I’ve written before about the Sabbath Manifesto folks. I love their whimsy and style in promoting a practice that’s deep and ancient, yet ripe for a reboot. Check out their ten principles for Sabbath-keeping:
Next Friday evening, March 7, begins their annual Day of Unplugging, a 24-hour period in which folks are encouraged to switch off the devices and connect with family and community in a spirit of recreation and joy:
We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones and BlackBerry’s, chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create.
If you recognize that in yourself – or your friends, families or colleagues— join us for the National Day of Unplugging, sign the Unplug pledge and start living a different life: connect with the people in your street, neighborhood and city, have an uninterrupted meal or read a book to your child.
The National Day of Unplugging is a 24 hour period – running from sunset to sunset – and starts on the first Friday in March. The project is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, an adaption of our ancestors’ ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.
Next Friday and Saturday, the Danas will be in Myrtle Beach as I lead the good folks of First Presbyterian, Sumter SC in their annual church retreat. What a fine place to unplug.
Interested in taking the plunge and signing the unplugging pledge? You’ve got a week to think about what your day of unplugging might look like. Peruse some of the photos on the site for inspiration:
Photos and images from the Sabbath Manifesto/Day of Unplugging website.
Have preached variations of this sermon recently in different venues, including last weekend at Tiny.
(Yes, I admit sheepishly, some sermons are retooled for different contexts. Fred Craddock said that if a sermon’s not good enough to preach twice, it wasn’t good enough to preach once. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! That said, this one’s done.)
I offer this in honor of my seminary professor Walter Brueggemann, whose book Sabbath as Resistancejust came out. Can’t wait to read it.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2014
The Taskmaster’s Command
This morning’s text begins with the word “Afterwards”. Which leads us to ask, “after what?” To help locate us: the people of Israel are slaves in Egypt, captive to Pharaoh. Moses has been called by God through a burning bush, he has spent some time with his father-in-law Jethro, and Moses and Aaron have now united with people and given them the astonishing news that God has not forgotten them, God knows their misery and is about the work of liberation.
Now listen to this:
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ 2But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ 3Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’ 4But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ 5Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land * and yet you want them to stop working!’ 6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” 9Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’
10 So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. 11Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’ 12So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw.
Several years ago, when Caroline was in first grade, our district made some changes to the bus schedule that meant that the children in our neighborhood were getting home later than they had been before. I didn’t think very much of it, but several of the other parents were bothered by it. Over time, the irritation grew into complaint, until the gaggle of parents decided that something simply had to be done. The children were getting home too late, these parents argued. They needed time to have a snack. They were going to be late to soccer practice, or violin lessons, or Cub Scouts. (Swim team. Language class. Art enrichment.) The change was simply unacceptable.
So these parents got together a petition. They made phone calls. They organized. Couldn’t something be done?, they asked Fairfax County Transportation Services. And then finally—success! The bus schedule was changed, the children started getting home earlier, and the bus stop moms—and a few dads—declared victory over the bureaucracy.
This change in schedule that had everyone celebrating?… resulted in the kids getting home four minutes earlier than they had before.
Now if Robert were here, he would have his head in his hands because when all this was going on, I talked his ear off about how silly I thought the whole thing was. It was almost all I could talk about for several weeks because it seemed so unnecessary, until finally he asked, “Why is this so important to you?”
It felt important to me, because I realized we were raising our kids in a culture that was so busy and time-obsessed that people would petition the county government for four measly minutes of extra time in the afternoon.
I cared, because I could feel the anxiety emanating from these parents. It’s good to want to give one’s kids opportunities to learn and grow. But that desire had tipped over into an almost frantic need to cram their lives full of activities and sports and enrichment.
And I also cared because I knew that while I personally didn’t care that much about the afternoon bus schedule, there were plenty of other ways in which that anxiety had begun adhering to me. I’m not sure what the dysfunction looks like in other households. But it’s been made very clear to me that there are so many young people from Northern Virginia trying to get into a good Virginia university that they’d better find a way to distinguish themselves from the pack. It’s never too early to start, I’m told by parents of elementary schoolers. A good foundation means a good college application, a good college means a good job, means success, means a good life, means I’ve done my job as a parent. That’s the message, and I’ve internalized it as much as anyone.
Now, living as we do in the suburbs of Washington DC, the type-A mentality is perhaps more acute there than other places. But as I travel around to other congregations and presbyteries and speak and lead retreats, I hear the same story. People are stressed and overworked. There never seems to be enough time. There’s always something more—something good, something worthwhile—that could and should be done.
And it’s not just a parent problem. The anxiety rans rampant in our culture. As we continue to claw our way out of this recession, there are still too many people looking for jobs and living in poverty.
And those who weren’t laid off, who have good jobs, are finding themselves expected to do the work of two or three people. Recently in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki wrote about the culture of overwork and said that thirty years ago, it was the low-paid workers who were working the longest hours, much longer than people at higher income levels. But “by 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. And a survey of professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.” But that overwork takes its toll.
Meanwhile young people feel anxieties of their own, worrying about their job prospects when they graduate, to say nothing of concerns over this warring and warming world that we have bequeathed them.
And how could we forget the internet and cable news, where bad news travels around the world before good news has even put on its shoes, where school shootings and natural disasters get their own logo and theme music, where a recent interview with a congresswoman about national security got interrupted to report on Justin Bieber’s arrest. We live in a media landscape where there’s more to read and learn than we could ever get to in a lifetime, in fact where 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. A culture so full of information I can’t even keep track of what’s supposed to be good to eat any more. (Have you heard? Now multivitamins are bad and bacon is health food.)
It’s no wonder that anxiety specialist Dr. Richard Leahy has said that “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
I have no way of verifying that statistically. It does make a good soundbite for a sermon. But I know that anxiety is rampant. Though it may not be unprecedented. Because as I read today’s story from the book of Exodus, I see a culture that positively reeks with anxiety.
It’s anxiety that goes all the way to the top, to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who has enslaved the people of Israel and has bound them to him in crippling servitude. For Pharaoh, there’s only one reason why the people would be asking for time off and that’s laziness. And the cure for laziness is more work. He tells his taskmasters: No more handouts. Let them gather their own straw and make brick upon brick upon brick until that is all they see. How dare they ask for three days to worship “God,” whoever that is!
Pharaoh is so captive to his own fear that he doesn’t know God, can’t know God, because he knows only the contours of his own power and his fear of losing that power. There is no place for God in an empire fueled by anxiety.
But the people of Israel are caught in their own anxiety too. There is no freedom, no relief—just the constant lashing of expectations: do more, produce more, build more. But they are also captive to a distorted view of God. Did you notice what Moses and Aaron say to Pharoah? “Please let us go observe our festival or else God will fall upon us with pestilence and sword.” Their despair is so great that it infects everything, even their view of God. They are so imprisoned by Pharaoh that they see God as just another taskmaster, threatening punishment if they don’t comply.
…I wonder if there’s an anxiety that is holding you captive today.
I wonder if the problems our world faces seem so insurmountable, like a wall built brick upon brick, a wall so high that you can’t possibly see around it, let alone break it down.
I wonder if the spiritual life has become just another thing to do, another obligation in an already overcrowded schedule.
I wonder if you are feeling high on stress and low on joy.
If you are, I urge you to read the rest of the story. Because it doesn’t end here. It ends with God bringing the people out of the land of Egypt, flinging aside the waters of the Red Sea and letting the people pass to safety, and then giving them a peculiar gift, tucked in the middle of the ten commandments: the gift of Sabbath. A day every week on which the people rest, slaves no longer. A day in which the people exclaim to the world,
We are not slaves to the empire anymore! We do not have to work, day after day after day without relief, We are free!
God is not just another taskmaster, saying “Worship me or else.” God is leading us out of our captivity with the gift of rest and renewal, with the gift of what Jesus called abundant life.
Our family has been on a journey of Sabbath-keeping for many years. I wrote a whole book about it, to try to make sense of this practice that seems so easy but turns out to be hard, to try to help people find ways to live the practice more fully. And there turns out to be a lot of practical tips that I can offer, and you can read about it those in the book, but here and now I want to say only this.
Sabbath starts to mess with you, because Sabbath comes from God, and God likes to mess with us.
Our family started observing a day of rest because we were tired and needed a little R&R each week. But the practice is more than that. It changes everything. You start to see the anxieties of the empire and in your own heart—the fear of not having enough, the despair that seems built into the system. And you realize, 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 Pharoah’s bricks anymore.
It’s interesting to me that Moses and Aaron are right about one thing. They’re right about God bringing pestilence down—the plagues are coming. But they’re not raining down on the Hebrew people, but on the entire sick system of too much work and not enough freedom, too much anxiety and not enough joy. Pharaoh’s empire cannot stand, it is too rotten at its core. It will go crashing into the sea. And good riddance.
Our God is one who is not content with personal self-improvement… though self-improvement has its place, that’s not what the gospel is about. Our God is about nothing less than the complete transformation of our lives and our world. Our God is about setting captives free.
I would be remiss in a sermon about our anxious culture if I didn’t say that some people are plagued with an anxiety that is diagnosable, and that God works through doctors and medications and treatment for that anxiety. But I’m also here to say that as followers of Jesus, we can be a voice of calm in an anxious culture.
The economic issues are real, the pressures are real. We have work to do. Important work. Kingdom-building work, and bill-paying work.
But the message of a Sabbath-gifting God is this:
We should not be content with captivity.
God has something deeper in mind for all of us than endless and joyless brick-making.
 “The Cult of Overwork”, James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, January 27, 2014.
Race speaks as an authority on what’s happening in the brain in today’s high-stress world—and especially what happens in children’s brains when they are overscheduled, short on sleep, and inundated with technology. But she also speaks as a parent and as a classic overachiever, who sadly developed an autoimmune disease in the wake of the stress of working on her doctorate, remodeling their house, caring for a toddler, and gestating a baby. (Oh Kristen, my sister… let’s you and Brené and I have virtual coffee.)
You can view Race’s TEDx talk here:
I appreciated the mix of solid brain research as well as stories and anecdotes about the consequences of what Carrie Newcomer has called our “culture of perpetual motion.” From the book’s description:
Research has shown that mindfulness practices stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Regular stimulation of this part of the brain helps us feel happier, healthier, calmer, less anxious, less stressed, and makes it easier for us to concentrate and think clearly—the very behavior we are hoping our children will display.
Race’s work is informed by folks like Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MD and practitioner/proponent of mindfulness meditation, and includes lots of exercises and practices that you can implement right away with your kids—or by yourself. She points out that if we want our kids to be grounded, centered and free of stress, we have to start with ourselves. I say this all the time to parents who want to incorporate Sabbath into their lives but can’t figure out how to convince children (especially teens) to go for it. Don’t let that stop you from doing it.
The exercises in the book are categorized for different ages of children, which is a nice feature. I liked the sections that model how to talk to small children about this stuff. She also addresses some of the naysayers in effective ways (“But I watched tons of TV as a child and I turned out fine!”)
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?
[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.
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?
We’re experiencing some moderate upheaval in the Dana house.
My husband’s company was recently acquired by a firm in California. This has meant some exciting opportunities in the works, but also a lot of a travel.
Like, Monday-Friday travel.
Like, every week travel.
Like, ten days in Bangalore this spring travel.
We know that things will settle down once the initial process of merging two corporate cultures is complete. There will still be business trips, just not every single week. In the meantime, it’s something we have to make it through as best we can.
I do a fair amount of travel myself, often to lead conferences and retreats and things, and while I absolutely love it, it can be hard to practice self-care while on the road. It’s hard to eat well, find time to exercise, and get good sleep (especially in a different time zone). Then you come home to various chores and responsibilities that have piled up. Over the last few weeks, the home projects (and there are many that need to happen around here) have ground to an utter halt. Not to mention the needs of children who missed you and held it together in your absence but who now want to spend every moment with you. And/or who let loose with all kinds of unpleasant behaviors now that there are two parents to absorb the very big feelings.
It’s a stressful time in general… and then I worry about Robert’s stress level on top of my own. Yes, I feel sympathy stress.
But there’s this funny thing that I’ve noticed over the past few weeks that calms my worries and tells me that everything’s going to be OK. You see, Robert recently got a fish tank, after many years of wanting one. He was smart about it—he knows that our life isn’t set up for a fiddly hobby, so he stocked it with fish that are easy to care for, bought a couple of automatic feeders, and so forth. I’ve always been pretty ‘meh’ about fish, but we’ve all enjoyed having these little creatures in our family room/kitchen. Frederica is a pearl gourami and is the queen of the fish tank. We think she’s brilliant. The rasboras have distinct personalities; the scrappy guy is named Joe Pesci and enjoys bugging the other fish. The cory cats are determined to breed, but someone keeps eating the eggs.
Anyway, the image that cheers and comforts me is not the fish tank, exactly. It’s one of the kitchen chairs, pulled out from under the table and sitting facing the fish tank. I will come down in the morning, after Robert’s gone to work or left for an early-morning flight, and I will see that chair facing the fish tank. It makes me smile. The chair means that, before heading out in the morning (or sometimes before coming upstairs to bed), he sat down for a few minutes and watched the fish.
A fish tank is like an organic lava lamp. It’s hard to feel stress when watching fish.
The thing is, I have no idea whether he sat there for ten seconds or ten minutes. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the intention. What matters is taking the time to pull the chair around to the aquarium, to sit, and to watch.
Your life may be stressful right now. Time for rest and recreation may be hard to come by. But I hope you’ve got something like a chair and a fish tank. It can make a big difference.