A reflection on a favourite saint, for All Saints Day

Joan of Arc

Who were your childhood heroes? In honour of tomorrow being the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian celebration remembering those who’ve gone before us in the faith—I thought I’d share a little about one of my own childhood heroes. Although my faith tradition doesn’t celebrate All Saints Day—or venerate saints with a capital “S”, Joan of Arc is definitely one of those.

I first heard of Joan of Arc when I read a book about her. I was 9 or 10.

She was a 15th century, illiterate, French peasant girl.

At the age of about 17, she followed what she believed was God’s leading, and took command of an army. She liberated her country from English occupiers and changed the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned following an ecclesiastical trial during which she confounded the greatest theological minds of her day. She was burned at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy; 25 years later, the results of her trial were annulled. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared her a Saint.

The book I read about Joan was one my mother passed on to me. She had read it as a girl and loved it. I loved it too. I remember the musty smell of its yellowed pages and the feel of its hard, red cover, fraying at the edges. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting “Joan the Maid” in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I remember being moved by her ardent love and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan then He could speak to me too. I remember crying at the injustice of her execution.

When I came to the end of the book, I mourned her for days.

But I never forgot her. Looking back, I realize she helped to shape my life by shaping my belief—early in life—that a relationship with God was not only possible, but worth pursuing.

So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, more than 40 years after we’d first met, as part of the requirements for a course I took in Christian History and Theology. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words translated from letters and trial manuscripts. As I read, she came alive to me once again. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I’ve come to believe her story has lessons for us today.

Lessons about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature, and injustice.

When she took charge of her army, she gave new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair, reminding me that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. It was her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty, and selflessness that made her an accomplished and trusted leader.

Today, we tend to label as “crazy” those who profess to hear voices from heaven like Joan did. I don’t know what to make of her voices. But I am struck by the thought that her devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately.

Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, I was amazed at her wisdom—and at the efforts of her judges to trip her up. They were men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding me that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for those who hold positions of authority and influence—that great wrongs can be perpetrated in the desire to do what is right. Joan’s interrogators were also learned men; as such, they offer up a cautionary note to those of us who pursue academic study or intellectual development at the expense of spiritual maturity—that great learning can lead to arrogance and spiritual blindness.

But above all, Joan’s example bears witness to me today, no less than it did more than four decades ago, that remarkable things can happen when we seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads us, and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.

Announcing: Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer

Craft Cost Call book title

I had forgotten the sheer joy that could come with crafting words into meaningful sentences, the exuberant rush as paragraphs and pages poured out from some inner well deep within. But this new book, Craft, Cost & Call represents the most writing fun I’ve had in recent memory.

Like dancing to a favourite song when no one is watching, part of that experience came from the fact that there was no client on this project. The only people my co-author and I were striving to please were our book’s eventual readers.

The other part of writing with abandon no doubt came from the fact that my co-author happens to be a dearly loved friend. Karen Stiller is a woman I admire greatly. Anything done with a friend can be more fun than doing it alone, especially when you laugh together as much as Karen and I do. We believe that ours is a friendship that was heaven sent; it began more than a decade ago when my name literally popped into her mind one morning while she was applying mascara. She subsequently reached out to me with a partnership opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, our history will forever include this little soon-to-be-published book, Craft, Cost & Call : How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer. 

It was years in the making, not only because we worked on it together for that long, but also because it represents the sum total of decades worth of all we’ve each learned so far about what it means to earn a living as writers who are also people of faith.

I’m proud of this little book. I’m thoroughly delighted with the outcome. It gives me deep pleasure to think of passing along some of the hard-won lessons learned through decades working as a freelance writer. And I’m thankful for the way that working on this project together with Karen not only took my writing to new places—reminding me of the joy to be had in practicing this craft I believe I’ve been called to—but because it took my friendship with Karen to new places too.

When we thought we were getting close to the end of our writing, we sent the manuscript out to some other writers we admire and asked for their feedback. We were encouraged and overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. Read their kind words of endorsement here.

Then we invited my daughter Jenna, an illustrator, into the project. Her drawings add a touch of whimsy to the book’s pages. Our hope is that readers will experience as much delight during the time they spend immersed in this book, as we did in writing it.

Craft, Cost & Call is our thanksgiving offering to the community of writers that has nurtured us over the years, and to the community of writers of faith who are yet to come.

 

 

 

When God speaks in a daffodil

Daffodil against garden shed

I believe God speaks. I believe He speaks constantly. I believe He is a communicating God, who reveals Himself in various ways and means to those who take the time to listen, who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

No, I’ve never heard an audible voice. I’ve never seen a message written in the heavens or a burning bush. But I’ve sensed that “still small voice,” speaking within my spirit at needed times. I’ve had words jump out at me from Scripture that led or taught or directed or encouraged or comforted me in important ways at crucial moments. I’ve sensed “promptings” or “intuitions” that I’ve acted on, only to be convinced later as a result of outcomes that it was God who was leading me. And I’ve seen things in nature—incredible, memorable things—that felt like messages meant for me.

I received one such message yesterday, and then again, this morning. And it was such a lovely bit of encouragement at just the right time, that I felt it ought to be shared.

A week ago yesterday, my mother-in-law, Dora, passed away at the age of 102. Her death was expected—she’d been receiving palliative care for weeks—and my husband, Doug, and I were at her side when she took her final breath.

Doug was her only child. And while she was feisty and amazingly independent right up into her early 90s, he’d been caring for her in one way or another since his dad died 30 years ago. Thirty years is a long time to bear the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. The last 10 years, after she gave up driving, Doug’s caring meant biweekly (at least) trips to her home in Thorold, Ont. (from our own in Mississauga) to take her shopping, to the bank, or the pharmacy and then to doctor’s appointments. Four years ago, we moved her to a retirement community 10 minutes from our home, and visits and excursions became more frequent. For the past two years, she’s had several lengthy hospital stays, which have meant more frequent visits yet. Sometimes every day for weeks or months on end.

It’s felt at times like a long road, for her and for us. She told us again and again that she was ready to go. And while death is never easy, there can be a sense in which it can come as both a release and a relief. Even as we witnessed the release of her spirit last Friday, we felt relief that her suffering is over, and our long responsibility for her soon will be too.

Thursday her body was laid to rest next to her husband’s, and her long-time pastor spoke words of remembrance, comfort, and truth at her memorial. Our three children eulogized their “Granny,” the ladies of her church congregation prepared a beautiful lunch, and for dessert, everyone feasted on a buffet of pies—in her honour. (She was a wonderful baker in her younger years famous, especially, for her pies.) I couldn’t help thinking how delighted she would have been by it all.

Yesterday morning we awoke early in order to head to her apartment to begin the two-day process of clearing out her things. As I sipped my first coffee of the day, I opened the blinds to look out into our little backyard, and couldn’t help gasping. For there, up against our garden shed, was a single, bright yellow daffodil, almost ready to open.

I planted a row of daffodils against that shed 27 years ago, when we first moved into this house. Their leaves came up faithfully, year after year, but they had never yielded a single bloom, not once in all those years. Every spring I would watch as their green shoots would push through the soil and grow tall, spreading out their leaves. Every year, I would hope. But not ever in all those years did we see a flower.

Until yesterday. It felt like a sign, a message from above. As I looked at that daffodil, I sensed God saying, “It’s all okay. She is at rest. And good things are ahead.”

This morning, on the final day of the move, and what we anticipate will be the last of our significant responsibilities for her, the daffodil was in full bloom.

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Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Dying well

Hand holds sign saying It Is Well

I suppose I first began to think about what it means to die well 19 years ago, when my mother brought my father home from the hospital to die.

She knew he was dying and he knew it. We all did. After battling colon cancer for almost five months in hospital, a doctor had confirmed our worst fears; the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do for Dad than to keep him comfortable.

Mom believed she could do a better job of that at home, and so that’s where Dad went joyfully, to a hospital bed set up in their living room. Together our mother, my siblings, and I established a 24/7 care team. Supported by hospice volunteers and visiting nurses we looked after dad until he died two weeks later. He passed away peacefully, holding my mother’s hand. I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling in the moments after he had taken his final breath that his was not an “ending” but a “leaving.”

Doing things with and for one another

Almost a decade later, I enrolled in a 10-week training program with my own community’s hospice organization. I thought I’d like to help others the way that the hospice volunteers had helped our family throughout my Dad’s final days. I completed the program but concluded I wasn’t ready for that kind of work just yet.

But I’ve once again been thinking—a lot—in recent months about what it means to die well. First, because I helped to usher a friend to eternity’s threshold this past summer, and more recently still, because my mother-in-law is now receiving palliative care.

“In the Christian practice of dying well,” writes Amy Plantinga Pauw in “Dying Well,” her essay composing chapter 12 in Practicing Our Faith, “Christian people do things with and for one another in response to God’s strong love, translating into concrete acts our belief in the resurrection of Christ, and for ourselves.”

Our culture has a different idea of what it means to die well. Personal autonomy reigns supreme, and so our laws today grant people help and support in ending their lives prematurely.

The Christian way

I do not believe that is the Christian way. However, faith and trust in God does allow for the “conscionable category,” as Pauw describes it, “of ‘ceasing to oppose death,’ making room for caring for the dying.”

It means recognizing that God gives and takes life. And when bodies signal that life is drawing to a close, loved ones can listen. Medical interventions that merely prolong a life that has been reduced to suffering may not be heroic but horrific.

We will all die; that is certain. And faith is not a guarantee that we will die serenely. “Christian practices hold no magic formula for transforming premature, tragic, or unjust deaths into good deaths,” Pauw observes. “When a life is cut short—by accident, suicide, disease, or violence—Christians view it as an evil.”

Dying well, then, is not something that we carry out on our own. But it is something that, in community, we can help to give to others. And if this is true, then we can also live our lives in such a way that we can hope that there will be others to help us to die well when the time comes.

Then, when we are gone, there will also be others whom we leave behind who will mourn and remember and tell the stories of our lives.

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Note: When I saw the image at the top of this post, I knew I wanted it to illustrate the subject of this blog. One of the hymns I have been singing with my mother-in-law over the past couple of weeks has been the 1873 hymn by Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well With My Soul.” The words in the first verse of that hymn are:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul!

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Practicing My Faith, Part 13 – This post is thirteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

The power of testimony

Hymn book photo by Kelly Sikkema

We’d teased that she was the Energizer bunny; she just kept going and going. An athlete in her younger years, she overcame a fall and broken ribs at 97, and two more falls—due to congestive heart failure resulting in a fractured hip and collar bone—at 101. Then, in November, just after her 102nd birthday, another fall, and another broken hip, which led to a long period of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Two weeks ago, the hospital said they’d done all they could for her, and maybe she’d be more comfortable at home. So, we moved her back to her lovely retirement community. In spite of better food (she’d found the hospital’s pureed options insulting) and familiar surroundings, she has made it clear that no, thank you very much, she really isn’t very hungry or thirsty.

On Friday morning, her nurse called to say that she isn’t taking in enough food or fluid to sustain her. Later that day, the doctor signed the necessary forms to admit my mother-in-law to palliative care.

When my husband and I sat with her on Friday afternoon, we began our visit by communicating in the only way we’ve really been able to communicate over the past number of months—by writing on an erasable white board. We reminded her that she has much to look forward to: she is headed for eternity, where she will be reunited with loved ones. We listed them by name. She shrugged.

But then we thought we’d try her “Pocket Talker” (sound amplifier) again; she had been refusing even that while in hospital. This time, she allowed us to put on her head phones. I held the microphone close to my mouth and spoke into it directly, trying to engage her, asking her questions that might provoke happy memories. What was her favourite game as a girl? Who was her best friend in high school? Again and again she just mumbled, “I don’t remember.”

A light comes on

“Well, let’s see if you remember this,” I said, and I started to sing Jesus Loves Me. It took just those three words sung for the light to come on in her eyes, and soon she was singing along.

With that kind of success, I invited her to sing another song with me, In the Garden. And then, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, and The Old Rugged Cross. Next we recited The Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed, and the Twenty-Third Psalm. She spoke them all in the loudest, clearest voice I’d heard from her in a while.

I reached for the hymn book on her night stand and began flipping pages, looking for anything even vaguely familiar, giving silent thanks for all those years of hymn singing in church where I’d learned to make my voice follow the direction of the notes on the page, and to hold some notes longer than others. O God, Our Help in Ages Past;  Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise;  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee;  Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty;  Come, Thou Almighty King; and Be Still My Soul.  We three sang them all, me holding the mic millimetres away from my lips so she could hear, Doug chiming in with whatever he remembered, both of us amazed by how much she recalled.

“Aren’t you getting tired of hearing my sorry voice?” I asked her.

“No, don’t stop,” she commanded. “I love it.” And so we sang some more.

After we’d been singing about an hour, it was clear she needed to rest. So we kissed her and said our good-byes. But I sensed a peace and contentment in her that hadn’t been there when we’d first arrived.

The dimensions of Christian testimony

At home that evening, I read Thomas Hoyt Jr.’s essay, “Testimony,” composing chapter 7 of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  In it, Hoyt describes Christian testimony as “a deeply shared practice,” in which “people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen.” Hoyt further describes song as “one of the most precious forms of the practice of testimony.”

“Christian testimony has two dimensions,” Hoyt writes concluding his chapter. “One is testimony to the church and the world, where witnesses tell others about the action of God. The other is testimony to where witnesses tell God the truth about themselves and others.”

It was then that the penny dropped. Through our singing that afternoon, we had been reminding one another of the truths of God, even as we reinforced them in our own hearts and minds. We had simultaneously been singing the truth of our own sins, failures, and frailties to God, while expressing our trust in His inestimable mercy, saving grace, and love for us.

No wonder she seemed at peace. No wonder that we felt it too.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 8  – This post is eighth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Sabbath keeping

Candle by Zander Bederi

I remember the school children, running through the narrow avenues and alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. Happy, but quietly so. Hurrying to get home for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, which begins at sundown each Friday and ends at sundown the following day.

It was early on a Friday afternoon in the winter of 2005 when I saw them, when the streets began to exhale people. School children were the first to collect—like autumn leaves—along those narrow stones worn smooth. But soon, the labyrinthine paths were filled and flowing as restaurants and businesses closed up shop, blowing their owners and workers out of doors. They too scurried, but purposefully; all those people, generations, moving with purpose.

And then, just as suddenly, a hush, as the rushing bodies seemed to disappear, having been inhaled again into their hidden homes.

Later, as I sat in our hotel’s candle-lit dining room, surrounded by tables filled with families wearing their best, I listened as our host prayed, welcoming the Sabbath. I watched as he raised a cup of wine, sang a blessing, then blessed and broke sweet bread.

And I felt envy.

The gift of Sabbath

Ushering in the day of rest in an atmosphere of thanksgiving festive and reverent—with food and family, prayers and candles—struck me as a gift. And I couldn’t help but reflect on the contrast with how I carried out my own practice during a weekly day of rest and worship, which often began with the stress of trying to corral everyone to get to church on time and more often than not included catching up on one or more tasks that somehow just didn’t get accomplished during the week: groceries or laundry, budgeting or completing that not-quite-finished project for a client. The contrast deepened as I walked the silent streets of Jerusalem the next day and saw how the entire city had ground to a very visible halt. I realized: Shabbat is a gift the Jewish people have received from God, but also one that through their faithful practice of honouring the Sabbath—from generation to generation across thousands of years—they have embraced completely.

It is a gift, according to Dorothy C. Bass, writing in the sixth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, in an essay entitled, “Keeping Sabbath.” 

“For time-starved contemporary people, the practice of Sabbath keeping may be a gift just waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long,” Bass writes.

The renewing ways of life. Whose life couldn’t do with a little more renewal?

Jesus, too, taught that the regular day of abstaining from work is a gift. The gospel of Mark records him as saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A weekly day of rest set apart from the wearying labours of our lives was our Creator’s intention for humankind from the beginning. The Sabbath was made for us, and given to us.

But for a gift to be enjoyed it must be received. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, it’s not enough to receive it on some sort of intellectual level; to enjoy its sweetness and benefits it must also be practiced.

Deepening Sabbath practice

And yet, “Christians cannot keep Sabbath as Jews do,” Bass writes. “We know God most fully not through the perpetual covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai but through Jesus Christ. … In an authentically Christian form of Sabbath keeping, we may affirm the grateful relationship to the Creator that Jews celebrate each Sabbath, and we may share the joyful liberation from drudgery first experienced by the slaves who left Egypt. But we add to these celebrations our weekly festival for the source of our greatest joy: Christ’s victory over the powers of death. For Christians, this victory makes of each weekly day of rest and worship a celebration of Easter.”

My own practice of Sabbath-keeping pales in comparison to what I experienced in Jerusalem. I gather with fellow believers for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to worship, fellowship, learn, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday afternoons my husband and I have long enjoyed the tradition of taking a “Sabbath nap.” But I’ve also frequently taken advantage of Sundays to get a little bit of work accomplished and justified doing so in my own mind thinking, “The Sabbath was made for me, not me for the Sabbath.”

This exercise I’ve embarked on, however—of exploring and deepening Christian practices in my life—is making me think that I’m cheating myself by not giving myself over more fully to honouring that one day as a day of rest each week. It’s not about uncovering new reasons to feel guilty or new goals to be conquered. It’s about more fully receiving the gifts that God has for those who embrace a life of seeking relationship with Him.

Recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort on Sundays to avoid my computer with its many technological temptations. It has felt freeing and I’ve liked it.

So tonight, when the sun sinks below the horizon, I think I just might light a candle and say my own prayer of thanksgiving to God for giving us this gift, and then I’ll welcome Sabbath.

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How about you? Do you take a regular day of rest? What sort of boundaries do you observe around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and invite you to leave a comment.

Practicing My Faith, Part 7 – This post is seventh in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.