“That moment of waking is an incredible opportunity,
and it’s quite a tragedy if you go straight to your to-do list.”
~ David Whyte
On a Saturday morning six months ago, before the usual hurry got underway, I blurted out to my wife: “I can’t keep this up. If I’m going to survive, I need one day a week where I’m not working.” It felt like I was confessing a secret, one that was killing me slowly, like a cancer. What drove me to this desperate place was three years of nonstop home remodeling, running my business, parenting our three boys, navigating pandemic life, negotiating the challenges of homeschooling…My life had become a circus show from Crazy Town most weeks and I was that guy juggling flaming swords with an “I’ve got this” smile—despite my extreme anxiety that it all might come crashing down. Some days I really wished it would, to be honest. Often, I was asking myself: What am I doing all this for? Is this really how I want to live?
I needed relief from my unrelenting pace. More than that, I felt a desire to know something deeper that would change me from the inside out. It didn’t feel like a demand–more like the desperate plea of the blind beggar who shouted persistently at Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”¹
I admit that my life can’t really be compared to that of a blind beggar. I’m fairly privileged. I’m a white male. I’m happily married, and we partner well on most things. We have three awesome, quirky kids. Everyone is healthy. No one I love has died of Covid. I have meaningful work. I am a homeowner in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I have access to credit lines. I have longtime friends and community that I can lean on. I could go on.
Still, I resonated with his cry of desperation to be healed. I felt (and feel still) a profound unrest, a need for something more. I yearned for connection to a story more inspiring than the constant ‘doing’ that was grinding down my soul and depleting my body. I wanted to see a way forward in my life’s story that didn’t lead to despair.
After I let my secret out to Annie that Saturday morning, we made one change right away. We resolved that on Sundays we would stop all the doing. No remodeling. No work for the businesses. We even gave this day a name: Sabbath. And giving it a distinct name helped all of us engage the day in fresh ways.
So, on Saturday we prepare for Sabbath day. We clean up the house, fold laundry, put away tools, and clean the bathroom. Sabbath prep takes some work, but we have found the work to be worth it. A calm space helps us to calm our insides.
The Sabbath day has become about engaging simple things. We pay attention to our body and soul’s need to feel safe and connected to one another through rest and pleasure. We play games like Settlers of Catan, cribbage, or basketball. We have Nerf battles, watch movies, bake, and take walks. We cook meals together, or sometimes go out to eat. We even go to church—something I have been developing a new appreciation for. It feels strangely good and restorative to be with others connected to a Big Story we share in common.
It is true that our Sabbath still seems to hold a good deal of doing. It’s a different sort of doing, though. As we bake, play, or walk, I gradually feel my anxious mind and body settle down, and I remember that it’s going to be okay. I’m going to be okay. I’m choosing, on purpose, what I know is a good idea: putting down the flaming swords and separating my worth from all the usual metrics of my doing. And I hold fast to the hope that maybe, just maybe, my complex life won’t fall apart when I look away for a time. It hasn’t yet. And, little by little, I am finding a better balance between what I do and who I am—between my doing and my being. In this way, Sabbath has become a radically compassionate practice that is changing me from the inside out.
The Gift of Sight
Three months into our Sabbath experiment while sitting with Annie at Starbucks, we had one of the most meaningful conversations of our marriage. I opened up in ways I normally don’t. Somehow my words seemed more aligned with my feelings and together their combined weight felt way more true. I was able to let her really see just how hard my struggle has been. I wasn’t just downloading frustrations and complaints, like I’d done a thousand times before when asked about my day. This time, I was grieving them. I was letting go of a bag of boulders and tears flowed as I did so.
It’s hard to capture the mystery and significance of such intimate moments. The only way I can describe it is that it felt like I was suddenly seeing with clear eyes. I left feeling lighter, able to breathe more deeply. And as I continued sharing, we began seeing actions I could take to move out of my desperate busyness as well as practical steps we could commit to that would address the problems we were both up against. The answers were right there in front of me, I just hadn’t been able to see them. With clear eyes, I felt hope rise with the liberating revelation that I didn’t have to live as I had been living.
I’ve come to understand that there was a strong connection between my choosing to practice Sabbath three months earlier and getting my sight back on that particular morning. Even today, Sabbath by Sabbath, I continue to see my humanity being restored, and my soul is learning its worth again without the need to prove it. Sabbath somehow opened space in my heart to receive, to understand, to see.
The poet Judy Brown expresses this dynamic so well in her poem “Fire”²:
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.
We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
simply because the space is there,
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.
We’ve all been through something these last two years. And here we are in the opening weeks of a new year, a time to reflect on the commitments we’ve made and the ways we invest our time—and our very lives. This is a good time to consider not some new resolutions to do more, but rather how we might tend to the “space between the logs.” That is what Sabbath is to me: a much-needed space of compassion that allows us to breathe.
Maybe for you making that space involves choosing a Sabbath day. Or maybe it’s choosing to push away from your work and just walk for half an hour now and then. Or making regular time to sit by a fire with a good friend who respects silence and also asks good questions. For some, it might be journaling—a practice that helps heal the gap between doing and being by making us mindful of the ways we use our time.³
I’m more convinced at this point in my life than ever before that the joy of my salvation will not be restored by my own hand or by striving to prove my soul’s worth in what I accomplish. It will be restored by a deep knowing of who I am as God’s beloved. Compassionate practices of being—like Sabbath—connect us to that deep knowing. Over time, practices of compassion heal our perspectives and help us to see clearly again.
¹ Luke 18:35-42
² Brown, Judy. The Sea Accepts All Rivers & Other Poems. Bloomington: Trafford Publishing, 2016.
³ Personally, I have found the Monk Manual in particular to be helpful.
Cover photo credit: Phil Thep