Practicing the Better: Covenant Goodness

The Covenant continues the light, life and love set down in the creation, with sabbath being a key means for sustaining all three things in our lives.

Light–Israel was to receive God’s light and to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). This was through righteousness–the character and conduct within and beyond the nation that dispells the darkness of empire with the light of shalom.

Life–Israel was to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19-21). This was through justice–the intention of insuring that everyone had what they needed in order to live with dignity and equality as one human family.

Love–Israel was to be loved and to love (Deuteronomy 6:4, Leviticus 19:18).  This was through the love of God and neighbor–the heart and core (grand summation) of the Covenant message.

We will soon move into the New Covenant in our exploration of the practice of the better, but the “newness” is not that of displacing the first Covenant, but rather fulfilling it. As we will see, the practice of the better (begun in creation and Covenant) continues to unfold and mature in the New Covenant, which itself carries us on to the “new creation” and the union of all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

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Practicing the Better: Sabbath #5

The rest we find in sabbath and the restoration it provides enable us to return to the regular responsibilities with a sense of freshness and invigoration.  Sabbath is not an end, but rather a recurring means to the end of living abundantly, which we cannot do if we fall prey to an unceasing round of feverish activities.

We return from sabbath “in our right mind.” Our Buddhist friends understand this better than many Christians, for mindfulness is a key characteristic in their spirituality.  It is meant to be so for us too–indeed, for anyone who wants to live with perspective and the benefits it provides.  Mindfulness enables us to walk in a relaxed manner (Joyce Rupp) and from that place of peace, kindness and compassion flow.

We also return from sabbath to “do our right work.”. We call it vocation.  We have been given spiritual gifts and natural talents to put to work for our livelihoodvand for the good of others.  The Wesleyan Covenant prayer says, “Christ has many services to be done.” You and I have ours–our respective territories in which to be instruments of God’s peace.  Sabbath helps us return to our location with a renewed sense of God’s call on our work.

In all the ways we have explored sabbath, and more, we find that it is indeed a means for practicing the better.

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Practicing the Better: Sabbath #4

The restoration sabbath also includes the re-establishment of rhythm–the pace of grace we noted a few posts back.  It is the rhythm of engagement and abstinence, working and resting.

Dallas Willard took the principle I gleaned from Susan Muto and turned it into practice.  He did it in his book, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines,’ where he showed how the classic spiritual disciplines are given to us by God to establish and maintain the sacred rhythm. [1]

Up to that time, I had largely thought of the disciplines (means of grace) as a collection of formative things to do.  I learned from Richard Foster that we must not be driven by the false notion that we should practice all of the disciplines all the time with equal devotion.  Foster taught me that selection is part of the picture. In his words, “The disciplines enable us to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.” A holy pick-and -choose discernment process is part of the story.

But it was Willard who took me to the next step by showing how the disciplines are organized to establish the rhythm of abstinence and engagement. [2]. I carry this pattern in my Bible to this day:

Engagement–worship, prayer, meditation, study, service, celebration, confession, submission, and fellowship.

Abstinence–solitude, silence, fasting, simplicity, chastity, and confidentiality.

Disciplines of engagement enable us to work for God. Disciplines of abstinence enable us to rest in God. Working and resting are equally important. Both are part of the disciplined life.  They are the rhythm of the spiritual life. Sabbath restores our ability to see this and commit ourselves to the practice of it–part of what it means to practice the better.

[1] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’ (1988).

[2] It was Richard Foster who told me about Willard’s book, and told me it was Willard who also showed him how the disciplines create the rhythm.  In effect, Richard said to me, “If you have my book and Dallas’ book, you have a complete picture of the spiritual disciplines–mine showing the nature of them and his showing the pattern.”

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Practicing the Better: Sabbath #3

Sabbath rest leads to restoration.  It brings things which get lost in the whirlwind of activism back into view.  We will look at two restorative aspects of sabbath–one in this post and another in the next.

Restoration restores our perspective.  For one thing, it reminds us we are not indispensable. No matter how long we go away for sabbath time, the world keeps going. Only God never slumbers or sleeps (Psalm 121:3). Excessive activity fosters an artificial sense of our importance, and the ego swells like a blowfish with the increasing gas of self-aggrandizement. 

Even more amazing and challenging is the fact that the first creation story includes a day when God rested!  The paradigmatic nature of the story is plain.  God is saying, “If I cannot be God without sabbath, what makes you think you can be human without it?”  Yikes!

In his devotional classic, ‘The Testament of Devotion,’ Thomas Kelly noted how activism can arise out of a good heart.  Because of compassion, we are moved by the needs around us, but if we are not careful, compassion can turn into compulsion. Kelly turns us away from compulsivenesss by saying plainly, “We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.” [1]

Years ago, Richard Foster told me of a time in his life when he was feeling over-committed and experiencing the early stages of burnout.  Into his increasing depletion God spoke this restoring word, “Richard, you must learn that there are more things going on than I am asking you to be involved in.”

I have gone over this line more times than I can count.  It takes sabbath time to restore the wisdom found in the words, “Do a few things well.” We each have a coverage area–a territory, and it is there where we are called to practice the better. Sabbath restores our perspective. Without it, we eventually become a mile wide and a half-inch deep.  

And as Richard Foster put it in the opening sentence of his book, ‘Celebration of Discipline’–“Superficiality is the curse of our age ” [2]. Sabbath restores the sacredness of the ordinary, the importance of locality, and the joys of living here-and-now.

[1] Keith Beasley-Topliffe, ed., ‘The Sanctuary of the Soul: Selected Writings of Thomas Kelly’ (Upper Room Books, 1997), 61.  This quote comes from Kelly’s classic, ‘A Testament of Devotion’ (Harper & Row, 1941).

[2] Richard Foster, ‘Celebration of Discipline’ (Harper & Row, 1978), 1.

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Practicing the Better: Sabbath #2

We begin our brief exp!oration of sabbath with its best-known component: rest.  God remembers we are dust (Psalm 193:14).  We are the ones who forget it.  In a world of machines, we try to act like machines.  We pay high prices for violating our humanity–excessive stress, physical illness, and superficial relationships, to name a few.  Instead of this, God calls us to rest.

During a time of fatigue born of burnout, Henri Nouwen took a sabbatical to Peru.  He lived with those who worked daily to advocate for the poor.  He saw the intensity of their words and deeds. But he also saw something else. In addition to Sunday (when they worshipped), they also made Thursdays a sabbath day. They packed lunches and headed for the hills (literally) where they ate, visited, played guitars, sang, and danced. Nouwen’s hosts made it clear to him that their ability to endure in their work was connected to their commitment to enjoy their leisure.  Their witness made a profound impact on him.

E. Stanley Jones, himself given to the excess of activity, also said, “The one who is available to everyone will soon be no good to anyone.” In addition to a weekly sabbath, he included daily withdrawals in his spiritual formation.  

For many of us, it is a hallelujah moment to realize that the God who tells us to do good, includes these words in his command, “Do good to yourself.”  That’s sabbath–that’s rest. Self-care is an indispensable element in the practice of the better.

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Practicing the Better: Sabbath #1

Even though we have only scratched the surface regarding the Covenant, we have linked the practice of the better to quite a few important things–so many, in fact, that we might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.  God must have sensed the same possibility for the Israelites. Long lists of expectations can create a downward spiral of interest and energy, leaving us to ask, “Really?” 

There are so many ways to practice the better, we can find ourselves wondering, “Does God expect me to do all this?” By the time of Jesus, the list had proliferated into an estimated 613 rules and regulations–too many even to remember, much less perform.  If we don’t recognize what’s going on, we will turn the practice of the better into a soul-draining perfectionism, contaminating the intended life of grace with a performance-oriented fatigue, which the ego can exploit into a measurable meritocricy (“I am doing more than others, and doing it better”).  Jesus called out this horrible pseudo holiness in the contrast between the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

To prevent this, the Covenant added the saving grace called sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).  Notice that the command to keep the sabbath is by far the longest of the ten commandments.  In an activistic, over-worked and sleep-deprived 24/7 planet, we too often live as if the sabbath commandment were never given.  But one thing the Covenant makes clear is this: “keeping on keeping on” through an unceasing round of unrelenting activities is not what it means to practice the better.  In fact, Merton called this kind of spirituality a form of violence. [1]

Instead, Dr. Susan Muto has written about “the pace of grace.” [2]. The first time I read her words, I thought to myself, “I didn’t even know grace has a pace.”. But it does, and my astonishment was because far too often I had “put the pedal to the metal” and exceeded the speed limit of life.  The practice of the better does not ask for this, and by no means requires it.  Recognizing this is so important that we will extend our look at the sabbath-principle and its relation to practicing the better. [3]

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ (Image Books,1968), 86.

[2] Susan Muto, ‘Meditation in Motion’ (Image Books, 1986), 34.  The entire book is a guide to overcoming the soul-drain of activism.

[3] Like many other aspects described in this series, sabbath is too big to be explored in blog-length posts.  For a more complete picture, read Wayne Muller’s book, ‘Sabbath.’ And with that foundation, look at Walter Brueggemann’s ‘Sabbath as Resistance.’

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Practicing the Better: Liberty & Justice for All

The Covenant frees us to live as God intends, and it shows us that one of the first movements in our freedom is working for justice.  We have captured this dynamic in one of our national mantras–“The Pledge of Allegiance”–in the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all.” The phrase follows the Covenant flow.

We cannot claim to be liberated if the desire to see everyone else freed is not in us.  There is nothing in the spiritual life more counterfeit and egregious than to claim something for ourselves while denying it to others.  A spirituality and/or religion which perpetuates and justifies a “my, me, mine” view of life is putrid in God’s nostrils.  Jesus taught this clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose othering (compassionate caregiving) stood in stark contrast to the self-interest of the priest and Levite. 

Liberty is verified by justice.  Brueggemann emphasizes that the word ‘justice’ goes beyond its judicial and regulatory connotations. [1] Justice is essentially restorative and born out of the desire to show mercy–in keeping with our recognition that God has dealt with us in restorative and merciful ways.  We have received freely, we freely give.

Liberty and justice…for all.  The Covenant overturns every notion of in/out thinking which breeds selection and exclusion.  It does so when God tells the Israelites that what they do for those whom they know and love best is also to be done to the strangers (Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 10:17-19).  Those who are least known by the Jews and most unlike them are to be treated the same ways as they treat themselves.

Covenant upends empires–“the kingdoms of this world,” who write insideous codes and construct elaborate systems for keeping “down and out” any whom they consider to be inferior–almost always including a theological rationale for their injustice.  Jesus incarnated Covenant by moving among and befriending those whom the political/religious empire of his day had ignored and persecuted, telling his followers that what they did (or failed to do) for “the least of these,” they did ( or failed to do) to him.

Liberty and justice for all.  It’s what made the Covenant pervasive and what makes any nation “great.”  Liberty and justice for all.  It is what inspires and informs the practice of the better.

[1] Brueggemann unpacks this broader notion of justice in his book, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire.’

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