Sabbath Attention

by the Rev. Scott Walters


Recently I heard a writer named Judith Shulevitz interviewed by Ezra Klein on sabbath keeping, which strikes me as a fine topic for consideration in the New Year. (Here’s a link for the curious: Click Here)

In the interview, Shulevitz referenced a fascinating study at Princeton Seminary by a couple of social psychologists who were curious about what makes a person stop and help a stranger who is in distress. Is it something innate in a person’s personality, or cultural conditioning, or something more situational?

Here’s how the researchers set up their study. They asked a bunch of seminarians to write sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story, of course, is Jesus’s most famous teaching on the researchers’ subject, so the story was top of mind for everyone involved. They then had the seminarians walk to another building when it came time to deliver their sermons, and along the way they made sure each would pass someone slumped against a wall. The setup was a bit on the nose, don’t you think? Who could possibly fail?

Well, here’s the key and most interesting element in the experiment. A third of the students were told to hurry because they were late to deliver their sermons. Another third were told that they weren’t quite late but shouldn’t dawdle. And the last third were told that they had plenty of time. What the researchers found was that the people most likely to stop weren’t those who had the parable in mind (they’d all just written sermons on it!), so it wasn’t cultural conditioning. And they could find no correlation with personality types either. Overwhelmingly, the ones who stopped were simply the ones who had more time. 

In the conversation that followed, Ezra Klein noted that, while it wasn’t the point of the parable or the experiment, what was true of a stranger is true of the self. When he didn’t have time, when he didn’t pause for sabbath or reflection or white space or quiet, he didn’t notice his own needs very well either. 

One point of sabbath rest is simply to have the space to see what’s actually needed in this world, whether in the life of a hurting stranger or friend or your own hurting self. So I hope as a new year begins you don’t fill it up with only obligations and goals, activities and resolutions. I hope there is a sabbath rhythm to the year to come, whatever that needs to look like in your life. And remember, it’s not only for your own sake. It’s for the sake of all the needs we just can’t see when we don’t have the time. 

And if you like for your New Year’s resolutions to take the form of prayers, here’s one by Stanley Hauerwas that I’ve been trying and failing and trying again to live into for years. I think I’m going to give it yet another go in 2023.

End of all our beginnings, Lord of time, who alone makes time a gift, remind us we are creatures with a beginning. We confess we often forget we are your timeful creatures. We fear the forgetfulness our death beckons. We are driven frantically to work, thinking we can ensure we will not be forgotten, ensure our own place in time. How silly we must look to you, ants building anthills to no purpose. Help us take joy and rest in your time, Eucharistic time, a time redeemed through Jesus’ resurrection, that we can rest easy in our dying. You have given us all the time in the world. May we take pleasure in it. Amen. 

15 thoughts on “Sabbath Attention”

  1. Scott, very timely! If only we could hit the pause button every day and realize, enjoy, and be thankful for the wonderful gift of time?

  2. I’ve been pondering the “Good Samaritan” with new eyes. This blog seems serendipitous. Quote from May Sarton “ We are overextended. Time to pull in the boundaries and lift the drawbridge.”

    1. Thanks, Missie. Something else I love is that the Mary and Martha story immediately follows the GS. One scholar thinks they’re meant to be read together and that the point of both is presence. Mary and the Samaritan were present. Martha and the priests were distracted in different ways and for different reasons, but both missed the mark.

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