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Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Stopping

Friday April 29 2016

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Stopping

A key to healthy Sabbaths comes from the root meaning of the word “Sabbath”: stop, pause, cease, desist, or rest. The heart of the Sabbath is stopping, not finding more things to do. Several people I know observe a Sabbath discipline of journaling, which has been a great gift to them. They record prayers and thoughts, and they try to use journaling as a way to listen to God. The center of this discipline is stopping long enough to listen and pray.

Patterns of Jewish Sabbath observance are very simple. The symbols of candles and braided bread on Friday evening are reminders of God as light and God’s presence braided into our lives. A glass of wine and a box of spices at the end of the Sabbath evoke the desire to bring the sweetness of the Sabbath into the rest of the week. Married couples are encouraged to make love on the Sabbath. Families often go for long walks. Many Jews, but not all, attend synagogue.

When we set high expectations that the Sabbath will be “spiritual,” it becomes one more thing to do, continuing the addiction to productivity that is so common in our culture. As a person who has kept the Sabbath for more than 35 years, first as a stay-at-home mom, later as a writer and editor, then as a pastor, and now as an academic, I can say that some Sabbath days are very spiritual, others are peaceful, while yet others are discouraging because stopping productivity reveals a deep fatigue.

Over time, though, the Sabbath inscribes important truths on our hearts. I wrote two weeks ago about the two versions of the Sabbath command which refer to God as Creator and Redeemer. Certainly, all Christians are invited to partner with God in the work of sustaining creation and bringing redemption. We spend six days a week taking seriously our partnership with God.

But the work is God’s. Redemption comes through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the source of power. We are God’s beloved children, utterly dependent on God, receiving everything good from the hand of God. Because we are so easily addicted to taking ourselves too seriously, because we so easily fall into patterns of idolatry that elevate our own significance too high, we need the Sabbath discipline of stopping productivity so we can remember that God is God and we are not. Stopping on the Sabbath is a gift of rhythm – like a heart beat – that keeps our hearts in the right place.

In the years since I wrote Sabbath Keeping, this truth seems to me to be the most significant aspect of the Sabbath. Yes, the Sabbath is a lovely gift that brings rest and refreshment. Yes, the Sabbath provides relaxed time with family members and friends. Yes, the Sabbath gives us space to clear our minds so we can enter our work week with freshness. But most importantly, keeping a Sabbath week after week and year after year inscribes on our hearts that we are finite creatures of a infinite God and that the universe, our work, our families, everything we feel responsible for, belong to God. God is God and we are not. We desperately need to know this truth deep inside our hearts, and the Sabbath helps to put it there.

(Next week, more on what I've learned in the years since I wrote Sabbath Keeping. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Watercolor by Dave Baab of me on my Sabbath. Most of this post is excerpted from A Day off from God Stuff,” an article I wrote in 2007 for Leadership Journal.)

Resources I’ve written about the Sabbath

Articles:
A day without a “do” list
The gift of rest
Sabbath Keeping—it’s okay to start small
The gift of the Sabbath
Stopping: the gift of the Sabbath
Gifts of freedom: the Sabbath and fasting

Blog posts:
Of clouds and attentiveness
Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations
Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What to do on the Sabbath
Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Gardening  

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: gardening

Wednesday April 20 2016

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: gardening

A few years after my book Sabbath Keeping came out, I sat next to Rick at a church dinner. Rick is an attorney who works long hours, and I knew that he had grown up on a farm in the Midwest.

At some point during the dinner, he said, “I’ve been thinking about something related to the Sabbath. When I was growing up, my parents were very strict about Sundays. There were farm chores that had to be done every day, and of course we had to do those chores on Sunday. But other than that, no work. We were allowed to read on Sunday afternoons.

“In my life these days, I read all week long as a part of my job, so I’ve often thought it would be a good thing for me to take up gardening on Sundays as a change of pace. But my upbringing still influences me. Gardening was one kind of work we never did on Sundays on the farm. So every Sunday I try to relax by reading, even though reading is such a big part of my work life. I often find myself wishing I could let myself relax on Sundays by gardening.”

I’ve thought a lot about Rick’s story in the years since he talked to me. Here are some of the things I’ve pondered.

1. Our childhood influences are often quite strong in many areas related to faith. With respect to the Sabbath, I encourage you to think about your childhood. Are there models, words or influences that shape your Sabbath practice today, for good or for ill? In what ways have you moved away from childhood patterns? Has that movement been helpful? Are there things from your childhood you’d like to recapture? Or move further away from?

2. Stopping work on the Sabbath remains at the center of the Sabbath practice. And it’s also important to think about which everyday activities feel like work to you. I wrote last week about the man who enjoys going to the gym on his Sabbath. Many others would experience going to the gym as work. For them, it wouldn’t be a good Sabbath activity. Think about which everyday activities feel like work to you, and think creatively about ways to avoid them on the Sabbath. Do you hate cooking? Then cook ahead the day before so you don’t have to do that on the Sabbath.

3. Figuring out ways to connect with God’s creation on the Sabbath is a great idea. When I did my interviews for Sabbath Keeping, people talked more about getting out in nature than any other Sabbath activity. But does “getting out in nature” include gardening? Only if gardening can be viewed recreationally. My mother, for example, who is a dedicated gardener, will stroll into her garden on Sunday to enjoy it, pick flowers, or pull up a handful of weeds, but she won’t get out her wheelbarrow and do serious gardening on her Sabbath. Others have told me they look forward to digging and weeding in their garden for many hours on their Sabbath day, because their week days are full of other kinds of work. However, there’s always a tendency for fun activities to morph into too much work, and we have to pay attention to that pattern.

4. Doing things on your Sabbath day that are different from the other days of the week is another great idea. Rick expressed his longing for that, and the man from last week’s blog post, who goes to the gym on his Sabbath, loves the change of pace from his job, which is heavily cognitive and relational. I love the change of pace in the morning of my Sabbath. Six mornings a week I get up, walk into my home office, turn on my computer and work for an hour or two before breakfast. On my Sabbath, I relish going into the living room (a different room) first thing in the morning and picking up a book or newspaper (a different activity) to relax with until breakfast. This change in rhythm and pattern is one of the refreshing joys of the Sabbath.

(Illustration by Dave Baab. Next week: more on what I’ve learned since I wrote Sabbath Keeping. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Resources I’ve written about the Sabbath

Articles:
A day without a “do” list
The gift of rest
Sabbath Keeping—it’s okay to start small
The gift of the Sabbath
Stopping: the gift of the Sabbath
Gifts of freedom: the Sabbath and fasting

Blog posts:
Of clouds and attentiveness
Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: what to do on the Sabbath

Friday April 15 2016

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: what to do on the Sabbath

About a year after my book Sabbath Keeping came out, I spoke about the Sabbath at a conference. After I spoke, the president of the organization sponsoring the conference came to talk to me. He said, “One of my favorite activities on the Sabbath is to go to the gym and lift weights.” If the central component of the Sabbath command is to stop working, how can working out at a gym be appropriate as a Sabbath activity?

He went on, “My work is so cognitive and so relational. I find I need to connect with God’s creation on my Sabbath day. As I lift weights, I am so aware of my body, intricately created by God.”

When I did the interviews for Sabbath Keeping, a large number of people talked about their joy in engaging with creation on their Sabbath day: walking, biking, hiking, sailing, throwing a frisbee for a dog. Why would working out, if it makes us feel connected to God’s creation, be any different?

The two versions of the Sabbath command in the Bible throw some light on this issue. You’ll remember that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets, he became furiously angry when he saw that the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf. Moses threw down the tablets and they broke. That first version of the Ten Commandments is found in Exodus 20. Later God gave Moses another set of stone tablets, and that second version of the Ten Commandments is listed in Deuteronomy 5. The only commandment that varies very much between the two versions is the Sabbath command. There are some small differences between the two versions, and one major difference: the reason given.

In the first version, the reason for the Sabbath commandment is God’s rest at creation. Exodus 20:8-10 lays out the command, then verse 11 gives the reason: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” When we engage in Sabbath rest, we are to remember that God made the earth and rested on the seventh day.

In Deuteronomy 5:12-14, the second version of the Sabbath commandment, the words that describe what not to do on the Sabbath have some small differences from Exodus 20. Then in verse 15, the reason is given, and this reason is totally different: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” This reason relates to God as redeemer, the one who rescues us from slavery, and we are commanded to remember that God frees us from slavery.

Christian ministry engages on a daily basis with God’s redemption of the world. People in Christian ministry are partnering with God to help redeem the world, to help free people from slavery to sin, death and the devil. The man I spoke with at the conference was no exception. All week long he works to help his organization bring God’s salvation to the world. He spends his work week centered on God as redeemer. For him, a Sabbath focus on God as creator makes perfect sense and provides welcome balance. If he remembers God as creator on the weight machines at the gym, then working out is a good Sabbath activity for him.

Many professions center on helping God sustain creation: doctors, dentists, people in building trades and in all sorts of repair work, those who work with children, and people in many other jobs. For them, appropriate Sabbath activities might include activities that connect them with God the redeemer.

(Watercolor by Dave Baab. Next week: more on what I’ve learned since writing Sabbath Keeping more than a decade ago. If you’d like to receive an email update when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Resources I’ve written about the Sabbath

Articles:
A day without a “do” list
The gift of rest
Sabbath Keeping—it’s okay to start small
The gift of the Sabbath
Stopping: the gift of the Sabbath
Gifts of freedom: the Sabbath and fasting

Blog posts:
Of clouds and attentiveness
Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Wednesday April 6 2016

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Did you know that in many times and places in Christian history, Easter has been viewed as a season, not just a day? The Easter season goes from Easter Day to Pentecost Sunday (May 15 this year), a period of seven weeks. Because Jesus’ resurrection is such a huge, amazing, overwhelming, fantastic gift to us, focusing on it for seven weeks allows time to ponder many aspects of what we receive on Easter Day.

The liturgical color for the Easter season is white to reflect the holiness and purity of Jesus, which enabled him to die in our place. White also symbolizes light. Jesus submitted to the darkness of the grave, and Easter morning he came back into the light, and his own light was again revealed. Paintings of Jesus after the resurrection often show him surrounded by light.

What spiritual practices are appropriate in a season of light and joy? This is a season of feasting, not fasting. Celebrate joy and light in whatever ways you can. Ponder, journal or talk with others about the joyful events of Easter and what they mean for you. Here are some suggestions for spiritual practices for the Easter season:

1. Practice thankfulness. Watch for God’s good gifts in your life and your loved one’s lives. Look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection life in events and people around you. Go out of your way to express gratitude and love to people who have cared for you. Pay attention to the small gifts of daily life, and thank God for them. To help you pay attention, consider starting (or re-starting) a thankfulness journal and commit to adding five items to the list each day. Or partner with others to talk through the things you’re thankful for every day. Be sure to pray your thanks as well.

2. Focus on light. Watch for the word “light” in scriptures, praise songs, hymns and poetry. Write a poem or statement about the ways Jesus is your light, and ask for further light in specific areas of your life and in the lives of loved ones. Use various names for God and Jesus in breath prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world, shine your light on me” (John 8:12). “Jesus, bright morning star, guide my steps” (Revelation 22:16).  “Word of God, be the lamp to my feet and the light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). “Lord God, sun and shield, give me your light and protection” (Psalm 84:11). All of these prayers can be prayed for others as well as for yourself.

3. Ponder the fact that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). In what ways has Jesus freed you from that fear? In what ways would you like to experience more freedom? What do you think that might look like? Journal or talk with a friend about the role fear of death has played in your life. Pray your thanks, and pray for further growth in this area.

The seven-week Easter season nudges us to look at life through the lens of resurrection power and Jesus' pure light. Maybe you’ll think of additional ways to do that.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
   O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
   wrapped in light as with a garment (Psalm 104:1).

(Photo: Sunset in Bergen, Norway, by Ian Thomson. Next week I’ll begin a four-week series on “Sabbath Keeping a decade later.” I’ll write about what I’ve learned about the Sabbath in the decade since I wrote my book on that topic. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Jesus frees us from bondage at Easter

Wednesday March 30 2016

Jesus frees us from bondage at Easter

I have always loved Easter. As a child, it meant a new dress. Most years my mother and I pored over a clothing catalog, and I got to make the final decision. Easter meant a special meal including the pineapple/orange/coconut salad that tasted so good with ham. My beloved grandmother was born on Easter, and I often thought about how her caring personality fit with the mood of this amazing day of joy, celebration and love.

Later I learned about the deeper meaning of Easter. Jesus destroyed the power of death by dying and being raised from the dead, which gives us hope for heaven. For our life on earth, Jesus has freed “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). This is very good news for those who chase here and there pursuing all sorts of diversions to avoid facing a deep-rooted fear of death.

The bondage I experienced – from which I needed Jesus to free me – relates not to fear of death but to the expectations I had for my life. I always say I am a late bloomer. I worked on a seminary degree between ages 28 and 38, while my kids were young. I didn’t pursue ordination as a Presbyterian minister until I was 45. I started a PhD at 52, and got my first university teaching job when I was 55. I was raised to believe that a woman’s primary role is to be a good housewife and mother. It took a long time for Jesus’ resurrection power to free me from that belief, which may work fine for other women. For me, it was a form of bondage.

I love my husband and kids, and they are enormous gifts in my life. My gifts of analysis, thinking clearly and teaching were used in mothering, no doubt about it, but to be whole and to be my true self, I needed somewhere to use those gifts beyond the home. Now, late in life, I have arrived at the right place. Jesus, whose resurrection broke the power of every sort of bondage, has been bringing his resurrection power into my life over many years, and I can see such wonderful fruit of it now.

This Easter season, I have been thinking about the accounts of the resurrection in the four Gospels. They all vary somewhat, but they have a lot in common, including the fact that the women play a key role. A few of the women who followed Jesus came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with oils and spices. They saw that the tomb was empty. They were first to receive the news of his resurrection, and they were entrusted with the message to take back to the other disciples. Women were asked to be witnesses to this life-changing event.

In Jesus’ time, only men could be witnesses in court. It takes some imagination to perceive the significance that these women were entrusted with a message to tell the disciples. In Jesus’ life on earth, he honoured everyone he came across: men, women, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, synagogue officials, Romans, and many others. At his resurrection, it is no accident that women – marginalized people in his culture – were entrusted with this powerful message. He longs to set us free from all the bondage that enslaves and marginalizes us, and his death and resurrection made that possible.

For me, a major form of bondage was my limited expectation of what I could do with my life. What forms of bondage limit your life? Jesus longs to bring his resurrection power into our lives to set us free from all bondage and enable us to use all our gifts to love the people around us and to meet the needs of our hurting world. Jesus wants to give us the joy of the abundant life we were created for, as the unique and beloved people God made us to be.

(Drawing by Dave Baab. Next week: Easter is a season, not a day, so I will suggest some spiritual practices for the Easter season. If you’d like to receive an email notice when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.” This post first appeared in the Otago Daily Times.)

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