Sabbath

During this Lenten season, as we’re encouraged to go within, I want to talk about Sabbath time, because I think it is a concept our society has either lost or is losing quickly. Now, there are some things I’d be happy with society losing (like world wrestling, or reality TV, or who-can-eat-the-most contests)… but I believe the loss of Sabbath time is actually detrimental, not just to our spiritual lives, but to our lives in general.

(For the full video version, click here.)Shabbat-768x513

There seems to be no historical basis for a Sabbath day prior to the Israelites of ancient times. Genesis 2:1-3 gives us the mythological context in which this practice began – God created the world and everything in it in six days and then rested on the seventh. This wasn’t because the Holy One was tired, but to model a day to rest and revel in the goodness of the world.

The Sabbath has been a cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times and there is frequent mention of the Sabbath throughout the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament). But what exactly is Sabbath about? And is it even applicable or practical for our lives today?

I originally entitled this message Sabbath: rest or vegetation? Because I think some folks would say that vegging in front of the television counts as Sabbath time, but that comes from a misconstrued understanding of rest and Sabbath.

The practice of Sabbath for Jews begins on sundown on Friday with a ritual to light the Shabbot candles, recite prayers and share a meal. The following 24 hours is time for socializing with family and friends, studying the Torah, sharing meals and family time, perhaps making love if you were a married couple, and worship on Saturday morning. Most types of “work” are prohibited on the Sabbath including cooking, starting fires, any sort of business, traveling and much more.The Sabbath ends at sundown on Saturday, again with a ritual of candles and prayers.

Joan Chittester, in her book In the Heart of the Temple,  suggests that the purpose and intent of these practices is “to enrich life, to measure life, to bring reflection to life, to engender life with soul. Sabbath is for resting in the God of life and bringing more to life ourselves as a result… Sabbath [is] designed to be used to determine the meaning and substance, the purpose and direction of our lives. Sabbath should be those time-out days when we allow ourselves to look at life in fresh and penetrating ways….”

Jesus said that “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  In other words, this kind of time is important to our health and well-being.  Why?

A friend tipped me off to this great book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Yes, it is basically a business book, but I believe the concepts it proposes make a strong case for Sabbath time.

Newport begins by talking about the difference between shallow work and deep work.  Shallow work does not require much concentration or focus. Falling into this category are things like emailing, paying bills, filing, meetings, phone calls, anything Internet related, watching television, video/computer games.

Deep work, on the other hand, is anything that takes intense amounts of concentration and thinking. Writing, problem solving, brainstorming, art, study, practicing an instrument, and craftsmanship are examples of deep work. Newport suggests that “Any pursuit – be it physical or cognitive – that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.”

I believe that true Sabbath time is deep work. But, as Newport points out, deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, so as human beings we gravitate toward the easy work. It is the Principle of Least Resistance. But the shallow work is not particularly rewarding or meaningful (other than you can check it off your to-do list), whereas deep work is.

Newport shares the story of science writer Winifred Gallagher who “stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis.” In her book, Rapt, she talks about how the disease wanted to monopolize her time and attention, but as much as possible she would focus on what was good in her life instead – “movies, walks and a 6:30 martini.” Because she found that, instead of having a life mired in fear and trepidation, she found that it was often quite pleasant, this led her to investigate the role of attention in one’s life. What she discovered is that there is much research out there supporting the fact that it is not our circumstances that determine how we feel, but where we place our attention. If she had focused on her cancer diagnosis, her life would have become fearful, anxiety-ridden, and depressing. Whereas focusing on the good things made her life more pleasant. Basically she says, “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”

So, if we spend our lives paying attention mostly to the shallow things that draw our attention, how we feel about our lives and ourselves will be shaped by that. But, if we spend more time on deep work, things that inherently carry a sense of impact and importance, then how we feel about our lives and ourselves, who we are, will be shaped by that. It is the deeper work that will give greater meaning and purpose to our lives.

So, here’s the rub… humans are easily distracted, which means deep work is hard to maintain.

At the time of writing this sermon, I turned off my phone and checked out of email and the internet. I gave myself two hours of concentrated deep work time to write. But I found I often had to fight the urge to check email or my phone. This discovery was sort of unsettling.

Newport suggest that, “The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

As I read this it sounded a lot like the creation of a Sabbath day with routines and rituals. A day that was created for the benefit of people because it would not just give them a break from work, but a break that was meaningful and purposeful as it involved the deep work of spirituality, the deep work of developing relationships, the deep work of worship and prayer, and the deep work of study.

I’ll grant you, that with our society the way it is, this model is probably not practical for most of us. So, I’m not suggesting that we attempt an entire day of Sabbath… but I do wonder if we could be more intentional about at having least SOME Sabbath (deep work) time during the week.

I also want to be clear that Sabbath time does not have to be solitary. Other people, with their thoughts, ideas and questions, help us to learn and grow so we delve deeper into our own thought processes.

You may consider worship to be Sabbath time, but worship is only ONE hour once a week. It’s a good start, but I believe that more Sabbath time will enrich our lives even more. How can we begin to schedule the deep work of Sabbath time, to focus our attention on the sacred in our lives?

I think Newport’s suggestions for deep work in business apply fairly well for Sabbath deep work:

  • Schedule time for deep work
  • Don’t always do deep work alone
  • Learn to disconnect… go off the grid
  • The mind also has limits to deep work… learn yours and temper it with downtime

Jesus was clear that Sabbath was not just about adhering to a set of rules for a holy day, it was a practice to help bring us meaning, fulfillment, and life in abundance.

Lenten blessings,

Kaye

Discipleship

Last week we found ourselves with Jesus in the wilderness in the gospel of Mark. I’m fascinated by what happens after that, so follow along in the book of Mark for a moment. After Jesus’ time in the wilderness getting grounded in the Spirit and, I believe, understanding himself and his path a bit better, he returns to begin his ministry, preaching and teaching the “Good News.” In the very next story in Mark, Jesus starts gathering disciples beginning with the brothers Simon and Andrew, and the brothers James and John.

Then there are five stories of Jesus’ healing people:Discipleship-Blog-Banner

  • Person with an “unclean spirit” (1:25)
  • Simon’s mother-in-law who was ill with a fever (1:31)
  • Many people who were sick with diseases, and cast out many demons (1:34)
  • Person with leprosy (1:41)
  • Paralyzed person (2:11)

(For the full video version, click here.)

Which brings us to our reading for today in which Jesus is walking by the lake, presumably in Capernaum, sees Levi sitting in his tax office, and says to him, “follow me.” The next thing you know, Jesus is reclining to eat at Levi’s house with a crowd of tax collectors, notorious “sinners,” his disciples, and even some of the religious leaders of the Pharisee sect.

The Pharisee is a little put off by eating dinner with a bunch of lowlifes and turns to one of Jesus’ disciples and asks, “Why does the Teacher eat with these people?”

Overhearing the question, Jesus declares, “People who are healthy don’t need a doctor; sick ones do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous.”

I have two thoughts on his response. First, I suppose it could be taken as a compliment to the Pharisee, who might then think he’s the healthy, righteous one who doesn’t need Jesus. OR, Jesus is really saying this sort of tongue-in-cheek: “I’m not here for those of you who think you are healthy and righteous, because you think you’ve got it all figured out already and won’t be able to hear a word I’m saying. You may not think much of these other folks, but they will be open to my teaching.”

Regardless, I find the progression of events in Mark interesting. Jesus performed a series of healings then compares himself to a doctor coming to help the sick. But the people sitting around the table aren’t ill, in this case it is a sickness where one has lost their way in life. Their attitudes, behaviors and treatment of others has led them down a dark road. They have lost themselves.

From my viewpoint the crux of the matter is that Jesus came to heal – emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Joan Chittester, in her book In the Heart of the Temple, tells the story of a teacher who traveled with great difficulty to a faraway monastery because there was an old monastic there who had a reputation for asking very piercing spiritual questions. “Holy One,” the teacher said. “Give me a question that will renew my soul.” “Ah, yes, then,” the old monastic said, “your question is, What do they need?”

The teacher wrestled with the question for days but then, depressed, gave up and went back to the old monastic in disgust. “Holy One,” the teacher said, “I came here because I’m tired and depressed and dry. I didn’t come here to talk about my ministry. I came here to talk about y spiritual life. Please give me another question.” “Ah, well, of course. Now I see,” the old monastic said, “in that case, the right question for you is not, What do they need? The right question for you is, What do they really need?”

If Jesus were answering that question, “What do people REALLY need?” what would be his response? What was he teaching his disciples?

Chittester comments that discipleship often requires some sort of “academic or ascetic exercise.” In other words, learn something or refrain from doing something. In addition, it seems like (for many people) discipleship also implies blind obedience. But what do people really need for their spiritual lives?

In my humble opinion, it’s not obedience. Discipleship, following Jesus is not about obedience to creeds, laws, religious texts, rituals, traditions, or other formulas designed to get one to heaven. I don’t recall Jesus ever instructing anyone memorize bible passages or the 10 commandments or the 613 Jewish laws.

 

So, what do people really need?

I think people need support in being like Jesus, who was a healing presence in this world.

One day the Buddha was threatened with death by a bandit on the road. “First,” the Buddha said to the bandit, “honor my last with and cut the branch off that tree.” “There,” the bandit said, handing the branch to the Buddha, “whatever good it will do you now.” “Correct,” said the Buddha. “So please put the branch back on the tree again.” “You must be insane,” the bandit said, “to think anyone could do that.” “Oh, on the contrary, my friend,” the Buddha said. “It is you who are insane if you think you are mighty simply because you can wound and destroy. The mighty are those who spend their strength to create and to heal.”

This is what discipleship is about. Not obedience, but about being a creative and healing force in the world – for ourselves, our relationships, our systems and our environment.

What does this look like? Here’s a start…

  • Listening to someone who is hurting
  • Seeking understanding instead of judgment
  • Being inclusive, welcoming and accepting
  • Sincerely apologizing when we’ve done something wrong
  • Offering forgiveness when we’ve been wronged
  • Holding someone when they cry
  • Working for justice
  • Showing kindness and gentleness
  • Being generous
  • Recycling
  • Going to therapy to help heal yourself

I don’t care (and I don’t honestly think Jesus cared) what you specifically believe or what religion you follow, as long as you live your life as a healing presence, walking the path of love, compassion, kindness and justice.

Lenten blessings,

Kaye

Choices

This coming Wednesday is commonly known in the church calendar as Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. From Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays in between (because they are supposed to be “little Easters”) is 40 days, meant to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to his public ministry.choices

The story of those 40 days in the wilderness is about the mental, physical and spiritual preparation that Jesus goes through in order to be ready to preach and teach the Good News of God.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In Megan McKenna’s book, Lent: The Sunday Readings, she states:

[T]he temptation in the wilderness story is short and powerful. The Spirit sends [or drives] Jesus out toward the desert… The desert in the Jewish tradition is the place of transition between slavery and oppression and the making of a people into the children of God ready to enter into the promised land of their dreams. It is a period of testing, of letting go of what was before so that what is to come can enter into them… It is also a time of privilege, of intimacy with God alone, who leads and teaches them in the deepest recesses of their hearts so that they come to know that home is where God is within them.

But in this wilderness time of learning, growing, and changing, there is a tension that needs to be worked out: the tension between the voices of the world and the voices of the Spirit. The figure of Satan (which in Greek simply means Hinderer) is the characterization of these voices of the world tempting Jesus with the illusory things of the world. Now, it seems to me that for Jesus to have been the deeply centered, grounded, consistent and stable spiritual leader he was, there had, at some point, to have been conscious choices on his part about how he’d live his life, how he’d make decisions, and how he’d treat other people. The story of Jesus in the wilderness offers us one possibility to how he found that center.

Here’s a proposition… what if we each made these 40 days of Lent a conscious walk in the wilderness for each of us? What if we became more conscious of the decisions we make on a daily basis? What if we pay attention to the tension present in those decisions between the ways the world calls us and the ways the spiritual path calls us?

Think about this tension for a minute. What are the things we choose between?

What do the voices of the world sound like?

  • Greed – you need more…
  • Power – you should have control…
  • Judgment – you’re better than them…
  • Sloth – what’s the point in trying…
  • Complaining – life sucks…
  • Elitism – you deserve…
  • Selfishness – you first…
  • Jealousy – they can take away what you have… 
  • Envy – they have something you don’t…
  • Fear – you can’t…
  • Violence – an eye for an eye…
  • Anger – don’t let them get away with that…
  • punishment – you should make them pay for that…
  • Self-loathing – you’re not good enough…

And what do the voices of the Spirit sound like…

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Understanding
  • Joy
  • Kindness
  • Forgiveness
  • Patience
  • Helpfulness
  • Hope
  • Trust
  • Equality

So… when we’re in a position to respond to a situation or person, our wilderness time calls us to first to check out which list we’re responding from.  And it is awesome each time we can choose to respond from the Spirit list. But, then things get a little trickier. You see, it is possible for our actions to be spiritual choices, but inside the voices of the world are grumbling. For example, you can give $5 to a homeless person on the street, while inside you’re judging them by condemning their dirty clothes, their laziness and you’re thinking they’ll probably just use the money to buy alcohol. Our generous outsides don’t match our judgmental, complaining insides.

I believe part of the goal of the spiritual life is for our insides to match our outsides the way Jesus’ insides matched his outsides.

I encourage all of us to use this time of Lent to work on being consciously aware of the tension and temptations that confront us daily, then to choose well. Perhaps if we make the spiritual choices long enough, our insides will begin to change to reflect our actions. It’s not easy, and it’s more than a 40 day process, but Lent is a good excuse to start.

Blessings,

Kaye