Tag Archives: my book

About that PBS Story: On White Couches and Missing Lampshades

So this happened:

Watch Keeping the Sabbath on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

 And also this:

Watch MaryAnn McKibben Dana Extended Interview on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The whole thing has been surreal and fun and wonderful. (Read more here.) I’m humbled by everyone who’s shared the links with friends on Facebook and elsewhere. And I’m grateful for emails and messages from people I don’t even know—including a rabbi who shared some of his own Shabbat resources. Lovely.

I’ve watched the segment once. If I could watch just the parts with my kids, I’d watch it again. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong. The PBS folks did an excellent job. I just can’t bear watching myself on video. (Me and Daniel Radcliffe.)

But even with a single viewing, one moment from the segment stuck out. Robert and Iaughed and exchanged a knowing look when we saw it:

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 10.22.24 PM

Do you see what caught our eye?

It’s the lamp. It’s missing a lampshade. You may not have noticed, but for us, it is The Iconic Image of the whole piece. That lamp tells you everything you need to know about Sabbath.

I broke the lampshade in a fit of cleaning. I was sweeping and the whole thing fell over and shattered… requiring me to sweep a second time, by the way, because it’s a cruel cruel world!

The thing is—and here’s the vital piece; here’s what I need to explain about Sabbath—I broke it a good four, five months ago. Seriously, that lamp’s been a bare bulb since… well, since 2012.  Turns out it’s stupidly complicated to replace. IKEA doesn’t stock the shade separately. So we’re stuck either replacing the entire lamp (which is wasteful) or hunting around for a lampshade that’s the right size, attaches in the same way as the old one, etc. Which involves time we don’t have. OK, I’ll be precise: we do have time to do that, we’ve just done other things instead.

And I can be all philosophical about that. We choose to carve out some time each weekend to rest and play, which means we are not on top of the home projects. But I’ll be honest. I don’t like that bare bulb. Its glaring light reveals everything that’s unfinished and chaotic about this period of our lives. Life with kids is one long bare-bulbed existence. The stain in the carpet that won’t come out. The perennial jumble of stuff on top of the dresser. The wet beach towels slung over the doorway that don’t ever get put away because after all, swim practice is gonna come around again. And that’s the way life is.

The problem is, we don’t show the bare bulb to each other. We’re embarrassed by the bare bulb. I am. But the bare bulb is real. Maybe the bare bulb is the truest thing about ourselves.

I recently watched a promotional video for a book that’s coming out, written by a wildly popular mommy blogger. Let me say that I will probably buy this book. I like her stuff. The author is wise. And her message is: Let’s get real with each other. And she delivers this message while sitting on an impeccable white couch.

A white couch.

What lunacy is this! I can’t even wear a white shirt without inviting pen marks, chocolate milk and blueberry smears. But white furniture? That is varsity, baby. That is ninja motherhood.

As she talks about how hard parenting is—and it is, and I have no reason to doubt it’s hard for her too—we see some B-roll of her stocking a dresser drawer with a stack of diapers. And I think about the seven years we had kids in diapers and how the diapers never, ever made it into a dresser drawer. They went straight from bag to butt.

I wish her all the best. This isn’t a me v. her thing. This is about packaging. This is about getting caught in that thing we all get caught in sooner or later, between what we allow other people to see and what is authentically us.

So let my bare-bulbed lamp be my truth in advertising, my Good Housekeeping seal. If I ever give the appearance of having it all together, just remember the light bulb. And if I ever resort to superficial half-truths about this wildly complicated world we live in, remind me of the light bulb.

Because yes, Sabbath is a practice that can save our lives. It can help us savor time, to see it as a gift, and not as a thing to be julienned into manageable pieces.

But Sabbath will also wreck your life, because Sabbath is an act of love, and love wrecks your life. Things will go undone—things you care about. Stuff might even break, and be hard or impossible to replace. If you’re lucky, it won’t happen on national television. But if it does, maybe Sabbath will give you the space to laugh and exchange a knowing look with someone who gets it.

That’s the best thing I can say about it.

Thoughts from a Book Group: Some People Don’t Need Sabbath

Hey folks,

It’s Easter Monday, which means clergy catch-up, or rest, or both. I’m still getting over being sick. So today we have a guest post of sorts, a wrap-up email I received from a good friend who leads an adult Sunday School class at his church:

We finished our Lenten study of Sabbath in the Suburbs
this past Sunday. Your book was overwhelmingly well-received (we’re
ready for the next one – “Sabbath in the Suburbs with Teenagers”?) We
had lots of good discussion and your study questions provided good
jumping-off places, not that we always needed them. Our main
takeaways as a group were: (1) You can’t do and be everything, Sabbath
should be the time when you’re free to admit that and be your
authentic self; (2) No “J.O.Y.”; (3) God wants us to be rested and
happy. Everyone liked the Sabbath hacks.

We had a really good debate about abundance vs. scarcity in our last
session, that to me was one of the strongest ideas in the book. We
also talked about “play” in the Bible. Remember the cute video of the
Christmas story with the kids from New Zealand (“They woon’t be
ixpicting that”)? I used that as an example of the playfulness of the
Gospel. We really like the section about Moses as the overworked
manager who doesn’t know how delegate.

I’m actually not familiar with that Christmas video. I wonder, is this the one?

Not everyone embraced the idea of setting aside a block of Sabbath
time every week – a minority said their families weren’t overscheduled
all the time and didn’t necessarily need a weekly respite. They
didn’t seem to buy in to the idea of Sabbath as a time of rest and a
religious practice, not just the former. That may be due to my
limitations as a moderator, not the text.

I doubt it was him…

As I go around talking to groups, I meet folks who don’t struggle for Sabbath the way many of us do. They often don’t see a need because their lives have a natural balance of work and play (what’s their secret?).

But I also meet people who seem to love their jobs so much that they literally work every day. A pastor of a large church admitted to me recently that he hasn’t had a regular day off in several years. Vacations, yes, but not days off. And I met an imam several weeks ago who shared that Islam does not have a provision for the Sabbath like Judaism and Christianity do. In fact, he admitted he has not taken a vacation in three decades. I was astounded in both cases, but in talking to him it was clear that he was deeply committed to his work. Neither is on the verge of burnout. Both are functioning well in their jobs. Both seem to be perfectly healthy psychologically.

you-must-fall-in-love-with-your-work1And last night Robert and I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. (BTW: what sumptuous, simple pieces of sushi. Trip to Japan, anyone?) Here is a guy who’s 85 years old and who still pushes himself (and his apprentices) to new heights in the craft. He hates it when he’s not working. He only takes a day off when he has to. And as the title implies, when he’s not working, he’s thinking about work. Yet he’s kept this pace for 75 years (yes, he started young).

What makes the difference? Are people like that just wired differently? Or have they found such a perfect intersection between their deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger (thank you Buechner) that rest is not needed?

What do you think?


Rice Owls Write! And Compose, and Edit…

Houston friends! You are invited to a reception at Rice University next week, honoring members of the Rice University community who have written a book, composed a piece of music, etc.:



I won’t be able to be there, but as a proud graduate of Rice*, I’m excited to be on this list.

I wouldn’t have even known about this event, except that I got an email from someone asking for the discussion guide. She wanted it for her Sunday School class, but I noticed in her email signature that she worked at Rice. We struck up a conversation—she didn’t know I was an alum when she first wrote me—and when this Friends of Fondren event came up, she was kind enough to forward me the information.

People are so lovely.

*”Those who say Rice is Houston’s Harvard should be told that Harvard is the Rice of the Northeast.” -George Will, in a moment of clarity.

Full Discussion Guide Available Now

book-group-copyUpdate July 2013: Sabbath Supplementals are coming soon! More resources for groups and classes… Read more here.


Up to now I’ve been giving out the discussion guide for Sabbath in the Suburbs to anyone who requested it… but you had to email me for it.

This gave me the happy opportunity to connect with readers and learn about the different groups that would be using the book. But now the requests are coming in briskly enough that it makes sense to make the questions available to everyone. (I have word of mouth and the awesome Christian Century review to thank for that.)

So here are the questions. I’d still love to hear how the book is being used in churches,  book groups, and other gatherings, but in the meantime, happy reading!


Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Guide for Reflection and Discussion

Note to the Reader and Chapter 1. “Beginnings”

What images, positive or negative, come to mind when you think about Sabbath?

Do you take time for rest and renewal in your life right now? If so, what does it look like? If not, what would your ideal “Sabbath” be like? Don’t worry about whether it’s a realistic picture or not. Just imagine it.

MaryAnn describes an experience at her child’s bus stop as a wake-up call to the need for Sabbath (p. 7). Have you had a similar experience that revealed a need for rest and play?


Chapter 2. “September”

What days make the most sense for you in terms of taking a regular Sabbath? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

How do you define your work? What are the activities you need to rest from?

The book describes a basic definition of Sabbath as a day not to change one’s environment (p. 15). How do you react to this statement?

What would it look like for you to “live Sabbathly”?


Chapter 3. “October” 

MaryAnn writes, “Taking a break from the routine changes the way I think about the routine.” (p. 28). Do you agree or disagree?

Make a list of “delights”–things that bring joy to you and your loved ones. How might you incorporate these delights more fully into your life on a regular basis?

One of the sabbath “hacks” this month is to think about the boundaries around Sabbath in a fluid rather than rigid way (p. 35). How do you respond to this idea?


Chapter 4. “November”

What do the psalmist’s words, “teach us to count our days,” mean to you?

Sabbath can be a way to bring life back into balance. In what way does your life feel balanced or out of balance? What role might Sabbath play in recalibrating?


Chapter 5. “December”

How do your own holiday preparations encourage an attitude of Sabbath? How do they inhibit this attitude?

MaryAnn writes about a study that compares the happiness we receive from experiences as opposed to things (p. 55). How do you see that playing out in your life?

How do you react to the Good Samaritan study (p. 58)?


Chapter 6. “January”

What role should technology play on our days of rest and renewal?

MaryAnn describes missing two scheduled appointments in a week and sees these as a warning sign that life has gotten too hectic and full (p. 73). Do you have similar warning signs? What are they?


Chapter 7. “February”

What’s your reaction to the “extinction burst” (p. 84)? When have you experienced this? What are ways to reduce its impact when learning a new habit or pattern of being?

One way of thinking about Sabbath is as a time to fast from just one thing. What might you fast from?


Chapter 8. “March”

What do you think about the idea of the spiritual life as a process of subtraction?

MaryAnn writes about saying “No” to some things in order to say “Yes” to more important or life-giving things (p. 94). What would it look like for you to say “Yes” more often in your life?

In talking about a Sabbath “cheat” this month, MaryAnn writes, “I’ll take a messy and real imperfection over an impossible perfection any day.” (p. 98) What’s your reaction to this statement?


Chapter 9. “April”

MaryAnn talks in her “sabbath hack” about training our vision. Instead of seeing what’s left undone, let it represent something nourishing that we did do (p. 104). What are some examples you might use in your own life?

In what ways is Sabbath a time for authenticity?

What were your childhood experiences of Sabbath? play? hurry?


Chapter 10. “May”

Who or what is your Jethro (pp. 113-114)?

In what ways can the harder thing become the easier thing?

MaryAnn quotes Abraham Heschel who warns against kindling fire on the Sabbath, including “the fire of righteous indignation” (p. 122) How do you react to this idea?


Chapter 11. “June”

What do you think of J.O.Y. (p. 125)?

MaryAnn talks about the Reboot organization and their Sabbath Manifesto (pp. 128-129). What would yours be?

How does the idea of the Sabbath as a commandment impact your understanding of the practice?


Chapter 12. “July”

In what way is a vacation a Sabbath for you? In what way is it not? Do particular destinations lend themselves to Sabbath times and others not?

MaryAnn talks about “playing without a purpose” (p. 139). Is this easy or hard for you? Why?

The chapter describes a number of justice/economic issues relating to Sabbath. How do you respond to these, and what others can you think of?


Chapter 13. “August”

How do you understand scarcity? How do you understand abundance?

MaryAnn writes about learning to play softball. Knowing the rules meant she was able to enjoy the game more fully (pp. 152-153). What is the relationship between freedom and discipline?

In what ways might Sabbath contribute to the healing of the world?

My Interview with PBS

photoI’m back from Chicago, where I led a group of lovely Presbyterian pastors in a Sabbath retreat on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I learned while I was there that next year’s speaker will be Phyllis Tickle. Boy howdy! As I told the participants, I do not have anything close to Phyllis’s depth of historical knowledge and insight. Rather, I am a generalist. With me you get a weird synthesis of Bible, art, theology, folk music, brain chemistry research, low-impact crafts, and clips from The Office.

We had a good time.

The retreat had a strange dimension to it. A couple of our sessions were filmed by a camera crew for Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, a public television show. (Check local listings.) I’m very grateful to Judith Valente, a correspondent for the show, whom I met at the Festival of Faith and Writing and who saw the potential for a story about Sabbath-keeping in our 24-7 world. I’ll let you know when the segment airs—it’ll be a while, since they also plan to come to our house and film our family on one of our Sabbaths. I find this ridiculously fun, although I’m worried about Caroline—apparently it is one of her life’s goals to appear on television, and I don’t know what it does to a kid to achieve a life goal at the age of 10. Anyway.

In addition to filming parts of the retreat, I was also interviewed about Sabbath: how our family does it and how others might take it on. It was, frankly, harrowing. The inner critic was on the prowl, taunting me with a voice that sounded suspiciously like the mean girls in my fourth grade class. Oh my God… who cares what YOU have to say?

Ah well. I did it, and during my run 30 minutes later I was SO much more brilliant, but at least I didn’t die, so there’s that.

After we finished the interview the audio guy said, “Time for room tone. Everyone be still for 30 seconds.” They explained later that room tone is a recording of the room, which they use when they need to edit dialogue together.  They record the quiet room using the same mic configuration so that the sound has the same quality to it.

After talking for almost 40 minutes non-stop, it felt downright contemplative to sit, and be quiet, and listen to the silence that was not really silent. I began to wonder about room tone as a spiritual practice.

In fact, I looked up room tone later that day and learned that it goes by another name: