Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Take Your Day Off. It Will Keep You Honest

13426114I’ve been doing the 2015 Reading Challenge this year, and I just finished my Book with Antonyms in the Title: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. It’s a fun read, with a lot of studies to back up Ariely’s assertions, which are pretty intuitive: everybody cheats on various levels, and we have lots of ways to rationalize it.

I was especially interested in the final chapter, which addresses the role of religion in matters of honesty and integrity:

During one of our conversations, I asked Rabbi [Jonathan] Sacks to tell me which of the Ten Commandments I should keep, if I were going to focus on just one. It was another way of asking him which commandment is the most important one. What do you think his answer was? The one about not worshipping idols? The one about murder?

His answer wasn’t at all what I expected— he said that if I kept only one commandment, I should observe Shabbat. “If you keep Shabbat as a day of rest and reflection,” he said, “the rest of the commandments will most likely follow.” 

Shabbat affects those who observe it in a few ways. First, it offers an opportunity to stop and reflect. In observing this day, we can remind ourselves what we have done in the last week, what we want to do next week, and what our true values are. We can pay attention to our less-than-perfect behaviors that otherwise might go unnoticed, keeping ourselves from sliding accidentally into moral dangers.

This reflective work is exactly why so many of us resist it. Who wants to be confronted with all of our stuff!? But there’s more:

The second way Shabbat propels people to observe the other commandments is by restoring our moral energy. It’s no secret that at the end of a day or week, people often let loose (getting drunk and so on) by allowing themselves to do what their impulsive id-side has been screaming for while they were stuck in their cubicles. We saw this kind of moral exhaustion in the depletion experiment [described earlier in the book]. In that experiment, participant cheating increased after a more difficult writing task, suggesting that in daily life (even without hard writing assignments from social scientists) exhaustion can wear us right down to our ids. Ego depletion (as we call this draining effect), it turns out, affects not only whether we make good or bad decisions, but also whether we obey our consciences.

So having a time of rest gives us a spiritual reset, so our personal integrity and sense of self-control isn’t working out of deficit.

Ariely writes a lot about the financial meltdown from several years ago and scandals such as Enron, Madoff and the like. He talks about what makes it possible for someone to make catastrophic and downright dishonest decisions. He doesn’t make the connection in this chapter, but it seems clear that a culture of overwork creates a ripe environment for dishonesty.

Among industralized nations, the United States is notoriously bad on the scale of paid time off, family and sick leave and the like. This lack of policies doesn’t just make us sick, tired, less creative and less productive. It can also contribute to a sense of moral decay.

What’s the Difference Between Family Time and Sabbath?

The seven year old, reading the holy texts on a recent Sabbath...

The seven year old, reading the holy texts on a recent Sabbath…

Three years after the publication of Sabbath in the Suburbs, I continue to speak to groups about our family’s experience of taking a day each week for rest and play… which looks very different now than it did during the year-long experiment, but that’s another post.

People who’ve read the book will notice that we didn’t spend the day doing “holy” activities. We didn’t read scripture together or pray (except before meals) or even talk about God all that much. We often lit a candle to designate that this time was somehow set apart, but otherwise, there was nothing particularly religious in our observance. So what gives?

Or as many people ask me, “We already have family time together; what makes Sabbath different?”

First, I don’t believe in creating a division between so-called secular and sacred activities. In my tradition, we believe and profess that God is the Lord of our whole lives. Yes, there are times that we intentionally focus on our spiritual lives, through study or prayer or small groups or a worship service. But all of life is (or can be) an act of devotion to God as we understand God.

That said, I believe the language we use matters–in fact, what we name something changes the nature of the thing we’re naming. It’s great to have family time, and there’s nothing wrong with calling it that. But invoking the word Sabbath acknowledges that God is also present, and that the things we do during this time can nurture our spiritual lives as well as our sense of family connectedness. It gives us a different vision and perspective on that time.

The other day I was listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview of social scientist Ellen Langer, and they were talking about this exact phenomenon. In one study, subjects were asked to evaluate a series of jokes and cartoons. For half the group, the researchers framed the activity as work; the other half, play. Those who were told to play reported a much greater enjoyment than those who were “working” at the very same activity.

Similarly, Langer referenced a study of chambermaids–women who are on their feet all day doing constant physical labor. This group experienced actual physiological changes when they named their daily activity “exercise” rather than simply “work.” Fascinating!

So here’s an easy experiment for those of you who want to connect with this old, ancient practice that has such resonance for Jewish and Christian communities but don’t know where to start. Put the label of Sabbath on something you already do: family time, your daily ritual of tea and Sudoku, even your workout at the gym. See what changes, what feels different. See if the activity resonates on a different level. And report back!


By the way, the entire interview with Ellen Langer was fascinating. Did you know mindfulness is possible without a meditation practice?

Rising to Your Level of Misery

dirty-jobs30They can’t pay you enough money to do a job you hate.

I have a lot of lasting memories of my grandfather–homegrown tomatoes, “Heart and Soul” duets on the piano–but that’s the primary piece of wisdom I remember him passing along to me. And it’s a good one.

I was thinking about Grandpa’s advice when I read a recent piece in the New York Times, Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work. In it Arthur Brooks talks about the tendency to get promoted past the place where you find joy and passion in your profession:

People generally have a “bliss zone,” a window of creative work and responsibility to match their skills and passions. But then the problems start. Those who love being part of teams and creative processes are promoted to management. Happy engineers become stressed-out supervisors. Writers find themselves in charge of other writers and haranguing them over deadlines. In my years in academia, I saw happy professors become bitter deans, constantly reminiscing about the old days doing cutting-edge research and teaching the classes they loved.

Brooks says many people respond to this happiness gap by drinking heavily. What he recommends instead is finding a way back to that bliss point. As my mother said recently, “Whenever I was feeling sad, I had a friend who told me to remember the last time I was happy and then return to what I was doing then.” I like it.

But it’s not easy. Maybe the last time you were happy was before the chronic illness struck, or during your marriage that has now ended. In the case of work, sometimes shifting things away from misery means lost income you’ve come to count on. More deeply, we’re conditioned to see success as a function of progress. Moving back is synonymous with failure.

This article was tugging at me for several days last week until I finally figured out why: both my husband and I have been in this situation in recent years. In his case, he revised his job description to better reflect his gifts and his value to his industry. In my case, I have been invited to apply for positions that would make sense on a certain assumed trajectory: You’ve been a pastor of a small church? How about a larger church? In one case, I got pretty far along in the process before realizing that the job, as wonderful as it was, was not mine to do. Of course, not every job is pure bliss–even the bliss zone has its headaches. But as I joked to a friend soon after taking myself out of the running, “That’s a good ulcer. It’s just not my ulcer.”

In my husband’s and my case, we didn’t make these moves because of some special cleverness on our part. It was the practice of Sabbath over the course of many years that showed us the way and helped us clarify what we love, what we value and what we want our lives to look like. That’s what makes it such an important practice. I’ve preached on the story of the Hebrew people as slaves in Egypt and how Pharaoh heaped more and more work on them. And I said, “Sabbath isn’t about being well rested so you can go back to Pharaoh’s job site. Sabbath is about realizing that you don’t want to make those bricks anymore.”


Photo is Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, whom I wrote about in a post awhile back called ‘Follow Your Bliss’ and Other Myths about Call.

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Two Christians Talk Faith on Network TeeVee… With No Sky Fairy in Sight

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 1.09.23 PM

Many years ago, when I was actively thinking about seminary, I remember hiking in Colorado with some college friends. One of these friends, a confirmed agnostic/atheist, was trying to get his head around this vocational choice of mine–but even more broadly, why an intelligent, educated person would have need for religious faith at all. “I guess I get it,” he said. “Your faith provides solace for you.”

I shook my head. Solace wasn’t quite right; in fact, I bristled against it. Solace was too limiting, like the spiritual equivalent of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup. Solace felt like a pat on the simpleminded head in the wake of life’s mysteries and griefs. Solace made you feel better, but had no other utility. A faith that’s all about solace, I argued back, doesn’t change the way you look at the world, doesn’t move you to action, doesn’t transform a life.

Right or wrong, I heard insult in the word “solace,” like my friend was quoting the Apostle Paul, knowingly or unknowingly, ironically or unironically: When I was a child, I thought like a child; but when I was an adult, I put away childish things. 

This is the posture of anti-theists: religion is a childish thing. These are the folks who like to make jabs about all of us rubes praying to our Sky Fairy and adhering chapter and verse to a book that was written by illiterate goat-herders in the Bronze Age.

Anyway, the word solace came up again last night in a conversation between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden, a conversation they were gracious to let millions of us eavesdrop on during night three of The Late Show. Both Colbert and Biden are men of faith, liberal Catholics, it’s safe to say; both have experienced terrible losses in their lives.

Their conversation about faith was nothing short of astounding. Colbert asked about Biden’s belief in God and how it helped him grieve the death of his beloved son Beau this summer. Biden gave a thoughtful and heartfelt answer that was full of solace but completely free of Sky Fairy.

He didn’t say, Well, God needed another angel in heaven. Or I guess my son’s work on earth was done.
He didn’t say, God has his purposes; we’ll all understand the plan someday.

He said–and I’m paraphrasing:

The rituals of the church sustain me and give me the strength to go on.

I pray the rosary, and it gives me comfort.

When I’m in mass, I am surrounded by a community people, yet I feel completely alone.

The last one was most remarkable to me. Isn’t it terrible to be alone? No–not if you need space to grieve, or just to find quiet in your own heart. There are so few places where we allow ourselves that space. Religion done well is one of those places.

Colbert and Biden, and so many others of us, aren’t in it for the Sky Fairy. It’s never been about the Cosmic Daddy for us, no matter how much the anti-theists want to make it about that. It’s certainly not about finding pat answers, from our Bible or from our God. It’s in the living. It’s in the struggle. It’s in the community.

Last night’s interview helped me articulate a more nuanced view of solace as one of the fruits of religious belief. I still think solace doesn’t fully encompass it. But nor does solace mean platitudes and cheesy explanations that somehow make the horrors of our lives less horrible because somehow God’s gonna make it all better. That’s not what Biden showed us last night. He’s still deeply broken in his grief–that’s evident. His faith is equal parts Psalm 22 and Psalm 23. And comfort and solace are nothing to scoff at.

One the gifts of doing the speaking work I do is getting to learn from other great leaders in the church. I preached at a conference with the great Eugenia Gamble some years ago and she closed with these words of blessing. I’ve used it far and wide since then, crediting her when practical to do so, though she thinks it came from the Franciscans first.

The words of this blessing came to me again while listening to the Late Show interview. To me they’re what good religion is all about. Forget the Sky Fairy and simplistic explanations and hollow solace. This is the nature of any religion or worldview worth its salt:

May God bless you with discomfort
with easy answers and half truths and superficial relationships,
so that you will live deeply
and from the heart.

And may God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people,
so that you will work
for justice, freedom and peace.

And may God bless you with tears to shed
for those that mourn,
so you will reach out your hand to them
and turn mourning into joy.

And may God bless you with just enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you will do those things that others say
cannot be done.

Stephen and Joe have been so blessed. So may we all be.


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Moving Stinks. But You Learn Stuff


One week ago today, my husband updated his FB cover photo with this shot from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. People who were familiar with the movie asked if we had “top men” working on it.

Top. Men.

It’s been a whirlwind, but we’re in our new home, after 12 years in what I’ve come to call our starter home. It was a great place for many reasons and lots of seasons, including three baby seasons. But 12 years is too long to be in a starter home.

There’s way more to be done, but every box not remaining in storage or containing stereo equipment has been unpacked. I’ve made daily trips to the recycling place, and now any cardboard that remains will fit in our regular bin. I’m kinda surprised it came together as fast as it did, but I worked my tail off all summer to organize and purge things, and well, I’m a little compulsive.

We’re home.

It’s been a while since we did this, so I’ve learned and relearned stuff about moving.

Strength is not always visible. The guys who moved us didn’t look like bodybuilders. But I can’t believe the size and weight of the boxes these guys were carrying, seemingly with minimal effort. We have a side-by-side chest of drawers that they brought down a flight of stairs and up another—with the clothes in it. This is a good reminder to those of us who run, bike, swim, or lift, but who don’t necessarily look like it. Strength, flexibility, endurance—these can be present even without a perfect-looking body.

It’s important to say goodbye. My spiritual director asked me several weeks ago how we would mark the transition away from the old house. Unfortunately the kids and I ended up doing this after Robert had left to meet the movers at the new place, so he wasn’t a part of it. But we went room by room and named some of our favorite memories, then said “Goodbye family room!” “Goodbye kitchen!”

Moving has its milestones. An inevitable one for me is crying in my new Target because I can’t find where they keep the shelf paper. Ahem. But there are others: The first morning you wake up and aren’t confused about where you are. First meal. First time writing down the new address on a form. And yes, the first discovery that your perfect new home has its quirks (the garbage disposal that makes a grinding noise, the closet door that comes off its track). Be gentle with yourself.

Bikes are bulky and awkward. And we have no garage anymore. That’s it.

Look for it first. I did most of the unpacking, which means I alone know where everything is. I’ve told the other inhabitants of my house to look in at least three logical places before they ask where something is. I hope this will save my sanity and also give them an idea of where other stuff is as well.

The Internet makes it so much easier. “It” being everything. Oh my goodness, I can’t even tell you. Such a difference from previous moves. I remember driving around Atlanta with Robert back in 2000, before we knew anyone, whining to one another, “We just want something easy like The Black Eyed Pea! Surely there’s gotta be tons of stuff like that here. But where?” This time around, I found and visited my local rec center to go swimming days earlier than I would have if I’d had to look it up in a phone book.

But friends who’ll be your guide are invaluable. My friend Juli lives down the street from us. She spent part of an afternoon last weekend introducing our kids to the neighborhood kids, and has made a point of inviting us to stuff. The Internet can be a big virtual neighborhood, but there’s no substitute for actual neighbors.

It’s the small stuff. I know we’ll enjoy the big deck overlooking a tiny bit of the lake here in Leafy Suburb. And the running trail out the back door is calling my name… or it will be in 61 days when I can run again. But I’m rejoicing at the little things that make life more pleasant and agreeable. Today it’s the drawer under the oven that’s perfect for the aluminum foil and sandwich bags so they’re not in a huge jumble under the sink.

Hope you are rejoicing in the small things today too.