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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Practing the Better: Othering

The Covenant opens the way for us to practice the better by delivering us from bondage, the greatest imprisonment being our confinement to self-centeredness.  Whether expressed individually (egotism) or collectively (ethnocentrism), selfishness works against life as God intends it.

But when delivered from this false self, we can begin to live in the true self, characterized by a desire to be an agent in fostering the common good–what Walter Brueggemann calls “othering” and “neighborliness”–a way of life arising out of the Covenant in Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 22:39.  [1]  Paul expressed the same view using different words, “We don’t live for ourselves, and we don’t die for ourselves” (Romans 14:7).

Paul called this perspective “living for the Lord” (14:8), which means that the grace of God has reoriented us away from self-glorificatiin to God-glorification.  Like a trained archer, we aim our lives (the bow) and our many acts (the arrows) at a new target, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” [2].  But as Richard Rohr notes, to pray “thy kingdom come” means very little unless we pray, “my kingdom go.” [3]

The Covenant changes our understanding of the purpose of our life.  Freed from aiming at “grabbing the gusto” for ourselves, we are now looking to “live generously” for the sake of others.  Through the outpouring of God’s love into our hearts, we are willing and able to practice the better.

[1] This is so important that an extemded exploration of our deliverance from egotism/ethnocentrism would do us all good.  For starters, turn your attention to Merton’s ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ and his book, ‘The New Man.’  Add Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upward’ and ‘Immortal Diamond.’ With this good foundation laid, turn to Brueggemann’s book. ‘Journey to the Common Good,’ which shows how a life delivered from selfishness engages in redemptive practices.

[2] In early Christianity, the image of archery was often used to describe the spiritual life.  John Cassian is known for his use of the metaphor in his book, ‘Conferences.’  He uses the image in Conference #1 and returns to it subsequently.

[3] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 1/18/18.

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Practicing the Better: Deliverance

Nothing could be worse than to have the desire to please God, but be unable to do so.  So, just as the creation gave us the capacity to serve God (via the imago dei), so also the Covenant gives us the capacity through the motif of deliverance.  Both forms of capacity are because of grace.

We must not miss the fact that God made the Covenant with Israel after their deliverance from Egypt. Their capacity for obedience came because they were free.  Paul later wrote of this in relation to Christ, “Christ has set us free for freedom” (Galatians 5:1).  In the same way, the liturgy reminds us that we are freed “for joyful obedience.”

It is deliverance which further confirms that our love of God and others is not a “pay back.”  We do not practice the better to insure our account with God is “paid in full.” We live by the motive of delight, not the mandate of obligation. Gratitude is an outflow of grace, not a prerequisite for it.

Deliverance from bondage does not get us all the way to the practice of the better, but there can be no achievement of the better until we are free to love out of faith, not fear.  To be set free means that our choices to practice the better arise from compassion, not coercion.

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Practicing the Better: Obedience

Of course, God includes in the Covenant the expectation that we will obey it.  Every relationship is honored, made real, and strengthened by obedience. Our relationship with God is no different.

But in the Covenant (that is rooted in God’s love for us, and our loving God and loving others) obedience is more than doing our duty.  It is expressing our delight.  Duty can be minimalistic (e.g. “what’s the least I can do and still be accepted?”), but delight never can be.  In the delight of knowing we are God’s beloved, we look for every opportunity to enact the two great commandments.

But there is still more.  The root of obedience is listening–listening with the intention to put into practice what we hear. God is constantly speaking and showing (revelation), our task is to be constantly listening and looking (response).  This is why attentiveness is considered to be at the heart of the spiritual life, why Jesus wanted us to have seeing eyes and hearing ears (Mark 8:18), why Jean-Pierre de Caussade spoke of “the sacrament of the present moment,” and Henri Nouwen wrote that we are to live ” here and now. ”

Study the saints of the ages, and they tell us, “Every moment is a God-monent.” Francis and Clare related to everyone they met as if the person were Christ. Macrina Wiederkehr reminds us that every tree is full of angels.  Richard Rohr emphasizes that each day is sufficient to reveal God’s presence and to ignite our service.  We recognize by practicing what Walter Brueggemann calls “deep listening,” –what we refer to as prayer.

Obedience is action born of contemplation.  With respect to the practice of the better, it means we need never look elsewhere to do good.  We do not know whom we will meet next, but we do know what we are to do when we meet them. Love them.  This is the essence of obedience.

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