Posts in Sabbath
Is It Selfish to Take Time To Pray?

Maybe you’ve heard of it? Exodus 90 has taken the Catholic world by storm in the past year. A program for men to practice ascetic routines, prayer and fraternity, Exodus 90 has become synonymous with “I’m serious about my faith”.

I was at a recent event and one of the attendees was on day 33 of Exodus 90. At one point, he broke off from the group in order to find a chapel and pray. I was impressed. It wasn’t as if he got up in front of everyone and made a scene. Rather, he used the free time in the meeting schedule to head off and pray.

When was the last time that you broke off from the pace of your day to pray?

This “breaking away” can feel very selfish. What will people say? Will anyone notice? How will it be interpreted?

A bit of context here: Jesus took time for prayer. Luke 5:16 says this about the Lord’s time management, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

We could end here and just leave it at, “If Jesus did it, I can too...” This would be reasonable.

But how about some other practical bits of advice? Here are three that come to mind:

  1. Don’t think that everyone is watching you. The man I was with at the meeting? I doubt that anyone even noticed that he was gone.  The same goes for you and me when we take a few minutes alone to pray.

  2. Many good things in life can be seen as “selfish”. Eating healthy foods is selfish and also something you should do. Working out is selfish and also something you should do. Getting 7-8 hours of rest is selfish... you get the point.

  3. Sometimes you just need to get away. As you build spiritual momentum, God will impress on you the times when you just need to get away. 

Is it selfish to pray? Sure. Does that mean that it’s something to avoid? Hardly.

Anything that’s good for us has a level of self-reference but that shouldn’t stop us from doing it. Give yourself permission to get alone with God and together, get on the same page. You’ll be glad you did.

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A Resolution Worth Keeping
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I can’t imagine a year starting without a sense of hope. Hope for better fitness, hope for a simpler lifestyle, hope for new breakthroughs at work.

Psychology Today reports that many people start off the year with great optimism but, sadly, find it fading away just a few weeks later.

It’s not as if the resolutions themselves are bad. Who wouldn’t want to have 6-pack abs or more financial margin?

Rather, it’s that we often lack the structure needed to truly activate a new habit. In the case of prayer, it’s really about three things:

Visualization: the most important question I ask people when we talk about prayer is this, “If you could take 5 minutes to pray, what would that look like?” There is great power in imagining yourself alone, in a corner with a Bible in your lap. Or, alone, in a Church with your eyes closed and no one around. You get the picture. The key is to have a picture for yourself. This is like putting your handprint into cement- it leaves a mark.

Rituals: more than just routines, rituals are repeated actions with God in mind. A morning prayer ritual is different from a morning routine like brushing your teeth. A morning prayer ritual might include a phrase, a quote, a reading, a journal, etc. The ritual forms a mindset of “something bigger is happening here”. The ritual, as Fr. Ronald Rolheiser says, “carries you” when you don’t feel like praying.

Momentum: with a prayer time visualized and then rituals being put into place, God will build spiritual momentum in you. This momentum is vital for God’s insights to show up, God’s messages to be heard and God’s nudgings to be felt. It’s often after the fact that you see that God had been at work. Momentum makes this possible.

Can you imagine a daily prayer time in your new year? For me, the routines are in place and my foundation is steady. Now, it’s time for me to ask God what He wants to do next.

Maybe it’s time for you to do the same.


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The Real Reason You Are Distracted When You Pray

The scene goes like this.  You arrive at your local parish church for Sunday Mass and you have 2-3 minutes before the celebration begins.  When I grew up, this was fairly typical and it provided a few moments to look around and check out the folks in your pew or a few seats in front of you.  


Before you knew it, Mass would begin and you were off and running.


Today, the scene plays out differently.  The arrival is similar.  The pews feel the same, hard as ever.  Nothing has changed about the Mass.  It’s what’s in your hand that has impacted those few moments before Mass.  


The supercomputer, known affectionately as a smartphone, has invaded our churches and more importantly, our minds and hearts.  What used to be a few minutes of boredom or curiosity before Mass is now just another time when we pull out our phones.


God forbid we would miss an email, text or Facebook post from one of our hundreds of friends.


It seems, sadly, that we’ve begun worshiping our phones when we should be praying to God.  Smartphones have tapped into every buffer in our days- waiting in line at the grocery store, pausing at a red light while in traffic, and unfortunately in the few moments before Mass.  


I know, I get it- we need our phones to schedule things and communicate and get our email.  The problem is that our iPhones and Samsung Galaxies (with “infinity displays”) have sucked all of the oxygen out of what used to be moments of ordinary life.  


The real danger isn’t so much that we are tethered to our phones with our hands and portable chargers.  No, the more subtle invasion reveals that our phones have begun to influence our prayers.  Let’s be honest in saying that it’s more interesting and dopamine-inducing to check our Twitter feed than pray to a God we cannot see and rarely hear. 


The prayer challenge for all of us isn’t to put our phones down completely but to calm the noise they produce in our heads.  The good news is that a steady diet of “less”, marked by strategic days off from technology can break the chains that currently bind us.


Some apps can help with using our phones less during the day.  Apps like Self Control (for Mac) and Moment (for your phone) can monitor your phone usage and report back to you in terms of how often you’re using your phone.  Just seeing that you picked up your phone 45 times on Monday is a powerful motivator to use it less on Tuesday. This is similar to having a weight scale in your bathroom- an occasional weigh-in is a powerful motivator to eat just a littlebit less.


Apps are only part of the solution. What I’ve found to be the most effective means of breaking our addiction to our phones is to take a day off from them each week.  By using a “digital sabbath”, we reintroduce ourselves to a simpler time and marry our busy lives with the ancient practice of sabbath.  I’ve been using a digital sabbath for several years and have found it to be deeply spiritual.  


A digital sabbath gives us permission to reconnect with people offline. Conversations seem richer.  Naps find a way back into your schedule. Twitter and Facebook can wait.  


Best of all, a digital sabbath gives license to time with the Scriptures and time alone with God. By temporarily pausing your use of technology, you are giving God space to do what God wants to you in and through your life.  That’s a wonderful thing.


Technology isn’t a bad thing.  With a little practice and some useful tools at the ready, you can regain focus when you pray and be at peace with God.

The Eight Elements of a Digital Sabbath

You’re at the grocery store and what do you see?  People on their smartphones, walking down the aisles.  You go to the restaurant and what do you see?  Whole families sitting near one another but not really being present to each other.  Even at church, with just a few spare minutes before services, you’ll see smartphones pulled out of pockets and purses.  Just in case I miss something...

The smartphone cometh and has taken us to places we never imagined.

Consider the following:

  • Did you know that, according to Pew Research, only 15% of teens do not have a smartphone?  That means that the kid next door to the kid next door to the kid next door... all using smartphones.  I can remember just a few years ago when smartphones were kind of a luxury.  Today, not so much.
  • There's more- the average person, according to AOL News, unlocks their phone 80 times per day.  Think about that for a moment.  We unlock (and then use) our phones 80 times per day.  What else do you do 80 times per day? I can't think of anything if I'm honest.

When I first read that last stat, I didn't believe it.  Then, I tested out an app called Moment.  I realized that I was picking up my phone way more than I realized.  Dozens of times per day to be exact.

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Can you relate to all of this?  Do you pick up your phone more than you’d like, feeling tempted to check it even in the thinnest moments of your day?  

What can you do if you are starting to feel as if your phone is taking over your life?  I suggest one simple thing and it’s called The Digital Sabbath.  

The Digital Sabbath is a technique borrowed from ancient Judaism and Christianity whereby believers would take a day out of their week to rest.  The concept was deeply baked into the DNA of adherents: no work, just rest, play, enjoyment and renewal.  That sounds good, doesn't it?

To most of us, this idea sounds cute.  I used to think this too until I started to take it seriously. I figured I had nothing to lose so I picked Sunday as my day of the week.  Since I’m a Catholic Christian, this also made lots of sense.  Sunday would be the day when I would try not to use my phone.

After doing this experiment for several months, I’ve found the following to be eight key elements of a successful digital sabbath:

  1. Define what “digital” means to you.  To me, it’s mostly my phone + Twitter + Facebook.  I don’t feel tempted to check Instagram or LinkedIN any more so those didn’t make the cut.
  2. Decide why you want to do the sabbath in the first place.  For me, it’s a break, a breather and a barrier.  I need rest from digital usage.  I want to breath a different pace of life and finally, I want to gradually create a healthy barrier between me and my technology.  A day off helps me to do that.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up.  If you mess up and suddenly check your phone at a point in the day, be gentle with yourself.  Put it down and get back to whatever you were doing.  It’s ok.
  4. When with others, keep gadgets out of sight.  Fight the urge to place the phone between you and your partner when you’re eating a meal or having a conversation.
  5. When watching TV or a movie, keep gadgets far enough away that you’re not tempted to reach for them.  This might apply to a tablet or your phone or your laptop.
  6. Pick up a book. Grab one that you really enjoy and have been looking forward to reading.  Give yourself permission to read something analogue (a book, newspaper, etc.).
  7. Include nature or leisure.  By going outdoors or to a museum or street fair, you’ll “trick” your brain and distract yourself.  To the degree that you can divert your attention to truly beautiful things (art, music, nature, etc.), all the better.
  8. Celebrate the end of the sabbath.  It’s ok to enjoy checking Facebook or email at the end of the day.  Like breaking a fast, this is when you can reconnect with whomever you need to online.

These eight elements can make for a happy and productive digital sabbath.  Why not schedule your next digital sabbath?  When can you put down the phone and take a day for yourself to unplug?

Christmas is Over: Now What?

I was driving around our neighborhood a few days before Christmas.  The kids and I were admiring the many different ways that folks decorated their houses: lights, blow-up cartoon figures on the front lawn, and many of (apparently this year's hot product) the new-fangled spotlights that put faux holly leaves on your house.  Weird and cool at the same time.

Then, it hit us- all of it would go away in the days after Christmas.  Sadly, things don't last forever.  The decorations would come down.  The songs on the radio would end.  The Salvation Army bell would stop ringing at the grocery store.

Christmas is like that.  You get pumped up and the anticipation almost kills you.  The day happens and everything is great.  And then you wake up the next day and everything is so "regular" and ordinary and normal.  The party is over.  It's easy to feel blue as a result.

So I'm thinking that you have two options when it comes to Christmas:

1. You can celebrate the day over and over again.  This would be difficult.  You can't afford to buy gifts for every day of the year.  The wrapping paper bill alone would put you over the edge.  Imagine a ham or turkey day after day!  You get the point- this option isn't tenable.



2. You can tap into an ancient practice of what is called the "octave" of Christmas.  Let's look at this option as much more realistic and actually far more satisfying than if you were to celebrate December 25 over and over again.

An octave is something that is celebrated for eight days.  In the Christian tradition, the octave comes after Christmas and people of faith, theoretically at least, celebrate Christmas for eight days.  I admit that I've known very little about this for almost my entire life.  And then I did some digging for research.

From what we know, octaves began somewhere in the 4th century. Circumcisions were typically performed on the 8th day after birth. Baptisms have been associated with octagonal "fonts" or spaces in which the water is placed with the baby's head is dipped in water.

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There's something special about eights apparently...

Knowing the history, how could you celebrate Christmas for eight consecutive days?  Again, this is not about gift-giving for eight days.  

Octave celebration is something that is much more spiritual than commercial.  It can also boost your productivity because you're acting intentionally rather than reactively.  Here are some easy ways that you can celebrate Christmas for eight consecutive days:

1. Take time off from work.  Resist the urge to get back into the fray of work.
2. Do not do any gift returns for a week.  Avoid the crowds.  It's ok to wait.
3. Watch a Christmas movie after Christmas.  If nothing is on tv, rent something.
4. Begin a gratitude journal.  Online, in a paper notebook, whatever.
5. Sleep in.
6. Do something special with friends.  Go out to eat.  See a movie.  Be with those you love.
7. Go somewhere memorable.  Into the city.  Into the country.  Somewhere you can make a memory.
8. Read.  Anything for pleasure.
9. Get outside in nature.  Think of that place that you absolutely love and go there.
10. Do not take down your Christmas decorations.  Ignore everyone else in your neighborhood.  Be countercultural by keeping your decorations up.

For bonus points, you can also make an investment in your spiritual life in the days after Christmas.  Many churches have extra services and they would love to see you.  If there is a very holy person that you've been wanting to talk with, why not give him/her a call just to talk?  If you can't do that, you could probably send an email.

So that's it!  You don't need to be glum in the days after Christmas.  Sure, the holiday is over but that doesn't mean that your celebration needs to end.  By participating in an octave-approach to Christmas, you'll become more contemplative, happier and less stressed.  

Reclaim Your Calm During Holy Week

 This post originally was published for Speak Digital, my weekly newsletter.  You can subscribe for free here.


Holy Week, at least for many Christians around the world, is finally here. Beginnning on the Sunday prior to Easter (often called Palm Sunday), Holy Week is often seen as a span of seven days that is ideal for those of us who want to unplug and refocus. I really like this take on Lent, the period leading up to Holy Week.

Why unplug?

  1. You need a break from your regular schedule.
  2. You're tired of social media.
  3. "Quiet" seems to make sense this time of the year.
  4. You want to focus on prayer, family, and sabbath-keeping.

Why refocus?

  1. Refocusing is normal to do several times per year.
  2. Stress takes us off-track and tuckers us out.
  3. For people of faith, certain times of the year enable a greater spiritual awareness.
  4. Everyone takes their eye off the ball at one point or another.

All of this came together one morning this past week. I've been wrestling with headaches and overall tiredness all during Lent. During my morning commute, I came across Chad Brooks, the man behind The Productive Pastor Podcast. (you should check it out!)

In one episode with JD Walt, he makes a case for a sustained and honorable sabbath. JD and Walt argue that a "good" sabbath is one that feeds the soul rather than just a day a week that we cram with errands and a to-do list that's overflowing with chores. I was convicted. Being in a doctoral program has "blessed" me with more pressure than ever to write, research and meet my deadlines. As a result, I've been working, in one way or another, seven days a week for a long time. Not good.

What about you? Have you been taking a day off each week to feed your soul, rest your body and renew your mind?

How about this, during this year's Holy Week (which starts today), take the challenge to unplug. You can do this very easily and I suspect that, in a week's time, you'll be glad you did:

  1. Cut down on social media. If you really have to use it, just check it once a day. If you can afford to stay off it altogether, go for it.
  2. Don't let email take over. Again, as with #1, check it once or twice a day but that's it. Turn off all dings and notifications.
  3. Give solitude a big hug. Get outdoors. Go to the ocean. Visit a mountain. Spend time in church. Get quiet by getting away. It's hard to listen when things are noisy.
  4. Practice the Jim Eliot principle. The missionary Eliot once said, "Wherever you are, be all there." Whatever you decide to do this week, be fully present. God is right there in the middle of whatever is on your plate right now. Suffering, joy, success, struggle- He's there.

I can't wait to experience an extended sabbath this Holy Week. With some practice and a gentle refocusing, it might be a stretch of seven days that allows you to unplug and refocus on what's really important. Go for it!