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Sabbath and Gratitude

As I reflect on what it means to cultivate gratitude and a generous heart as a spiritual practice, I am reminded of the importance of keeping the Sabbath. I found this blog I wrote a few years back that really captures my thoughts about this integral connection. It was a good reminder and I wanted to share it with you.

I have recently noticed that the more I practice keeping the Sabbath, the more I experience gratitude for the things that I have. Why, you may ask? I think, in part, it is due to the slowing down long enough to notice what I have;  long enough to take in the smallest things like a double rainbow that stretches across the sky after a thunderstorm, a flock of geese flying over my head in perfect formation, the hydrangea vine that bloomed for the first time since I moved into my current house, the sound of teenage guys laughing in the basement, the funny way my cat looks at me when he wants me to rub his tummy…

I have also noticed that when life is busy and I am unable to keep the Sabbath, I quickly become  unsettled. This unsettledness leads to a sense of loss, emptiness and longing. It soon moves to an unconscious striving to do,  fill, acquire, or accomplish something that will ultimately make me feel better. Missing the Sabbath drives me toward a kind of vortex that  sucks me into another way of being and drives me further and further away from a place of deep spiritual satisfaction. It literally sucks all of the resources and creative energy out of me and as each day and week passes, I find it harder and harder to slow down. I find myself feeling less and less fulfilled and consequently, less grateful and less generous.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day apart in silence and reflection at a local retreat center. As I sat in one of my favorite chairs to pray, I noticed that a painting was propped up on the floor in the corner facing me. I was captivated instantly… it seemed like a watercolor of a remote Italian village… along the sea. you could see its reflection in the background… but in the foreground, there was a little boat tied to a rock in a little cove surrounded by white flowers… gardenias I imagined at the time. I found myself reminiscing of our years spent in Sicily and soon became aware of a longing, an aching, even, to return.

Was I ever really cognizant of what I had in those beautiful years there? Had I taken the time to savor the beauty of the people, the land and the food? My mind was soon interrupted by the daunting thought of now… My scripture reading for that morning had been Psalm 16… Verse 6 reads “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance”. The invitation? Take it all in and receive God’s blessings that are all around, even the blessing of memory… savor the now.

Sabbath is a time of savoring what has been given; rejoicing in what God has provided. It changes things.

the longing

oh how I would love
to sit
in a boat
skimming smooth water
anchored
among fragrant flowers

to breathe
warm salt air
with hints of gardenia

to see the village behind me
that pauses
sleepily
for a moment
in the reflection
of quiet waters

to be rocked
gently
in the presence
of day

More than enough

abundanceIt is said that giving is the spiritual thermometer of the church. A healthy congregation will experience healthy giving because it is tied directly to our understanding of God and our relationship to him. And yet, it seems to be a difficult topic for us to talk about.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Walter Brueggemann share on the topic of money and giving. I was profoundly impacted by his words and have continued to mull over the implications of all that I learned. At the core of his teaching was a powerful truth from Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Take a few moments to ponder that statement of faith. It is truly a powerful confession of faith. Let it sink in. Now, ponder this question… who do you think the world belongs to? Is this confession your confession? Because if it is, I want to challenge you to think abut some of the implications:.

As Christians, we believe that the earth is the God’s creation. Everything in it is a gift to us from God… even life itself. I like to think of it in this way: Our days and the things we fill our days with are on loan from God. He is the landlord and we are the tenants of this beautiful world we live in.

Genesis chapter 1:27-30 says this: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”

This is where the term stewardship comes from. God’s intention and purpose in creating us was to be stewards to the earth with all its blessings that has been given to us. The word literally means “An official person who has been appointed to look over someone else’s property. We are God’s stewards. “Stewarship is God’s way of raising people, not man’s way of raising money.”(Willmer Smith)

We are called to live as people of the Doxology… you know, the song we sing after every offering? Praise God from whom all blessings flow. What we have and what we have earned is a blessing from God… he has given us the resources, talents, gifts, and tools we need to thrive on this earth. This is our worshipful response to the many blessings God has given us: that we live our lives in a way that point to the God who is the giver of blessing.

Maybe you are struggling to feel like you are experiencing any type of blessing in your life. That’s ok. We all struggle with feeling like that at different times in our lives.  Too often we have a distorted view of what blessing is. But the biblical definition of blessing is  the divine gift of provision for and support of life. Most of us can say that we are blessed.

I have had the privilege of worshipping in many countries in my life time and this seems to be a difficult one for us Americans. It is always a humbling experience to worship with persons in a less privileged culture and watch their joy and zeal as they dance to the offering plate and give whatever they might have that day be it a fish they caught, a chicken, a couple of coins or whatever else they could give. They were grateful to be alive and excited to express that gratitude to God.

We worship the Lord of the Sabbath. You may remember the story of the Exodus? When the children roamed around in the wilderness for 40 years? Those 40 years were not years we not a waste of time. God’s sole purpose of the perfect number of years was to form a Sabbath people.

Early on in the process, the children of Israel began to grumble about not having enough, in particular not having enough to eat. And so God sends manna from heaven and quail for the children of Israel. But there were important instructions that went alone with it. They were only to gather what they needed for that day. Of course there were some that we enterprising who decided to go ahead and get extra so they wouldn’t have to work so hard the next day or maybe fear that there wouldn’t be enough. The next day, they awoke to find that it was rotten.  God wanted this people he was forming to know… to know… that He alone was their provider.

However, on the sixth day before the Sabbath, they could gather what they needed for that day of worship and rest. Miraculously it did not rot and they had enough; more than enough. The Sabbath was created to remind the children of Israel that they had more than enough. They could depend on God to provide everything they needed each day. God was forming his people to be a people of abundance and not a people of scarcity.

Perhaps you know someone that lived through the depression? It was really hard for people to change from a life of scarcity to a life of abundance. For years, my grandmother saved odd little things because she was living out of that story, a story of need and scarcity. It is not easily done. But that is what God was working at with the children of Israel. That is the story that God intends for us: to live of a life of abundance because we have a God that creates, provides and sustains.

Don’t get me wrong here… this is not about the prosperity Gospel or anything like that. This is about the Creator who gives life itself and offers us the sustenance both spiritual and physical. With that comes the call to be careful stewards of the wondrous creation. (That would require another series of blogs to talk about)

So when we exercise the spiritual discipline of giving we are exercising some core beliefs about God’s identity and our identity.

When we give we are essentially growing in these important areas of our faith:

  1. We are reaffirming our belief that God is the creator and giver of life.
  2. We acknowledge our dependence on God as provider above and beyond all other means of provision on this earth.
  3. We open ourselves to experience and excercise  the freedom God as given us from the slavery of money and scarcity.

Here are some ways you can practice these powerful truths:

  1. Try keeping a gratitude journal each day. Simply jot down the little blessings in your or day that might go unnoticed. At the end of the day take time to thank God for each thing on your list… it doesn’t need to be complicated and simple thanks to God will work!
  2. Try helping a stranger this week… by opening a door, smiling, being polite, paying a compliment. Notice how that makes you feel… how it shapes you… how it empowers you to be a giver instead of a taker. That is living out of a place of abundance. Share what you learn about your experience with a friend or family member.

 

 

 

 

 

Three practices that can help us through a dark night experience

I remember a particularly difficult time in Italy when Harry and I were the janitors, the building and grounds committee, the Sunday school teachers, the nursery, the counselors, teachers and preachers for the small community of new believers that were being formed at Termini Immerse, Italy. (Talk about an overwhelming job description!) I had three lively children at that time at the exciting ages of 2, 4 and 7. Each Sunday when the time for preaching came, I would take all of the children out with me into the next room for Sunday school. On a good Sunday, we could have as many as 15 kids. Harry would get to preaching… a long time… and I would be over in this room in my high heeled shoes and Sunday best which was an important part of the culture… teaching SS class in another language… with 15 children ranging from 1-13 somehow hoping that what I had to say would interest them. I used a flannelgraph which one of my kids would take the characters off each time I put them up there, interrupting my thoughts that I was working on so hard in Italian… with my youngest either clinging to my dress or on my hip or someone else’s baby on my hip… in a room that echoed terribly with marble floors and which you could hear every sound in the next room and vice versa… no heat and no air-conditioning… you are getting the picture right? I was completely and totally overwhelmed and this happened every single Sunday. And… every single Sunday I would go home after church, crawl into my bed and cry.  Even though I believed that God had called us to Italy, and I believed that we were pursuing God’s will for us, I felt like a miserable failure. I was lonely, completely overwhelmed and I really just wanted to go home. That was a dark, dark time for me. I must admit that there were times when I felt so overwhelmed, that I didn’t really care if I was pursuing God or not.

Even Jesus didn’t feel like pursuing God that night in the Garden. In Matthew 26 verse 36 we see that Jesus has celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and he has gone to the garden to pray. He tells Peter and that his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Have you ever paused to consider just that sentence… How dark that night truly was for our Jesus? So when we find ourselves in difficult times or in a dark night experience we can learn from our Savior who has walked through the darkest of nights.

There are three practical things that we can learn in this story.

(1. Don’t go to the garden alone…

The first thing we can do when we find ourselves in a Gethsemane experience is invite persons to companion us. Jesus invites three of the disciples, Peter, James and John to be with him. As Christians, I think this can be hard for us at times. We want everyone to think we are doing great, or we don’t want to cause anyone trouble, but Jesus, openly names his feeling of sorrow to the point of death to his disciples and allows them to surround him and be with him during the most difficult time in his life. When we invite our brothers and sisters in the Lord to companion us, it is as if we were inviting God to companion us because we believe that we have the very presence of God, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us.

(2. We can pray honest prayers

Sometimes, I think we pray pretend prayers with God because we are afraid that somehow our anger, disbelief and sorrow will keep God from hearing our prayers. But nothing could be further from the truth. God made us with a full array of emotions… we really can’t hide that from God. If we look at Matthew 26:38 we see that Jesus overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, falls on his face and says, My Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me…

(3. Relinquish our power into the hands of God.

The third thing we can learn from Jesus is that there will come a time in all of our lives when we do things that we really don’t want to do… even when we know it is right.  When we find ourselves in a very dark hour, it is good to relinquish the outcome and control into the hands of God. Jesus, himself, says inverse 38… not my will but thy will, O God.

Jesus was God incarnate, so it is a little different for us. But I think there comes a time when we need to fall on our face and simply let God be God. That requires us to fully relinquish any claim we might have to controlling our lives. It is a little bit like jumping off the diving board at the deep end of the pool for the first time and trusting that our parents will catch us.

There will come a time when all of us will have to do this in the impending hours before our death. But, I believe that this relinquishing should become a practice for us. In a very real way we do that when we practice the Sabbath. When we cease for a day, we are saying in a very real way, God, you are the Creator and I am simply the created. I relinquish my desire and drivenness to pursue more and work more. I trust that you are able to come to my aid. I trust that your will and your power are enough for me.

Some thoughts on the gift of time

It is always intriguing to me when the various streams from which I am reading all come together in one congruent message. For the past several weeks, I have been reading about the gift of time… each new day… how we receive it… how we perceive it.

It began as I was reading Eat, Pray and Love… the author reminisces about her time spent in Italy and the beautiful way Italians relish each day and especially the sheer beauty of doing nothing, “Bel far niente”. I literally laughed out loud as I read it because having lived there for ten years, I knew exactly what she was describing in her book. At the same time, I saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty in what I had learned from my Italian brothers and sisters. Read more