Practicing with Children

Examen and examining

Since the publication of Sabbath in the Suburbs last year, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to groups about Sabbath-keeping, and about our family’s experience of observing a day-long Sabbath every week for a year—the good, the bad and the ugly. In sharing the nitty-gritty of our experience and what we learned, I hope to help others develop tools for carving out their own Sabbath experiences. But one of the first questions I get from groups is a personal one: “Are you still doing Sabbath?” Now that the year-long experiment is over, what does Sabbath look like in the Dana house?

photo credit: <a href="">KimManleyOrt</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

The answer is yes, we still do Sabbath… but it looks different. Some would say it looks pretty lax, in fact. We don’t take a day-long Sabbath as regularly as we once did, but Sabbath still weaves its way into our week—a morning here, a Sunday afternoon there. It doesn’t just happen—we have to schedule the time, protect it, and reschedule it when life preempts it at the last minute—but it’s not something I see us giving up without a fight. (One of the videos that accompanies the book elaborates on this topic… with the bonus of being able to hear my children talk about what Sabbath has meant and continues to mean to them.) 
The family dinner table is one of the places where we experience Sabbath most reliably. Our children are still young enough, and unencumbered by sports schedules (who knew being bookish had spiritual benefits too?), that we can sit down as a family many nights of the week. The meal isn’t fancy, and there are plenty of convenience foods and Crock Pot meals that grace our table. But it’s a Sabbath space: no homework, no TV or smartphones. Just the five of us.

I read many years ago about a pastor who gathered his family each and every morning, before school and work, for scripture reading, morning devotions and prayer. Let’s just say that the Dana family does not follow that minister’s example. Partly because that’s not my style, and partly because it’s all I can do to get the kids and me out of the house wearing clothes that are weather-appropriate, let alone matching one another.

But at dinnertime, we have a spiritual practice we’ve shared together for many years: the ancient practice of examen. This spiritual practice is one of St. Ignatius’s great gifts to the world. It’s simple, really, and goes by many contemporary names: highs and lows, roses and thorns, and so forth.
We have a small owl figurine on the table that rotates each night to a different person’s place. Whoever has the owl has the job of choosing and leading our blessing before the meal. Usually it’s a song (Johnny Appleseed; God Our Father, God our Mother), though we’ve started choosing prayers from Blessed Be Our Table from the Iona Community too. Six-year-old James likes to lead a silent prayer. Who knows what’s going on in his head during that time, but he will keep the silence for a good 20 seconds or more, punctuating it with a grin and a “amen.”
Then the meal and the examen begin. The person who leads the blessing begins, then invites another person to share—and it is always phrased as invitation rather than “calling on” someone; there is always an option to pass. Our lingo is to describe our favorite and least favorite moments of the day. As the kids get older, we are gradually shifting the language to “what are you most/least grateful for?” and “where did you feel [God’s] love today/where did you feel disconnected from [God’s] love?”
I especially love seeing how the kids receive one another’s answers. It’s not unusual for the kids to mention one another, especially in their least favorite moment. Caroline might say, “My least favorite moment was when Margaret wouldn’t stop bugging me.”
The first time this happened, I braced myself for protestations and pouts from the offending sibling. But there was none of that. Instead, we just hear the negative stuff and receive it, and move on. Which is really the spirit of the examen: to look lovingly at the day and to appreciate the good and to acknowledge and let go of the bad.
It’s a very sweet, even holy, time of day. It gives us a glimpse into our children’s lives, which is precious since they spend much of the day away from us. And it seems important for the kids to hear about the moments of grace and challenge in their parents’ lives too, though we sometimes spare them the truly gory details.
I must be honest—sometimes their energy is all over the place. Sometimes one of them has left the table before we hear from everyone. We get sidetracked by conversations and arguments. And there are nights when it doesn’t happen at all. But when we’re all in good space for it, it’s great. It really is like Sabbath in that respect. Sabbath days are not always peaceful and holy, bathed in light, with choirs of angels singing a heavenly chord. Sometimes we are cranky. Sometimes we aren’t in the mood. But showing up to the discipline forms us over time.
MaryAnn McKibben is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time. Connect with her via her email list or her website, The Blue Room.

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