Under Construction…

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On my way home Sunday night I drove past a car with a bumper sticker that read, “I heart construction!” The bumper sticker neglected to include the usual “…said no one ever.” Nonetheless, as I read it I knew that if there were a font for snark, this bumper sticker would have utilized it to convey the mood of its author.

Other than construction workers and their families, most Americans would agree that they despise construction and the inevitable traffic that ensues. It slows us down, lengthening the journey toward our destination. And for me, it’s all about the destination. I can’t think of a single good use of my time in a traffic jam other than, perhaps, reviewing Greek/Hebrew flashcards or answering emails…but I can’t…because I’m annoyed, obsessively calculating how I can get around the traffic.

In truth, construction is probably the best thing for our vehicles even if it sucks for our schedules. As someone who has had to replace a tire or two (okay, three) due to deep potholes, I can honestly say that the extra time in traffic saves me both the cash and time it takes to get my tire replaced. Bad roads can wear on your tires but crappy, nearly undriveable roads can damage the entire wheel and other parts of the car. The construction, though loathsome, prevents larger, more costly damages.

I continued driving and began to think about the loathsome, unavoidable, and sudden moments of construction within our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ…times when deep work needs to be done in our hearts….times when God’s grace and truth bring us toward deeper restoration in Christ…times when God is engaging in the active work of redemption and renewal in our hearts. You’re coasting through life and, all of a sudden, you start seeing the orange cones, the blinking lights, the neon vested construction workers, and all the other indicators alerting you that it is indeed time to slow down so that the bumpy places in your heart can be smoothed out.

Our relationships with family and friends, our work and/or ministry endeavors, our civic and political engagement…virtually every aspect of our lives will inevitably bring us to these redemptive moments because, simply put, we’re broken people, even amidst our striking beauty. When the inevitable redemptive moment comes, our response should be one of faithful attentiveness, slowing ourselves to walk even more humbly with God so that we don’t destroy ourselves or those nearest us. Yet, I know few people who, sensing that still, small voice telling us to slow down and attend, answer, “here I am, Lord…your servant is listening.” Frustration, denial, avoidance, or apathy are just a few (unhealthy) responses to the liberating work that the Holy Spirit wants to do within us.

It seems we have an unhealthy fear of these redemptive moments…maybe because we don’t really see them as redemptive at all, just unnecessary encumbrances to our lives. Even still, perhaps we fear our looming death because, after all, there can be no redemption without death…and no one wants to die. Perhaps the root of our fear is a false belief that, should we courageously attend to these redemptive moments, God will abandon us, leaving us to wallow in misery, flailing about as we sink into despair. But God never abandons us; He tends to us even as He refines us, making us more like Jesus Christ in the process.

I’m reminded of the story of Elijah. After orchestrating an epic display of God’s glory over and against the false prophets of Baal and Asherah, Elijah murders all of said false prophets. Queen Jezebel vows to render the same fate to Elijah that he delivered to her prophets. So he flees into the wilderness and finds himself underneath a broom tree lamenting his very existence. He is in serious despair and decides to sleep it off rather than face his plight. What happens next is probably one of the sweetest, most tender moments in Scripture. The Lord sends His angels to tend to Elijah, preparing food and drink for him as he sleeps, gently nudging him to rise and eat…twice. Elijah is so nourished by the presence and nurture of God that he finds the strength to journey forty days and nights to meet God at Horeb where he spends the night in a cave. There the Lord meets Elijah…not in winds, earthquakes, and fires…but silence. It is in this silence that Elijah receives revelation, deeper purpose and the instructions to carry it out.

As we enter into our own redemptive moments, we often long for an epic, John McClane-style conclusion. We want to know that God will annihilate our enemies, resolve our issues, and secure a publication deal so we can tell our story of triumph. However, God’s grand story of redemption is a bit more raw, earthy, and humbling. Sometimes we walk away with scars or a limp because we’ve been changed forever by this encounter with ourselves and with our God. Maybe the point isn’t triumph but death…dying to ourselves so that we can rise to new life in Christ. This new life is secured not by our self-help strategies but through God’s faithful presence with us. He tends to our souls through gracious brothers and sisters who bear with us in love but He also guides us toward places of deep communion with Him in anticipation of His revelation. God’s presence and God’s people are essential.

So, then, redemptive moments present us with three invitations to consider. First, to walk slowly and humbly with God amidst our own redemptive moments as He does the deep work of restoration in our hearts. Second, to humbly accept the companionship of those whom God would have tend to us. Third, to be the faithful, patient brothers and sisters who God can use to tend to others amidst their own redemptive moments. God makes everything beautiful in its time so let us remember to slow down and attend to His renewal in our own lives and the world around us.

Sabbath as a Way of Life

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Much like Jewish custom dictates, practicing Sabbath must become a lifestyle. Our lives reach their pinnacle in the worshipful rest of the Sabbath, which then permeates our work throughout the remainder of the week. We must understand the rhythm between worshipful rest and kingdom work and we must do both in sustainable, life-giving ways.  To conclude this series on Sabbath, I want to spend some time briefly discussing the importance of contemplation, community, and faithfulness in my practice of Sabbath.

Contemplation, which I refer to as study, learning, and thinking, has been tremendously helpful in cultivating a more rhythmic way of life. Scripture as well as books written by Christian (and non-Christian) writers and researchers have been my greatest sources. My academic background (Industrial/Organizational Psychology) coupled with my own personal experience with burnout deepened my curiosity on these topics as well. This has allowed me to more easily integrate the heart of Sabbath into my life rather than simply following a religious custom. This has also allowed me to grasp the many intricate ways work and reconciliation are handled throughout Scripture illuminating the fact that God’s movement in the world is not restricted to the four walls of the church on Sunday mornings. Out of this contemplation comes my commitment to practice Sabbath and my ability to see more of God’s movement in the world, both of which required me to do less, not more.

Relying on my community for insight, support, and accountability has also proved helpful in developing a rhythmic way of life. People are diverse and so are the lives we lead. Some of us are married with children. Some of us are single with no children. Some of us manage homes, home school our children, and volunteer a great deal at church. Some of us work outside of the home and maintain a full list of responsibilities within our workplaces. Developing  a rhythm of life in these varied contexts requires serious juggling, goal-setting, and a few failures along the way. Which projects should I decline? Should my children engage in all the after-school activities that pique their curiosity? Will I destroy opportunities for fruitful relationships if I decline this volunteer opportunity? Am I failing to be a team player if I refrain from answering emails today? Having conversations with friends and loved ones who have to navigate similar madness in their own lives helps me try on possible solutions vicariously. It also helps me realize that the world doesn’t collapse on one e-mail, one volunteer opportunity, one project, or one extra-curricular activity. There is always a trade-off…there are always consequences…but, ultimately, life moves on and our Companioning God continues to sustain us.

A sense of faithfulness is another key aspect of my own Sabbath practice for two reasons. First, I’ve learned that being faithful to Sabbath practice isn’t always about “securing the day.” Sometimes life, work, family, or homework simply happens so we have to adjust. Maybe a full day can’t happen but perhaps I can squeeze in a really great meal with family or friends. A couple hours at the end of an appointment-ridden day can be tremendously more life-giving than an entire day of “resting” with Netflix. Be faithful to the premise of Sabbath (creating space for worshipful rest) instead of simply observing the custom. Second, I’ve learned to cultivate a life of faithful presence within my Sabbath practice that extends into the remainder of the week.[1] On the Sabbath, we learn to dwell…with God, ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors…without fixing. As we dwell, we become attuned to something happening outside of ourselves. This is incredibly humbling for those of us who think our innovative problem-solving is exactly what the world needs. Often times I find a pretty sharp difference between what I believe I should do and what would actually be helpful, supportive, or good. Be mindful, this is not a dismissal of our insights and talents but a glorious invitation into something much larger than ourselves…but we’ll miss the invitation if we don’t learn to dwell, to observe, to sit quietly, to listen.

Building Sabbath rest and kingdom work (or participation) as a mindset permits for a healthy rhythm of life. In a world that idolizes work and uses busyness to bolster importance, it is critical for God’s people to experience the freedom of saying, “enough.” We realize that God’s people are promised rest because He cares for us. As we dwell on the Sabbath, we develop a “fear-of-the-Lord” as we encounter a world (and a God) we cannot control or manipulate.[2] This humbles our souls while also freeing us to rest well on the Sabbath and engage the world in healthy ways when we’re done. In that, we begin to notice the ways in which God is already at work, redeeming the world around us, waiting for us to align ourselves with what He is already doing. In Sabbath, our hearts are formed by the presence of God, cultivating an awareness of Him throughout all of life and a longing for eternity in Him.

Grace and peace in finding a meaningful rhythm of life…

[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in a Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 244-248.

[2] Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 117.

Exploring the Theological Implications of our Work

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Then 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[1]

To practice Sabbath rightly, with celebration and reverence for God, is to take on a worldview that centers God in our hearts, our work, and our lifestyle. In Judaism, the people prepare for the Sabbath to ensure that the day is unencumbered by the toil of life. More importantly, the entire week is oriented toward the Sabbath so that Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday are spent remembering the previous Sabbath while Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are spent looking forward to and preparing for the Sabbath.[2] Herschel notes, “the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not the interlude but the climax of living.”[3] As we observe the rhythm between cycles of worshipful rest and meaningful work, we soon discover that our Lord not only makes the Sabbath significant but also bestows value upon our work. A theology of work is necessary in a discussion on Sabbath because it serves to “humble our hearts” by aligning us with God’s work in the world.

Very few Christians have embarked on the journey toward fostering a comprehensive theology of work. Nonetheless, there are a number of explorations available that speak to the importance of this issue in contemporary, Western society. David Jensen’s theology of work posits that our work is essentially a response to the Triune work of God. “Before we ever lift a finger in labor, God is already at work, redeeming the world in Jesus Christ. Because this redemption is the grand work of the cosmos, we are freed from the hubris of overestimating our labors and the denigration of believing they are worthless.”[4] He goes on to say, “What endures in the divine economy are not particular tasks, but the relationships that magnify and share God’s life with others …Good work has value because it enhances and enlivens relationships.”[5]

Miroslav Volf offers similar thoughts as he discusses the eschatological significance of human work. Volf affirms that there are limits to human work. Our work does not usher in the new creation (the fullness of the Kingdom of God) in an evolutionary sense. New creation is not the result of “linear development” so we should not feel the pressure to push “history into a utopian developmental scheme.” Rather, he advocates a “kaleidoscope theory of social life” which affirms that there is progress at certain points in time while, simultaneously, the world is deteriorating day by day.[6] Instead, he states, “placed in the context of kingdom-participation, mundane human work for worldly betterment becomes a contribution – a limited and imperfect one in need of divine purification – to the eschatological kingdom, which will come through God’s action alone.” He goes on to say that “through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way” yet the final consummation of the new creation is a God’s work alone.[7]

There is much to learn about the way in which the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) carries out its work. There is a beautiful mutuality, unity, and service that exemplify the character and fullness of all three persons within the Trinity.[8] All members of the Trinity function at their fullness and no person within the Trinity is diminished by the fullness of others. There is distinction but not division within the Trinity. “Distinction and difference are intrinsic to the divine life, but not in a way that assigns specific tasks only to one person.”[9] Each member of the Trinity supports the collective work of the Trinity, involving themselves in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world. As we deepen our theology and practice of work, our understanding of the Triune God should inform our unity, flexibility, mutuality, and collectivism as colleagues in this ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only does this permit us to use our gifts and talents as God has called us but to rest knowing that God’s larger story of redemption continues, even when we rest, through His many talented workers.

Both Jensen and Volf offer sobering assessments of our work in relation to God’s work. Our Triune God is already at work creating, redeeming, and sanctifying and the work of the final consummation is His alone. We have been invited to participate in this beautiful ministry of reconciling men and women back to God and each other. We humbly contribute our “mundane work for worldly betterment” that God blesses, breaks, and gives according to the needs of the world. While we have a responsibility to participate in this ministry of reconciliation, it does not depend solely on us. As we embrace this truth we are able to enter the Sabbath, as if all our work is done and to enter our work, knowing that we function in concert with the Triune God who is reconciling all things unto Himself.[10]

We also hear a description of the relations between members of the Trinity that illuminates the way in which we should work alongside each other in unity, mutuality, and service. We are not only called to humbly contribute toward reconciliation but to also create room for others to fully invest their talents as well. When our spouses, colleagues, and fellow citizens function in their absolute fullness, we should not be threatened. We should be excited and inspired, seeking to bless or join their efforts or to simply serve them, offering the kind of support that makes their contributions possible. We see this in action when the Father and the Holy Spirit actively take part in the life, work, and resurrection of Christ showing us that the economy of God’s Kingdom is not zero-sum. We all have talents to invest and invest them we shall. The challenge is to embody the kind of humility that allows us to see the potentialities of others and to use those potentialities in ways that edify. When we practice making room for each other, we’re able to see God at work in and through the people around us, which bolsters our ability to trust and rest in His sovereignty.

Learning to rest into God’s sovereignty on the Sabbath and to humbly contribute to His Kingdom throughout the week are both acts serving to “humble our hearts” because they roots our identities in Him alone. A rooted identity enables us to participate more fully in our work, contributing to the world in ways that honor God and bring about reconciliation. Even more, it prepares our hearts not just for the present world but for eternity. Heschel tells us that “unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of him who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.”[11] When the Sabbath becomes a worldview, our entire lives are brought into submission to our Lord, which cultivates meaningful contributions toward reconciliation and a genuine longing for God’s presence in heaven and on earth. More to come…

[1] Matthew 11:28-30, NASB

[2] Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Disciplines, Location 181

[3] Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Location 295.

[4] David H. Jensen, Response Labor: a Theology of Work (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 43.

[5] Jensen, Response Labor: a Theology of Work, 57.

[6] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 84.

[7] Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, 100.

[8]Jensen, Response Labor: a Theology of Work, 53.

[9]Jensen, Response Labor: a Theology of Work, 52.

[10] Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Location 534.

[11] Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Location 909.

Sabbath as Covenantal Practice

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Sabbath as Covenantal Practice

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you should not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For, in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”[1]

We first learn of the Sabbath in the Genesis account of creation. We are told that “by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done… then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”[2] We find our Lord engaged in the work of creating and then we find Him resting from His labors, with holy contentedness and pleasure. Upon the creation of humanity, God empowers them as stewards over all the earth and everything within it.[3] The richness of the creation account shows us that both rest and work are part of God’s created order. Our curiosity should be piqued as we consider the implications of both for our world and our worship.

The Lord brings Israel out of Egyptian slavery and eventually invites them to observe the Sabbath.[4] The nation of Israel, having been enslaved in extremely harsh working conditions for over 400 years, is being set apart as the people of God.  As Moses leads the people out of Israel, their circumstances change. They are no longer slaves to productivity but human beings worshiping a faithful God. They learn to trust God’s sovereignty and provision as He showers them with manna and quail. When each of the Israelites takes what is necessary for themselves and their families, there is enough so that God’s abundance and faithfulness becomes a fixture in their minds. On the sixth day, they are instructed to gather enough manna for two days instead of one because, “tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (emphasis added).[5]

Sabbath is reiterated throughout the Old Testament as a covenant sign that God has rescued His people out of Egypt [6] and sanctified them as His people [7]. Sabbath becomes a practice to humble their souls.[8] God’s people are able to rest from their labors; they are humanized by this covenant. Sabbath becomes a part of the identity of Israel, a sign of their covenant as God’s people, of His work in and around them, and of their faith in Him. Over time, the people of God are marked by their remembrance and observance of the Sabbath. Even when they had lost their temple and land, the Sabbath command took root as a discipline that continued to form them as a people, teaching them to become attuned to “holiness in time” rather than space.[9] According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sabbath becomes “our great Cathedrals and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.”[10]

The Jewish Shabbat is practiced from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The Hebrew word for Sabbath means “stop” which is exactly what would take place in Tel Aviv at sundown on Friday. Lynne Baab remembers that it was as if the entire world stopped, a measured silence falling over the land “like fresh water flowing into our lives.”[11] As a Christian couple temporarily stationed in Tel Aviv, Baab and her husband were somewhat astonished at the giddy urgency with which the residents of Tel Aviv scurried along the streets making plans and picking up supplies before heading home to prepare for the Sabbath. Note that Sabbath is not something we stumble upon but something we prepare for in advance of the day. That preparation adds to the celebratory nature of the day, reducing our anxieties as we enter into a period of rest.

Once all preparations have been made and the sun has set, the “Sabbath Queen” is welcomed into the Jewish home like a bride to greet the family signified by the lighting of the Kiddush candles, to “observe” and “remember.” The lighting of the candles is followed by the Kabalat Shabbat, an ancient evening prayer service of introductory psalms and references to the creation theme. There are blessings for children (who are full participants in the Sabbath ritual), singing, blessings for the wife by the husband, blessing of the wine, ritualistic hand-washing and blessing of the challot bread, study of the Torah, delicious food and easy conversation.[12] The people of God are “commanded, principally to be joyful and restful on Shabbat, to hold great feasts, sing happy hymns, dress in your finest. Married couples even get rabbinical brown points for having sex on the Sabbath.”[13]

Marva Dawn tells us that the “early Christians celebrated both the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day (Saturday) in keeping with their Jewish heritage, and the Lord’s Day on the first day of the week (Sunday), in keeping with their recognition that Christ’s resurrection was the major turning point for their faith.”[14] Sunday didn’t become the exclusive day for Christian worship until persecution dispersed Christians, causing great expansion amongst the Gentiles. Constantine ultimately decrees Sunday observance in C.E. 321. In this, Dawn believes Christianity “lost its sense of the importance of keeping the Sabbath day holy.”[15]

Laura F. Winner, echoes this sentiment. She believes the missing piece of Sabbath is “a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and, perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God.”[16] She goes on to describe the mentality of our current culture to consume the Sabbath, pointing out that the focus of our contemporary Sabbath is on increasing our productivity and pampering ourselves. As Eugene Peterson notes, Sabbath is not primarily about us or how it benefits us. It is about God and how God forms us.”[17] If we are to return to the Sabbath, as a Church and as a society, then we must return to the One whom grants us rest. The Sabbath is indeed meant to be full of rest, joy, and peace, all of which flows from the hand of God.

It is important to note that Sabbath is to be celebrated with joy and delight. As Christ remarks, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In our observance of Sabbath we must remember the Source of our delight…not ourselves but our Lord. The Sabbath is incomplete when it is not properly oriented toward Him because the day is robbed of its formative qualities. A day of worshipful rest forms us by cultivating deeper intimacy and trust in our Lord, by cementing our identity as the people of God, by humbling our souls. When we engage in this covenantal practice, we declare our freedom as men and women no longer living in bondage to anxiety, unrealistic productivity measures, or workaholism. Our identities are no longer rooted in our organizations but in the Christ who died for our sins, rescuing us from bondage. We are now free to participate in work with dignity, creativity, and joy. Even more, instead of working for our own glory, we work for the glory of God in all that we do.

As we turn to issues of work, we do so with an understanding that Sabbath is an invitation extended to the people of God to bask in His faithfulness and rest in His sovereignty. More to come…

[1] Exodus 20:8-11, ESV

[2] Genesis 2:1-3, NASB

[3] Genesis 1:26-31, NASB

[4] Exodus 16:1-32, NASB

[5] Exodus 16:22-26, ESV

[6] Deuteronomy 5:12-15, ESV

[7] Exodus 31:13, ESV

[8] Leviticus 16:31, ESV

[9] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951), Location 263.

[10] Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Location 232.

[11] Lynne Baab, Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), Location 217.

[12] Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Holy: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, and Feasting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), Location 267.

[13] Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Disciplines, Location 145.

[14] Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Holy: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, and Feasting, Location 677.

[15] Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Holy: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, and Feasting, Location 695.

[16] Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Disciplines, Location 181.

[17] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2008), 116-7.

On the Rhythm of Work and Rest

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It’s currently Tuesday and the last couple weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind. Not as busy as some of my colleagues who are actually teaching students or preparing MLK-related activities but definitely my own sort of professional chaos. Meetings, presentations, conflicts, program planning, project strategizing, proposals, and brainstorming. I absolutely love what I do and what I get to be involved in. I’m of the mindset that God grants us talents that we get to cultivate and invest into the world. I also know that (as Christians) we’re invited to take part in God’s redemption, restoration, and reconciliation in the world. Some of us will get to do this for a living but, more often than not, most of us will do this alongside our every day tasks of mothering, fathering, building, cleaning, advocating, engineering, nursing, architecting, professing/teaching, etc.

It truly makes my joy complete to work toward redemption and reconciliation in our world in various aspects of my life. Human brokenness has provided the need for such work while God has been faithful to connect me with awesome people with whom to collaborate. I honestly can’t think of anything else I would rather do because my work allows me to contribute to the world around me. Adam and Eve were give the task of stewarding the world around them, which had the added benefit of enriching their lives as well. We become better when we responsibly engage the world around them, sharing our giftings, talents, and perspectives.

Nonetheless, this morning, while sipping coffee on the couch, I actually longed for the weekend (already, I know), given how quickly the last one got filled with activities and appointments. At the moment, I’m also quite restless, anxious, and exhausted…the latest manifestation of the grief process for me. But more than just physical rest, I also long for spiritual rest. Given that we live in a society that doesn’t fancy solitude or stillness, it has become increasingly difficult to create space for this kind of rest. We reside in a world with endless access to goods and services and unlimited channels of communication to each other.

Sabbath is a beautiful discipline, decreed and hallowed by our Lord to mark a rhythm between His creative work and His rest. Note the word rhythm. We’re invited to participate in God’s work of redeeming, restoring, and reconciling the world. We’re also invited to participate in God’s holy rest by observing a weekly Sabbath, remembering to keep the day holy, set apart from the rest of the week.  We do this by resting from our work and worshiping our Lord.[1] Sabbath is not simply time to binge-watch Netflix, pamper ourselves, or to even ensure our productivity for the rest of the week. The Sabbath is a day to rest in worship and worship in rest.

I’m mindful of just how important rhythm becomes in my busier seasons where endurance becomes far more important because the end of some tasks is simply too far away for a sprint to prove successful. This is especially difficult because I’m a Type-A personality type. I can’t tell you how much satisfaction I get from checking something off the to-do list. However, I also work in diversity/social justice and I’m a seminarian who dreams of walking alongside God’s people. I couldn’t have picked more open-ended life paths; paths that are more about the process than than the finished product…definitely an example of God’s sense of humor. One thing I’ve learned since implementing a regular “day of rest” is that a true Sabbath does more for endurance than mere sleep. There’s a kind of restfulness that goes beyond the number of REM cycles…communion with our Lord, delight in His creation, celebration, worship, and feasting with His people.

Often times we discuss Sabbath and work in ways that divorce them from each other. Our practice of Sabbath becomes about the day, rather than the rhythm it represents. Some (not all) Christians also have a habit of denouncing work as meaningless or profane, rather than as a means of being faithful with the talents God has given us. Creative work and holy rest are immensely important aspects of our lives granted to us by a God who loves us. I’m inviting us to consider the importance of developing a rhythm of life that includes both creative work and holy rest. In the next few weeks I’ll explore the Sabbath as a covenantal practice for the people of God and explore the theological implications of our work…both of which help us to better integrate this rhythm , without making idols out of either component. More to come…

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Disciplines (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003), Location 145.

The Journey to Deeper Faith: a Non-Resolution

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I began 2014 triumphing over a pretty significant bout of burnout. I took a new position at a college in New England, 800 miles away from all my loved ones. Eventually, I would successfully pitch an awesome (and massive) project within my office, develop new relationships, and partner with amazing, justice-minded Christians in ministry. Over the next few months I would also be challenged by people who didn’t even remotely share my deeply Christian worldview. My relationships with friends and family would change just by nature of the distance. I would lose a cousin who was more like a brother to me and, eventually, my birth mother as well.  I would be humbled in some pretty significant ways, coming to terms with my ever-present need for God’s grace and mercy. Loss, change, and discomfort were emerging as major themes even amidst all the goodness I was experiencing.

Life has a way of being unpredictable, unbalanced, and cruel…even while offering moments of hope and sweetness. This is the tension of living in a world that longs for the return of Christ. Perhaps the redemptive value in all of this is my realization that life simply doesn’t go according to the plan and it’s definitely beyond our finite control. People don’t change just because they have the right information, which is probably why I should stop arguing with folks on Facebook. There is no such thing as the right time or the ideal time. Well there is, but the thing we’re planning will refuse to cooperate with it. Plus, we also have to contend with God’s timing which is a whole different category. And closure is incredibly hard to obtain, nice but not promised. As a perfectionist, an obsessive planner, and a “High-J” (MBTI) this is ground-breaking news. My mentor once said, with all the mock sympathy she could muster, “Wow, life must be so hard for all you Type-A personalities.” *dramatic sigh* Yes, it is!

While hanging out in Michigan for Christmas I decided to make the journey to the Dominican Center at Marywood to see my spiritual director. I was hoping that she would somehow help me rebuild my sense of control…because the clear solution to chaos is simply more control. Over the course of an hour my spiritual director pretty much took the shredded pieces of my ego and set them on fire. I was reminded that I am responsible TO (rather than FOR) others, that I should extend more grace and mercy to myself before I lose the ability to extend it to others, and that I should remember to trust in God’s faithfulness to sustain me. At the end of our session she read this “blessing” from the Dominican Sisters…

May you know deep in your heart that our Companioning God sustains you on your life journey. May you be blessed with gifts that enable you to flow with the detours on the way, to move patiently through construction areas, to adjust to the bumps in the road, to welcome all fellow travelers, and to take time for personal maintenance and care. Journey home now during this Holy Season with a heart full of Joy and Peace. — Your grateful Dominican Sisters

As I walked to my car I breathed a sigh of relief because my spiritual director did offer some validation. She assured me that life had indeed changed a LOT in a rather short amount of time. I was invited to practice the discipline of centering prayer with her. My prayer for “sanctuary” drew me into the peace of God, extending much needed grace and comfort. In this I know that I can’t really do anything to transform chaos into order, I can only change my posture. For that, I’m reminded that spiritual disciplines like centering prayer and Sabbath facilitate a sense of stability, rhythm, and faith in a chaotic, unpredictable world. Through our practice of these disciplines we learn to trust God as we take time to remember His faithfulness, mercy, grace, and love. Peace becomes possible by our faith, not our works, as we consider what Christ has already accomplished for us.

Upon returning to Providence, while making my way to coffee with a friend on NYE, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism popped into my head…

What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

These words took on fresh meaning. Peace enveloped my heart as I let go of the illusion that I could only rest when my to-do list was empty, when everyone knew and believed in Christ, when perfect justice had been secured, or when tragedy neglected to befall me. In Christ I rest, even as violent waves toss my little boat all over the place (Mark 4:35-41). Peace, be still, not the waves but my soul.

Christ reminds us, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27, emphasis added). The peace that Christ offers is somewhere beyond perfectly controlled circumstances, well-behaved people, political parties that cooperate, and the absence of tragedy. All of these things are right and good but there’s something deeper. As Christ speaks with His disciples, He is preparing them for the difficult task of establishing the Church and the torturous persecution they will inevitably encounter. The peace that Christ speaks of, on this side of eternity, may not come in the form of perfectly still waters but in a deep understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to Him…in essence, faith.

Resolving to rest in God’s faithfulness, and our status as redeemed, is not a passive admission of defeat…it is the ultimate declaration of victory guaranteed by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. It is the cosmic “GAME. SET. MATCH.” In this we acknowledge that there is more to the story than our present circumstances, no matter how painful or horrific they might be. We proclaim that Christ is the only name by which we are saved and that, in Christ, we too have risen to new life, conquering sin and death (Acts 4:12). “Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” because our souls, even if we perish, will not be overtaken. As such, we can face the detours, construction areas, and bumps along the road with immense courage rather than fear. We all fight our own individual battles, and fight we must, but the war has already been won.

As I enter 2015, I’m a bit too stunned and heartbroken to even fathom some overly-ambitious “new year, new me” type resolution. Besides, I’m almost 30 so there’s a pretty good chance that I’m not going to become a new person just because the year turned. Instead, I’m choosing to rest in the faithfulness of God, knowing that He sustains me and provides me with everything I need for the journey. Courage replaces the need for control as I take on a posture of attentiveness to God’s movement in my life and the world. I’m sure I’ll come to know this more deeply as my heart mends and I adjust to detours, construction, and bumps along the road. Deep faith is not some overly ambitious personal development plan, just a deep knowing that God is faithful, even in the face of all the chaos and brokenness that surrounds me…

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).

 

An Invitation to Feast: On Reconciliation and Sacraments

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As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ social unrest in the United States, the massacre of dozens of Pakistani children, and the release of the CIA torture report soberly reminds us of the sin and brokenness within our world. Our souls are aching as we contemplate the utter depravity that surrounds us. The need for reconciliation is palpable as brokenness threatens to completely engulf us. Not just reconciliation with our brothers and sisters but reconciliation with our God. Hope is seemingly lost in moments like these as we question whether redemption and justice are really possible. As Christians we believe that Christ is the hope of the world, the reconciliation we seek, our Redeemer. The Gospel is indeed good news, invading our existence and dwelling among us.

We can hardly comprehend the hospitality implicit within the Gospel. Imagine spitting on the King’s royal garments, or worse, murdering one of His children, only to have a messenger arrive the following day with an invitation to a lavish feast, with rich wines for every course, and delicious desserts by world-renowned chefs. Rather than scorning us for turning away from Him, desecrating creation, and abusing one another, our Lord chooses to initiate reconciliation with us, giving us what our hearts truly long for, Himself. We are invited to eternal fellowship with Him, a joyful, abundant feast that never ends. This is the Invitation…this is the Gospel, that while we were yet sinners, contemptuously spitting on the King’s robe, desecrating creation, and abusing one another, He sent His only begotten Son to atone for our sins so that we could be reconciled to Him in covenant relationship.[1]

This covenant relationship, this act of reconciliation, is both instantaneous and ongoing. Our reconciliation to a Holy God implies reconciliation with His people. We join with brothers and sisters of all different racial backgrounds, nationalities, political affiliations, and socioeconomic positions.[2] We are instantly reconciled with God and all of God’s people, yet we are also engaged in the ongoing process of being reconciled as we learn to love God and love God’s people. As God’s people, we are given sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are signs of our covenant relationship with God.[3] These signs are given to us as gifts to “nourish, sustain, comfort, challenge, teach, and assure us.”[4] Akin to the ring the bridegroom places on the bride’s finger, sacraments are symbols of God’s grace, love, and presence with us. Our participation in the sacraments is a declaration and reminder of our identity in Christ and a celebration of God’s grace and mercy to us.

There is a great deal of significance in what the sacraments represent and what happens through our participation in them. In Baptism, we are immersed in the waters that purify our souls, washing away our sins as we become new creatures in Christ.[5] Like Esther’s beauty treatments, we enter into the waters as a poor, minority, orphaned, peasant girl but emerge a queen, the bride of Christ.[6] The Lord’s favor rests on us, not because of our noble status or our moral successes but because He sees beauty within us, a people worth saving. God’s Spirit comes to reside within us as we are welcomed into fellowship with the global Church, who share God’s covenant with us. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of “Jesus’ real, spiritual presence with us, the forgiveness offered to us through Christ’s work on the cross, and the ongoing spiritual nourishment He provides us.”[7] At the Lord’s Table sinners become saints, enemies of God become friends of God, and our foes become our family.[8]

Christ’s willingness to intimately commune with sinners over food and wine communicated that prostitutes, tax collectors, and thieves were not beyond the love of God; they too could be redeemed.[9] In Christ, we are reminded that entrance into the Lord’s Supper is not a matter of power, piety, or perfection but of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Our relapses into sin against God and neighbor threaten our identity in Christ but the Lord’s Supper reminds us of whom we are, redeemed and reconciled. In repentance we empty our hearts before the cross as we prepare to drink wine we did not press and eat food we did not harvest…grace and mercy freely bestowed on us all. We extend this grace and forgiveness to our brothers and sisters as Christ tells us to be reconciled to each other in His presence.[10]

At the Lord’s Table we learn to commune with God and neighbor. The intimacy of our meal breaks down the barriers that would impose on our relationship creating, even if momentarily, God’s shalom in our midst. When Christ eats with sinners His presence with them communicates their worth, value, acceptance, and their status as beloved. Mary, one of the sinners, receives the graciousness of Christ’s truth and returns to anoint Jesus with the most precious thing she owns.[11] This should challenge our posture with those with whom we partake of the gifts of the Lord’s Table. With jubilant thanksgiving we join with our brothers and sisters to receive Christ’s body and blood as often as we gather. Our understanding of love, grace, and mercy deepens with each passing day as we engage in the long, hard, intimate work of being reconciled to God and neighbor.

In the fellowship of believers we learn to live into our status as redeemed, reconciled people of God. Reconciliation is both an act and a process; it is incarnational not a quick fix. We learn to abide in Christ and to dwell with our neighbors as we engage in this ministry of reconciliation.[12] Reconciliation does not imply perfection or moral superiority, only that we deliberately choose righteousness and justice against all temptation to do otherwise. We are learning to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.[13] We learn to love God’s people by listening, helping each other, bearing one another’s burdens, graciously proclaiming God’s truth, confessing our sins, forgiving one another, and interceding on each other’s behalf.[14] We extend justice to all, aiding in the freedom and restoration of others, dwelling with others the way Christ dwells with us, in grace and truth. The Holy Spirit patiently instructs our hearts, working out our reconciliation with God and neighbor, and it is an incredibly messy affair.[15]

To love God and neighbor, that is what is asked of us. Christ makes this seemingly impossible task possible. As we celebrate the incarnation of our Savior during this Christmas season, may we follow after Him, abiding in Him as we dwell with the people around us, extending the mercy that has been lavished upon us, offering the love that has been poured into our hearts, and joining our brothers and sisters in the feast of the King.

[1] 1John 4:9, NASB

[2] Revelation 7:9, NASB

[3] Luke 22:14-23, NASB; Matthew 3:11, NASB

[4] The Worship Sourcebook, ed. Carrie Titcombe Steenwyk and John D. Witvliet (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, 2013), 255.

[5] Acts 22:15-16, NASB

[6] Esther 2:1-20, NASB

[7] [7] The Worship Sourcebook, ed. Carrie Titcombe Steenwyk and John D. Witvliet (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, 2013), 311.

[8] 1 Corinthians 11:23-34, NASB

[9] Mark 2:16, NASB

[10] Matthew 5:23-24, NASB

[11] John 12:1-9, NASB

[12] John 15:1-17, NASB

[13] Matthew 22:36-40, NASB

[14] Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc, 1954).

[15] John 14:26, NASB

Photo Credit: SchreiberSpace: Theology for the Everyday Christian