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: Nude Dancers, Suburban Living, and the Empathic Rat

First, a link to my article at catapult magazine for their 10 Things edition: 10 Ways to Savor Your Time in 2013.

Annnnnd…. away we go:


Time-Lapse Images of Nude Dancers Created with 10,000 Individual Photographs — Colossal

Obligatory Colossal Post. Lots more at the link:



Five Easy Things to a Happier Year — National Catholic Review

I’m keeping it light on the New Year’s resolutions/intentions this year. I’m already running a half marathon, promoting a book and planning the next one—that’s plenty to keep me busy. Plus I’m all about the improv and less about the major planning. But I can get behind these:

Be a Little Kinder.  I think that 90% of the spiritual life is being a kind person.   No need to have any advanced degrees in theology or moral reasoning, and no need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religious traditions, to get this: Be gentler and more compassionate towards other people.

I like the one about enjoying nature more. Reminds me of one of my father-in-law’s practices. When he comes home from work, he takes a moment between car and house to look up. Just to see what the sky looks like. I love that.


Why Do Americans Have Less Vacation Time Than Anyone Else? — Big Think

This one gets in my craw. It’s not the most pressing issue we face, but it is a justice issue and a spiritual issue:

Like many of you, I am on vacation this week. For most Americans, Christmas week represents about half of the time off we will enjoy all year long. Compared with Australians (at least 4 weeks off, plus 10 public holidays), Brazilians (22 days of paid leave with a 33 percent salary vacation bonus) and the French (at least 5 weeks off and as many as 9 for many public employees), we are seriously bereft.

Look at how the United States stacks up against the rest of the developed world in number of mandatory days off each year:


What is that all about, do you think?


How People Live in the Suburbs: A Vintage Illustrated Gem — Brain Pickings

How People Live In The Suburbs was published as part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including How People Earn and Use MoneyHow Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us — all, sadly, out of print but delightful if you’re able to secure a copy.

Click the link above for more images. These are just cute and bizarre:



The Five Types of Work That Fill Your Day — 99U

I’m still using Toggl to keep track of how much time I spend on creative work, connecting with people, and doing logistics. Read more about that process here.

But based on this article it would be interesting to do an audit of my time to see how much of my day is spent on Reactionary, Planning, Procedural, Insecurity, and Problem-solving tasks. Good tips here for how to bring things into a frutful balance for your situation.


The Power and the Allegory: A Book of Interviews with Madeleine L’Engle — BookForum

The book itself is called Listening for Madeleine. From the BookForum article:

L’Engle’s faith was deeply untraditional. A mathematics professor who advised her on A Wrinkle in Time says the three beings who guide Meg on her interplanetary journey—Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which—were meant to be angels, but they could just as easily be mistaken for witches. And the novel’s dominant image of evil is an undefined blackness that casts its shadow across a wide band of the universe, including Earth. Camazotz, a planet controlled by the blackness, is not a hotbed of violence and depravity but a vision of perfect order. All the houses are identical, the children bounce their balls in perfect unison, and anyone who refuses to submit to the program is punished. “I am freedom from all responsibility,” the evil power croons to Meg. But she recognizes that this is a false consolation, a substitution of conformity for equality. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” she screams.

The fundamental lesson is that it’s OK—even desirable—to be a misfit.

Looking back, I’d say that A Wrinkle in Time formed my early theology as much as (or let’s be honest, more than) the Bible.

Incidentally, I’m putting this post together on Thursday, and Caroline is in the chair next to me with the new graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time. I gave it to her for Christmas and she’s already on her second reading of it.


A New Model of Empathy: The Rat — Washington Post

I expect there is more of this going on in the animal kingdom than we want to admit:

In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.

The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.


May your weekend be filled with a small hoard of chocolate chips… or whatever delights you.

Friday Link Love

Away we go:


Winners of the National Geographic Photo Contest — The Atlantic

My favorite:


New Orleans Pastor Known as ‘Da Condom Father’ Couldn’t Just Watch People Die —

According to the article, black people are 32 percent of the Louisiana population but, according to the state Department of Health and Human Hospitals, account for 73 percent of the newest HIV cases and 76 percent of the cases that progressed to AIDS. So this pastor hands out condoms to his parishioners and community. For him the ethics is clear:

Is such the Lord’s work? Davenport is convinced it is. What is he supposed to do? Stand back and see his people die ? Preach to them about sexual purity — then stand back and see his people die?


Julia Child Visits Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood — The Fred Rogers Company

A video from the archives, in honor of that wonderful dame’s 100th birthday:


The ‘Open’ Office is a Source of Stress — Time

The modern open office was designed for team building and camaraderie but is mostly distinguished by its high noise levels, lack of privacy and surfeit of both digital and human distractions. And indeed, several decades of research have confirmed that open-plan offices are generally associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment.

Do you work in an open office environment? What do you think of it, dear readers?


War Some of the Time — Writers Almanac

A great one from Bukowski:

when you write a poem it
needn’t be intense
can be nice and
and you shouldn’t necessarily
concerned only with things like anger or
love or need;
at any moment the
greatest accomplishment might be to simply
up and tap the handle
on that leaking toilet;

More at the link.


Why Be Grateful? — Jana Riess

There’s actual science between the practice of gratitude:

In one experiment, students were given different topics on which they had to write a paper. Some students were then given scathing criticism of their papers, while others were praised lavishly.

Then all the students were given the opportunity to go up against their teachers/ graders in a computer game. Not surprisingly, the students who had been sharply criticized retaliated in kind during the game, blasting the heck out of the perpetrators who had made their lives miserable. The ones who had been praised were not aggressive in the game.

And then things got really interesting. There was one exception to the rule about students who had been criticized turning around and retaliating.  This was a small group of the mocked students who had been assigned in their papers to enumerate the things they were grateful for in their lives.

Here’s the thing: those students who had written about gratitude didn’t react negatively to the criticism they received on their papers. They did not retaliate in the computer game.

Apparently, the simple act of counting their blessings had given them enough positive reinforcement about their lives that any criticism of their papers just rolled right off them.

I’ve been working on gratitude this week. It’s been hard. I am very concerned for a family in our church whose little boy is battling ALD and he continues to struggle. I feel very weighed down on their behalf. But I’m trying.

Videos like this help:


My Own Rice — Church World Service

I love Church World Service. They are a modest organization but very effective, with low overhead. Remember that old Cadillac slogan, “quietly doing things very well”? That’s CWS.

Here’s a story of a young boy in Myanmar who was one of two survivors of a flood in his village. He received a micro-loan and is now growing his own rice.


Peace be with you, friends.

Friday Link Love

A few random things…

Ice Art


Greenpeace got artist John Quigley to partially recreate da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man on a melting ice pack near the North Pole. Nicely metaphorical, dontcha think?


Overshoot on Your Salary Request to Get the Best Offer

With any luck, I won’t be negotiating another salary from scratch any time soon. But I was intrigued by this approach:

Asking for a ridiculously high salary—even when offered as a joke—can get you a much higher salary offer than if you stay within the typical salary range for a job, the Harvard Business Review suggests.

I’m wondering whether this approach works in other areas of life!


Choices for Change

This is an article for church leaders on how to catalyze change, but it has good thoughts for anyone needing to make a shift in his or her life: “When you want to change, you have two choices: think your way into acting or act your way into thinking.”


If It Feels Right…

This David Brooks column has been making the rounds among my Facebook friends:

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth.

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

[more at the link]

At least one commenter suggested that people of all ages are not necessarily good at talking categorically and philosophically about moral issues… but they are still good and moral people. What do you think?


Hope it is an excellent weekend for everyone.

More on the Working/Stay-at-Home Mom Thing

This is a follow-up to my post from last week about the importance of women being in the workforce in order to effect change, and the equally compelling vision of a less-career focused, more family- and community-oriented role for both women and men. There were some good comments there too—check them out.

Disclaimer: I realize that for many people, there is no choice but to work. That can’t be forgotten in this. If you even have a choice to work or not work, that is in many ways a privileged position. Anyway.

This stuff is so complicated. I think what’s hard about this is that there are general ideals and there are specific cases.

Here’s some general stuff, clothed in specifics: I work in a male-dominated field. I gain a whole lot of strength from my female colleagues. And without a critical mass of us, it’s going to continue to be a male-dominated field. The stereotype of the man in his late 30s with the wife and adorable children will continue to be the platonic ideal of the desirable pastor, without sheer numbers of people demonstrating a different way. We need women and their prodigious gifts for ministry. We need the ones who agitate and advocate. And we need the ones who catch flies with honey.

Linda Hirshman got totally raked over the coals for her Get to Work stuff, and I don’t remotely agree with everything she said. But she deserves at least some credit for suggesting that our decision to work or not work has a collective dimension to it. Yes, it’s a private decision, but it has public and societal consequences, assuming you believe, as I do, that corporate boardrooms and halls of Congress should look something like the society at large. And assuming you believe, as I do, that a woman who sets aside career for several years is going to have a much longer slog to get to those boardrooms and halls.

I don’t like slippery slopes and this comes dangerously close, but what the heck: Imagine—what if every woman opted out? Would the world be a better place? Would the workplace be more family friendly? Would the laws of the land reflect the perspectives of women? (And yes, I know men can opt out too, and there are a lot more men staying at home with kids than ever before, but the fact is it’s still mostly the women taking time off for childrearing.)

There is a collective dimension to this. Honestly? Part of what keeps me in ministry is a sense of responsibility towards other women in ministry, both now and in the future. Several years ago I became the unofficial expert on maternity leave policies for the PC(USA). Word got out somehow that I had collected stats and example policies from around the denomination. Women I didn’t even know started e-mailing me for information, asking me how they might advocate for themselves, and so forth. And many of those contacts have continued as we all struggle to do that dance of ministry and motherhood in all its joys and frustrations. It’s one of those peripheral things I love about being a pastor—the crazy camaraderie.

So that’s the general.

But the specific is vitally important to acknowledge too: It is a personal decision. And every situation is different. Some people feel called to paid work outside the home; some feel called to full-time child-rearing/volunteerism/community building. And circumstance is everything. Is there a good support system? What are the spouse’s gifts and work situation? I said that I stay in ministry partly out of a sense of responsibility, but I’m also fortunate that we have a situation that works such that my kids don’t suffer for it. In fact I think their life is often enriched by my vocation. (Not always, I must admit.) I really, really love being a pastor and feel like I was put on this earth to preach. But sure, there is a tipping point beyond which even I would leave ministry.

I’ve been corresponding with a friend who’s taking time off from teaching to be with her kids ages 8 and under. She was kind enough to share her thought process on all that, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a flaw in her logic to stay home. Makes perfect sense. Likewise I have several talented friends, seminary colleagues, who are taking time off from paid parish ministry while their kids are young (and maybe beyond that, I’m not sure). Again, it seems to make sense given the circumstances.

But now, I think, we circle back to the general. Most women who leave the workforce for several years are not going to jump back in at the same pay scale and position as their colleagues who never left. I used to say “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.” I now say, “You can’t have it all, but you can have different things at different times.” Not exactly a rallying cry for female empowerment, eh? But accurate in my experience. Our lives are not infinite and every yes is also a no. The decision not to work for several years has economic consequences, and not just during those years. Perhaps there are some fields where you jump back in easily. But in many fields, the decision not to work has consequences that ripple out for untold years into the future. (Boy, I hope that’s not news to anyone.)

But again, to what extent does that matter? For many people, the positives of being home with children far outweigh the downsides. You can’t put a price on the added flexibility for volunteerism, exercise, hobbies, etc.

And the truth is, I identify with both “sides” of this, because I work part-time. I might write some about that but I’m curious what you think.

Parable of the Scissors

From time to time over the next several months I plan to put short drafts up on the blog that I’m writing for the Sabbath book. I worked on the following piece this morning. Feedback is appreciated, keeping in mind that it’s a first draft.

I have a pair of red-handled scissors. They’ve been mine since seventh grade, when I took a home ec class. They’re fabric scissors, with which I cut out material for a simple elastic-waist skirt (blue plaid) and made throw pillows for my sister that spelled our her name. K-A-T-I-E. But I don’t sew anymore, so these scissors now live in our kitchen junk drawer and are used for paper, clothing tags, evil clamshell packaging, and even the occasional stray wisp of hair. They’re left-handed scissors, so they’re precious to me. They are as tight and precise as they were when I was 12.

I wrote my name in Sharpie on the inside of one of the blades when I first got them. MaryAnn McKibben. When I got married I crammed “Dana” on there too. They have been with me for some 26 years.

They’re gone now.

I think.

But this is not about the loss, or the nagging silly grief of missing something I’ve had for so long.

Friday my kids and I had a flurry of a day, getting errands done to get ready for Saturday’s Sabbath and for a visit from friends over the weekend. We grocery shopped, we shoe shopped, we took cardboard to the recycling center. Margaret and James handed me boxes (squabbling over whose turn it was) while I slashed through old packing tape to make everything flat and compact.

As I slammed the back hatch of the van, I turned to Margaret and said, “Please put these back in the junk drawer for me.”

She did not do that. And we have no idea what she did with them. I suspect that she absent-mindedly threw them in the trash can—a likely occurrence since she did the same thing that night with the spoon she used at dinner.

But this is not about the peculiarities of the five-year-old brain.

I discovered they were gone because the weather stripping is coming off the bottom of our front door and I wanted to snip off that flapping tail, just really quick, so it wouldn’t flop around every time we opened or closed the door. The realization of the missing scissors led to a brief but fruitless search and a short interrogation of Margaret, who had no idea where she’d put them.

I discovered they were gone on Saturday, our Sabbath day, the day we don’t cut loose weather stripping from the front door, except that we do. I do. And I was reminded they were gone at least twice more on that supposed day of rest. A new box of cat litter—the cat boxes could use a top-off. A stubborn plastic tag on the previous day’s clothing purchase from Target–would really like to wear that today. But no scissors. It wasn’t my Sabbath commitment that stopped me from completing those tasks, it was the lack of proper tools.

I tell myself that I let a little work creep in to the day of rest to get ready for our guests. Hospitality is a virtue too, even on the Sabbath… not that our friends care about a flap of weather stripping or an additional half-inch of cat litter. But it’s not really about that either. Because the work always nags on the Sabbath. Always.

I don’t regret this experiment. The fact that I anticipate the arrival of each Saturday with the giddy relief of a kid at Christmas suggests that there’s something right about it. But the impulse to tidy, to beautify, to make it all better, is overwhelming.

And that’s what this is about. This is about a commitment to do something simple, but not easy: To stop changing things. To stop controlling the chaos for one blasted, blessed day.

This is about my inability to stop that completely. This is about my inability… but also my ability, my incredible ability, to tame chaos. My sharp eye toward a stray sock on the floor, which gets dispensed with a quick toss down the laundry chute (aka basement stairs). The efficient way I sweep the discarded stuffed animal into my arms for a trip down the stairs where it belongs.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I “cheat.” These are trifles. Nobody’s grading me. I get to define the parameters of this thing. But I wonder what it would be like to really and truly stop. To look at the mess and not try to fix it. To let the chaos be a gift for a single day.

If this were a blog with all the answers, and a different view of how God works, the scissors would show up, miraculously, the following day, gleaming as if with a special holy polish.

But they’re still gone.

Sabbath: What Does It Mean to Stop Working?

As our family gets more into a regular practice of Sabbath observance, I find myself thinking about how to define work, i.e. that thing that we’re supposed to stop doing during Sabbath time. I tell church folks when I speak about this that the Sabbath is given as a “delight” (Isaiah), so Sabbath time can include those delightful activities that bring us joy. For some people, gardening is restful and appropriate for Sabbath; for others, it is drudgery.

I was talking to a friend about the Jewish observance of Sabbath, with its many guidelines handed down over generations, which he good-naturedly described as “OCD.” (By the way, this friend is Jewish, or was raised Jewish, or is nominally culturally Jewish—I’m not really sure how to describe him, but trust he’ll chime in shortly.)

I’ve done some reading about the Jewish Sabbath, specifically what is and is not, well, kosher to do on that day. As I understand it, many Orthodox observers will turn on the lights they need before Sabbath begins, because while it’s OK to use electricity, it is off-limits to operate it. And they may pre-tear toilet paper so as not to have to tear on the Sabbath. (Hey, Ecclesiastes specifically says there is a time to tear; I’m calling that a biblical basis.) Blu Greenberg writes in the above-linked book:

Preparing paper in advance seems so remote from holy time. The objective outsider might say, ‘This is pure legalism and highly ridiculous besides; there’s no work involved in tearing a piece of perforated toilet paper on the Sabbath.’ To which an insider might respond, ‘Look how clever the Rabbis were: even in as mundane a place as the bathroom, one is reminded of the uniqueness of the day.’

I must admit that I can relate to both perspectives. To the second, I find that Sabbath is more meaningful when I have prepared for it rather than have it be something that suddenly befalls me. Last Friday night I hurriedly finished folding the clothes, not because the next day’s Sabbath would be ruined if I didn’t finish, nor because I wouldn’t let myself begin Sabbath until I’d done it, but because it felt like a clear act of delineation: Tonight, I bring a little order to the chaos in our household. Tomorrow I rest.

But the question remains: What is work? When you have a child who’s still in diapers, and daughters who are only self-entertaining for periodic bursts and certainly not for a whole day, and klutzy parents who spill things on the kitchen floor, there’s just a basic level of upkeep that’s necessary. And while caring for family is a great joy, it is also work. And if you’re already doing that kind of work, it’s easy to find yourself lurching, zombie-like, into other kinds of work without even realizing it.

Another grey area: I am a hopeless Cleaner As I Go. If I’m walking upstairs anyway and I see the pair of shoes I left on the stairs that need to be taken up, what do I do? Does it undermine the restful, leave-it-be mindset to pick them up and take them with me? What if it’s a 30 pound laundry basket instead of a pair of shoes? Does it matter? If I don’t do it and it continues to nag at me, is that a mindset to be overcome, or do I just complete the task, because hey, I have the freedom to define this as I please?

Circling back around to my friend’s “OCD” comment—yes, it does seem that way. But I’m also very sympathetic to an observance of Sabbath in which the boundaries are clear. It’s not the doing of the stuff that’s a burden per se, it’s the deciding whether it’s in or out that causes angst. We’ve all heard those stories about how crippling it can be to have too many choices.

What is work to you? And what does resting from that work entail for you? Here’s an answer from a friend. Here’s my current line in the sand, just because I need one: the work I end up doing on the Sabbath can only grow out of things that occurred on the Sabbath. So of course I’m going to change my kid’s diaper, but I’m not changing the overflowing diaper pail. So I will clear the breakfast and lunch dishes, and may even wash them if we won’t have clean ones for dinner otherwise, but I will not unload the dishwasher from the night before. I will clean up the Thomas track that my son insisted that I build and has now abandoned for other delights, but the pile of library books leftover from a mid-week reading blitz will stay untouched. So there is still work on the Sabbath, but it is all self-contained in its own temporal parentheses.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and part of that system is getting the details out of one’s head so as to cultivate a “mind like water”—an uncluttered, unworried mind that can focus on whatever is most important in that moment. Having some boundaries in place feels like a way to have a Sabbath like water.