When I speak to groups about Sabbath, I almost always start at the same place:
Turn to the person next to you and tell them one thing that brings you delight. It can’t be work-related (though I hope you are delighted by your work!), and ideally, it isn’t something that requires costly equipment or an exotic locale. This is something you can potentially do without much effort or expense.
After folks have shared with their neighbors, I suggest that their delightful activity might be a place where they’re already practicing Sabbath without calling it that.. and/or it’s an entry point to think about incorporating Sabbath into their lives. Sabbath, as Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament, is to be kept as a delight, not a chore. The creation story in Genesis has this relentless refrain: it’s good, it’s good, it’s good. This world is good. Our bodies are good, and made for pleasure. In my own tradition, the Westminster Statement of Faith says our primary purpose is to glorify and enjoy God.
That doesn’t mean that every enjoyable activity brings us closer to the Holy, I suppose. And sometimes in my retreats and discussions, people look at me skeptically when I talk about the delight stuff. Shouldn’t we be doing “holy” things on that day? Isn’t Sabbath about prayer and Bible reading and all those religious practices? Can we really do whatever we want?
What about watching football on TV?
I’m never quite sure how to answer. For one thing, I’m not the Sabbath police.
For another thing, while I do find prayer and Bible study to be meaningful and important activities for Christians, and lovely things to do on Sabbath, I’m more of a Barbara Brown Taylor Christian, which means I do not see a big division between sacred and secular activities.
But does that mean anything can be a Sabbath activity?
I’m reading Brené Brown’s latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, and she’s helped me finally get more concrete with my answer to the football question.
[If you’re not familiar with her work, the best introduction is her crazy-viral TED talk. By the way, she wants to be my big sister, doesn’t she? Of course she does. She can do this, because there aren’t thousands of other recovering perfectionists AND aspiring writers also clamoring to be her kid sister. No siree. Cough.]
Anyway, Brené Brown helps me answer the “football on Sabbath” question when she talks about numbing. She writes:
I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion.
There aren’t any checklists or norms to help you identify shadow comforts or other destructive numbing behavior. This requires self-examination and reflection… Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions that ultimately diminish my spirit?
For me, sitting down to a wonderful meal is nourishment and pleasure. Eating while I’m standing, be it in front of the refrigerator or inside the pantry, is always a red flag.Sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows on television is pleasure. Flipping through channels for an hour is numbing.
This is the key to Sabbath as well. Really, it comes down to intention. I can imagine times when watching football feels immersive and enlivening. Can such an activity also feed us spiritually? Don’t know; I don’t have the spectator sports gene myself. But I can see how getting caught up in a thrilling contest, in which athletes are performing to the best of their abilities and using their “fearfully and wonderfully made” bodies to their utmost, would be grounding and inspiring… and maybe even bring us closer to God. But I can imagine other times in which watching sports on TV feels mindless, when we watch out of habit or boredom, when we’re not really there.
I think that’s why some people see Facebook as such a source of unhappiness. In my opinion, there’s nothing inherently numbing about social media. Used in an intentional and mindful way, it’s a great source of fun and connection.
What makes Facebook a challenge is that, unlike a football game, there’s no end to it. We can start out enjoying the relationships we cultivate there, but when we spend too much time scrolling through people, we start to numb out. I’m a big fan of technology, and as FB friends know, I’m a chatty FBer. I’ve also thought a lot about how to use it in a way that’s good for me. So I’ve put all kinds of boundaries around it, whether it’s using lists or only signing on a couple of times a day (and not at all on most weekends).
What do you think about this numbing stuff? Have you read Daring Greatly?
I haven’t said this recently: thank you to everyone who has read Sabbath in the Suburbs and recommended it to friends. If you haven’t already, I’d be most thankful for an Amazon review.