Category Archives: sabbath

Spiritual Rhythms: Sabbath

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Be still—cease striving—and know that I am God.
Psalm 46:10

really stop signDoing, I have found, is much easier than ceasing. We never ask, “what are you ceasing today?” It’s always, “what are you doing?” Our identities are wrapped up in the question, “what do you do for a living?” Ceasing, stopping, and resting all feel like lazy cheating.

Psalm 46 begins by expressing confidence in God in the midst of earth-shattering, mountain-moving circumstances. It goes on to speak of raging nations and tottering kingdoms. In the midst of the tumult and tempest we are told to be still—for that is precisely the time we most want to take action: to run, to flee, to fight.

These words in the psalm seem almost too gentle, though, as if a mother is gently cooing to her crying baby, “Shhh. Settle down. Everything will be all right.” But lest we underestimate the importance of ceasing, we need only look back at the Ten Commandments to understand God’s priority:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Exodus 20:8

The Hebrew word sabbath carries the sense of cease striving, put down, lay aside. What does it look like to sabbath—to cease—in a culture that values work over rest, labor over lazing, doing over not doing? I like how Pastor Eugene Peterson described the Sabbath day for he and his wife: They did nothing they had to do; it was a day of play and pray.

At the risk of overlooking the importance of a Sabbath day each week, I want to focus simply on the ceasing aspect.

Play and pray. Good advice. Not only weekly, but daily we need to stop, put aside our work, take a break, and just rest. Read a comic. Sing a song. Take a walk. Pray. Get a drink of water.

It’s a wise principle: don’t rest from work, but rather work from rest. That is, the best work flows out of a rested person; rested mentally, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It’s why weekends and vacations are important. It’s also why we need breaks in the middle of the day.

Another time we’ll look at a weekly sabbath. For now, take a break.

 

Sweep the Room: Silence

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For the past week I have been practicing the art of silence, encouraged through a Lenten Guide published by my sister’s church.

“Real silence,” writes Sister Jeremy Hall, “…is a creative waiting, a welcoming openness to God, to our deepest selves, to others… to beauty and truth and goodness, to mystery—and to the word of Scripture that reveals God, and to the Word who is God’s Son.”

Some have called silence a discipline, and it is that. But I have been practicing it more as an art: creative, imperfect, incomplete, but at the same time beautiful and inspiring. The primary way I decided to practice silence was by “fasting” from Facebook. I am not as addicted to that as some people I know, but apparently far more than I thought. After deleting the app from my phone, I found myself surprised by how few other apps on my phone I want to look at in spare moments. I also realized how much I rely on Facebook for social interaction; …a bit scary, given how thin is the veneer of relationship through social media. But at this particular time in my family’s life, when deep, meaningful flesh-and-blood relationships are scarce, I am grateful for even that thin veneer, so the break has been a challenge.

My silence this week has not been merely an abstention from social media, however. I have also taken moments of silence in various forms throughout the day. The Lenten Guide includes a Bible passage to read each day, and I have given myself permission to not read the whole passage, but to stop at a word or phrase or sentence and ponder it. That may sound ridiculously trite to you, but for a recovering legalist it is a major step on the road to recovery!

At other times I have taken a break from my work and just sat for a few moments. Not because the law or the union says I’m supposed to, and not because I particularly feel like I need a rest; I just stop. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t do anything on that break. This, too, is a psychological battle against the influences of my earlier years, when it was drilled into me that I needed to always be “making the most of every opportunity.” But sometimes, I’ve found, just sitting, doing nothing, enjoying what God has put before me is making the most of every opportunity.

Perhaps hardest for me has been to not read or write anything. I am in an unusual period right now, unlike any other I can recall in my adult life, when I have great freedom to read and write and think what I want. After eight years of graduate school, I no longer have professors giving me assignments. Away from pastoral ministry, I do not presently have the demands of preparing sermons, analyzing giving trends, or writing small group discussion guides. So I choose my own books and my own pace to read; I choose what I want to write and when to write it—and am finding a surprising amount of inspiration in my present employment. But since I want to read and write, and have the opportunity to do both, there is a discipline of silence in choosing not to read or write.

Our lives are filled with noise; some good, some bad, some indifferent. Just as God “sabbathed” (ceased, rested) from his work after creation—and instructed us to sabbath—so, too, we need to rest from the noise of life, whether that noise is talking or writing, reading or listening, emailing or Facebooking. Silence is sabbath.

Sabbath Trust

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Christ on the Sea of Galilee - Delacroix

Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854) Eugène Delacroix

Rare have been the quiet, slow Sunday mornings when I have had a chance to sit, relax, read, listen, pray…all before leaving for church as a family. As a pastor for the past five years, I’ve been the first to wake, the first to shower, the first out the door…usually all before the rest of the family is even out of bed. Now, for a time, I have the luxury of the slow and relaxed Sunday morning—something of a Sabbath, even. It is a mixed blessing, for the reason I can move slowly these days is because I am between pastoral ministries. One has concluded, the next is yet to be located. And the Between is uncomfortable on the whole. It is a time of wondering and wandering, a time of searching and not (yet) finding, a time of waiting and questioning.

The Between is a time of trusting, and if you have ever trusted someone, then you know the dichotomy of trust: it can offer both comfort and discomfort. We look for answers, for signs, for Presence. Too often, we find none of these. And yet we are called, still, to trust.

On this Sabbath day of listening, God spoke. First, through the opening minutes of a message from Psalm 73 and, of course, through the psalmist. “Truly God is good…. But as for me….” How often have I lived that reality of knowing (in my head) the goodness of God, but not feeling or experiencing or realizing—or trusting—his goodness? The psalmist (an ancient worship leader) confesses his envy of the wicked and their prosperity; he complains of their ease and folly…their arrogance. It is too much for him to understand on his own…until he goes “into the sanctuary of God.” And there he finds answers. Not, perhaps, answers to the questions of why evil men prevail or why bad things happen to good people (like worship leaders); but answers to the bigger question: “Will it always be this way? Will evil win in the end?”

And so, in my own wondering (“Will I ever find a pastoral role? Will God ever give us our dreams?”), I load up the family in the car and go “into the sanctuary of God.” (That, by the way, is Hebrew for, “we went to church.”) And there, in the presence of God and his people, he spoke again. This time, though, it was not through the sermon from Nehemiah 3, but through a song I’ve heard dozens of times over the past few years:

Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever you would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior1

As I listened to the words of this song, I began to realize the depth of what it asks. And I began to be afraid. Not the “I’m about to get mugged” sort of fear but the awesome God sort of fear. The song should scare us. It is a big, awesome, prayer that—if God really answers—will take us to places we can’t even imagine; places of fear, danger, threat; places where we are totally out of control, relying on a God we can’t see, can’t touch, and too often can’t hear. It is a prayer that demands trust…declares trust, whether we feel it or not.

And that is the life to which I am called; to which we all are called, if we want to follow this Jesus. it is a life of dichotomy: of trusting when we don’t feel trusting, of listening when all we hear is silence, of giving up control to one whose only appearance may be in clouds and fire. It is a life, at times, of walking on water; and at other times, in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, it is not waking the one who can calm the sea, but laying down next to him and sleeping.

For whether the wicked are prospering or the ocean is churning or the bills are piling, the Sabbath of trust and understanding is found in the mere presence the Savior.

1 “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”, by Joel Houston, Matt Crocker, and Salomon Ligthelm. © 2012 Hillsong Music Publishing (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

Sabbath: Trust and Rest

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After 400 years of slavery, they were finally free. It had taken some doing – infestations of frogs and insects, illness and agricultural devastation, and ultimately death – but God had rescued his people. He had brought them out of Egypt, he had made a way across the sea (on dry land, even!), and he had wiped out the pursuing enemy. Now he was leading them to their own land. Unfortunately – from the peoples’ perspective, at least – the path led through the wilderness.

Imagine the scene: over a million people, driving flocks and herds of livestock, carrying all they owned on their backs or on carts, walking into the barren Arabian wilderness. No paved roads, no rest areas, no fast food restaurants, and watering holes that are few and far between.

At least in captivity there had been comfort in the familiar and the certain. Beneath the whips of their oppressors, the Israelites still knew there would be food and water at the end of the day. In the wilderness, though….

Less than a month into the journey the grumbling began. What’s amazing to me is that God heard the grumbling and provided what the people wanted – water and food. I’m pretty sure He planned all along to provide those, but the people didn’t know the plan and so they didn’t trust Him to provide. And when he did “rain bread from heaven,” the people didn’t recognize it. In fact, when they saw what he provided—which looked like “a flake-like thing, fine as frost” on the ground—they asked, “what is it?” Or in Hebrew, “manna?”

How like me that is. I trust God to provide, as long as I know ahead of time how he’s going to provide. I trust him to take care of me, as long as he does that in a way I’m familiar with. I trust his timing, as long as it doesn’t take too long!

Exodus 16 tells the story of how God provided bread and meat for his people as they traveled in the wilderness. Here the idea of Sabbath is introduced, a day of rest. But Sabbath is not only about rest; it is about trust. It is about trusting God to provide, in his way and in his time. And Sabbath is not only about resting from work; it is about resting from worry.

Jesus said,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28–29, ESV)

To rest is to trust God. To trust God is to rest. Neither is easy. Both are necessary.

Vacation

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Vacation, all I ever wanted

Vacation, had to get away

Vacation, meant to be spent alone.

-The Go-Go’s, Vacation (1982)

Did you know that the Hebrew word “sabbath” means “vacation”? Okay, not really. It actually means “cease, rest, complete rest, or desist,” according to the Lexham Bible Dictionary. That ought to be a good definition for vacation, though, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. Too often when Americans go on vacation, we really GO on vacation, seldom stopping – ceasing, resting, desisting. (How often have you gotten back home after vacation, only to flop on the couch and bemoan, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation”?!)

I’m on vacation this week and it’s been good so far. Definitely not all rest – there’s a lot I need to think about and process through, and that takes energy; I’m not turning my mind off. But I’m being intentional about not going too much or too fast, not doing too much, and getting that thinking time in. Still, this is one of those “vacations” that, in hindsight, won’t have seemed particularly restful. Enjoyable, yes; restful, no.

I had lunch with a good friend and mentor the other day. He’s a police chaplain and gave me a couple books he uses in his work: Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement and Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement. He talked with me about “The Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster”® that cops experience: in essence, it’s a cycle that swings from a hypervigilance that views everything as a threat or potential threat – and keeps cops alive on the streets – to the complete opposite when they’re at home, the essence of detached couch potato. Neither state (hypervigilance or couch potato) is biologically normal, and it takes 18-24 hours to move from one state into the normal range where we live like a normal human being. (I have a lot of friends in law enforcement; if any of you are reading this and haven’t seen these books, then I recommend you get your hands on them. Come on, you can read 250 pages – that’s both books combined – that might save your marriage and even your life, right?)

So what do vacation, hypervigilance, and couch potatoes all have in common? Sabbath. Or rather, the need for sabbath. God said we need a sabbath day each week; one day out of seven when we “cease, rest, complete rest, or desist,” – when we “shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10). God even says the land needs a sabbath (see Leviticus 25:4) every seventh year (ask any good farmer if this makes sense!). My friend says we need sabbath every day; time to unwind, relax, put the concerns of the day behind us.

So there you have it: Sabbath. Rest. Vacation. Daily. Weekly. Annually. Sept-annually (I just made up that word; it means “every seven years”!).

“Vacation, all I ever wanted; vacation, had to get away; vacation, meant to be spent alone.” Maybe those Go-Go’s were pretty smart.