems prophetic. In this brilliant satire, senior demon Screwtape calls the devil’s realm a kingdom of noise” and claims, “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.” We are all fighting a daily battle with our screens for our time, focus and attention and whether you’re a top executive or a stay-at-home mum, we all feel perpetually overwhelmed. My analog childhood was like a last gasp for breath. We urgently need to develop healthy digital boundaries.

(Credit: Ross Sneddon, Unsplash)

For centuries, the people of God have observed a weekly day of rest—the Sabbath. It was a day to look forward to when people worked long, hard days doing manual labour just to survive. Today though, many of us need a different kind of rest. More and more I am realising I need a “screen-free” Sabbath. I need one day out of seven where I can switch off the noise and be quiet. Instead of looking down (at my phone), I need to look up at the beauty of creation.

Instead of liking a Facebook post, I need to practice hospitality, talk and laugh face-to-face with real-life friends. Instead of watching another Netflix show, I need to look my husband and children in the eyes and enjoy the precious time I have with them. Instead of shopping online, I need to practice gratitude for everything I already have. Instead of fuelling my fears and angst with the politics, crime and scandal of the news, I need to be a good neighbour.

Many of us enjoy our weekends as a rest from work, but as Comer notes, “How do you rest well when every chance you get, you reach for the dopamine dispenser that is your phone?”

imageNo time like the present
The great threat of the digital age is that it robs us of the capacity to be present. What if we took a day of rest each week from the noise, so that in the quiet we could be present to our spouses, our kids, our community and even ourselves?

When I fill every margin and spare minute, I cease to be able to tend to my soul. Moments of boredom are rare when my phone is always within reach. I lose opportunities to imagine, dream, reflect, evaluate, process the highs and lows, and connect with God. Taking a screen-free Sabbath and turning off the noise gives me the chance to hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12). Rather than escaping grief or loneliness or anger with distraction and entertainment, I can bravely sit with my emotions and be present to my own soul.

We keep a weekly Sabbath as a family, but as any parent would understand, with kids, it’s not always the rest day I long for. I recently listened to author and spiritual director Ruth Hayley Barton interview her daughter Charity about keeping Sabbath with children. They spoke about the paradigm shift they had when they began to see their Sabbath as a day to be present to their children.

(Credit: Engin Akyurt, Unsplash)

“The greatest gift you can give the children in your world is your undivided attention,” writes Sarah Boyd of Resilient Little Hearts. A screen-free Sabbath gives our children the gift of our time and presence as well as an opportunity for us to enjoy our children. How many precious moments have I missed with my children by being on my phone? Having a screen-free day makes conditions perfect for those relationships that matter most, helping our family make meaningful connections in a media-heavy world.

A screen-free Sabbath also allows me to be present to others. I’m able to listen with undivided attention. I notice the bright sparks of goodness and hope at work in my neighbourhood and have the time to join in.

Where do I even start?
The idea of taking a screen-free Sabbath is so simple it hardly needs any instructions, but I do have a few suggestions. First, you need to prepare for it. If you are planning to meet up with others, make a plan and let them know you are switching off for the day. Warn family and friends your phone will be off. Print a map if you need it for any travel. And if you use your phone for music or a camera, get creative or go old-school. Pull out the old CDs, cassettes or even records. Choose to go camera-free and just enjoy the view without needing to share the moment on Instagram or Facebook. Some people have a Sabbath box that they symbolically put all their devices in for the day. I recommend, at the very least, switching all devices off and putting them out of sight. It sounds simple but it’s harder than it seems. Our phones have become like an added appendage. It’s normal to feel a bit anxious (even naked) without one, but those withdrawal symptoms are also quite revealing as to how addicted we really are.

In his hard-hitting piece on our digital age, political commentator Andrew Sullivan writes, “The Sabbath . . . reflected a now battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.”

Screen-free Sabbaths are a chance to prioritise our wellbeing. They offer a sanctuary—a space in stressful times to be present and celebrate the joy of life beyond ad-supported screens. The future belongs to those willing to fight for quiet in a world of noise.

Emma Dyer writes from Upper Hutt, New Zealand. She has worked as a pastor and teacher and is currently enjoying life as a full-time Mum to her two children.

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