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.

 

Practicing hospitality

Please come in sign

It’s been a harsh winter here in southern Ontario, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to practice our winter driving skills. In the midst of a snowstorm, drivers know it’s best to ease up on the accelerator. Slowing down and keeping both hands on the wheel has a way of making you hyper vigilant, more aware of what’s going on around you and your responses to it. It helps you stay in your lane, on the road, and out of trouble.

Similarly, I’m learning that there’s value in slowing my life down, taking time to intentionally reflect on my Christian practice. I can be so task-focused, that I neglect to really live in the moment. But I’m discovering that thinking deliberately about how  I’m practicing my faith each day is causing me to see things in life—important things—that I might be neglecting, areas where I can do better if only I’m willing to challenge myself.

What it’s about

It’s not about striving for some unrealistic ideal of perfection. And it’s not about trying to earn God’s favour; no matter how far short I may fall in my efforts to live a life that honors my Jesus, I know that He loves me, and that His grace is more than enough to make up for my failings and weaknesses. What it is about is wanting to live my best life, recognizing that the time we are given to do so is limited and short. It is about turning the practices of my day-to-day life into acts of worship.

Still, I admit that my heart sank a bit when I turned to the next chapter in Practicing Our Faith and realized that it focused on hospitality.

Don’t get me wrong; I love to bring people together in my home, to sit around a table for good conversation and nourishing food. But I realized in reading Ana Maria Pineda’s chapter—the third in the book edited by Dorothy C. Bass—that Christian hospitality focuses on welcoming the stranger. And that’s not only something I’m not very good at, it’s also something at which I’ve not tried very hard to improve.

I’m an introvert, and I’m naturally shy around strangers. It’s hard for me to reach out to people I don’t know. I have neighbours I’ve lived beside for years—I’m ashamed to say—with whom I regularly exchange pleasantries, gifts at Christmas, and to whom I’ve sent the occasional meal when I learned they were struggling. But we’ve never been in each other’s homes. I’ve defaulted to what’s easy and comfortable and been content with allowing things to remain as they are.

“Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger,” writes Ana Maria Pineda. But, she also writes, “In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative.”

Welcoming strangers

Jesus himself emphasized the importance of welcoming strangers. The gospel of Matthew (chapter 25: 34-35) records him teaching in a parable that at the end of time, “The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In other words, Jesus is saying, when we welcome strangers, we welcome him.

A journalist and writer friend of mine who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago was a master at welcoming strangers; that was clear at her funeral—one the largest I have ever attended. People came from near and far—literally from around the globe—to attend. Debra Fieguth lived in a university town, and she and her husband welcomed international students into their home for meals and conversation weekly for years. In her book, The Door Is Open: Glimpses of Hospitality in the Kingdom of God, Debra writes that North American Christianity lacks hospitality and then diagnoses the problem: “We cocoon ourselves in our own homes or families or churches, forgetting to share what we have—including our time—with others.”

As I’ve thought about hospitality, I’ve thought about Debra, and about what it means to welcome strangers. And it occurred to me that I am surrounded by strangers as I ride the train and subway three days each week during my commute into and out of the heart of Toronto. But in my desire to productively use that time, I’ve been cocooning—ear buds in as I listen to podcasts, or head down looking at my cell phone as I scroll through headlines, articles, and news feeds.

An open heart as an open door

“Could hospitality be as much a matter of welcoming strangers into my heart  as into my home?” I wondered. And could I start to be more welcoming, cultivating a willingness to share my time by simply keeping my head up, with eyes and ears open during those commutes?

Last week, I thought I’d try. My first encounter with a stranger on my first commuting day happened early; it was still dark when I stood on the platform of the train station waiting for the train to arrive. A petite young woman with long brown hair and a gold knit toque pulled down low over her forehead cupped her travel mug in both hands and sipped its contents. I told her it smelled good, her coffee, and it really did on that frigid morning. She smiled and told me her boyfriend had made it for her. That was all it took to open up a friendly conversation until we boarded the train and I lost sight of her.

But disembarking from the train, I saw her again, and wished her a good day. She returned my wishes. It was such a small exchange, but it occurred to me that my commute had felt a little warmer that day; I hoped hers had too.

For the next couple of days, I continued to leave my cell phone with its many enticements tucked out of sight, and had several other, brief, and seemingly inconsequential encounters with people unknown to me. There was the sniffling, middle-aged woman on the train who clearly needed a tissue, so I offered one; the tall, bearded young man struggling with a suitcase and several bags at the bottom of the subway stairs who obviously needed a helping hand, and the woman who slipped and took a tumble at the bottom of a staircase on the way in to the subway station. When I helped her up, she brushed herself off, embarrassed. In answer to my query, she assured me she was fine, but thanked me for asking nonetheless.

In the grand scheme of things perhaps none of those encounters will really count for much, but I’m certain that none of them would have happened had my eyes and ears been closed to the world. Emerging from the confines of a cocoon, I’m learning, takes both effort and time. And for me, it also takes some courage. I’m hoping that with practice, it might come more easily.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 4 – This post is fourth 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.

And so I begin. Again. (Practicing my faith, part 2)

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I came across some words this week by the 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, that spoke truth to me:

“One can never  be a Christian; one can only become one again and again: in the evening of each day rather ashamed of one’s Christianity of that day and on the morning of each new day content that one may again dare to be a Christian.”

I first made a conscious choice to dare to be a Christian in early adolescence, and my life since then has been marked by a series of decisions—one after another—to either affirm or deny that choice. I’ve had moments, periods, even whole stretches of time, when God was unwanted, felt distant, doubted, or not to be trusted, and I’ve considered giving the whole thing up. Like a dieter who falls off the wagon by scarfing down an entire pan of brownies, but who knows she’ll be happier and healthier in the long run if she can just stick with it, when I tried to envision a future without Jesus, I didn’t like where I saw that future leading me.

And so, I would return, daring to “become” a Christian for another day.

We return because we yearn: for something better, to be better, to live more faithful lives. Thus, the title of the first chapter in Practicing Our Faith (edited by Dorothy Bass) jumped out at me: “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith.”

As I embark on this little project of deepening the practices of my faith to see where it leads me, I wondered why these times of ours are times of such yearning? I spoke to Bass a few days ago and asked her the motivation for the original book (first published in 1997).

“It was an awareness that we live in a time of such rapid social change,” she said. “Many of our basic, fundamental activities­—who we eat with, how we use our time—were really starting to change.

“There was a sense of fragmentation,” she added. “What does my religion have to do with my work? What does social justice have to do with my personal life? We were trying to find an approach that would address rampant individualism, and that would heal the fragmentation, help people find the connections between their lives and their faith.”

The “we” she refers to is herself—a former professor, practical theologian and church historian—and her colleague, collaborator, and co-author, Craig Dykstra.

“The community of people gathered around Jesus Christ has explored the contours of a faithful way of life over the centuries, and it continues to do so all around the world today,” the two write. “This community, like everyone in it, is flawed, and there has been much stumbling and sinning along the way. But wisdom and skill have also emerged as members of this community have tried to understand and live in response to the mysterious grace of God in creation, the redemptive presence of Christ, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.”

“The need to figure out how to walk aright in each new time and place is one that we all share.”

In the 22 years since the first edition of Practicing Our Faith came out, that need, it seems to me, has become more urgent. Why? It is a widely acknowledged fact among Christian scholars that we live in a post-Christian (or post-Christendom) society. In a talk delivered late last year, historical theologian Ephraim Radner defined a post-Christian society as one that offers no support for Christian life and witness, even though it once did so. “There are threads of Christianity running through post-Christian societies,” he explained, “but they now are visible only as an unravelling, not as a weaving together.”

I’m old enough to perceive this unravelling, and it only contributes to my longing to live my best life in Christ. I yearn that within my own tiny sphere of influence, the fragrance I bring might be the fragrance of Jesus. But even as I type those words, I’m tempted to despair, because I know how far short I fall from that goal.

And yet, I was heartened by Bass’s response, when I asked her what should be the goal of Christian practice. “We’re practicing life in the kingdom of God,” she said, and it seemed so simple when she described it that way.

Often, when people hear the word “practice,” she told me, they might think that our object is to master or control whatever it is we are practicing. “But in Christian practice, we add the spirit of Christ. These practices clear room to become channels of God’s grace.”

“So, we’re not trying to master time,” Bass went on, “we’re trying to receive it. It’s a matter of receptivity, of getting out of the way so God can do his work.”

The Christian life is meant to be lived in community. I believe this, and Bass counselled me to “find companions” as I set out to deepen and document my engagement with the 12 historic Christian practices outlined in Practicing Our Faith.

So that’s where you, dear reading friend, come in. I am buoyed and thankful that you are my companion just by the fact that you are reading this post, but I also want to learn from your thoughts, experiences, and feedback as we go along. Whether you’ve long considered yourself a Christian, or never done so, if you are a person who is intrigued by the idea of deepening your own spiritual practice, I hope that you will join me and the others who have committed to coming along on this journey, and then commenting from time to time so that we can learn from each other.

At the end of our call, Bass encouraged me. “I find it very helpful to get people to think about where they are already practicing,” she said. “Every Christian person is probably already doing these practices in one way or another. It just might be a little bit; it might be pathetic. So, look at where the practice already exists in your life, and ask, ‘what’s the next step?’”

The first of the 12 practices is: “Honouring the Body.” Over the coming week I invite you, reading friend, to think about how you are doing that. What does it mean to you to “honour the body” today, in your life, in your world? And what’s the next step for you to deepen your practice of that? It’s a question I’ve been reflecting on for some time now, and God willing, I will share my thoughts and discoveries with you next week.

I’ll end with another delicious word from Barth, to send us on our way:

“The Christian church is agreed on one thing: that it consists purely of beginners—and that this is truly a good thing: to become small again, to begin from the beginning, and thus at no point to stand still. … It is a question of faith, because all of that depends on Jesus, who alone is now able to make people into such simple, but happy beginners.”

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Part 2 – This post is second 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.

Practicing my faith

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As part of my Master of Theological Studies program at McMaster Divinity College I’m doing an online course this semester on Spiritual Discernment. Of course, I am loving it; without exception, I’ve devoured every course that’s been part of my program. But a couple of weeks ago, our prof delivered a lecture on practicing the Christian faith that captured my imagination in a way that made me ravenous for more.

Using the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass, published by Jossey-Bass) as one of her primary sources for the lecture, our professor mentioned that this book, which was first published in 1997, “spawned practically an entire discipline in itself of people—pastoral theologians, academics—who are contributing to this discussion of practices of faith.”

Practices are simply a means of connecting our faith with our living. I may be a late comer to the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I’ve learned through my studies that Christianity is always shaped by its surrounding culture, but there have been times when I’ve wondered if my culture shapes me more than it should. “How is it,” observes author David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, “that we’ve come to expect so little of people who call themselves Christian?” And twang goes my conscience.

As a person who like rules and boundaries—because they help to make life simple and clear—I’ve sometimes wondered if the way I live my faith, which seems to lack such rules with its emphasis on the grace of God, is “Christian enough.”

I know Muslims, who pray a prescribed number of times each day in a prescribed way. I know Jews who eat kosher and who faithfully honour the Sabbath and the high holidays. Such things are easily observed by someone outside of those faith groups like me. But what practices set apart the Christian life? My Christian life?

I’m not seeking a whole new “to do” or “to don’t” list. But sometimes, particularly as I ride the train en route to my part-time job, ear buds in, listening to the latest podcast, or scrolling news headlines on my phone surrounded by a sea of other commuters all doing precisely the same thing, I can’t help but wonder at the differences that exist in how I choose to lead my life from how my non-Christian friends and neighbours lead theirs. Outside of the hidden things—my prayer life, habits of Bible reading and study, personal moral choices, customs of church-going and charitable giving for example—would anyone who didn’t know me, be able to tell that I try to follow Jesus Christ just by observing the externals, that is, the practices of my life?

And again, Dark challenges me: “Will it turn out that you belonged mostly uncritically and unthinkingly to a particular cultural context? Did you wrestle with it or was your life one of automatic obedience, a series of unfortunate events in which you carefully ascertained what values you were expected to appear to have from one moment to the next and dutifully did so, aping along as it were along the path of least resistance?”

According to Bass (and the 12 authors who contributed to Practicing Our Faith) there are 12 “time-honored practices of faith, shaped by the Christian community over the centuries, yet richly relevant to contemporary experience.” The 12 practices are:

  1. Honouring the body
  2. Hospitality
  3. Household economics
  4. Saying yes and saying no
  5. Keeping sabbath
  6. Discernment
  7. Testimony
  8. Shaping communities
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Healing
  11. Dying well
  12. Singing our lives to God

What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be? After a few days of pondering such questions, I ordered Practicing Our Faith and have begun immersing myself in its pages. Like sinking into a delicious tub filled with warm water at the end of a tiring day, it feels like I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

In a recorded lecture delivered at Yale Divinity School, Bass observed that, “What people are searching for is a way of life that adds up to something in the midst of the fragmentation and the multiple pulls that we experience as contemporary people.”

A way of life that adds up to something; this is my yearning, my deep desire. I suspect if you’ve read this far, that the same is true for you.

I hope to write about my learnings here on this blog as I deepen my understanding of the 12 practices in the weeks and months ahead. “Discerning the contours of a way of life abundant proceeds best,” writes Dorothy Bass, “when we give analytical, imaginative, critical, constructive, theological, prayerful attention to one practice at a time.” So that is what I plan to do. And I’d love for you to journey with me by reading along.

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