For The Someday Book

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World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, Baughan Publishing (Peterborough, NH), 2011, 367 pp.

world enough and timeI recognized the title line immediately, from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and loved the way the author had plucked it from its context of sexual seduction to entice us into a contemplation of slowness. McEwen’s World Enough and Time is a series of carefully considered essays on slowing down, and the necessary relationship between slowness and creativity. I see myself as a creative artist with both my preaching and my writing, and I know that neither one is possible without making a life that is spacious and slow. I struggle to preach on Sunday if I don’t have a quiet day off on Friday. The slow time matters, even if I am not working on the sermon itself. With that in mind, I was eager and receptive to read this book, which was given as an assignment by my Macedonian Ministries group.

McEwen begins with a basic case for slowness and a compelling indictment of modern American life, which she diagnoses with “hurry sickness.” Hurry sickness is a feeling of time poverty, so that life is lived in constant motion without the chance to linger, reflect, absorb or tarry. I have read many books on this theme, with corresponding statistical or theological or sociological analysis. McEwen offers none of those. She simply points out, with a poet’s care and sharpness, what we all know: a life full to the brim with activity is often empty of meaning, depth and relationship.

For the remainder of the book, she devotes a chapter each to a varied list of slow activities, slow gifts and slow ways of being. In each chapter, McEwen looks at the lives of artists and practitioners in those areas, combing their lives and art for quotations and insights about the process of creativity and slowness. She examines the gift of a long conversation with a friend, childhood experiences in nature, walking, reading, writing (especially reading and writing poetry), silence, sabbath, storytelling and meditation. Two of my favorite chapters were the ones on dreaming and on looking.

In “The Art of Looking,” McEwen talks about the cultivation of the eye in artists. A great work of art does not come from the technique of the hand, but from the eye of the artist that is able to see and illuminate something that the rest of us cannot. Such art requires enormous time spent observing the world with great care and attention, time that might appear idle and fruitless to others. I am not a visual artist, but I connected with this passage as a preacher. My sermons require a lot of time spent staring out the window, looking off into space, or letting my mind wander. It’s the only way I can “see” what I am supposed to say each week. McEwen quotes from several others who speak to the path to seeing something new:

“To learn something new,” said the naturalist John Burroughs, “take the path today that you took yesterday.” All professions have need of such devoted practitioners, willing to push past their own boredom, their own comfortable familiarity, in order to arrive at something new. As Proust once said, “The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.” (121)

Every week, my journey with the Gospel is a quest to see it with new eyes. The stories are familiar and many are well-worn. Yet, when they are seen with fresh eyes, they give us new life.

In “Across the Bridge of Dreams,” she catalogs the relationship between creativity and dreams. I don’t usually share this, but this book has given me courage. Dreaming is a critically important part of my sermon writing process. I concentrate and work at the computer to research and think and analyze, but the mystical presence of the Gospel good news only comes to me when I sleep. I lay down in prayer with the sermon in my mind, and in that hazy place between dreaming and waking, the Spirit does its work to bind it all together for me. Sometimes, I will awake in the night to make notes. Other times, I dream it over and over again so that by morning it is all clear and ready to transcribe. According to McEwen, I am not alone. She shared that Samuel Coleridge, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabelle Allende, William Styron, and Robert Louis Stevenson all described writing in through their dreams, and included dreams in their process much the same way that I do. (245-249) It’s not simply paying attention or gaining insight or journaling about my dreams–the dreaming is an essential part of the writing process for me. I have to work it out in the dream. The same was true for them.

World Enough and Time was a rich experience from beginning to end. The book demands slowness in the experience of reading, so that you might contemplate and ruminate on all the things McEwen brings together. It also invites a re-reading, as a whole or just a chapter that piques your interest for a time.  It is a book that invites you to dive in and surface again, to splash around here and there rather than simply consuming it from one end to the other. If you ever needed a compelling case for slowing down and creating space in your life, especially if you are an artist in any way, McEwen’s World Enough and Time is just what you need.

The pastoral vocation is a way of life. Ministry is more than a job, it is an identity. I have never felt a keen distance between my personal and pastoral identity. My pastoral self is a natural outgrowth of who I am, and it does not feel like a role I pick up and put down with artifice. I am a pastor wherever I go, and I don’t turn it off when I go home at night or leave on vacation.

This sabbatical is as close as I’ve come to setting aside my pastoral identity since I entered seminary nearly 15 years ago. For one whole month now, I have not had any pastoral duties. No preaching, no pastoral calls, no church meetings, no professional conversations, no leadership of any kind. I pray daily, go to church on Sundays, read the Bible, read books about spiritual life, and live my faith simply as a person.

The greatest gift of sabbatical so far has been renewing my relationship to God, to the church and to myself as a person, not just as a pastor. Again—this is important and worth repeating—pastoral life does not separate me from myself, and certainly not from God and from the church. It enhances and deepens all those relationships. However, all of my interactions, whether with God, with the church and with myself, become attached to my work, into the tasks of proclaiming and producing and planning and perceiving and propagating. The work of personal spiritual seeking and growing is intertwined with the work of professional spiritual leadership and church-growing. A moment’s insight about the Ground of All Being makes me question whether I am supposed to pass on that image to someone else in a pastoral conversation. An experience of illumination makes me wonder if I am supposed to include it in this week’s sermon. Not during sabbatical. The Presence and its gifts, for now, belong just to me. I am free from discerning whether God is telling me something for me, for the church or both. Right now, I can relate to God just as me, not as a mediator or leader or visionary or teacher or preacher.

In the life of ministry, we must always be listening for God’s voice and praying to hear God’s direction not just for ourselves, but all those to whom and with whom we minister. When we hear a message, we immediately repeat it, to share the good news with others. God loves you! There is enough! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven! Love and serve with all your heart! Sabbatical has made me realize that I have been so busy hearing and repeating these messages as a pastor that I have sometimes forgotten to hear and hold them as a person. The good news is for me, too.


In this sabbatical space, I am reminded that God loves me not just as a pastor, but as a person. God loves me not because of the work I do, but simply because I exist. In separating from the pastoral part of my identity for a time, I simply receive the gifts of God and delight in them.

That is the true meaning of all Sabbath practice. God created the world in six days, and rested to enjoy creation on the seventh day. God commands us to abstain from work one day every week, to remind us that we are a part of that creation, which God has called “good” and in which God delights. We are loved not for what we do, but for who we are as children of God.

None of this is unique to pastoral life, however. All of us, as Christians, are called to the work of ministry, to share the good news and serve others and build God’s community. Pastors are not the only vehicles of God’s work. We are all conduits of God for those around us, which is why we are all commanded to work, but also to Sabbath. We all need to be reminded that the message of good news does not just come through us, but to us. God loves you! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven!

Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, by Dorothy C. Bass as part of the Practices of Faith Series. Jossey-Bass, 2000, 142 pp.

This was exactly the right book at exactly the right time. I have owned it since 2004 (according to the inscription from my mother). At that time, we had both been doing a lot of reading about the practice of keeping Sabbath, and sharing our favorite books. For some reason, I never got around to reading this one until now. As I began my sabbatical, I desperately needed a resource to help me slow down and be present to this time. Far more than a guidebook to Sabbath-keeping, Dorothy Bass devotes much of this book to simply exploring and explaining how to receive time as a gift, rather than spending our lives judiciously spending, managing or using it.

In the spirit of the book, I did not allow myself to consume it in one day, but divided it up and read it over the course of four days. I wanted to be able to spend time reflecting on each section, instead of just assimilating information. Although it could be read in one sitting or one day, I recommend against it. The book deserves a slow reading.

In sum, Bass attempts to reposition our relationship with time from use to gift.

What we really need is time of a different quality. We need the kind of time that is measured in a yearly round of feasts and fasts, in a life span that begins when a newborn is placed in her parents’ arms, and a day that ends and begins anew as a line of darkness creeps across the edge of the earth. (3)

She then goes on to explore Christian practices that help us cultivate this different kind of time. She examines practices to welcome the day (like morning and evening prayer), to mark the week (keeping a Sabbath day in ways familiar and new), and to follow the rhythm of the Christian year, which enables us to keep company with God’s actions in the past and God’s promises for the future.

I have already written about how this book has impacted my sabbatical journey by helping me to let go of my to-do lists for the remainder of sabbatical. There is another practice Bass suggests that I have already incorporated into my daily life. As we contemplate each day as a gift, she tells the story of a mother who asks her children every night, “Where did you see God today?” That is everything I wish to reclaim in my spiritual life, everything I wish to learn and see in this sabbatical time—the ability to see God in every day, and take time to name it and give thanks for it. Yet it took Bass’ book to give me the right question to ask, and a framework for asking it. Starting three days ago, I began a new journal. Every night, I ask myself the question: “Where did you see God today?” and write it down in a little notebook by my bedside. It is already starting to attune me more deeply to the God-moments of each day, and the practice of writing them down gives me a chance to reflect on them. I can keep prayerfully meditating on God’s presence in the day as I drift off to sleep.

The challenge will come when I complete sabbatical and return to “regular life.” But this practice is one I hope to hold on to, and I hope it will hold me in a spirit of holy time, receiving the working days as easily as the resting ones.

If you struggle to find God in the everyday, if you feel like your life is living you rather than you living your life, if the time is moving too quickly or just seems too full, read this book, and read it slowly. And try out a practice or two to appreciate the gift of time and receive the day.

But when our emphasis on using time displaces our awareness of time as gift, we find that we are not so much using time as permitting time to use us… We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks. We delude ourselves into believing that if we can just get everything done, if we can only tie up all the loose ends, if we can even once get ahead of the crush, we will prove our worth and establish ourselves in safety. (Receiving the Day, by Dorothy C. Bass, pp. 2-3)

What my Google Calendar usually looks like.

J made fun of me the other day, when he discovered me making a to-do list. “You’re on sabbatical,” he guffawed, “and you’re still making lists!” In my own defense, I have officially stopped using a calendar during sabbatical. And the list was mostly about preparations for B’s birthday party and follow-ups to Christmas (like thank you notes and such). But it also included my to-do list for sabbatical-related tasks for the day: write that review, finish this book, write the other blog post, make bread, shop for trip.

In reality, I just didn’t know how to live without a list. I have a special note pad for that purpose at work, updated weekly (or more, if it’s particularly full). I make a home list every weekend that combines all the household tasks that need doing (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) and all the “just-for-me” things I want to accomplish (paint toenails, finish book, exercise). The lists offer a sense of control over time and its use, and a delightful reward as each task is accomplished and crossed out.

For the first week of my sabbatical time at home, I felt each day like the hours were too fleeting, that I hadn’t had enough time to do what I’d hoped, that I needed more time to get time to relax, that I wasn’t able to calm my mind and heart enough to feel like I was on sabbatical. Even though I was accomplishing most of what was on my list every day, I never felt any sense of spaciousness for the Spirit. “Pray” just doesn’t work as a task on a list.

I turned to Dorothy Bass’ book, hoping it would steer me into Sabbath space. In the opening chapter, she talks about the danger of datebooks and to-do lists.

The flat pages of a datebook can become a template not simply for organizing time but for visualizing what time is: a sequence of little boxes, each waiting to be filled. As the owner of this time, I imagine, my role is to look down on these boxes from above and determine what goes where. (1-2)

I love this image. For me, it has been like the act of writing and completing to-do lists is written into my body.

That is exactly how I have been treating time, even on sabbatical. I had so many hours between dropping B off at school and picking him up, and I was going to accomplish a certain number of things appropriate to the time allotted. I was seeing sabbatical as time to undertake a different series of tasks. They were tasks of choice and pleasure, like reading and writing and praying and exercising, but tasks nonetheless. I had a limited number of hours and weeks to accomplish them. Consequently, I was frustrated whenever anything took longer than expected, or when family life encroached on “me time,” or because sabbatical time didn’t feel any more special than regular time.

Finally, yesterday, I tossed to to-do list. I can already feel a difference in my spirit, and my attentiveness to the Spirit. While I still have things I want to do, I am no longer driven by the desire to complete them. Instead, I am starting to see those items as things I want to attend to, to give focus and energy to in the course of this day. It’s not about a task that needs completion, but about paying attention to certain things that will give meaning to the gift of this time I have been given. The value and meaning of a given day does not come from what I am able to accomplish in it—the value of a given day comes from God, and its meaning is found in the moments of life it holds, no matter what does or does not get completed.

This is the true purpose of Sabbath, whether a day or a series of weeks on sabbatical—to rediscover the gift of time, to let go of trying to “earn the air we breathe,” (Bass, 3) to know God’s love for us does not depend on how much we accomplish, and to receive each day as it comes. It is a lesson I am still learning, and one that I pray will continue to give shape to this sabbatical time and, more importantly, to the time beyond sabbatical. The to-do lists will return of necessity, but I can work to prevent them from wielding the power of judgment over the value of a day, or the value of me.

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1951, 118 pp.

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this book. After adding it to my list nearly 10 year ago, then receiving a copy as a gift from a dear friend when I left Boston six years ago, it was the Macedonian Ministries program that finally got me to actually sit down and read this classic work on the Sabbath. What a gem!

Heschel’s style is part mystic, part philosopher, part rabbi. This is a book that begs to be read and reread, and I am certain that each and every reading would produce new and deeper insights. On my first reading, I felt certain that there were many levels of meaning that would only reveal themselves on subsequent readings.

Heschel begins by defining the difference between the realm of space and the realm of time. The realm of space is the world of “thing-ness,” the place where we work to control the world and the things in it, to acquire and produce, to build and occupy and transform. It is the world of six days of the week, and it dominates our senses, even our theology, as we try to construction notions of God as a “thing” in a place, with a form, taking up space. The Bible, Heschel argues, is far more concerned with time than with space. Judaism is about holiness in time, beginning with the celebration of God’s deeds and historic acts and culminating in the Sabbath. The practice of faith, he says, is an “architecture of time,” with the Sabbath as a “palace in time,” created for our luxury with God.

The practice of keeping Sabbath changes the very nature of our relationship to time and space, as we set aside the work of the body for the nurture of the soul. The Sabbath is an “example of the world to come,” (73) and a seed of eternal life planted within us. (74) When we keep Sabbath, we connect with that world to come and the power of eternal life. Heschel even argues that the Sabbath gives us additional soul. (88)

It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations. Time is the presence of God in the world of space, and it is within time that we are able to sense the unity of all beings. (100)

I have read the work of many of Heschel’s disciples who have written on the Sabbath (Tilden Edwards, Wayne Muller, Marva J. Dawn, Donna Schaper, Dorothy Bass). I appreciated each of those works for their practicality and insight about why sabbath-keeping matters to the spiritual life. But none of them had the mysticism of Heschel, the cosmic sense that the Sabbath fundamentally changes our relationship to the world and to God.

I look forward to reading this book again and again, and to my sabbatical time this winter, when I hope to “grow my soul” by spending time away from work and closer to God.

I wrote a few weeks ago about an extrovert’s vacation, and my struggles as an introvert taking extroverted vacations. This week, at long last, I had the opportunity for an introverted vacation. It was wonderful.

I drove a mere hour away from home, leaving behind my church, my husband and child, and all obligations to talk to other people. I wandered around a fascinating little town, and took a bunch of photographs for future blog posts. I checked into a hotel for two nights, watched two movies and a bunch of bad shows, finished one book and read a 530+ page novel cover-to-cover. I ate lunch at a restaurant each day, where I was polite but refused to engage in small talk with the servers, even though I was eating alone. I also took a local architectural tour, which happened to include several retired clergy. I did not “out” myself as fellow clergy, because I did not want to engage in conversation that went deeper than, “isn’t that building interesting?”  I would slip quietly into my hotel room each evening about 5:00, armed with snacks and reading material, and not reappear again until breakfast.

I have returned to life feeling centered and rested. This is what I needed. This has freed me to write again. I could have stayed all week. It was a true introvert’s vacation, a vacation from people, to spend time with myself and with God.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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