On Monday, January 2, 2023, The Guardian Online published an Op/Ed piece entitled “Is America suffering a ‘social recession’?” by Anton Cebalo.1

He examined how recent polling and studies have shown declines in all social relationships, a rise in mental health issues, and that we are witnessing the first declines in U.S. life expectancy since 1915-18. Conversations I have had with friends also make me see that many people are experiencing exhaustion, alienation, and loneliness. To me, this now seems to be an endemic societal problem in 2023.

This story from The Guardian and my experience of friends and colleagues expressing their own difficulties leads me to believe our current world finds itself deeply troubled as we humans forget to pay attention to time, and our need for rest, renewal, and thankfulness.

In our Seventh-day Adventist heritage, we have the Sabbath. And it can be a powerful antidote to this sense of exhaustion and alienation.

I think, however, that in part, the Sabbath’s value in counteracting what ails our society depends on how we embrace the Sabbath and its message. I have found that when I properly value and embrace the Sabbath’s vision of remembering time, intentionally resting, and cultivating gratitude, the Sabbath helps me create the sort of balanced life that can be an answer to the exhaustion and alienation described in the Guardian’s story.

I invite you to meditate briefly on each of these three glimpses of Sabbath blessing.

Let’s start with the question of remembering time.

Swedish author Bodil Jönsson describes a developmentally disabled man she met.2

His mind had a very difficult time with abstract ideas, and, until he was 50, she inferred that he seemed to have lived in an eternally present and undifferentiated “now” with no future or past. Couldn’t really learn or interact with anyone. Then he received a digital assistant with small digital photographs that he could understand. He spent hours starring at them intensely and, suddenly, his world expanded. His vocabulary exploded, and his inaction with others suddenly expanded. For the first time, he had found a way to grasp time and its passage—and his mind suddenly stretched to include past, present, and future. The awareness of time and its passage revolutionized his life.

The first chapter of Genesis reflects our God-implanted need to understand and mark the passage of time. Genesis 1 unfolds as a stately, measured progression of time, carefully marked, and observed: And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:5, NRSV). This stately progression culminates in God establishing the Sabbath. Indeed, we read in Genesis 2:2, And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done (NRSV).

Imagine a scene with me. It is the fall of 1991, and the sun is sinking in Lincoln, Nebraska. I am laying aside Prosser and Keeton on Torts, 5th Edition and leaving the University of Nebraska Law Library. I see classmates huddled in the glass study rooms—lots of shoulders tense from studying for our fast-approaching final. Some look up, puzzled. What am I doing leaving so close to the final?

It is Friday night, and I am off to Vespers at Union College. Friday night called me to pay attention to the sun sinking below the horizon. Suddenly, after a week in peril of sinking into an ageless morass of continual studying and reviewing, God rescued me by asking me to remember time. This is how Sabbath restored rest to a nervous, first-year law student.

Next, consider how Sabbath rescues us from multitasking. The prophet Amos has a spectacular ancient example of multitasking: In Amos 8:4-8, the wealthy are grumbling because they want the Sabbath to be over so they can get back to commerce. Amos asserts God does not approve of them spending their time during the Sabbath planning what they will do once the sun is down (which essentially boils down to dreaming up new ways to cheat the poor).

In Sabbath as Resistance3 by Walter Brueggemann provides what I regard as my favorite story in a chapter called “Resistance to Multitasking.” Every week, as Walter was growing up in rural Saline County, Missouri, the town’s grocer would ceremoniously get up and leave church while the pastor was still preaching, heedless of the disruption he and his wife caused as they walked down the long aisle and out of the church while the pastor was still speaking.

Why did they do this? Simple. The grocer didn’t want to miss out on the post-church commerce from the other church in town, which ended their worship one half hour before his own church ended worship. The grocer would rather miss the end of the sermon and disrupt his own church service than potentially miss out on the Missouri Synod Lutherans’ grocery business. His mind was clearly more on commerce than worshiping Jesus.

Brueggemann points out that the same issue Amos protested was still happening in his own childhood church. Even if no cheating was occurring, commerce was still replacing God. Priorities were skewed, and it was affecting the quality of their rest and worship.

For me, growing up, sometimes it seemed as if the more galling part of Sabbath was the general things I couldn’t do rather than the Sabbath-specific things I could do. Yet, now, and in retrospect, the things I truly celebrate and remember with fondness are those things that were unique to the Sabbath when we were treating it as Sabbath. Not only worship, but things like being with our dad enjoying nature (which in my family, we often called “God’s Second Book”) or driving to see the aspen turning gold in the fall, while spending time with our grandmother.

When our focus was on God, and on Sabbath-specific ways of experiencing God’s blessings, I had a much more memorable Sabbath rest than when I was chafing about whether or not I could go to the mall. God was rescuing me from multitasking and helping me avoid missing the point of the Sabbath.

I found a similar celebration of avoiding multitasking and focusing on the Sabbath-specific joys in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1951 book, where he calls the Sabbath A Palace in Time.4 It is a palace because we leave behind the many work-a-day mundane distractions of the other six days, and instead, spend our time focusing specifically on what the Sabbath brings us. We avoid multitasking.

In thinking about how the Sabbath has brought me both closer to God and to my family, the final point is remembering how my parents used the coming of Sabbath to model joy and gratitude to their children. As I see it, it was in that joy and gratitude that we began to see the full value of the Sabbath.

Return with me to the early 1980s in Boulder, Colorado. Join me in imagining that it is Friday night at the Nowlan residence.

The sun has slipped behind the Flatirons. The TV has been turned off. More importantly, I can smell my mom’s special Friday night soup, and there are candles burning on the family table. My dad asks each of us, “What are you thankful for this week?”  We spend time enjoying the soup, listening to each other, and decompressing from a week of school and work. The candlelight shines in the windows around us. We pray. We look with deliberate gratitude at the week just past and turn with intentionality into the Sabbath time of rest.

When I think of the Sabbath in these terms—reminding me of how God’s time is unfolding, reminding me that we are leaving behind the week’s multitasking, and reminding me of God’s blessings over the past week—then Sabbath becomes something rich and meaningful. And this meaningful gift is something we can share with the anxious, alienated world. I wonder, could this be a partial answer to the issue on which the Guardian was reporting in January?

Shawn P. Nowlan is an attorney currently working for the federal government in Denver. He is a member of the Boulder Adventist Church. Email him at: [email protected]

Cebalo, A. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2023). “Is America Suffering a ‘Social Recession’?” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/02/america-social-recession-less-friends-sex-mental-health

Jönsson, B. (2001). Unwinding the Clock. Harcourt, Inc. p. 54-56.

Brueggemann, W. (2017). Sabbath as Resistance: New Edition with Study Guide. John Knox Press.

Heschel, A.J. (1951). The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.