Can Sabbath Be Productive?

woman-running221Play is a key component of Sabbath, it seems to me. Especially play for its own sake—“play without purpose.” But what does it mean for something to be purposeless?

People sometimes ask me whether certain activities are acceptable for Sabbath because they accomplish something useful. Weeding the garden, for example, changes one’s environment. It’s work. It’s something a gardener has to do even if she isn’t seeking Sabbath.

I always start by saying, What am I, the Sabbath police?

But it’s a good question, and one I think about too.

I waffle on whether running is a Sabbath activity. It’s fun (sometimes); it’s playful (in its own way). It’s spiritual time for me, to be sure. And it’s a wholesome activity. But it’s a tremendous expenditure of energy. Right now I’m training for a half marathon, and I have to run if I’m going to pull that off. Exercise in general is non-negotiable at this stage of my life, like eating and sleeping and brushing one’s teeth.

Have to doesn’t seem very Sabbathy to me.

This article by Mark Rowland helps tease this stuff out. The idea of a “second childhood” doesn’t resonate with me, but I appreciate the way he approaches categories of work and play.

Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.

This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you.

He contrasts these instrumental activities of our lives (in which A produces B) with intrinsic ones, in which A may produce B, yet we do it for the sheer pleasure of it. Maybe that’s the key to what makes something a Sabbath experience. It’s pretty simple: does it feel like Sabbath to you? Does it somehow honor God, however you understand God? Does it simultaneously take you out of yourself and connect you to your truest self?

Mark Rowland describes it thus:

There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

What do you think?

Friday Link Love

Just a few today:


Joy of Books — YouTube

I cannot fathom how long this took… but I’m glad they spent the time.


NOW we're talkin'!

New Playgrounds Are Safe… And That’s Why Nobody Uses Them — Atlantic

I couldn’t agree more. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood at the bottom of a lame plastic slide just in case one of my kids flies off the bottom—because it happened to me when I was a kid—and then realized, “Who am I kidding? They’re going to grind to a halt halfway up and have to scoot their way off. Childhood today sucks.”

And while I’m on the topic, why do parents say “Good job” when their kid reaches the bottom of a slide? “Way to be subject to gravity!”


How Do We Identify Good Ideas? — Jonah Lehrer

The inconsistency of genius is a consistent theme of creativity: Even those blessed with ridiculous talent still produce works of startling mediocrity. (The Beatles are the exception that proves the rule, although their subsequent solo careers prove that even Lennon and McCartney were fallible artists.) The larger point is that mere imagination is not enough, for even those with prodigious gifts must still be able to sort their best from their worst, sifting through the clutter to find what’s actually worthwhile.

…But this raises the obvious question: How can we sort our genius from our rubbish?

The answer may surprise you… and it has implications for Sabbath, in my opinion.


Free Cabin P0rn 

I wish it weren’t called that, but whatever.

We talk a lot in our family about the idea of a “self house.” Caroline came up with the name at Christmas several years ago. She told Robert she wanted to give me my own small cabin in the backyard “where Mommy can go when she’s feeling mad.” Sigh. I was half dismayed that Mommy apparently gets mad often enough to need a whole separate building to contain it, half blown away by her idea, which let’s face it, is spot on. Who wouldn’t love a self house?

This site is full of self houses, and the story snippets are fascinating, the pictures arresting. I was reminded of my friend Karen, who recommended a book years ago about desert spirituality called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. OK, I then bought the book and never read it. But don’t you see the solace of fierce landscapes when you look through these photos?

Oh and Caroline, if you ever read this, here’s the one I’ve picked out:


And speaking of a space of one’s own, I’m off to Montreat on Sunday for a week of Preacher Camp. It’s an intense week socially, academically, and… gastronomically. (We eat out a lot.) But every night I retire to my own “cabin” of sorts, and it’s very very nice. And then by Friday I’m very happy to get back home to the chaos.

My papers are written and I can’t wait. Take care.

Do Reptiles Play?

Recently I had a chance to hear Cindy Rigby speak about her recent work on “the theology of play.” She has an incredible mind and is really drilling down deep with this stuff, but her basic thesis is that play is incredibly important to our spiritual lives and vital to a healthy understanding of God and of ourselves.

Some time ago she was asked to speak at an event, and she proposed the theology of play as her topic. The planners of the event balked: these are serious times we live in, after all, and play is something frivolous, a luxury we can’t afford. So Cindy did something that was in itself playful: she tweaked the titles of her talks to be palatable to the organizers, and went ahead and presented the play stuff under these new headings.

I think this story is OK to tell because there is no identifying information about the organization… but also because there’s something universally recognizable about it. We all know people who are Too Important to Play. These people will tell you that, like the Apostle Paul, they’ve put away such childish things.

What a shame.

I was reading Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve recently (short review here) and he suggests that unwillingness or inability to play is a symptom of a regressive/unhealthy/anxious system:

Systemic anxiety… locks everyone into a pessimistic focus on the pathology within the [system] and it becomes almost impossible for such systems to reorient themselves to a focus on their inherent strengths.

What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

I’m pretty sure salamanders are amphibians, and maybe some owners of pet reptiles will come along and correct Friedman’s/my assumption, but I found this fascinating. The group I was with during Cindy’s presentation talked about purposelessness being an important (though perhaps not essential?) component of play. My kids and I watch the reptiles at the pet store a lot, and there is nothing purposeless about these creatures. Contrast this with the kitties waiting for adoption, batting at children’s fingers poking into the cages, or even the ferrets, piling on top of one another. (And c’mon, are these mice having a ball or what?!)

We even have a term, don’t we: Lizard Brain, to refer to that irrational, hyper-reactive state in which minor roadblocks become life-shattering tragedies, in which knee-jerk black and white thinking trumps nuance, in which life’s normal adversities become evidence of abject victimization.

Now that I think about it, that term might be maligning our reptilian friends…

At any rate, it’s a sad way to live. It’s sad when politicians, reporters, pundits play off that anxiety to appeal to the lizard brain. And it feels to me like a lot of us have gotten pretty good at leisure but aren’t particularly good at play.

The transformation team at our church does something unusual at every meeting: we play a board game together. We take about 20 minutes and do Taboo, Cranium, or other lighthearted fun. It is a great bonding activity and helps loosen us up for great conversation. (I can claim no credit for this idea—it was a team member’s idea and the rest of us ran with it.)

Some time ago we attended a training with teams from other congregations. We talked about the fun we’ve had playing games together and how it has emerged as an important spiritual practice for us. The reaction was fascinating—people pushed back at the idea! “Well, we’d all have to agree on the rules.” “It would get too complicated trying to keep score.” “People would get too competitive.” (We don’t keep score, by the way.)

One of the trainers heard this discussion, stopped everyone and said, “Isn’t it interesting how quickly we go from hearing a new idea to listing all the reasons why it won’t work? And that’s exactly why we’re all here. To train ourselves to be open to new things in our congregations. Because the fact is, the way we’ve always done things doesn’t work in a culture that is increasingly non-religious and even hostile to Christianity.”

Now, board games are not the only way to be playful. And I am certainly not diagnosing the makers of those comments as anxious or captive to the lizard brain; I don’t even know them. But it was a striking moment. It led me to consider the times that I have been disdainful of purposelessness, of play.

My point of anxiety is always around the issue of time: There isn’t enough time! I need to be a “good steward of my time”! I’m the task-master that keeps this two-career-three-kids machine on track! So I find that my play needs to have a point. A product.

Something to keep my lizard eye on.

Friday Link Love

Some things I enjoyed or found thought-provoking this week:

Stephen Colbert Gives Up Catholicism for Lent (video)

“Is this how Unitarians feel all the time?”

What’s Your Personality Type… For Play?

For many adults, however, it’s surprisingly hard to know how to have more fun. If you don’t know what to do for fun, a good question to consider is: What did you do for fun when you were ten years old? Because that’s probably something you’d enjoy now, whether walking in the woods, playing with your dog, making things with your hands, taking pictures, playing basketball, or dancing around the living room.

I’m an 8 with a smattering of 5 and 7.

Giving Up a Breast for Lent

Jan Edmiston is always outstanding, but this blog in particular spoke to me.

We randomly give up chocolate and coffee for Lent, but taking up the cross and following Jesus seems to be more about finding the cancers in our lives and giving those up – which is a much bigger deal. Imagine really giving up gossip. Giving up racism. Giving up living for the sake of appearances. So hard.

Jan is moving away soon… I’ll miss her so much when she leaves!

The Strangest — and Maybe Best — Grilled Cheese You’ll Ever Make

Mayo instead of butter? Nuts grated with a microplane? I can’t wait to try this one.

What We Can Learn from Procrastination

Great stuff on how our brain works. Special bonus: what’s wrong with the Netflix queue and how instant streaming can help.

Songs for Lent

I like this little collection of music, based on the stations of the cross. I wrote off any music labeled as “Christian” a long time ago because I decided I didn’t like it musically. Mike Birbiglia understands what I mean… (video). I much preferred to be a sleuth for the Spirit, looking for messages of redemption in so-called “secular” music.

That’s still my default position, but I should not be so categorically minded.

Anyway, this stuff is haunting and lovely. Thanks to my friend Troy Bronsink for the recommendation.

– – – – – – –

And finally, a request—keep me in your thoughts, prayers, heart, or whatever you’ve got. My book contract with Chalice Press stipulated that the manuscript would be due next March, but for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, I’ve moved that up to October. It’s very doable, but still: o_O

I’ve never used that emoticon before. It’s a good inaugural use of it.