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Quotations I love: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things

Wednesday October 26 2016

Quotations I love: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things

Everyone must render an account before God of all the good things he beheld in life and did not enjoy.
          —The Jerusalem Talmud

I find it quite challenging to accept the notion that we have some sort of responsibility before God to enjoy the good things of life. For most of my adult life, I’ve had an inner dialogue running through my brain along these lines: “How can I truly enjoy this wonderful event when 22,000 children will die today of the effects of hunger?” [1] “How can I relish this beautiful weather when 11.4 million Syrians are displaced from their homes?” [2] Ever since my mid-twenties, I’ve been much, much better at mourning with those who mourn rather than rejoicing with those who rejoice.

However, I’m doing better these days enjoying God’s good gifts. I want to reflect on how that happened. I’ve identified four factors:

1. The Sabbath. Since the quotation above is from a Jewish document, it’s appropriate that a Jewish Sabbath tradition contributed in a lovely way to my spiritual growth. In Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are not appropriate on the Sabbath because it’s a day of rest. In contrast, prayers of thankfulness are encouraged. On my Sabbath day, when I start thinking about any kind of pain in the world, the kind of situations that might motivate prayers of intercession, I tell myself, “You can think about that and pray about it tomorrow. Today’s focus is rest and being present to all of God’s good gifts.”

Over many years, that Sabbath habit has helped me turn off anxiety and sorrow, albeit briefly, and focus on the gifts of the moment. I see good things more readily now, and I can enjoy them, knowing that the time for sorrow and prayer will come. Indeed, for everything there is a time and a season under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). (If you want to read more that I've written about the Sabbath, numerous articles about the Sabbath are posted on this blog, and you can check out my Sabbath book and Sabbath Bible study guide.)

2. Thankfulness prayers. More than 20 years ago, my husband and I decided that every time we pray, we would begin with thankfulness. This practice has changed my perspective and enabled me to see and enjoy God’s good gifts more often. When we thank God for things, our eyes are opened to more things to thank God for. (I described our experience with thankfulness prayers in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, and I’ve written quite a few other posts on thankfulness.)

3. The Psalms. In the Psalms, confession, lament, praise and thanks recur over and over, reinforcing in my mind that there is a time for everything and that life should be lived in a rhythm. Yes, it is completely appropriate to grieve over Syria and to pray for refugees. But it is equally appropriate to stop and look and enjoy the beautiful clear eyes of a small child or a flower newly unfurled.

4. Jesus the Redeemer. I’m not God. I’m not responsible for running the world. I’m not the Savior. We already have a Savior, and it’s not me. Yes, God calls me to feel sadness and compassion about the brokenness of our poor hurting world, but God also calls me to embrace joy and praise and thanks because so many good gifts surround me. But ultimately Jesus is our Savoir and Redeemer, and my job is to respond in gratitude, faithfulness and prayer. This reality has become more real to me over time as I have practiced lack of worry and sorrow on the Sabbath and as I have practiced thankfulness. My habits have changed my thoughts.

None of the shifts described here happened very quickly for me. But I can see movement over time, and I have to say that after decades of feeling so much sorrow and sadness, having a good number of moments of joy is pretty wonderful. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High. . . . For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your works; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 91: 1, 4).

(Next week: A. W. Tozer on God’s call to worship. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] The Hunger Project
[2] Syrian Refugees

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What I do on the Sabbath

Thursday May 12 2016

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What I do on the Sabbath

The question about the Sabbath I get asked most often is what I do.

I’ll back up a bit and say that my book Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest came out in 2005, and immediately began to sell well. In its first year, it sold more copies than all but one of my other books have sold in their lifetimes. Because of the strong sales, I got asked to write articles, I was interviewed by magazines, and I have gotten lots of emails from people I don’t know.

In the book, I described my Sabbath pattern in the decades since my husband and I lived in Israel and experienced a Jewish Sabbath first hand. Here’s a summary of several decades of Sabbath observance. This is my last post in a series of reflections on what I've learned about the Sabbath in the decade since Sabbath Keeping came out.

When we returned from Israel, we decided to have a Sunday Sabbath. In the first decade back in Seattle after our time in Israel, I had young children and I was studying part time toward my masters degree. On the Sabbath, I didn’t study or do housework, gardening or home repairs. I tried to enjoy my children and my husband. Despite the Old Testament prohibition of cooking on the Sabbath, I did cook sometimes because we loved to have people over on our relaxed quiet day.

After ten years of Sabbath observance, I finished seminary and got two part time writing/editing jobs. I continued my previous Sabbath pattern but added one more discipline: I didn’t walk into my home office. Seven years later, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and I got my first book contract. At that point, our Sabbath shifted. Our kids were older and often had their own plans for Sunday, and Sunday mornings were now hard work for me. So our Sabbath became Sunday about 2 pm until Monday at 2 pm. Dave wasn’t working Mondays, so that worked well. I mostly had down time on my own on Sunday ("down time" = reading), and he and I went on a long walk on Monday mornings and ate lunch out.

About three years later, our church added a Sunday evening service, so I shifted my Sabbath to Mondays all day. About this time, Dave started having to work Mondays, so we had separate Sabbaths. This was very hard on our marriage! Dave was able to join me in a Monday Sabbath after a few years of separate Sabbaths, for which I’m very grateful.

I have continued to have a Monday Sabbath through my PhD studies and 9 years of teaching. But I have to say, now that I’m older and my energy level is less, my Sabbath usually starts on Sunday afternoon and goes until Monday evening, so it’s more than 24 hours long.

Why Monday? I guest preach about once a month, and that means those Sunday mornings are work. When I’m not preaching somewhere, we often have people over for Sunday lunch, which is wonderful but definitely has a work component to it. So I view Sunday morning worship as a pre-cursor to my Sabbath, a foundation for the day, but not really Sabbath time.

What do I do on this wonderful day? Sunday afternoons and evenings, and for much of Monday, I read. And read. And read. Novels mostly, the big weekend newspaper, magazines, online articles, poetry. I also usually spend some time on Sunday or Monday playing the piano.

First thing Monday morning I check my email, and I only answer essential messages. Then I let it go for the rest of the day. Mid-morning on Monday Dave and I pray at length, usually for about 45 minutes. We spend half of that time in prayers of thankfulness, and that long, leisurely time of thanking God for big things and small things is a foundation for my week. Dave and I eat dinner Sunday evening and lunch and dinner on Monday at home (often leftovers so I don’t have to cook), and we talk in a leisurely fashion over these meals. We have a printed list of prayers for grace for our Sabbath meals, and using a printed prayer rather than extemporaneous grace makes the day feel different and special.

Here are the things that I sometimes do on my Sabbath day:

  • read Facebook (if I haven’t looked at it all week)
  • go to the gym (if my schedule for the week has gotten too complicated to allow a gym trip on Tuesday)
  • cook (if I want to)
  • balance the checkbook (this is something I enjoy!)

I do all these things in a different spirit on the Sabbath than I do on the rest of the days. I do them slowly, without pressure.

I describe Sabbath time as “down, down, down,” and I can feel myself letting down and letting go of worries and responsibilities. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about what I consider to be the most profound lesson the Sabbath teaches us: that God will keep the universe going without me. That God is God and I am not. That I am not indispensible. Therefore I don’t feel a lot of pressure to make my Sabbath deeply “spiritual.” The prayer time with Dave is great, but other than that I simply read things I enjoy and I let God keep the universe running without my help.

I have been reluctant to write this post because I don’t want to communicate that I think my form of Sabbath observance is best. The key concept is stopping a lot of what we do on the six days, then choosing to add activities that provide rest and balance. That may look quite different for you than it does for me.

(Drawing by Dave Baab of me on my Sabbath day. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, and next week’s post will be reflections for Pentecost. The following Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and the post that week will focus on the Trinity. Three weeks from now I’ll begin a series on worshipping God as Creator, with ideas for encountering God in Creation. If you’d like to receive 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
Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What to do on the Sabbath
Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Gardening 

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Stopping

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Relationships

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: relationships

Wednesday May 4 2016

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: relationships

A few weeks ago a student sat in my office telling me about a research essay he’s writing about the Sabbath in Hebrews 3 and 4. He said, “The Sabbath is a day of relationship.” Later in the conversation he repeated that idea with some additional emphasis: “Give God your body and your time on a special relationship day.”

I want to do some reflection on the Sabbath as a “special relationship day.” It might be easiest to view “relationship” here as related to time with people. And for many people I’ve interviewed, slowing down for one day a week makes for a different kind of space with children and family members. But I also want to expand “relationship” to include more than time with people. Otherwise, how could a single person whose family members are far away keep a Sabbath? What about a widow or widower whose partner for many years of Sabbath observance isn’t there any longer?

So here’s my proposal: The Sabbath is a special relationship day, and the relationships we experience on the Sabbath might include connections with people, with the Creation, and with God. Let me give some examples:

A minister told me that on the Sabbath he tries to enjoy his children rather than shape them. He knows that the primary job of a parent is to help children grow up into responsible loving adults, so for six days a week, he pays attention to the ways he needs to encourage growth in his children. On the Sabbath he simply enjoys them just as they are. This makes the day a special day in his relationship with his children, a day of joy and relaxation.

That same man told me that he tries on the Sabbath to relieve his wife from as many household tasks as he can. She does the bulk of them on the weekdays because he works more hours than she does, but on the Sabbath he tries to keep up with the dishes and tidy up the kitchen so she can have a break. He is nurturing a relationship, but not in the ways we might normally expect.

A single man in his 30s who is able to take a mid-week Sabbath told me he loves to get up and read for a while, then go for a long run, and in the evening meet up with a friend or group of friends for dinner. The bulk of his Sabbath involves being alone, something he finds very valuable because of his people-intensive job. On his Sabbath he nurtures his relationship with God through reading, with the Creation through running and with people through his dinner.

A single woman in her 40s told me about her Saturday Sabbaths. She works in a very demanding and fast-paced job, and her Sundays are taken up with church and extended family gatherings. She has decided Saturday will be her Sabbath so she can be alone with God. She relishes her alone time and the sense of companionship with God she experiences.

We need a broad understanding of what “relationships” on the Sabbath consist of. Three weeks ago I wrote about the man who goes to the gym on the Sabbath because he feels it connects him with his body as a creation of God, and thus with the whole big Creation. Countless people have told me over the years about their love of walking, biking, hiking, and simply sitting outdoors on the Sabbath. Beaches, mountains, and gardens (public and private) feature widely in these stories. If we’re going to call the Sabbath special day of relationships, we have to include our relationship with Creation – and with the Creator – in our understanding of “relationships.”

And we have to include other activities that nurture our relationship with God. Many people keep a Sunday Sabbath, and public worship is an anchor for the day for them. Others have talked to me about enjoying personal Bible study and reading Christian books on the Sabbath. My husband and I have a long prayer time together as a part of our Sabbath. All of this is good, but crossing over into a functional, productive pattern for Sabbath days is always a danger. When relating to God feels like work (not necessarily a bad thing on the six work days of the week), save that activity for another day.

(Next week: what I do on my Sabbath, the single question I am asked most often about this topic. Watercolor of Kaptit Island by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column. Note that the title of this blog post refers to my book, Sabbath Keeping, which came out in 2005, a bit more than a decade ago. It has been and continues to be my best selling book.)

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 

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: Stopping 

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

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

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