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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

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: the first post of a series

Friday April 15 2016

Sabbath Keeping a decade later: the first post of a series

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

Of clouds and attentiveness

Tuesday February 17 2015

Of clouds and attentiveness

A couple of years ago, in a moment of air-headedness, I ran my car into a post in a parking lot. The wheel well collapsed into the wheel. After calls to our insurance company and a body shop, I found myself in the cab of a tow truck.

I asked the driver, a man about 40 years old, where he was from, and learned he had been born and raised in the same suburb of Dunedin, New Zealand, where he now lives. I asked him if he had lived anywhere else, and he said he had spent a few years in Brisbane, Australia, where the consistently sunny weather drove him crazy.

He said he likes the rapid changes in weather that we experience here in Dunedin. “Just look at that sky,” he enthused. “It’s gorgeous. All those clouds. That’s what I missed in Brisbane.”

I glanced at the sky. “All those clouds” were, from my point of view, gray and drab. Admittedly, I was probably a bit shell shocked from hitting the post and hearing that awful crunch of breaking plastic, but it was not the sort of sky that I could imagine getting enthusiastic about.

The driver dropped me, and my beleaguered car, at the body shop. I picked up a loaner car and made my way home. At the first stop light, I looked at the sky again. I noticed the variations in the shades of gray within the towering clouds, and the small peeks of blue sky and yellow light around the clouds. The tow truck driver had been right. The clouds were beautiful. In order to see the beauty, I needed to look closely.

A Jewish Sabbath prayer goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” I don’t know if I’m better at sightlessness than other people, but I do know I’m exceptionally good at it.

The Sabbath has been one spiritual practice in my life that has slowed me down enough to look at the beauty of the world God made and at the miracles God continues to perform. I don’t think it’s any accident that the Jewish prayer about walking sightless among miracles is a Sabbath prayer. I’ve written a book and a lot of articles about sabbath keeping, enabling me to reflect on that particular spiritual practice as a way to be more attentive to God’s world and work around me. I still keep a sabbath, and it has been one of the joys of my life.

In the past few years I’ve been broadening out to consider other spiritual practices that encourage attentiveness and mindfulness:

  • The intentional practice of thankfulness.
  • Pausing to take a deep breath, then focusing on my surroundings for a few moments.
  • At the end of each day, looking back over my day for signs of God’s presence (the prayer of examen).
  • Saying grace at meals in a way that is not perfunctory but actually involves a few moments of attention to the smells and look of the food I’m about to eat.

Lent begins this week, and Lent is a great time to try a new habit or pattern or practice to help us draw near to God. This idea of attentiveness or mindfulness isn’t new for me, but I still need it desperately. I need the joy and peace that comes from seeing God’s gifts and God’s hand in my life. For Lent this year, I’m going to focus on attentiveness.

Here’s my question of the day: what helps you notice God’s goodness surrounding you?

(To receive an email update whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.” This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering voices.)

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