Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Seven Sabbath Practices

How do you “do” Sabbath? Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time.” How do you build this sanctuary in time? What are the elements? Which ones already exist in your life? For a Sabbath day, take these steps whole; for Sabbath mornings or lunch times, take them in smaller bits. You decide. This is all about freedom. We are free to discern what rest means for us. 

In that spirit, I offer these Seven Sabbath Practices:

I.               Tailor-made. These Sabbaths have to be cut for you. If you’re sedentary all day, maybe it’s taking a day of biking or tennis. If you’re duking it out in the courtroom, maybe it’s silence in a park. For busy parents of young children, it may mean spending time with adults. And if it’s hard to free a day or a time for rest, find a friend for the kids, use your personal days. Whatever you do, just take a break.
II.             All of you—body, mind, soul, and spirit. You can take Sabbath walks, lounge in your bed late on Saturday mornings, and savor Sabbath meals with friends. (Spouses, it’s a wonderful fact that the tradition of Sabbath includes sexual intimacy.)
III.           … but especially,  feed thy soul. Our culture is not very attuned to the spiritual life. I return to Heschel who wrote that it only takes three things to create a sense of significant being: God, a soul and a moment. The three are always present. This little word No has the power to bring the three together.
IV.           No obligations, some time each day and one day each week. No mopping, no cooking, no paying bills, no moving the lawn, no fixing the house, nor even thinking about work and the office. Through it all, let your mind rest from obligations regularly each day.
V.             Restrict technology’s reach. Turn off the cell phone. Don’t check the email. And, by all means, unplug the TV and shut the laptop. I’ve already covered this, but it’s worth repeating.
VI.           Time with the ones you love. This means friends, family, your spouse. Whomever. You chose. Pretty simple.
VII.         Reflect and adjust. Find where there are things that break you down and where there are things that bring strength and peace. Adjust your life accordingly.

My daily pattern combines physical exercise, meditation/prayer, and reading.

In my book, this is time for Greg and for God. Time for body and soul. Fridays (because Sundays are work days for me) I take the entire day off. Except in rare emergencies, I don’t accomplish any work. In the morning, I savor an extended workout, generous time for journaling, reflection, prayer, and study. I walk in Upper Park with Laura. Sabbaths are days where I don’t have any duties, and everything’s based on freedom. I even remove my watch and put my iPhone aside so that it no longer breaks my day into disconnected units or distractions. 

Having practiced regular Sabbaths, I’ll never go back.

(Adapted from my book, Say Yes to No.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Seeing the Best in Baja

My contention is that we too often hear about the problems of Chico State and Butte College students. Too much alcohol, violence, and sexual promiscuity. All these selfishness, spoiled college students who don't care enough for others.
Sometimes called "The Theology of the Hammer"
            I’m thankful I get to prove this charge wrong every January when I travel with a group of 30 or 40 students and advisors—including, by the way, Chico State professors—and we build houses for poor farm workers in Baja California. 
            The team travels down as part of a mission trip from Bidwell Presbyterian, partnering with Youth With a Mission, housed at Richardson Springs. We build simple 20’ x 22’ wood houses that cost an unimaginable $3600… unimaginable for those workers many of whom pick strawberries in this area and who make about $8.50 (or 100 pesos) a day. Essentially we’re responding to Jesus’s words, especially his declaration that his own mission (according to Gospel of Luke) was to “announce good news to the poor.”
            Constructing those houses is very good news indeed. I’m thinking, for example of a single mother, Yannette, whose husband ran off and left her with two kids, one of whom is autistic. Having finished construction, our team of 11 twenty-somethings and me stood in a circle in the dirt in front of her new house and handed her keys.
The sun was gradually setting, and as dusk fell, she even told us God had spoken to her in a dream in which “soldiers” would come to provide for her. Not on that, but that we were her soldiers. Frankly, that was unusual, but I’ve been around the church enough to know these visions can be accurate. Then she added that we would have the strength of buffaloes. Even a bit stranger, but powerful and poignant. She opened the front door, and we all walked in. By the light of my cell phone, we unveiled a new bunk bed for her kids. They laughed—in and amongst the tears—laughed with disbelief that this was coming true.
            I’m not sure it was buffalo strength, but I did see these students rise to the occasion. I saw them at their best—serving without rancor, cooperating with one another, finding the joy in doing something really worthwhile for someone else. If I’ve got one thing I want young adults to learn as they form their values and character, it’s that we are made to give. And when we give—when we say yes to serving—we find how God created us. And there we find happiness. There we find life at its best.
            As I was flying from San Diego to Sacramento on one of these trips, I got into a conversation with a TV newscaster (a Chico State grad herself) who asked me why all these college students were on the plane. I told her that these students had just built houses for the poor in the Mexico. She became quite excited and told me, “You’ve got to get that story out!”
            I suppose that’s what I’m doing now. If I see the newscaster again, I’ll tell her I’m doing what I can to let people know that there’s a lot more to Chico’s college life than binge drinking, violence, and generally selfish hedonism…. I’ll even add the part about buffalo strength.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Rhythm: The Time for Yes and the Time for No

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. 
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. 
Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. 
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. 
I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. 
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
Matthew 11:28-30, The Message

Grooving—that’s life at its best. That’s what musicians—and especially drummers—describe as that moment when you’re feeling the rhythm so deeply that you’re almost obligated to stay in it. Not too fast, nor too slow. You’re “in the groove.” You’re feeling “the unforced rhythms of grace.” (I love that paraphrase!) It’s the result of hearing the yeses, testing them, and then finding the right rhythm of yes and no, of notes and spaces. (You can see my video about this rhythm here.)
When the 16th century master artist, Leonardo da Vinci, was working on The Last Supper, he would without warning take a break.  The prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie was not amused and entreated Leonardo with tiresome persistence to complete the work.  The prior complained to the Duke who questioned Leonardo about his working habits. Leonardo, we are told, persuaded the duke that “the greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.”
Some like to describe this optimal state of life as balance. And that description works ok, if it implies the right mixture of activities that promote the good life. The problem with balance—or “the balanced life”—is that it sounds as if living well is to find some equipoise between equal parts of two different things, like relaxation and work.
I prefer describing life at its best as rhythm because it’s dynamic. Balance remains essentially a vision of things staying there on a scale. Balance is a teeter-totter that’s horizontal to the earth. It just stands there. A great rhythm, on the other hand, has movement and dynamism. It integrates a variety of different inputs. Some snare drum there, mixing with a thumping bass and spiced with a shaker, a tambourine, or some conga.
The key then is good rhythm among all the calls in life. Conversely, it’s not really work/life “balance” because I’m saying that all these three major areas in the triangle—personal life, work, and love—need to play off one another to create a rhythmic beauty.
Rhythm—and this is the most important part and the one that’s often missed—has that expert relationship between sound and silence. To keep making noise is just that: noise. But a good rhythm has notes and spaces, and that’s what makes it work. And even more than work, that’s what makes it interesting and sometimes scintillating. 
The Bible also describes these moments of refreshing, of returning to God in the midst of heavy activity and even strife. One of my favorite verses finds its way into the prophecies of Isaiah:

In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and trust shall be your strength.
(Isaiah 30:15)

This prophecy came to the people of Israel at a time of war and therefore great social stress. They needed to hear about the rhythm of working hard and of returning to God. Their strength would arise when they rested. The yes to work came out of the no-work of rest. Tellingly, they did not take up the offer because the next line reads, “But you refused.” Will you and I resist God’s call to work and rest?
We need to listen to the call to return and rest. And in this rest and returning, we practice the right rhythm of yes and no.