First Sunday of the New Year

Eugene Peterson, in his book Tell It Slant, describes Sabbath as “a time to receive silence and let it deepen into gratitude.” As we experience the first Sunday of 2022, here’s a prayer from today’s Lectio 365 devotional:

“May this day bring Sabbath rest to my heart and my home.
May God’s image in me be restored, and my imagination in God be re-storied.
May the gravity of material things be lightened, and the relativity of time slow down.
May I know grace to embrace my own finite smallness in the arms of God’s infinite greatness.
May God’s Word feed me and His Spirit lead me into the week and into the life to come. Amen.”

Stopping for Sabbath Even When There’s More to Do

Last night I sat down with my family for Sabbath supper. I had been hoping to get certain things done before Sabbath began. But I didn’t. There were unfinished tasks all around me.

There are always unfinished tasks all around me.

But I still practice Sabbath.

I told someone recently that even if my Sunday sermon isn’t done before Sabbath starts, I don’t continue working on it until Sabbath is over.

I’m learning to trust that God honours this.

More, to ignore my need for Sabbath to get something else done—including a sermon—is an act of hubris, of pride, of anxious striving. To insist on finishing a sermon on, say, Saturday morning when I’m supposed to be resting is to insist that I need to make this happen or it won’t.

Obviously, I make every effort not to put myself in the position of needing to work on my sermon after Sabbath begins. Even so, in what or in whom do I trust? Am I letting anxiety or guilt be the driving force in my doing?

My anxiousness over unfinished tasks or chores is hardly limited to sermons. Usually it’s other things. And more important than the tasks themselves is my mindset when thinking about them or when engaging in them.

Sabbath means stopping and letting go. I don’t have to control everything. I can’t control much anyhow. But I live with the illusion of control, this persistent belief that without my effort things will fall apart.

This past week I went on a 4 day pastor’s retreat. Since I am the primary cook and have a more flexible work schedule than my wife who is a teacher, being away for that time meant my family had to get along without me.

And they did. Things didn’t fall apart. Not even close.

If this was the case this week, how much more so with God when I take Sabbath? Am I so indispensable to the world and to what God is doing that I can’t take 24 hours to rest and recalibrate? How arrogant would it make me to live that way?

When we live in such a manner that we never slow down, never allow ourselves quiet, solitude, rest, and Sabbath, we’re endangering our souls. We’re dehumanizing ourselves and those around us. We become human doings instead of human beings. How we see and treat ourselves becomes how we see and treat others.

Because there’s always more to do. Always. Even when we ignore our need for Sabbath. Ignoring Sabbath doesn’t make us more productive. And even if it does, who cares? By whose priorities are we living? Whose agenda are we serving?

Practicing Sabbath is in part learning to be more of myself in the presence of God and others—especially my family. Whatever tasks have to remain briefly unfinished to attend to this reality are, on the whole, less significant. And by practicing Sabbath I learn to experience all of life—including it’s everyday tasks—as participating in the very life of God himself. To me, that’s worth stopping for 24 hours, even if other things have to wait.

Sabbath (and the Need for Rest in a Weary and Wearying World)

Each week from Friday evening to Saturday evening my family observes a Sabbath. I try my best to have everything ready for church before Friday afternoon (though I’m not always successful). This means my sermon and anything else for Sunday morning worship. That frees me to take the next day to sleep in, read, listen to a podcast or two, play games with my family, go for a walk with my wife, watch a little bit of TV, and, hopefully, enjoy some of the special dessert left over from Friday evening.

Our Sabbath begins with a sit down meal that includes special prayers, Scripture readings, the lighting of candles, the singing of the Shema (based on Deuteronomy 6:4), reciting The Apostles’ Creed, the sharing of the bread and cup (an at home family version of Communion), and, of course, food. Usually, it’s the only night of the week we have dessert. It’s also one of the only evenings when there are no other obligations other than being together as a family. We rarely make plans on Friday evenings that involve us leaving home, especially if it’s somehow work related. My wife and I guard this sacred time jealously.

Speaking for myself, I have come to the place where I need Sabbath. It’s a time to exhale. It’s a time simply to be rather than do. It’s an admittance that life is not within my control. It’s an act of trust in God’s sovereign care. It’s both relinquishment and recuperation. On the rare occasions when it’s interrupted, my soul notices. Indeed, it lends a profound rhythm to my week. When a week is especially draining or difficult, I know that Friday is coming. Respite is on its way. Knowing that Friday evening is not like every other evening is a gift, one that I have learned to savour.

Now, if I’m honest, I’d also have to admit that our Sabbath often doesn’t feel long enough. There are weeks when Saturday evening arrives and I’m just beginning to find myself again. I’ve only begun to rest. Selfishly, I want more time.

You don’t have to be running or driving around doing a million things to feel weary these days. Much of our world is wearying. I don’t mean physically wearying. No, I mean emotionally, mentally, and spiritually wearying. I mean the kind of weariness that can penetrate our hearts and lead to discouragement and depression.

Over the last couple of years most of us, even if we haven’t been directly touched by the COVID virus, have been profoundly impacted by everything COVID. Fear, anger, exhaustion, anxiety, grief—all are symptomatic of our current culture. Our world is weary, dispirited, frustrated, and fed up. Often we’re fed up with other people because they see matters differently. Public discourse is often lacking civility. Those with opposing views never seem to have respectful dialogue.

Never mind the fact that many people live overextended, busy, distracted lives. We increasingly lack the capacity for reflection and self-awareness. Slowing down and being quiet isn’t an option, or at least not one we appear willing to consider. We should be asking ourselves: what kind of lives do we want? What actually helps me live into the world, to be genuinely present where I am? How can we gain honest perspective on our priorities and assess our values?

I think we need spiritual anchors, practices that orient us. We need to structure our lives as much as we’re able around what matters most to us. We need to build into our weekly routines activities and rituals that help us contextualize our everyday experiences within a larger framework of meaning. I’m not saying this is easy to do. It might very well mean saying no and disappointing other people who have expectations of us. But I am saying that it’s essential. I’m saying it’s one of the ways our souls can remain tethered to the reality of God and his purposes for us and the world. Otherwise, we’ll be tossed to and fro by the urgency of the immediate and find ourselves adopting the priorities of our surrounding culture.

Sabbath is part of what does that for me and my family. It’s a small but life-giving act of rebellion against a consumerist, media-driven culture. Even if I stop, life continues. Things don’t come apart at the seams. God remains in control. In the meantime, I’m freed from the life-sapping illusion that I have to get everything done and that it’s all up to me. Nothing is more wearying than feeling like you just can’t let go. Nothing is more life-giving than letting go knowing that God has everything well in hand. In a world that is weary and wearying, that’s the truth that allows me to experience the rest I badly need.

Sleep Apnea and the God Who Doesn’t Slumber

I have something called sleep apnea. So each night when I go to bed, I have to use something called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. I’ve used such a machine for years. But a few years back, when the device I had was not working properly, I really noticed the difference. During the day I was almost always groggy. I would fall asleep while reading or working at the computer. And forget driving, because there was a good chance I would be far too drowsy to drive safely. No one could rely on me to be alert.

Thankfully, God is not like this. In Psalm 121:3, it says that the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep. So God does not get tired. Instead, he is always present, always alert, and always available to help us. He doesn’t nod off halfway through our prayers.

Even with my CPAP machine, I can still get tired. At the end of a busy day, I can feel drained of emotional and physical energy. This is even true of a normal day. Take yesterday. At bedtime I felt really worn out. I wondered aloud to my wife about why I would feel this way when it hadn’t been an especially crazy day. Her response? “Well, you have been awake all day.” We don’t have to have been pushing ourselves all day to be tired at bedtime. Being awake all day, apparently, is enough to reach that point.

You and I have limits. We can’t be or do anything we want in the time we have. Each of us has only so much energy, physical, emotional, relational, etc. Some of us more, some of us less. We all know what it’s like when we’ve expended our available energy. For my part, I am likely to get more irritable and impatient. My mind and body usually let me know when it’s time to get some rest, even though I am not always wise enough to listen.

It’s instructive to ponder the fact that in the Jewish tradition days are measured from evening to evening, not morning to morning. Which means that just as the day begins, people are getting ready to settle down for the night and get some rest. On the Sabbath, faithful Jews acknowledge their limits by taking an entire 24 hour period to rest, and to recognize that the world does not revolve around them. When they stop, the world keeps going. Sabbath is an act of faith that God has things well in hand. Because God does not slumber or sleep.

For me, having sleep apnea is a reminder of my limits. Such limits are not bad. Rather, they point me to the One who is without limit. Because of my need to get a decent night’s sleep, I am reminded of the importance of trusting God with my life and all of my worries and problems. While I am sleeping, there’s nothing I can do about whatever difficult or challenging circumstances are a part of my life. Since God doesn’t slumber or grow weary, I am invited to make the psalmist’s words my own when he says in Psalm 4:8: In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

A Collect for Sabbath Rest

“Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Sometimes Doing Nothing is Doing Something

Yesterday early in the afternoon I finished my sermon for tomorrow. For anyone who’s a pastor, you will understand the significance of this.

A free Saturday!!

Actually, I always endeavour to finish my Sunday prep before my kids are home from school on Fridays. That’s my goal, though I’m not always successful. Because from Friday evening till Saturday evening my family and I observe Sabbath.

But since I successful was this week, it meant that even after sleeping in this morning I had no work I had to do. And so know what I did?

Brace yourself.

I read The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings Part 3) for roughly three hours.

In fact, for part of that time I read while laying on the couch in our living room, with our two dogs sleeping on top of me warming my feet.

It was great. Restful. Freeing.

Sometimes doing nothing means doing something—something important, life-giving, rejuvenating.

Sometimes it’s important to stop what you are normally responsible for doing.

Sometimes we need to stop thinking about work and obligations.

Sometimes we need reminding that when we stop, the world doesn’t end. The universe doesn’t revolve around you and me.

In other words, God’s got this.

This is why I love Sabbath.

If you were to take a Sabbath, what would you do that gives you life?

How To Fight The Undeniable Evil That Is Sunday Shopping!

This past week the Saint John city council postponed making a decision that would allow businesses to determine their hours of operation on Sundays. At the present time, a city by-law allows retailers to be open between the hours of 12 noon to 5pm on Sundays. The council postponed the decision because even though 85% of the business owners who responded to a survey want the restrictions, less than half of the businesses in the city responded to the survey at all. Despite the decision not to review the by-law, the trend in the province of New Brunswick is most definitely leaning in the direction of lifting all restrictions on Sunday shopping. Fredericton, Moncton, and Bathurst have already removed such restrictions. Surely, Saint John will eventually follow. [Update: Saint John city council have now revised the by-law removing restrictions on Sunday shopping.]

Alongside the increasingly prevalent practice of scheduling sports team practices and games during the time that most churches hold their services, Sunday shopping is often held up as an example of a culture slipping away from traditional religious values and practices. More specifically, it’s one of the reasons, some suggest, that fewer and fewer people attend church on Sundays. Given the consumerist bent of our society, many would much rather be sitting in a food court at the local mall than in a pew in their local church. The more cars there are parked at Walmart, the fewer there will be in the church parking lot. Or so some say.

Others would say, “So what?”

As a Christian, I agree that the decision to lift Sunday shopping restrictions reflects a culture that is less and less influenced by religious concerns. However, I am not convinced that Sunday shopping is a culprit in the decreased attendance that a number of churches may be experiencing. As far as I’m concerned, if your congregation is dwindling on Sunday mornings, don’t go blaming McDonald’s or Old Navy. Other factors closer to home are no doubt responsible for church decline in the US and Canada. Retailers are simply reaping the benefits.

Whatever the connection is between Sunday shopping and the realities of church life, those of who are Christians—who are committed to Christian community—do have to face the facts. How do we deal with a culture where Sundays are no longer sacred? Because even if the majority of those shopping on Sundays wouldn’t have been in church if the stores weren’t open, it’s still the case that changing attitudes and cultural shifts regarding what used to be called “The Lord’s Day” are having a significant impact on a number of congregations.

For instance, as a pastor, I have a few people in my own congregation that occasionally have to be away on Sundays because of their work. And while I used to think that maybe these people should ask for Sundays off and give as the reason their religious convictions, now I realize that this approach could make it incredibly difficult for a business owner. If an employer gives a Christian employee every Sunday off, does he or she also have to give all Jewish employees the Sabbath off? What about people who have no specific religious beliefs? Is it fair for them to have to make up for the fact that on the weekends their co-workers are attending church or synagogue? Add to this all of the business owners who are also Christian. Do they open their stores and restaurants on Sundays? How do they balance their faith and their business practices?

There are some who would, on the basis of all of this, argue that this is precisely why we should fight to restrict or completely eliminate Sunday shopping. All of these issues would then be moot. But, of course, this would only help those of a Christian persuasion, and therefore leave out our Jewish and Muslim neighbours plus many others. That there may be proportionately a much higher percentage of Christians is not altogether pertinent, not if we want to show a genuine love for neighbour. Besides, once restrictions on Sunday shopping have been lifted, I can’t begin to imagine how they might be put in place again. That’s fighting against a very strong current.

Perhaps more importantly for business owners is to incorporate the biblical principle of rest into their business practices. And many businesses are doing this, having recognized that well-rested, contented employees are also, by and large, more productive. Business owners may not always be in the position of being able to give their employees the exact days off they would prefer, but they can guarantee reasonable time off, time during which the employees can prioritize as they please. And if that means taking time to attend a Bible study, go to a Mosque, or simply spend time with family and friends, so be it.

In the midst of this, churches need to become more understanding of the people who are in the awkward position of having to straddle what can seem like two worlds: their Christian life and their work life. And some churches already make provision for such people by having multiple services, some even during the week. Yes, it’s true; there are those who feel that moving the worship service from Sunday morning at eleven a.m. to Thursday evening at seven p.m. is anathema, but if we’re going to meet people where they are, we have to consider such accommodations.

And I know and agree that, yes, even the New Testament is clear that Sunday was the Lord’s Day, the day that Christians met to celebrate, pray, and learn from the Scriptures together. And this is because Jesus was raised from the dead on a Sunday; our worship services are to celebrate his resurrection and what it means for us. And so certainly there’s no reason that most churches can’t continue to have their worship services on Sunday mornings; moreover, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

But this point doesn’t necessarily mean fighting to restrict Sunday shopping. In his book Surprised By Hope, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this:

“Many Christians will find, for all kinds of reasons, that Sunday is a difficult day to attend church services. But we should remind ourselves that the earliest Christians lived in a world where Sunday was the first day of the working week, much like our Monday, and that they valued its symbolism so highly that they were prepared to get up extra early both to celebrate Easter once again and to anticipate the final Eighth Day of Creation, the start of the new week, the day when God will renew all things.”

Aha! Do you see what he said? Even the earliest Christians had Sunday shopping; that is, Sundays were a work day, the first day of the work week. So they did the only thing they could do. They met in wee hours of the morning, before going to work. It wasn’t until decades later in the era of Constantine that Sunday became more of an official day off.

Sure, having had Sunday as a day off for everyone everywhere was extremely convenient for those of us who are Christians. It was great for churches. There was nowhere else for people to be! Convenient, yes; biblical, not so much. So interestingly, the first Christians never had the option of scheduling their communal worship at a time that everyone would automatically have free.

These brings me to two simple conclusions.

First, churches, pastors, and Christians need to stop whining about Sunday shopping, and instead, even if the main service remains on Sunday morning, make other opportunities for people to worship, learn from the Scriptures, and find fellowship. Small groups are definitely a great option here. Some churches can have alternate services, maybe even, gasp, an earlier morning option! Whatever we do, let’s help the people who are stuck working on Sundays rather than complain about them and their lack of attendance.

Second, the real purpose of a day of rest is precisely that: rest. Stop, do nothing, sit down, shut up. Too many Christians complain about Sunday shopping on the one hand, and then go to Swiss Chalet after church on the other hand. And then leave a poor tip. As Christians we generally do a poor job of practicing Sabbath. In a culture filled to the brim with both important and senseless activity, being able to step aside and realize that we are not the center of the universe and that it won’t fall apart if we take time to rest is crucial to affirming the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of his grace. It’s a part of the good news we’re called to proclaim.

I can understand why the Saint John city council was hesitant to review the by-law regarding Sunday shopping hours. Of course, we can still shop in Saint John for five hours a day. And if we go to church, and it gets out just in time, we can probably still have at least four and a half! But the truth is, if my faith is as important to me as it should be, then even if I had to work every Sunday at another profession, I ought to still be willing to make a priority of communal worship, regardless on which day of the week it falls.

Stop

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Quiet. It’s a rare thing for me these days, especially as a father of three. And not only for that reason. Our world is filled with noise: voices, music, TV, computers, traffic, crowds, appliances, phones. Unusual is the moment in the course of an average day that our environment is empty of sound. Even now as I sit typing, I hear at least one of my four year old sons waking. The serenity I enjoy is temporary, soon to be interrupted by the sound of kids playing—something done only occasionally at low volume. So, at the very least, this gives me ample motive to take full advantage of such tranquility when it’s available. Learning the value of stillness is important, maybe all the more in a culture where sound is virtually ubiquitous.

Tuning our ears to quiet is also a challenge. We’re used to noise. Becoming accustomed to the sound of our own thoughts isn’t easy. And nor is it always something we want. When alone with our thoughts, we might not like what we hear. The constant background hum of our computers and the chatter of our workplaces and homes can shield us against what’s going on in our own heads. Maybe we prefer this. We’d rather our existence within the world of work, home, and social media be the sum total of what we are—ignoring our inner-life altogether. Facing ourselves is, at least sometimes, much less desirable than updating our Facebook status.

But even if we want quiet, it’s hard to come by. Lives busy with activity make time alone seem like an indulgence if not an inconvenience. Sometimes we even feel guilty for taking it. Such moments are unnecessary interruptions. Think about it this way. When someone asks you how life is going, how often do you say, “Pretty slow, actually. Lots of time on my hands,” vs. “Oh, we’re keeping busy”? Busyness implies importance. It signifies that we’re responsible. We manage our time well. That abundance of tasks that fills our schedules lends significance and meaning to our lives. Taking a break from that means waste. It means being irresponsible. It means—heaven forbid—that the world can get along without us.

And this, in part, is what Sabbath is all about. The Hebrew word we translate “rest” in the Old Testament is the verb form of the word Sabbath. And it doesn’t mean to rest because we’ve grown weary or tired from our labours. Literally, it means to “stop or cease.” Sabbath is not about working to the point of exhaustion and then crashing. It’s a break from productive activity, whether you’re tired or not. Work six days, then stop.

And to stop, we require some quiet. We need to separate ourselves from tools, toys, and environments that tempt us to busyness and activity. It means instructing our computer to shut down. Only when we do so will we have the quiet we need—yes, need. We might very well be wired for sound and activity; but we’re also wired for rest and quiet. This is why the first six days of creation activity in Genesis 1 is capped off with a seventh day, a Sabbath day, a reminder of our need for rest.

But it’s not just about taking a break. Sabbath ultimately speaks to the purposes of God for us, that ultimately he is interested in our placing our relationship with him first above all else. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee,” prays Saint Augustine. “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him,” we hear in Psalm 62.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, says this about Sabbath: “Whatever you are doing, stop it . . . Whatever you are saying, shut up. We must stop long enough to hear what he has said and is saying . . . without silence and stillness there is no spirituality, no God-attentive, God-responsive life.”

Sabbath is about paying attention to God. Of course, this might very well be the reason some avoid quiet. There are those who want to ignore that “still, small voice.” Life is easier, it seems, without it. Our preference for texts and tweets reinforces the tyranny of the urgent in our lives. God becomes peripheral, rather than a priority.

In the Bible, rest is another way of talking about salvation, of being made whole and right, firstly and especially in relation to God. It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus gives the following invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest” (Matt. 11:28) Jesus offers more than rest for our bodies; he offers us rest for our souls.

But to hear and respond to this invitation, we require quiet, a reprieve from the noise that normally fills our days. To listen we need to be in a position to hear. Our ears to be open, waiting. And this is what Sabbath is truly about. It’s not about only not working. It’s about what not working allows us to hear. It’s what being still rather than busy helps us be aware of.

My advice? Take a few moments alone this week—today even—and turn to Isaiah 30:15 where it reads: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’” Understand that this invitation to rest is for you too. Jesus’ invitation—given two millennia ago—is given to us today: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” The invitation is there; the rest, as they say, is up to us.