Tag Archives: sabbath

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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Sit Your Butt. Sit Your Butt. Sit Your Butt. Sit Your Butt.


You’d think a woman who wrote an entire book about Sabbath would be sanguine about the need for rest.

You’d be wrong.

And if you read the book, you know it was a constant struggle for me to embrace this work/rest rhythm. It still is.

I’ve been laid up for the last several days with a running injury. About 10 days ago I noticed a nagging tightness along the inside of my left shin. I rested for three days and tested it with a run–pain returned. Three more days of rest, then a run–pain again.

It’s a busy fall for races. I’m supposed to run the Ragnar Relay with my Steeple Chasers in early October, then the Marine Corps Marathon with my brother at the end of that month. My other brother is coming to town that weekend for the 10K, which Robert is also running. Robert’s sister will be in town. MY sister will be in town. It’s a whole thing, you see. I don’t have time for an injury. I’m very, very busy. Booked.

But… this pain.

So I decided to go to the orthopedist last Friday, who took an X-ray and referred me for an MRI. I’ll meet with him tomorrow to find out the MRI results, but we’re hoping to rule out a tibial stress fracture. The X-ray looked fine, but these things are tricky. The MRI will show whether I have a fracture or was headed for one. With this kind of injury, there are early signs–swelling in the vascular tissue around the bone, then later, edema in the marrow–and that’s what we’re looking for, or not. Hopefully not.

That’s the way it is with overuse and overwork, isn’t it? We don’t break instantly. Your body, your spirit, will talk to you, if you listen. There are signs. You can ignore them for a while, grit your teeth, take drugs to mask the pain, but denial only gets you so far. Sooner or later, you must do something different, or there will be a reckoning.

It’s no accident that these injuries are called stress reactions. And I could’ve sworn that among the many sounds the MRI made, one of them was a peristent, mechanical voice saying, “Sit your butt. Sit your butt. Sit your butt.”

Message received, giant clanking tube.

The best case scenario is a week of rest, maybe 2, during which I can bike, swim, pool run, and do the elliptical. The worst case (fracture) is 6-8 weeks of rest, and no Ragnar Relay, and no Marine Corps Marathon.

Running is my community, my stress relief, my hobby, my natural mood enhancer, and (ahem) my buffer when I want to eat cookies and cupcakes without worrying over the calories. I’ll do what I have to do to get strong again, even if that means no running for a while. I may not like it. But sometimes you’re so far gone you need to rest, even from the things that bring you joy. (Maybe you noticed the semi-humorous piece about how getting away with your kids shouldn’t be called vacations–those are trips. Because kids are a joy, but they’re also work, so if they come along, work comes along. Or the classic Onion article, Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean.)

I sometimes hear people say, “But I love my work. It gives me energy. I don’t feel the need to rest from it.” Fair enough. I’m not sure I fully believe them. Maybe they’re just wired differently. Or maybe they’re not working as hard as they claim. Or they aren’t as effective in their work as they think they are because they don’t have any downtime. Or they’re having some stress reactions in places they can’t see, and are keeping them at bay through drugs and gritted teeth.

The breakdown that happens is not just physical, it can be mental. Robert came home from a run on Sunday, having been to my #1 favorite running spot, along the Potomac River near National Airport. How dare he go to THAT place! After plenty of fuming, I said, “When I was in middle school and my mother was getting in shape, she would do exercise videos at night, and every night my dad would go to the kitchen for a bowl of ice cream and eat it in front of her. That’s how I felt when you told me where you’d been.”

The minute those words came out of my mouth I realized how ridiculous they were. My husband’s running brings him joy and good health–and he supports my joy and health wholeheartedly. My dad actions were passive-aggressive and the sign of an unhappy person who would soon leave our family. Conflating these two things was a stress reaction on my part–a sign I needed to loosen up a bit.

The good news is, perspective comes pretty quickly when you’re able to STOP. As I lay on the gurney with my legs sticking into the MRI tube, I had time to think. I thought about the woman who’d passed me in the hallway, wearing a hospital gown while I got away with street clothes, because they weren’t imaging any scary vital organs, just my leg. I thought about all the stories, much sadder than mine, that had their origins in that giant machine. And I was grateful. Grateful.

I’ll let you know what tomorrow’s doctor’s appointment brings. For now, I’m trying to Sit My Butt and embrace the rest.

UPDATE: It’s a stress fracture. Twelve weeks of no running. I write about that at the end of this post.


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Photo of Mars from the European Space Agency through Creative Commons. From the description: “The many chasms, fractures and cracks in this area are thought to have been caused by stress in the planet’s crust as it stretched and pulled apart.”

Speed, Haste, Popsicles and Earthworms

“Mommy, you ruined my savoring.”

For a few years I was what you might call tri-vocational: I pastored a church, I wrote books and spoke to groups and retreats, and I parented three elementary-age children along with my husband. Life was a wonderful crazy-quilt of scheduling: writing an article at the library down the street from the piano teacher, finishing a sermon in the bleachers at swim practice.

It also wasn’t sustainable, I now realize. If you ask my kids, they’d probably tell you my two most common phrases were “Just a minute” and “Hurry up.” Ironic, eh? We still had times of Sabbath together, but they were shorter and less frequent than a few years ago. Part of that’s to be expected as our kids age. Part of it’s a by-product of a too-full life.

Now I’m bivocational, having left the sweet church I was serving. In the same time period, Robert adjusted his work schedule such that he’s no longer working in the evenings. Consequently, we have more space in our schedule, though I’ll let him speak for himself as to whether it feels more spacious. But for me, I know as I figure out a routine and my freelance work, the crazy quilt will be turning into something slightly more structured, geometric.

The problem is, I’m still in just-a-minute-hurry-up mode mentally. It’s like when you’re on one of those moving sidewalks at the airport and then you get ejected out the other side. Everything’s a bit disorienting when you take that first step onto solid ground; your brain hasn’t caught up to (or slowed down for) the new pace.

Which is why, the other night when the younger two kids were enjoying their popsicles after dinner, I hurried them along to bath time for no good reason. It wasn’t that late, and hey, these were the first popsicles they’d had since last summer… but I couldn’t help myself. That’s when the seven-year-old busted out with the quote that still makes me want to laugh and cry simultaneously.

Mommy, you ruined my savoring.

People ask me sometimes how the kids feel about the idea of Sabbath time. As if it’s something we’d have to drag them into. Are you kidding? Children get this stuff in a way adults rarely do.

Some years ago I read a quote about the difference between speed and haste. It’s long gone now, but my version is that haste is speed without mindfulness. Sometimes, life moves quickly, and speed can be healthy and appropriate. If I’m crossing the street and a car is coming faster than I’d anticipated, I’d better pick up the pace. But sometimes we are—or I should own it and say I am—in a hurry without purpose.

Our 12 year old is a bus patrol, which means she leaves the house about 5 minutes before my son and I do. This morning J and I left even later than usual because it was rainy and we had to find umbrellas. Still, when we got outside and saw C on the sidewalk, she was only about two houses ahead of us. She was also walking funny. I called out to her, “C, what’s up?” She whirled around in alarm: “Be careful! Look down!!”

There were earthworms everywhere.

We picked our way down the sidewalk, point out each skinny pink wriggling thing to one another so we wouldn’t squish it. I’m sad to say that “hurry up” was in my throat, trying to escape. But this time, it didn’t. This time I didn’t ruin the savoring of spring.

One of you posted this to Facebook this week:


I’m glad of this—it means my kids will be in my life for a good long time.