- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

When I was an exchange student in France, I lived with a Jewish family that had festive Friday night dinners of French-Moroccan cuisine — they once lived in North Africa — complete with candlelight.

But when I tried to take a bath Saturday morning, I got a rude shock. The hot water had been turned off — using it constituted “work.” I learned to stay dirty on successive Saturdays.

I liked the vastly scaled down nature of their Sabbath: The 24 hours between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday was spent hanging out at the synagogue, talking with people, taking naps.

Years later when I was in seminary, I decided all my studying had to be completed by Saturday night. Sundays were days when I walked to church, read fun stuff instead of textbooks and spent time with people.

Which is why I got interested in “Say Yes to No: Using the Power of NO to Create the Best in Life, Work and Love,” a book by a Presbyterian pastor who walked away from a high-profile job to make less money but spend more time with family.

When Greg Cootsona was tapped for a position as associate pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, he jumped at the chance. Arriving there in late 1996, he made the Christian education program at his church a huge success, did magazine interviews and TV appearances, plus juggled care for two young daughters.

Then at the age of 38, he began getting chest pains. Although the problem turned out to be temporary high blood pressure, it was the canary in the coal mine telling him to scale down fast. The following year, he transferred to a church position in far-lower-stress Chico, Calif.

For him, a pastor who works on Sundays, his day of rest is Friday. First, the computer is turned off. Then he and his wife, Laura, go to a large nearby park to walk the dog and talk.

“We take time to be quiet and turn off the technology,” he says, “plus time to reflect on what God is doing in our lives.”

Even the types of prayers he uses are more meditative, go-with-the-flow conversations with God. He avoids the intercessory prayer, which involves spiritual “work” in terms of concentration and working through lists of peoples’ needs.

Few Christians, other than Seventh-day Adventists, focus on the Sabbath as a time of rest and recalibration in these days of 24-hour ATMs, the Internet and supermarkets where Sunday is the busiest day.

Mr. Cootsona, now 46, aims to encourage readers, especially business people, to create some space in time. The one-time owner of a small business, he has a soft spot in his heart for the small retailer who competes against larger stores that are able to staff seven days a week.

He quotes from Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” in stressing the seventh habit — “sharpening the saw” — which is making time for personal renewal.

“I wouldn’t want to make the Sabbath one more piece of work for people; Jesus was really clear about that,” the pastor says. “I encourage people to take some time but it doesn’t have to be religious or spiritual. It can be taking a walk or biking. It is important to take ourselves out of the demands of work, even for two or three hours to do things that renew you.”

The problem with Americans, he adds, is they love new experiences and are afraid of missing out on something.

“We are bombarded with so many opportunities in this country,” he reflects. “One of the things about the economic downturn is we’ve said yes to too many things in terms of credit-card debt. Now we have to pay that debt. We are stretched, tired and not sleeping enough.”

Julia Duin’s “Stairway to Heaven” column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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