Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

Thursday June 14 2018

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

I’ve been speaking and writing about the Sabbath for more than a decade, but I recently had an aha experience about Sabbath keeping in my life and its connection to other spiritual practices.

Much of my speaking and writing about spiritual practices flows out of my own Sabbath observance. The Sabbath taught me how spiritual practices work: we know God loves us, so we set up structures in our lives to draw near to this God of abundant blessings.

When we were young adults, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months. Our apartment was in a Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, so everything was closed on the Sabbath day. Everything. We didn’t have a car, and the busses didn’t run, so it was a day with incredibly few options and a very slow pace.

For the first few months, we chafed at the sense of confinement, but later we relaxed into the rhythm of six days of activity and one day of vastly reduced options. When we returned to Seattle, more than 35 years ago, we decided to adopt a Sabbath pattern of our own. At that time, Christians weren’t talking about the Sabbath at all, so some of our friends thought we were a bit weird.

Some people told us we were legalistic. We were stunned by their comments, because we had experienced the slow pace and reduced options of the Sabbath as a major gift that we wanted to keep on receiving. Sure, the fourth commandment calls for a Sabbath, but we never experienced it as an onerous command. We had learned to receive it as a gift, and we wanted to keep receiving that gift.

My recent aha moment came when I compared Sabbath keeping to having a daily quiet time. In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that a daily quiet time with two specific components –  cognitive-based Bible study and intercessory prayer – is a non-negotiable, something all Christians have to do. As a young adult, I often tried to have a daily quiet time in that form, and I succeeded only intermittently. I have felt a lot of guilt around my quiet time failures.

I think about my grandfather, who grew up in a family with a very rigid Sabbath practice. For his parents, a quiet Sunday Sabbath was non-negotiable, and my grandfather as an active little boy was forced to sit still for one whole day every week. My grandfather stopped attending church as a young man, and seldom darkened the door of a church for the rest of this life. Far from being a gift, for him the Sabbath was one of the factors that drove him from the church.

Encouragement to have a daily quiet time didn’t drive me from the church, but the guilt associated with my failure to measure up hasn’t done much to nurture my faith. Yet the Sabbath has taught me oceans about God’s grace and love for me. The Sabbath has been a factor in shaping me into a person who loves God, receives good gifts from God and tries to respond in faithful service. The Sabbath has helped me understand that my form of a daily quiet time (although I don't use that name for it) needs to involve stillness and silence, many forms of prayer in addition to intercessory prayer, and meditation on the Bible rather than cognitive study.

We call spiritual practices “disciplines” because they require an act of the will and persistent obedience. Yet it seems increasingly clear to me that this discipline and persistence need to be rooted in receiving practices as gifts rather than as obligations.

My questions of the day: what Christian practices in your life feel like a gift? Do you perceive any ways they are shaping you?

(Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe." This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Some resources about the Sabbath:

articles I've written about the Sabbath       
my Sabbath book              
my Sabbath Bible study guide                    
my book Joy Together has a chapter on communal Sabbath keeping

Stories I ponder: We are necessary and superfluous

Thursday September 28 2017

Stories I ponder: We are necessary and superfluous

More than 30 years ago, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months, experienced the Sabbath day, loved it, and adopted a Sabbath pattern when we returned to the US. We did this entirely on our own. In the early and mid 1980s we didn’t know of any other Christians who were interested in the Sabbath except as a quirk of Jewish culture.

In the late 1980s and then into the 1990s, Christians began writing about the Sabbath. Both Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson were influential. After our years of observing a Sabbath with no support from others, Dave and I found this quite surprising and encouraging.

In the early 2000s, I wrote a chapter in a book on midlife spirituality about the Sabbath, describing Dave’s and my experience in Israel. After that I applied for, and was given, a contract for a book on the Sabbath. Writing it was such a delight because our experience had been so rich over so many years.

Around the time I was writing my book on the Sabbath, I re-read C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. The second book in the series, Perelandra, is set on a planet that has not yet experienced sin. Of course, all good plots involve tension, so a person from our world sets out to corrupt the two sinless dwellers of the planet. Another person from our planet, Ransom, the hero of the story, fights the evil man.

At the end of the book, after the battle has been won, Ransom witnesses an assembly of the angels who oversee each of the planets in our solar system. The various angels give speeches, and two of the speeches gave me language to describe one aspect of what the Sabbath had meant to me.

One of the angels says that God “has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth like a strong river which has need of a great watercourse. . . . I am infinitely necessary to you.”

Another angel replies that God “has no need at all of anything that is made. . . . I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like his, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty.” [1]

We are infinitely necessary and infinitely superfluous. Humans don’t do very well with paradoxes. Perhaps that’s why so many people resist resting in any form, including the Sabbath.

On the six days of the week, when we work in various paid and unpaid settings, we are infinitely necessary to the people around us and to God. We help God take care of the world God created as we tend to our homes and cars, and as many of us do jobs that involve taking care of the physical world.

We are also necessary because we help God take care of people: our family members, friends, co-workers, and the people we influence or care for at our jobs or in various volunteer ministries. As Lewis says, God’s love and splendor need a watercourse to flow in, and we have the privilege of being places where that water of life flows. Because we are called to partner with God in caring for the physical world and for the people God loves, we are infinitely necessary.

But what the second angel says is also true. God’s love comes to us as pure gift, “born neither of your need or my deserving, but a plain bounty.” We are infinitely superfluous. On the Sabbath day, we get to experience that we are completely unnecessary. God runs the universe for a day each week without our help.

Why is this important? Affirming both of these two realities that we must hold in tension – that we are both necessary and superfluous – helps us work hard without being dominated by ego. This paradox helps us pray diligently without taking ourselves too seriously. It helps us relax into our identity as children of a loving God who are called to partnership with God but not into equality with God. We are not God. Someone Else is.

I am convinced that the Sabbath is the best way to learn this reality. Week after week the Sabbath teaches us this truth experientially, without words, deep in our heart.

I am so grateful I happened to be reading Perelandra just as I was writing about my Sabbath book. C. S. Lewis gave me words to describe the blessing of the Sabbath in a way I never would have thought of myself.

Resources on the Sabbath

My book, Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

Articles I’ve written on the Sabbath
     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
     A Day off from God Stuff

Blog posts on the Sabbath

(Next week: how I changed my mind about women and ordination. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab.)

[1] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York, Macmillan, 1944), p. 217.

Two common questions about the Sabbath

Wednesday June 14 2017

Two common questions about the Sabbath

I speak and teach a lot about the Sabbath because I have kept a Sabbath for more than 30 years. Plus I have written a book, a Bible study guide, and many articles about it. When I speak or teach, I get two questions quite frequently: what’s the difference between a Sabbath and a day off, and what do you do on your Sabbath? I’ll use some thoughts about the first question as a bridge to my answer to the second question.

A day off and a Sabbath are similar because they are both a day to stop working. Many people, however, have found that a day off can easily become a harried blur of errands and chores with nothing Sabbath-like in it. So what is the difference?

Part of the difference lies in a person’s intent, and the intent shapes the actions on the Sabbath day. The two versions of the Ten Commandments have two different reasons to keep the Sabbath day, which illuminate two of my three significant Sabbath intentions.

1. Remember creation.

In Exodus 20:11, the reason for the Sabbath goes back to creation: “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.” Because God is our Creator, and God rested on the seventh day, we stop our own productivity and remember that God made us. We also remember that everything good we have comes from our loving Creator.

Many of the Sabbath keepers I interviewed for my book and articles find that the best way to draw near to God on the Sabbath is to enjoy nature: a walk, bike ride, beach, or garden. On the Sabbath we are invited to enjoy God as Creator.

2. Remember freedom from slavery.

In Deuteronomy 5:15, we are invited to keep a Sabbath because we have been freed from slavery. “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.” We know that in Christ, we have been freed from sin, evil, death and fear of death. The Sabbath is a day to celebrate the freedom God gives.

For most people, spending a day running errands or doing housework doesn’t feel like freedom. What activities do you need to stop in order to feel free? What activities help you feel free? The answers to those questions should shape your Sabbath day.

3. Stopping.The Hebrew root word that “Sabbath” comes from means stop, cease, desist, or rest. Stopping much of our activity one day a week helps us remember God is God and we are not. We are not in charge. We are not at the center. We are not indispensible. We stop work so we can know, deep in our hearts, that Someone Else runs the universe and we do not.

I check my email first thing in the morning on my Sabbath day, and then I don’t look at it for the rest of the day. Why? So I can act on the truth that I am not indispensible. (I also experience freedom from email for a day.)

What else do I do? My husband and I spend about 45 minutes praying together on our Sabbath day. Half of that time is prayers of thankfulness. God is Creator and has freed us from so many forms of slavery. Taking the time to notice the good gifts and the various forms of freedom in our lives helps my husband and me lift our focus off of the hard things of life.

My major Sabbath activity is reading novels. Someone Else is running the universe and I can relax. I sometimes cook, skype with family members, or sit on a bench at the beach or in a park. Sometimes I go to the gym and enjoy experiencing the profound truth that God created my body. The day has no “shoulds” about it. I stay out of my home office so I won’t be tempted to work, and I stay out of stores so I won’t be tempted to focus on what I don’t have.

The Sabbath is a day to stop our everyday activities so we can experience God as Creator – the One who gives every good gift – and Redeemer – the One who frees us from slavery. The intent shapes the day.

(Next week I begin a new series on initiative in friendships. Illustration by Dave Baab: Me on my Sabbath day. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

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

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

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