Sometime last fall, or maybe it was early winter, I inadvertently hit the PAUSE button. It wasn’t intentional, but nevertheless it somehow got pressed and I stopped recording life. I didn’t even notice for a long time. I was busy, fully engaged and even pursuing new things; but I wasn’t recording. Heck, I wasn’t even reflecting about it much. Life kept coming fast and furious and it passed right by like fast forward without instant replay.
Quite by accident, at the same time the PAUSE button got pushed, I signed up for the first-ever Frederick Buechner’s Writers Workshop in Princeton in June. Six months went by, maybe seven and I didn’t give that much thought either. I didn’t prepare for it in any way — didn’t write a single article, not an outline, not even a potential-projects list. I walked into the conference cold. But what met me there on that first evening, in the sacred space of Miller Chapel, fed my soul. The pause button was dislodged and the PLAY button was engaged, full-on.
One of the first things I have needed to reflect on was the PAUSE itself: I took a break from writing. Why? What made me stop doing something I love, that enriches my life and adds value to my experiences? What was I taking a break from? It seemed important to understand, lest it happen again.
In the sitcom “Friends,” when Ross and Rachel broke up, Ross had a one night affair. His repeated excuse, “....but we were on a BREAK!” became a mantra for the rest of the series. Does taking a break give you freedom to dabble in other pursuits? I didn’t pick up another discipline to replace writing. I just stopped writing. Was I out of ideas? Distracted? Ambivalent? These sound like excuses and they don’t quite fit.
Then I remembered the concept of Sabbath. In Abraham Heschel’s classic book on the theology of the Sabbath he writes, “Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.” (Heschel, Abraham J., The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951. p. 14)
Perhaps it was not a PAUSE or a break that I was experiencing, but rather a Sabbath — not by my own making, but by the gracious activity of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I just needed to live without thinking about it so deeply for a time.
Once, in a Bible study, I participated in an exercise in which we were asked to memorize the books of the Bible. At the next meeting, we were asked to share our techniques if we successfully completed the assignment. In my small group, I shared my approach: Each morning I wrote on the shower door in the lingering steam the first letter of each book of the Bible. I viewed it as an efficient and creative way to practice daily. After the class, a woman approached me and said, “I have to tell you, you have entirely too much time on your hands.” In actuality, the exercise probably took a minute or less, yet the impression it made on this woman was that I could idle away my morning in a leisurely manner. I have heard this woman’s accusation in other contexts in our culture; it has become a way of boasting that someone must be less motivated, less productive, and less important than we perceive ourselves to be.
In our preoccupation with achievement and getting the most out of life, we don’t often simply sit quietly within time. Dorothy Bass reports that in a workshop about time, when asked where they experience the greatest pain and challenge in relation to time, the participants said they “felt buffeted about by demands, torn in too many directions, distracted. So many concerns harried them that they rarely felt thoroughly present to any one person or thing.” Bass suggests the antidote to distraction is attention. She recommends frequent and regular acts of attention to anchor the practice of receiving the day. (Bass, Dorothy C., Receiving the Day. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000. p.35) While these “acts of attention” may be seen to be yet another activity to fill time, considerable mental discipline is required to empty the mind of extemporaneous thoughts and distractions. Bass writes, “We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks.” (Bass, 35)
I’ve done a lot of birding in the last few months. If someone asked me why I spend entire mornings looking for birds, I would answer because it makes me feel refreshed, alert and gratified. When my mind is intentionally quieted, it provides space —space in which God can work and form and shape my soul and my life. I’m pretty sure I won’t hit the PAUSE button on birding, because for me birding is Sabbath. It is the pause that allows everything else to make sense; it allows space for me to find meaning. Maybe I’ll write some more about birding. Or maybe I’ll write about the space that has opened up...a roomy space that feels less pressure to achieve, less urgency to excel, less anxiety about getting the most out of life.
If something you love has become a burden or just another task to accomplish, it’s time to lay it down. Let it go for a while. Create some space where the pressure and anxieties of performing and achieving are far removed from what you love to do. If you are meant to do it, you will return to it. If not, something else, creative and fresh, will take its place.
So what if that PAUSE button gets pushed again? It’s not the end of the world. I’m learning to live and record not as my needy urges prompt, but as the Spirit prompts.