A Prayer for Time to Pray

MEMBERS of the clergy association in Cranston, R.I., added an unusual plea to their sermons earlier this month. Concerned about a decline in church attendance during Little League season, they launched a campaign to eliminate sports events during Christian and Jewish Sabbath services. They also placed ads in local papers, signed by 40 ministers, priests, and rabbis, encouraging parents to speak up about rescheduling games and practices. "When baseball season starts, it wipes out the Sunday school," says the Rev. Luke Pederson, president of the Cranston Clergy Association. Although coaches emphasize that Sunday practices are optional, a combination of peer pressure and team spirit makes it hard for many young players to say no.

"We hear the pain of children and parents who say, 'We've got a dilemma, because there's a conflict between attending religious services and participating in recreational activities, explains Mr. Pederson, the pastor of Calvary Covenant Church. "That's a choice kids shouldn't have to make."

To play or pray? The question confronts both children and adults as sports and shopping - those two great American pastimes - become nearly round-the-clock activities. From playing ball to wandering through the mall, the temptation to disregard the fourth Commandment, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy," grows stronger. This year the nation's last remaining blue laws were repealed in Maine and North Dakota, making Sunday shopping possible in every state.

In Cranston, as in other communities with Little League teams, coaches argue that playing fields are only available at certain times. Canceling weekend games and practices, they say, is impossible. Even so, the president of a large sports association, the Cranston League for Cranston's Future, is meeting today with the Cranston Clergy Association to discuss the issue, giving clergy members hope that solutions can be found.

Although initial response to the group's campaign is hard to measure, the Rev. Randall Paulson, pastor of Faith Lutheran Brethren Church, says, "It's upped the awareness within the community of the need for church attendance. We're pleased."

Not far from Cranston, in neighboring Massachusetts, the need for church attendance was hardly on the mind of Gov. William Weld last month when he unveiled a plan to allow stores to open at 10 on Sunday morning instead of noon. The additional hours of shopping, he said, could boost sales tax revenue by as much as $20 million.

To their credit, most local police chiefs refused to grant the required permits. As one chief, whose town is home to a sprawling mall, observed dryly, "There is no community sense in Braintree that people are being unduly deprived of shopping opportunities." Already one major retailer at that mall remains open 77 hours a week.

For time-short Americans and two-career families, longer store hours have become a necessity. But what happens to the soul of a nation condemned to the notion of perpetual motion at the shopping mall - and everywhere else? A consumer clock that never stops offers no time off for sellers or shoppers.

As the Rev. Diane Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which opposed the Sunday-morning openings, has stated, "It is important that hard work and material goods be balanced by rest and relaxation. Otherwise, our lives become distorted and bankrupt."

No one can pretend that empty pews would suddenly fill with churchgoers if shoppers were denied the opportunity to worship at temples of consumerism on Sunday morning or if sports fans were not outside praying for victory on playing fields. But just to reserve the time is a form of respect - a signal of awareness.

When it comes to setting aside space against the encroachment of business, citizens are alert and ingenious. Zoning laws exist in every suburb. Environmentalists tirelessly protect the green spaces of national preserves against commercial exploitation. But time - certainly as worth protecting as space - is having its fences trampled on. Before the consumer-and-player culture becomes all-consuming, is it too much to ask for one morning a week in which to say the precious words, Time out?

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