Thursday, June 30, 2011

Like a Bird on a Ledge

Between June 13-20, my daughter, my fifteen-month-old grandson and I traveled to Mississippi to visit with my son-in-law before his deployment to the Middle East. The first day we traveled all the way from Moore, Oklahoma, to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Actually, we tried to find a motel starting in Monroe, Louisiana, and everywhere we stopped was filled up and so we ended up driving to Vicksburg, which was the absolute furthest I had contemplated driving. The next day, we visited the Vicksburg Military Park for about 4 hours, swam at the hotel, and then ate a nice dinner at a local restaurant. The next day, we traveled to Camp Shelby to pick up my son-in-law, Rhea, who had leave from Thursday-Sunday, but was able to leave base on Wednesday afternoon. We then drove to Biloxi, Mississippi, checked into our hotel, and then ate seafood on the gulf coast.

My task was to provide childcare for my grandson 24-7, so my daughter and her husband could spend as much time together as possible except for occasions when we all went somewhere together. They had their own room and my grandson and I shared a room. I guess it truly was more service than sabbath, but it gave me a whole new appreciation for single parenting. While my grandson was well-behaved for a 15-month-old, he wore me out!

So what is the relationship between sabbath and service? When we all went to the beach and waded in the gulf, or ate meals together, or fished in a backwater inlet, the fellowship was great notwithstanding the dread of knowing it was short-lived. I am deciding that one way of remembering the sabbath is to be able to set apart a few minutes here and there, and not just a long block of time. It is amazing to reflect on God in the midst of his wondrous creation! One moment that stands out to me was that my grandson Kendrick caught his very first fish! Unfortunately, I took the picture of him and the fish on my cell phone and it is so old that I cannot figure out how or even if the picture can be downloaded. (My technology guru son says it cannot be done). It was very difficult to say goodbye and the picture of Kendrick waving bye to his daddy is heartwrenching. As of today, Rhea is on his way overseas for the next 9-11 months.

As I journey through this challenging time with my daughter and grandson, I realize how exhausting it is emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I really need to get a handle on this Sabbath thing. I need margins in my life and less scheduled times. I also realize how much I personally need solitude with no one else around, including family. I am reminded of Bob Biehl's statement years ago, that we all need times where we are resting "like a bird on a ledge." Have you ever watched a bird just sitting for a long time on a ledge? I have so much difficulty just being and not doing something. Adele Calhoun, in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (2005), defines solitude as "to leave people behind and enter into time alone with God" (13). Calhoun defines sabbath as "to set apart one day a week for rest and worship of God" (13). It is with the "rest" portion of that definition that I have trouble. Lord, help me to regularly set aside time to rest in You, "like a bird on a ledge."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ebb and Flow - Rolling with the Tide

I’m still not good at sabbath.

I am trying. But I am still not good at it.

For the past several weeks reading – basically every day – I have read an article or two about the role sabbath – in various contemporary contexts and writings. I will plan to pull excerpts and “clippings” from these readings to post to this shared blog soon.

My fellowship opportunity for this summer has me in Thailand – relatively free of most concerns "back home" (though I miss my family terribly and am cognizant of all my wife is doing to support my time away. But, I feel as harried – and maybe more harried here away from family compared when I am at home. I realize that much of that has to do with the way I establish my own goals and expectations – and that is making me mindful of the need to be mindful (!) in setting sabbath goals – and in setting my own life expectations. I am especially being attuned to the fact that I need to not “schedule” so much of my time and leave more time for “freedom” and “space.”

As I am here though, I realize that I had *planned* to “get a lot of work done” while here.

I brought numerous books – in hard-copy and on my Kindle device.

I have several writing projects (most of them big projects, not just blog entries!) that I want to focus on. And, while I had expected to be in a study program while here – for that is why I came – my experiences in other summer fellowships led me to think that this summer would be – like other summers – a morning of shared lecture/study/conversation – followed by an afternoon for reading and research – with evenings mostly free.

After nearly three weeks now here, though, I have come up against the brutal reality that my study program here is from 8:30 to nearly 5:00 – every work day. I find myself spending more time sitting in a classroom – for hours per day – than I have spent “sitting” “in the classroom” since I left High School! In no field of study or in no occupation I have had for some 2 decades have I been “sitting” for more than 3-4 hours per day – and this has me in class and at lunch sitting for eight hours a day – everyday!

On the one hand that means, obviously, that I’m “just sitting” – but it also means that where I had planned to have time to structure my own reading and research for 4-5 hours every afternoon – those hours have been “taken” from me – at least taken from what I had expected. That means I’ve “lost” some 20 hours per week that I had planned to use for the “projects” of my summer.

Needless to say, this has forced me to recalibrate my plans and expectations.

For most of the past three weeks I have felt frustrated and anxious – feeling like I am literally losing my hours!

But, today, while I intentionally took time to Sabbath – I was able to hit my “reset” button. I was able to reflect on what I can do – and can’t do. What I can control – and what I can’t control. What I can realistically expect – and what I can’t plan for. And I have recognized that I need to take my projects and ‘step back’ from the goals on time – and focus on the goal of making progress over time – instead of toward a specific deadline!

I still want to advance in my goals. But I do not need to force arbitrary or contrived deadlines on them. They are *my* projects and what is most important is not that I get them done with stress and tension – but that I learn to plug away on them with attentive awareness to the fact that they are but one small part of the large scope and breadth of my life.

I need to learn better to “go with the flow” and “ebb with the tides” of life.
Today has been a good sabbath. I needed that.

Oh, and it helped that I was literally “going with the flow” and “ebbing with the tide” as the waves of the Gulf of Thailand pushed me back and forth in the water – at the beach at Hua-Hin, Thailand. Thank you, LORD, for the surf. The sea always reminds me of the largeness of Your Creation and the smallness of my petty concerns and worries.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Israel's Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology

I recently finished Walter Brueggemann's book, Israel's Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology. I found it interesting and challenging. Brueggemann takes a look at Israel's liturgy and praise, namely the Psalms. Through the Psalms he tracks the various reasons that these Psalms were formed. It is all about world-making. Some of the Psalms are made in response to the deliverance God has affected for His people. They are specific in their nature, describing God as One who acts. Some Psalms are later employed to legitimate royal authority. God is described but seems to have no action. The royal authority renders God as one who legitimates their authority and does not act to overthrow the status quo. There is a tension that grows between these two uses of the Psalms. Psalms threaten to break out against authority that has become abusive and oppressive. It threatens to overthrow regimes of malevolent power. The use of the Psalms to maintain the status quo seeks to secure the realm and maintain itself through the use of liturgy. Brueggemann's final chapter then goes to expound some of the ways that the American church has fallen into some of these same traps. We allow the culture to shape our liturgy rather than our liturgy to shape our world. We render God an idol rather than an untame God that we cannot control and that might call for us to change. Are the Church and Christians willing to live in relationship with a God who acts and calls us to act? Or, are we simply going to bow the knee to those principalities and powers that seek to keep us under thumb so that God's Kingdom is not made known but is subverted? True praise remembers a God that delivered us from the depths of bondage so that we might not return to that bondage but live gloriously free lives that reflect and honor God in all we do! When this happens, the world is changed dramatically.

In thinking about Sabbath, perhaps it serves a similar function in our own lives. It is doxology that keeps us from simply accepting our culture's idolatry and ideology. Rather, it is an imaginative discourse with God and the community in order that God's Kingdom might come to fruition within our world. Sabbath is ignored and pushed to the side because it is truly dangerous. It threatens those authorities and powers that seek legitimacy over our lives. Sabbath undermines the status quo that renders the weak and the powerless vulnerable. Instead, Sabbath is interacting with a living God (not an idol) that is continuously transforming us so that we are Christ-like in our world. And, if that is true, we cannot remain idle (idol?) as the Christian community in our world. Is rest a part of reclaiming true worship? Without a doubt! There is a significant difference between rest and idleness.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Carpentry and Sabbath

For the past month I have been working with a friend doing various carpentry jobs around the OKC metro area. I have done such work before on a limited basis. So, most of this has been learning new skills and getting to know my friend better. This has been a wonderful new experience. On the days that I have worked, I have generally woken up very early and worked long hours (up to 15) those days. It can be strenuous work physically and it can definitely test your patience when things are not cooperating as you might hope. However, with that said, working this job and getting to know my friend better has been a wonderful Sabbath. My primary occupation is a youth pastor and a Master's student. This is who I am. It can become very difficult to live out each of these "jobs." Learning a new skill and spending time with a friend that I can discuss difficult issues has allowed me to pause, reflect, and learn. It has broken my regular rhythms and has become a means of grace. Odd that I should say something like that about carpentry and working long, hard hours. As I reflect upon why this is Sabbath-like, I can only come to one conclusion. Working carpentry with my friend allows me to rest from my typical concerns. It is therapeutic. I can rest my mind and find enjoyment in what my hands have made. It's not about how much money I can make, but it really has become a way to deepen a relationship that I value and learn new skills that I find interesting. It is a life-giving endeavor. It is a way for me to pray and play, yet oddly gives me rest in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life. Who would have thought that Sabbath can be found in building closets, putting in doors, or trimming out houses. It's not primarily about the activities we perform, but rendering our lives open to a fresh touch from God in the midst of the places we find ourselves.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sabbath as Relationship Building - apart from prescribed time parameters.

I (Marty) have been gearing up for travel – and have been traveling – for the past number of weeks.

I’ve been in Bangkok, Thailand for the past 40 hours – and it took me 30 hours to get here in flights across the globe. (I am exactly 12 time zones away – half-way-round-the-world – from home.) In the previous weeks I took time to travel with my family to Colorado – and with my wife to the East Coast – NC and VA.

The days in NC and VA with my wife – did not feel like a Sabbath, though I was “on vacation.” We camped on the beach near Kitty Hawk, NC – and then in the Shenandoah Mountains where I had opportunity to do a day-hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT). We also spent several nice nights in hotels in Richmond and Williamsburg. We spent a lot of time on the road – between our locations for the days we were there . It did not feel like Sabbath – but, I wonder if it was truly a kind-of-Sabbath – in so far as it was intentional and specific time with my wife – her and I alone, which is always delightful.

Our family trip to Colorado was more haphazard and last minute. It did not feel like a sabbath. I have two friends facing different procedures related to cancer. But, it proved to be a kind of Sabbath – though, again, harried with road time. I developed good friendships with many persons when I was a pastor in Colorado in the mid 1990s. One of those families has built a large cabin in northwest of Colorado Springs near Pike’s Peak, outside Woodland Park. That family hosted my family in their home – and, additionally, hosted a BBQ for several families that were connected to my ministry years in Colorado.

In both cases of my travel with wife and with family – I was busy – I was driving from location to location with my spouse – or I was driving to and from persons in hospitals and in dinner settings. I was busy. I was active. But it was a-kind-of-Sabbath. It was most definitely a break from my “six-day-a-week” work week – as I was not going into the office on the weeks that I was out of State – nor was I at the church facilitating church work.

I was busy and I was active, but I was engaged in shared relational energy – more than work.

I did not go to make the hospital calls in Colorado because I was “pastoring” someone – but because I was visiting friends.

I did not drive all over NC and VA because I had to – but because we chose to.

One of the issues I would not about Sabbath – in this regard, then – is that Sabbath is about rest and relaxation – but it does not have to be a total cessation of all activity. Rather, Sabbath can include activity – but activity not motivated toward some goal or work or obligation – but activity shaped in the context of relational inspiration and joyful fellowship.

In NC and VA – I shared active, busy daily routines – but full of vibrant life in conversation with my wife!

In CO – I shared active, busy daily routines – but full of vibrant life in conversation with shared friends and family.

Sabbath has been defined as being about occupational inactivity – but perhaps Sabbath is as much about intentional relational activity.

Sabbath has been defined as “having” to be “at church” in prescribed parameters – but perhaps Sabbath is as much about being with family and friends as being “somewhere” at “some time.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sabbath as "Unplugging"-an interview with Eugene Peterson

I must admit that Eugene Peterson is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters when it comes to the discussion of pastoral life and sabbath.  Here is an excerpt from an interview Eugene recently did with Gabe Lyons:

What should a Sabbath look like in my life? What does it look like in yours?
A day of unplugging. That's a good way to put it. When I was a pastor, the Sabbath was on Monday, because Sunday was a workday for me. My wife and I didn't practice Sabbath when we had small children, because it took us a few years to figure out our rhythm.
But typically on a Monday, we would pack a lunch, and we would go to the woods. We'd hike for three or four hours in silence. Then we prayed, had lunch, talked, and worked our way back home.
We'd get home by the time the kids were home. Interesting, they loved this. We weren't uptight about anything because it was the Lord's Day. We played and we prayed and didn't do anything that wasn't necessary. Unplugged everything, basically.
It transformed our lives, our family life, our personal lives, and our congregational life. Not everybody did it, but they saw us doing it. Somehow that gave them a sense that they don't have to do what the world's telling them to do. It really does take effort and determination. Those of us who want to keep the Sabbath are going to have to be pretty intentional about it. I've been doing this for at least 40 years consistently, and I've had dozens of students and parishioners who have also adopted this practice. Most of us find it's the most radical thing we've ever done-and the most creative."

I want to highlight two things that I gained from this excerpt.
First, I love the imagery of Sabbath as unplugging. As I blog I can see at the least 10 different cords or cables that are "plugged into" something. Imagine for a day that I simply unplugged all of those things and let them rest and be. The aesthetics of my office would be impacted very positively. Think about the simplicity of all of those items being "unplugged".  Not only do I have cords strewn about, but my calendar is open just one tab over from my blogger tab. I simply have to glance at the colorful Google calendar to see all that I, personally, am "plugged into".  Again, imagine if only for a brief period I "unplugged". If I unplugged from the role of professor, the role of campus minister, the role of landlord, the role of _________. If I only unplugged and simply existed as Eli, as a child of God in need of his presence, guidance, and Fatherly ways. Sabbath as "unplugging", I think Eugene is on to something.

Second, Eugene mentions his own personal Sabbath practice when he had children that were school aged. As many of you know I am the father of 2 month old twin boys. Needless to say I can't for the life of me figure out what Sabbath, "unplugging" looks like in the midst of keeping up with Ian and Nolan. I am constantly plugging a bottle in one of their mouths to satisfy their appetite. Eugene and his wife Sabbath together without the kids. They bring the kids in on the Sabbath practice later, but they intentionally share this time together. They unplug together, then they can stay unplugged with their children later in the day. That seems to make the idea of Sabbath with small children or children in general far less daunting.  And the effect of this practice was revolutionary for the family, it "...gave them a sense that they don't have to do what the world's telling them to do." No, they are free to do what God tells them to do.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Working on the Sabbath

"So, what is your position about working on the Sabbath?" One of my dearest lifetime friends, while he and his family were visiting from out-of-state over Memorial Day weekend, raised this question while he and I (and both our spouses) removed and replaced some rotted wood trim on the front of my house this past Sunday afternoon. This led to many questions and some discussion about the true meaning of the Sabbath. I struggled, because while I did not ask for help, it was volunteered, I did take advantage of his expertise (he is an architect by trade) to accomplish something that was years overdue and on my "must do" list this summer. Through the challenges we faced in this project, I believe that we affirmed, bonded, and strengthened our long-term relationship in ways that are difficult to explain. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." I made the argument that "when the ox is in the ditch everyone has to turn to, even on the Sabbath." Removing rotted wood and nails, replacing it with new rough cedar, priming, measuring, sawing, caulking, remeasuring, fitting, leveling, and refitting trim, and nailing it up. Not being used to much manual labor, I was so sore the next morning it was difficult to get up. Honestly, we experienced a depth of communion in the midst of some very hard work that would not have happened if we had simply lounged around in the house watching TV. It was ultimately refreshing, renewing, and restoring - and it was work.