Monday, July 27, 2015

Prayer Tasting

Home made blueberry pie
Last night we invited author, David Brazzeal, to lead 15 of us in what he calls a Prayer Tasting. The idea is that we eat a 3-course meal together and between courses, he talks about prayer and guides us through numerous prayer exercises. David likes to draw an analogy between enjoying a delicious meal and conversing with God: neither should be boring or rushed or just a rehash of the same old flavours day in and day out. He suggests that there are a cornucopia of ways to pray and together, we explored a few of them.

Appetizer: Strawberry spinach salad with almonds, Emmental cheese, and homemade dressing.
After the salad disappeared into our bellies, we were treated to the reading of a psalm to some instrumental music. The combination of dramatic inflections together with haunting, beautiful, dynamic music meant that the words snuck past my left brain (the thinking and analysing side) and let the heart and emotion of the psalmist touch me at a deep level. I felt like I was outside someones bedroom listening to them cry out to God. The words came alive in the speaking. But that was just the opener. The first exercise we participated in fell under the category of Praise. We were instructed to call out phrases that began with "God, you are..." (or "Jesus you are..." or "Spirit you are..." or "Lord you are..." You get the idea.), filling in the blank with adjectives or nouns. A simple exercise, really, but a great way to praise God together without the (sometimes) crutch of music and familiar songs. It seemed apparent that all the words and phrases people spoke were born out of personal experience or longing. The second exercise was Thanksgiving. We were given pieces of paper which resembled a slice of pie. David encouraged us to think of a slice of time in our life, whether it was school or a place we lived or a particular job or a time in the hospital, or whatever. It could be a good or a bad memory. It could even be a particular person that was related to a particular slice of our life. We took a few minutes to write down many things that we were thankful for in that slice of life. After the obvious ones were out of the way, surprising things came to mind, hidden things, things I had forgotten or overlooked. This exercise made me smile often and sigh with contentment a few times. God is good. Slices are good.

Main course: Grilled chicken drumsticks and breasts with Montreal spices, fresh peaches and cream corn on the cob with unsalted butter.
We licked our fingers and our lips after consuming the chicken and corn, and then it was time for two more prayer exercises. The first was Confession. David used the analogy of a selfie, a snapshot of who we are right now, right here. No time to dress up or make sure everything is perfect; this is a picture of ourselves, as is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We were given papers to write our confession beginning each phrase with "I am...." It could include positive as well as negative aspects (I am being more patient lately, or I am angry at &*&$^ right now). It was an exercise in honesty and humility, being as real as we could before God at that moment. At the end, we were encouraged to offer these confessions up to God who sees us as we are and loves us and wants to walk through life with us. The second exercise was a Blessing exercise. David talked about blessing being like taking a mirror and reflecting the bright light and glory of God onto someone. We took coloured papers and coloured markers and were instructed to practice blessing a person by writing, drawing, doodling, constructing a Scrabble word formation, or anything else we might think of. I wrote Dean's name in big fat letters and filled them in with designs which each related to words of blessing. One of my sentences went roughly like this, "May you always be solid and steady, safe in turmoil and unbattered in storm and conflict." Dean drew me on a beautiful beach under a palm tree at sunset with some of my favourite words written at the bottom: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (to the greater glory of God). It was touching to receive it from him.

Dessert: Home made blueberry pie warm from the oven and vanilla ice cream, sugar pie.
Now that we were full of sugar and cream and fruit, David closed off the prayer tasting by noting that we had yet not participated in any asking or petition or intercession. And yet, if I may speak on behalf of everyone there, I did not feel any lack or a pressing need to bring a list of requests to God. Too often prayer is only made up of asking, and that is a bland diet indeed, not to mention quite an unhealthy, self-focused relationship. David gave us some homework to try out a few different creative methods of asking prayer (for ourselves and for others), be it simply a body posture, words scribbled on a scrap of paper while riding the subway, pictures or doodles drawn over a period of time, or charts to keep track of ongoing requests or special needs. David mentioned that sometimes he takes pictures of his visual prayers and sends them to the person he is praying for (if that is appropriate). None of these prayer exercises have to take up hours of time (most of them took about 5 minutes), but depending on the time available, one can enjoy a simple 3-course prayer meal or take the time for an extended gourmet feast. Creative prayer exercises like this are not only enjoyable, but end up engaging us more fully and perhaps deeply than mere word prayers. They also require that we make ourselves present in body, mind, and spirit when we turn our attention to God.

Digestif: Wine, sparkling water, juice, and home made vanilla soda. 
After David finished his closing talk, we thanked him, and I suggested that we practice one of the blessing exercises he had mentioned, a Brazilian custom in which people bless someone going on a journey. In essence, the person doing the blessing grabs the one to be blessed by the shoulders and gently shakes them as they pronounce a blessing over them. So we did. Some spoke blessings over David from their seats while others got up close and personal with him, speaking shoulder-shaking blessings. I opted for the uncomfortable shoulder-shaking and was a bit overwhelmed by the intimacy and power of the interaction. Someone mentioned that we should add that particular form of prayer into our repertoire as a faith community. I agree. We make it a practice to bless everyone who goes forth from our church group, and this seems like a fitting addition.

This was a prayer tasting, meant to whet our appetites for more creative and life-giving interaction with God, be it in our individual prayer contexts or as a group. There are many more prayer categories in David's book (11 in all) and different settings in which to incorporate them. The evening inspired me to be more creative and intentional in my praying, making it one of the most enjoyable parts of my day instead of a mundane chore.

For more info, check out David's website. You can buy his book on amazon.ca.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

how to get more followers on Twitter (and other things I don't care about)

When this happens, I have to choose which grammatical sin I'll have to make in order to send a tweet.

Social media is very good at letting you know how much traction or clout you have, whether that is measured in likes, comments, retweets, numbers reached, followers, or shares. I like connecting with people via Facebook, I like writing this blog (most of the time) as a way of honing my communication skills while putting some ideas out there on subjects I am thinking about. I occasionally post on Twitter (my least favourite platform) and I love to post pictures on Instagram chronicling the interesting views I come across in life. At times, I do check how many readers on a particular blog, how many followers I have, and how many likes or favourites a post got. But it is a bit like seeing your salary in comparison to every one elses. Whereas before you might have been absolutely fine with how much you earned, when you see the numbers, discontentment is not far behind. Numbers go up and down, some things get no response at all while other posts generate a lot (comparatively speaking) of traffic. You begin to notice other writers/tweeters who have thousands of loyal fans because they are so accomplished at getting consistent and high quality content to their followers. But when you look at your own efforts, you feel like the last person picked for a team. Comparison does that. Counting social media influence does that, too.

To be honest, I am not trying to build a large Twitter following. I have little use for the 140-character limit which all too often means that people misspell words and use clever abbreviations to pack a lot into that tiny space. I would rather take the time to write a well-crafted sentence, with actual words, and explain myself fully in another format. I would also rather have a face to face encounter with one or two people than tweet something to hundreds of people that I don't know. Large numbers of followers and readers, in my experience, do not result in meaningful dialogues, deeper friendships, or make me a better person. Throughout history, fame and influence are too often paired with bad life choices, increased isolation from reality, and a downturn in humility and compassion. Therefore, if I have to choose between having a drink with a friend or posting a blog, I will go downtown to see my friend. Face to face is not always possible, I understand, but there are certain values present in personal encounter that I try to take with me into the social media milieu.

1. Encounter. One meaningful conversation, one face-to-face encounter is worth more than a thousand followers. Social media can be helpful to stay in touch with faraway friends, to become reacquainted with long-ago friends, or to make new friends over common interests. I love getting to know people who think like me and people who challenge me, people who need my help and who offer to help me, people who share common interests with me, be it movies or cats or travel or education or theological discourse or gluten free cinnamon rolls. I have a small circle of friends on Facebook for this reason: they are people who are in my life not as spectators but as participants (at least in theory). Most of them are people with whom I have had significant conversations. Others I just want to make sure I don't lose touch with because we don't see each other much. My online friends are ones whose comments feel like conversations over Chai latte instead of grandstanding or soapboxing or marketing. I recently had a chance to have an extended conversation with someone whom I had, up to that point, mostly interacted with through exchanging short, clever remarks on Facebook. I already liked them, but now I have a much deeper appreciation for who they are and what they do. Let social media lead me to more face to face encounters like that.

2. Reality. It is hard to engage in meaningful discourse through social media. Remote dialogue never feels natural to me, not even on a video call. I am getting more comfortable with it, but when meetings are not in person, we can only show a very select part of ourselves. I would venture to say that most people who have only read my words online and have never met me, think I am a lot more eloquent and knowledgeable and quick on my feet than I really am. In person, people get more of my context, my life, my struggles, my mistakes, my doubtings, and my idiosyncrasies. In person, they can tell when I am joking (most of the time), when I am overcome with emotion, when I am grouchy and tired, and when I think it is necessary to dance in public. I try to reflect reality in my social media postings. Since these are public forums, I am also very careful about how much I expose my family and friends, my work, my church, my home, etc. But in the mix of all that, I try to be real. I post pictures which are not the most flattering. I talk about my bad days. I talk about failing. I talk about the process of learning. I try to paint a picture of a life journey that people can relate to, not one which they fantasize about.

3. Vocation. The reason I say I don't really care about getting more followers or online friends or readers is because a larger sphere of influence has nothing to do with my vocation, my calling in life. Bigger is not better. If it was, our small faith community should be pitied instead of celebrated for the unique, variegated, encounter-oriented, transformational group that it is. I don't want a bigger platform; I want the platform that God calls me to. I do not need more social media influence; I need to be faithful to the people God has placed in my life. If I don't have a good idea of what my vocation is, I can get lost in the social media swirl, always trying to get more traction, more likes, hoping to see my ratings go up and up and up. But I know what God has called me to and it has more to do with embracing the overlooked than having lots of views. It has more to do with simplicity and humility than boosting my posts and knowing what's trending. It is not cheap and quick and remote. It is the costly work of being there for people in real life, looking people in the eye over and over again, and not walking away when things get rough. It is about cultivating contentment, peace, compassion, truth, and love. And in my experience, you can't do any of that really well on social media.

Don't get me wrong, online platforms have led to a lot of good things in my life, and at the top of that list are the times I have met someone in person who, up to that point, has only been a face or a name on the screen. In fact, next week I will be having tea with someone visiting Montreal who was introduced to me via email and subsequently became my Facebook friend. Exciting! The other "top of the list" moments are when I am reunited in person with someone after a prolonged absence, during which we have only had sporadic online communication. These coming-togethers are always so sweet. And sometimes unexpected, too. In those moments I thank God for the social media tools which can help us craft good and meaningful relationships.

May all our social media exploits be expressions of our God-given vocations, reflecting truth, love, joy, and encouragement. Above, all, may they lead us to many face to face encounters.

Monday, July 13, 2015

what happens at a conference

Part of the crowd at Vineyard Columbus
Last week I attended the Vineyard Church USA national conference in Columbus, Ohio. Around 60 nations were represented and over 4000 people were present. I won't try to give you a rundown of the week or the speakers or their talks. Check out the video archives of the main sessions if you want to get a glimpse (only available for a limited time, I am told). The highlights for many of us were Thursday morning's talk by Dr. Charles A. Montgomery on breaking down barriers (it starts at 1:35) and the worship led by David Ruis and Noel Isaacs from Nepal on Thursday evening (a particularly poignant lament song starts at 1:03).

The stuff that happened on the platform, in many ways, was just a small part of the experience. God doesn't need a microphone to speak nor does he require a crowd in order to be present. Our loving God is with us in so many ways if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. I came to the conference believing that I had something to offer; whether it was a kind word, a smile, a word of wisdom, money, or a prayer. The idea that I was there to give more than I was there to receive meant that I had no expectations, really. I did not need anything supernatural and significant to happen, I did not need to meet any of the big name speakers, I did not need to get prayer for any troubling situation, I did not need to sit with all my friends, I did not need to see the sights of Columbus or stay up late or go to bed early. I was there to encourage, to help, and to say yes to others. I was there to be truly present to God and to others and felt no pressure to have the most awesome experience ever.

I brought gifts for our hosts, I distributed cards signed by our faith community, I stroked the dog, two cats, and numerous horses at the place we were staying. I greeted complete strangers throughout the week, I asked volunteers how they were doing, I said thank you over and over and over again, I directed people who were lost, I saved seats for people who were late, I told people they were beautiful, and I prayed for people. One of the most touching moments for me was when I discovered that a friend from Chicago (whom I had only met once when she visited Montreal a few years ago) was sitting two rows behind me. We found each other in the middle of the worship time and wept as we embraced tightly, our hearts overwhelmed by the spirit of Jesus so present and so precious in the other. 

On Wednesday, I was asked to give a 2 minute talk at a Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting on Thursday morning and of course I said yes. At that same meeting, I listened to people around a table sharing their most important theological questions. One confessed that there was virtually no theological discussion happening in his church. Another said he wanted to know how to engage with Orthodox Christians. A woman thought it was important to make room for the voices of children. It was an honour to hear what was on their hearts; seeing total strangers open up to each other in that setting humbled me. I had several people ask me about theological education and I tried to offer them encouragement and a possible way forward. The topic of same-sex attraction came up and I tried to listen well because everyone has a personal story. I also tried to keep the discussion from getting polarised around a few issues, but sought to bring it back to Jesus, back to God's story, back to our call to surrender all our desires to God, back to walking together in humility. I spoke to people who were discouraged and I listened, I prayed, I shared their burden in a small way, and I offered what little wisdom I had.

I received much as well: some people bought me chai tea and ice cream, other people provided yummy food and drink. People prayed for me, people spoke many encouraging words to me, a teenager gave up her bed for me, and people invited me to hang out with them. I ended up in unexpected and pleasant situations like backstage talking to musicians, in a horse barn watching a young girl practice her riding, on a patio late at night listening to Noel tell me about the situation in Nepal, and in the airport hearing a stranger's experience in Jerusalem. 

My goal in going was to give something of myself and to share the riches with which I have been blessed. Conferences like this can be a bit of a challenge to introverts like me, but most of the time I felt like I was floating on grace, able to joyously embrace each person I encountered and accept each situation which came my way. Giving is a richness in itself, it seems, because I never felt depleted or exhausted. Whether we are the ones who give or the ones who receive (or both), the goodness of God never runs out.

Monday, June 29, 2015

word(s) of the day

Image result for fridge poetry
Image from thefw.com
I was reading a book a few weeks ago which said that according to a poll in the USA, the words people most want to hear are the following (in order of importance): 1. I love you. 2. I forgive you. 3. Supper's ready.

The first one is no surprise. We all want to know we are loved, and we all doubt it. We all feel unloved or unlovable at times, probably because we most intimately know our own internal ugliness and essential unworthiness. We are all too aware of our lack of love, our lack of kindness, our lack of faithfulness, and our selfishness. If we are honest, the words, "I love you," can be unlikely. In spite of all our shortcomings, and perhaps because of them, we long to be unconditionally loved, to have kindness gifted to us, to have someone be a faithful lover and friend, and to be the recipient of unselfish acts, especially if we find it difficult to reciprocate. These words not only feed our basic human desire to belong, but give us hope that we will be able to say these meaningful words to another.

I was a bit surprised by the second phrase, "I forgive you." I would have thought, "I'm sorry," would be right up there, perhaps because I am more prone to seeing another's wrong than I am to seeing my own wrongdoing. However, we are always on both sides of that equation: we wrong others and we are wronged by others. We need to ask for forgiveness as much as we need to forgive; they are two sides of the same equation. Someone's apology is rather useless if I am not willing to forgive them. And my attempt at reconciliation is of little consequence if the other party does not wish to make things right between us.

To me, the last phrase, "Supper's ready," is the most interesting, perhaps because it seems to be a culmination of so many basic human desires and needs. These two simple words invoke a sense of family and belonging, an image of a table set with steaming corn on the cob, fresh garden peas, and a golden brown turkey (you know what I'm craving right now...). These words invite one to a gathering together at the end of a work day to eat, drink, and converse; in them we have the idea of food lovingly prepared by skilled hands and the deep ache of hunger for sustenance as well as for good company. The words call me away from whatever I am doing and wherever I might be to join with others for a feast. The words imply that all the preparations have already been done and all that is left for me to do is show up and partake. The words make me want to say, "I'm coming," and, "Thank you."  They make me want to spring to my feet and make a dash for the dining room. They put a smile on my face.

If I were to ask myself what words I most want to hear, the answers would probably change day by day. Today I would want words of inspiration and revelation because I am at a difficult spot in my writing. I would want words of reassurance that I am on the right track. I would welcome words of encouragement that speak to the most vulnerable, insecure parts of my soul. I would delight in a clever, well-told joke and heave a sigh of pleasure if someone invited me for a long walk, telling me my work was done for the day. "Good job!" would be really great words to hear, as would, "You are beautiful!" I could get used to someone saying, "I like hanging out with you," and, "Let me buy you a Chai latte." And I always like to hear an enthusiastic, "Yes," when I ask someone for help. Perhaps the most humbling sentences are ones that begin with, "You have taught me..." and the disarming phrase, "I want to be your friend." So many ways in which words can feed me, unburden me, give me a second wind, direct me, show me my error, transform me, invite me deeper into relationship, make me more present to beauty, and carry me a bit further into wholeness.

And these words, these beautiful words that I want to hear, they are also gifts I can give to those around me. Let me offer them to someone today.

Monday, June 22, 2015

metanoia (re-think)

Eucharist celebration the last day of the meetings
This past week Dean and I and a few others from Montreal drove to Cambridge, Ontario for 4 days of leadership meetings. We gathered together with folks from all across Canada representing different Vineyard churches and national Vineyard initiatives. Let's get the complaints out of the way first. Well, there is really only one: the Cheetos only appeared on the snack table on day 3. Where were they on days 1 and 2, I ask? Despite this minor setback, I have to say that the gathering, which was a pilot for future get-togethers under the moniker, Metanoia (re-think), lived up to its name. I know others will have different perspectives, but here are some of the treasures I brought away with me.

Re-think how we connect: We didn't spend a lot of time listening to professional talkers or the big cheese(s), but to each other. We heard each other's stories, dreams, failings, hurts, disappointments, and hopes. We laughed together, cried together, said thank to each other, prayed for each other, ate together, worshiped together, read the scriptures together, and listened to the Holy Spirit together. Building authentic relationships is not easy, not in an urban setting which skews one toward isolation, not in a church movement with a great deal of diversity in the mix, and not in a country as geographically vast as Canada. And yet, we find ourselves always pulled toward each other. As Thomas Cranmer said, "What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies." We have a desire to love deeply, to foster genuine friendships, and to do so despite all the obstacles which are present in our context. The focus at the gatherings was not on building a structure to develop connections, but to fan the flames of love and let that love forge pathways between us, to let that love find a way to express itself in creative and constructive ways.

Re-think how we move forward: For the most part, there were no grandiose strategies or visions of the future presented to us. Instead of "Here's the plan, folks," ideas still in the germinating stage were offered up as possible ways forward, and we were invited to wrestle with them, adjust them, add to them, and critique them from our different contexts. There was a sense that we are all building something together, that each unique voice is needed in the mix, and that how we get there is as important as where we are going. "We come together because we can't do it alone," someone said. The way forward is not a strategy but a call to become a people who prophetically advance the story of God. In order to do this, we need to draw on wisdom found in many sources: history, scriptures, communal discernment, and learned discourse, to name a few. Especially important for us in the church is the ability to see where we have gone off-course, where we have made idols out of such things as cultural relativism and numerical success. If we don't walk humbly, we won't be walking for long.

Re-think how we approach current issues: This was one of the most important takeaways for me. Scholar, historian, and human being extraordinaire, Caleb Maskell, urged us to re-think how we respond to the challenges of our day. If we try to take the issues head-on, we are bound to become hopelessly entangled in the controversies and find no way out. Caleb insisted that we spend our time and energy on long-term formation of God's story, and ultimately of the image of Christ, within us. In other words, let us get the story of God inside us and ourselves inside the story of God. Out of that amazing narrative which recalls the goodness of creation, which offers loving and merciful redemption to the unworthy, and which invites us to feast at the table of God, we can respond to crises or issues or conflicts or shifts in our culture, always looking for the kingdom of God in all its scandalous suffering and breathtaking beauty.

Speaking of beauty, I so appreciated the concerted efforts of the organizers to surround us with beauty in every aspect of our meetings, from the setting in a former Jesuit monastery to the local artwork present in the meeting spaces to the flowers, candles, couches, lighting, and general attention to aesthetics. A special treat was an art film viewing and a wine and cheese reception at the spectacular renovated barn loft of a local artist. We found ourselves rendered speechless in the face of beauty, and that's a good thing. It is easier for us to listen and be humble in the midst of beauty. It is harder to speak harsh, judgmental words when we are staring at loveliness. Beauty invites us to be overwhelmed by the abundant nature of our great, generous God. Let us become lovers of beauty in the world and in each other.

Thanks to David and Anita Ruis for their generous, spacious leadership and the folks at the Cambridge Vineyard for their hospitality and welcome this past week. We didn't solve all the problems in the world, but I believe the world became a slightly better place because we gathered in the name of Jesus and listened.

Monday, June 15, 2015

broken chair

The chair I broke
Yesterday I was sitting on a chair and it broke. This has never happened to me before. Without warning, there was a loud crack as the wood splintered and my body dropped an inch or two on the left. No warning. I leapt to my feet to avoid any further damage, either to the chair or to myself. It was in the middle of our Sunday church meeting and Dean was speaking. When he heard the sound and saw me suddenly stand up, he stopped short. In fact, everyone turned and looked in my direction. I said, somewhat stunned, "The chair broke." I could feel a slight tingling on my upper thigh where the jagged wood had scraped my skin, but that was the extent of my damage. The chair, however, would need to have a joint repaired. I assured everyone that I was fine and sat down on another chair. Dean continued his talk on how we read the Bible.

After the meeting, I went back to the chair to investigate, because chairs never break when I sit on them. I checked the overall structure and the hinges and found nothing amiss. I pushed on the seat a bit; it was definitely leaning to the left. Then I got down on my hands and knees and looked underneath the chair. That's when I saw what had caused the problem. Due to either the unevenness of the floor or of the row of chairs, two of the chair's legs were not touching the floor. Let me explain. The chairs in the space we rent for our Sunday meetings are antiques, really. They are wooden folding chairs which come in sets of five, all joined together. This means that they function like one big chair with multiple legs and seats. I had been sitting on an end chair that morning, and since the legs at the end were not touching the floor, it was pretty much like sitting on a plank hanging over the edge of a roof. Or sitting on the end of a diving board. Except it was not a sturdy plank or a springy diving board; it was a thin piece of aged wood which needed support on every corner.

Now I could derive some profound spiritual lesson from this incident, perhaps one which emphasizes how we need to make sure we are on a solid foundation or maybe something about the dangers of going out on a limb. But I won't. The moment wasn't particularly fraught with danger or warning, so I hesitate to infuse that sense into it. It was a bit funny, a bit startling, and totally unexpected. When Dean told the custodian about the incident, he made sure to include the fact that the chair broke while Matte was sitting on it, the implication being that since I am a smallish person, the break was obviously not due to any misuse of the chair. Several others mentioned this to me as well; if a chair broke when Matte sat on it, it had to be an accident, the chair had to be faulty.

This is quite a special position to be in: something goes wrong while you are involved with it and no one questions your actions or motives, no one assumes your negligence, no one points out your lack of prudence, no one suggests you might have been clumsy or unaware. In fact, everyone assumes that you are blameless. It is total grace. I don't often sit in that seat of grace, where the minute something bad happens under my watch, I am exonerated. Quite the opposite. I am an expert at heaping guilt on myself for any small indiscretion or misspoken word. And I have others who point out my faults and my short-comings and where I could have done better (mostly with love, but nevertheless...). I am also much too quick to judge the unfortunate circumstances or failings of others as a result of some imperfection in their character or a lack of wisdom.

But Jesus does none of this. When the disciples ask him, "Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?", Jesus takes the blame game out of the discussion. He replies, "You're asking the wrong questions. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do" (The Message). The Amplified Bible puts it this way: "He was born blind in order that the workings of God should be manifested (displayed, and illustrated) in him."

I don't know about you, but that sounds really good: to have the workings of God be displayed and illustrated in ones life. I want to give myself that kind of grace, to be able to see setbacks in my life as opportunities for God's wondrous goodness to be illustrated. I would love to extend that kind of grace to others, to view their shortcomings and messes not as the natural outcome of some failing on their part, but the setting for some marvelous work of God to be displayed. No blame. No looking for where the fault lies. No searching for roots of sin which might explain the brokenness. Just grace. Grace that allows me to trust that God's merciful love and transformative healing power can overturn any setback. Grace that fuels hope and expectation that God's work is always on display, illustrating his love and beauty, if I will only see it.

Since God has extended such lavish grace toward me in all my shortcomings, let me freely give it to others (and myself). Let me sit in the seat of grace, trusting that it will hold me.

Monday, June 08, 2015

take the day off

Image from thesmartyattheparty.com
We all look forward to the weekend or taking a day off. Most of us think of this time as days off from work. But what if we change the preposition? What if it's not so much a day off FROM something but TO something?

Exodus says, "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set is apart as holy." In Deuteronomy 5, we find the same first section, but instead of mentioning creation, it says the following, "Recall that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there by strength and power. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (New English Translation).

In ancient times, the weekly day of rest was a novel concept. Leisure was for the wealthy and ruling classes, there was no rest for slaves and laborers. To have a holy-day for the common people every week was seen by those in charge as unnecessary, impractical, and a sign of laziness. But Hebrew literature shows a different attitude: Shabbat is referred to as a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week. While we may think of a day off (or the weekend) as time to unwind, the Jewish Shabbat is more like a celebration: it begins with preparation on Friday afternoon, the official beginning is marked by the lighting of candles Friday at sunset, then there is an evening service, a festive meal, prayers and rituals, sleep, a service Saturday morning followed by another festive meal, leisure time, another light meal, and then prayers are said over candles, spice, and wine at sunset to mark the end of Shabbat.

There are two main ideas included in the Hebrew Shabbat. The first is to remember (remember the Sabbath day...). What are we to remember? That God is the Creator of all things in heaven and earth, and that he is still upholding everything. We follow his example in enjoying the goodness of creation by taking a day of rest. The second thing to remember is that we are no longer slaves to task masters (the rat race, the daily grind, our debts, etc.), we are free because God has delivered us. The second element is to observe (keep the Sabbath, set it apart as holy). The Hebrew word for work is melachah which does not primarily mean physical labour or employment but work that exercises control or dominion over our environment. The word melachah is thought to be related to the word for king (melekh). So keeping the Sabbath means that we step back from trying to control our circumstances, from ruling, from managing. It is a day to let God be the boss instead of us. An excellent story which illustrates the principle of Sabbath-keeping (recorded in Exodus 16, placing it before the giving of the ten commandments) is when God provided manna (heavenly bread) for the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. Every morning they would go out and gather it from the ground, but on the sixth day they were to gather twice as much because there would be none on the seventh day. It was to be a day of rest. Anyone who tried to stockpile manna found the excess rotten and full of worms. Anyone who neglected to prepare for the Sabbath by collecting more on day six went hungry. This story illustrates the beautiful harmony between divine provision and human labour.

I grew up on a farm in rural Manitoba. Harvest season meant that everyone worked long hours to get the crops off the fields. Sometimes, due to weather conditions, there was a very short window of time to get the job done before a thunderstorm passed through or an early frost hit. Most of the farmers in our area were devout Mennonites, so no matter how the harvest was going or what the weather was like, the machinery all stopped on Saturday night and preparations were made for Sunday, a day of worship and rest. That weekly pause during harvest time required a lot of trust; it said volumes about how much the farmers were willing to trust God when their families' livelihoods for the coming year were at stake. A Sunday might be the only sunny day in a string of rainy ones, but the farmers' commitment to observe a day of rest meant that ultimately, they trusted God instead of their own efforts. It was as much a day off TO God as a day off FROM work.

God's invitation to do what he did and rest from our labour one day a week is an invitation to remember our Creator still has the whole world in his hands and to remember that we are not slaves but children of God. It is an invitation to practice joy and not worry, to live in trust and not fear, to exercise restraint instead of self-indulgence, the celebrate instead of complain, and to change our internal posture from trying to get ahead or controlling outcomes to trusting that God is enough.

---------
The above post is a summary of a talk I gave at our faith community yesterday. We also sang this song together.It seemed particularly apropos.