Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sabbatical (Pt. 2)

In answer to a friend's questions, I wrote on Tuesday about the Sabbath year that I'm taking right now, and about what it might mean to "cease from work" and "let the land lie fallow" for present-day non-agrarians in the USA. I'm a bit embarrassed that I'd already written quite a long post before I got around to looking up the Bible passages that command the Sabbath. When I did, I realized my post so far had ignored a key part of what Sabbath is about: caring and providing for the poor and powerless. This aspect of Sabbath is the topic of today's post.

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," says the fourth of the Ten Commandments (which, to my knowledge, is the only one of them whose validity for Christians gets debated). Here's the original explanation of what it means to keep the Sabbath:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.  (Exodus 20:8-11, NASB)
What struck me about this passage is the injunction that no one--not the servants, not the animals, not the foreigners--is to work on this holy day. Yes, it's about rest, but it's not just about my rest. It's about the rest of my servants, my cattle, the illegal immigrants, everyone. In a century and a country where CVS is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,-- where McDonalds is there for you at midnight or even at 3am,-- where Thanksgiving dinner can be bought the day of,-- where Walmart opens at 9pm the evening before Black Friday--when do those workers rest? Vacation and holidays have become luxury goods here, and part of the reason for that shift is that consumers expect to be able to buy goods and services at every hour of the day (and night) and on every day of the week (and year). When O. and I eat out on Sunday, I get to rest from cooking, but the waiters and waitresses and cooks and dishwashers at the restaurant do not rest. They are working. This is something we don't usually think about: the cost of our conveniences. But God thinks about it.

So another aspect of Sabbath rest is protecting the rest of people around you, people over whom you have economic power. When we buy things on Sunday, we are using our money to push other people to work on Sunday. Obviously that's not the intention behind our purchases, but it's an effect anyway. Or rather, it's a statement about our values: I value my ability to buy things on Sunday after church more than I value the right of the people working at A&P to have Sunday as a day of rest. Ugh. So that's something to think about.

It's complicated, of course. Just because I stop buying things on Sunday, those stores won't consequently stop being open on Sundays to give their workers the time off. And what about people for whom Sunday isn't religiously significant? (Although maybe they're included in the text, among the "sojourners among you"...) Why should it be Sunday? Etc. But those are implementation questions and they are best resolved in prayer. My point here is that one of the goals behind the Sabbath commandment is for everyone, regardless of social or economic status--heck, you don't even have to be human--to have rest. Rest should never be a luxury good. It should be accessible to all.

Thus, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is in part a commandment to look out for those who are less materially and socially fortunate. There is a social justice emphasis here!

This comes through even more clearly in Exodus 23, which commands the Sabbath year and again discusses the Sabbath day:
You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.
Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.
Now concerning everything which I have said to you, be on your guard; and do not mention the name of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth. (Exodus 23:10-13)
"So that" shows up twice in these instructions.
  • The reason the land is to lie fallow is so that the needy can eat. 
  • The reason there is to be no labor on the seventh day is so that the needy can rest.
According to this passage, providing for the poor and powerless is a key reason for the Sabbath! (I don't think I've ever heard this discussed in a sermon on the Sabbath, which is odd. But perhaps it's not so very odd, considering that this reason shows up most clearly in the instructions about the Sabbath year, and I've only ever heard preaching about the Sabbath day.)

So if the Sabbath, day and year, is about social justice, then what about all those reasons I wrote about yesterday? What about keeping the Sabbath in order to keep God as your only Lord, fast from planning and control, rest in God's provision, etc.? I think these ideas about the internal significance of the Sabbath do show up in Exodus 23. They are implicit in the last verse in the passage (third paragraph as I quoted it above).

This verse (Ex. 23:13) appears to switch topics abruptly, commanding obedience and forbidding idolatry. What does this have to do with the Sabbath? The transition makes sense if you read into the meaning of the Sabbath and see that it is about relying on God, even in ways that do not make sense from a worldly standpoint, and serving God only (not idolizing our own control and productivity). Self-reliance is a false god, control and productivity are false gods, selfishness is a false god. Observing the Sabbath will keep us on our guard against them. When we obey God in the spirit of the Sabbath, resting and trusting in him alone, then the names of those false gods will depart from our hearts.

Thus, the Sabbath is meant to set right both our relationship with God and our treatment of our fellow creatures. It's not obvious how we ought to observe it today, but if you prayerfully consider the purposes for which God originally commanded it, I believe God will guide you into the right interpretation for wherever you are, and you will be blessed in obeying.

One more note for this post: I think the Sabbath is also connected to stewardship, of the land and of our bodies. On the seventh year, it's not just the people and animals who rest, but the land itself. Ecologically speaking, this is good advice. Stewarding the land well means letting it rest so that it won't be depleted of resources and die. The Sabbath day also makes provision for us to steward our bodies better, by sleeping. God made us to need sleep, but many of us don't like to admit this (college students especially). We see sleep as a sign of weakness--which it is, but it is a God-built weakness, a physical representation of our spiritual weakness. One of the ways to live out trust in God is to enter that state of physical vulnerability and total non-productivity. "Rest," God is telling us in the fourth commandment. "Sleep. I've got you."

I still haven't answered all the Sabbath questions my friend asked, but I'll write more tomorrow. :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sabbatical (Pt. 1)

Last week, my sister shared with me this essay on the "inefficiency" of the Sabbath. Suddenly I realized: this is a Sabbath year for me! When I commented on this realization, a friend raised these questions:
What exactly is a Sabbath year? Are we actually supposed to take Sabbath years? What does that involve (i.e. what to do, what not to do)? Why do you consider this year in your life to be a Sabbath year?   
Working from last question to the first, here are my thoughts:

I consider this year a Sabbath year for me because it's a year of neither working nor being in school. I had a long list of things I intended to be doing this year so I would feel/be productive (and have something to say when people ask me "what have you been up to?"), but it's been 7 months (!) and I haven't really done those things, and I think I wasn't really supposed to be doing them anyway. If God actually wanted me to be as "productive" as I thought I should be, I don't think he would have let me be vaguely sick for over three months. I needed--still need--a time of rest and reliance on God: a long, long Sabbath.

What does that Sabbath year involve? I would say the essence of Sabbath is the "appalling inefficiency" that the Urbana blog discusses: being unproductive. For someone like me (and perhaps even more so for you?), being unproductive is seriously uncomfortable! Rest is psychologically troubling even at the same time that it is refreshing. This discomfort flows from believing that worth comes from productivity, or that useless people are less valuable, or some variation on that theme. Sabbath combats these lies and affirms a commitment to the truth: that worth comes from God, and that all we really need is God, and all our "usefulness" is only useful if God wills it to be so. (See Ps. 127: "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain" &c).

Investing my sense of worth and security in anything other than God's love and provision is idolatry. Observing the Sabbath--whether for 24 hours a week or for a whole year--demotes the false god of productivity to its rightful place (valuable but not divine) and promotes the true God to His rightful place (King of kings and Lord of lords). I do think we are supposed to take "Sabbath years," because productivity is a huge idol for us (responsible, driven, success-seeking people, working in a culture that idolizes those traits). We definitely need to topple that idol so that we can honor God as our only Lord, and I think we need some form of Sabbath rest to do that.

The question is, what form? We aren't Israelites and we aren't even farmers, so none of the concrete instructions in Exodus apply directly to us. Are we supposed to take Sabbath years? Almost certainly. Are we supposed to take them every seven years? Not necessarily. Are we supposed to quit our jobs, eat food out of dumpsters, or maybe eat the dandelions growing in the backyard? Almost certainly not. What is a Christian Sabbath year? I don't really know, but one passage to look at might be Hebrews 4, which talks about "a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (v.9), which I think refers to resting in God during life on earth as well as ultimately resting in God in heaven.

So, concretely speaking, what does it look like to observe the Sabbath / rest / be unproductive?

Simple: stop working!

Just kidding, it's not simple to stop working, especially since it's hard even to decide what constitutes work. For a one-day Sabbath rest, I count as work anything that I "have to" do. This usually means the things that I am worried about getting done soon, probably because of outside pressure: homework, projects, anything with a deadline. It is not obvious from either a logistic or a psychological/emotional perspective how to set those things aside for a whole day--or even a whole hour, depending how much I am stressing about them (i.e., how little I am trusting God about those things). But it is possible, and like every discipline it gets easier with practice, and though the implementation is not immediately simple, it will bring greater simplicity to your life and thoughts.

For a year-long Sabbath rest, the emphasis is a little different. The Biblical instructions for the year-long Sabbath didn't tell the people not to work at all, but rather not to plant anything, and to just eat whatever grew on its own. This is a command to refrain from making provisions for the future. To stop planning and preparing. To open myself to the possibility of deprivation. To cast myself on the mercy of God, to rely on His provision for things that I normally think I have to provide for myself.

To be honest, I just started to think about that aspect of my Sabbath as I typed that last paragraph. This is a year for me to refrain from making preparations for the future. This is a year for me to eat whatever grows in the field of my life, and to be fed by what happens, not by what I cause to happen. What a timely thought, in the midst of my various worries! For instance, this morning I was feeling the pressure of having been asked dozens of times already when we are going to have kids. (People! I am only 22! We haven't even been married a year!!!) My mother-in-law, who is very concerned about health and watches at least two health TV shows, has informed me that every year we wait, the likelihood of Down Syndrome increases. After the age of thirty, she told me, the risk of birth defects is a lot higher. --Yeah? Well, I don't want to hear about it. But now that I have heard it, it is hard not to think about it. How will that work with a PhD program? What if... And blah blah blah the worries go, as I try to figure out the future.

Sabbath year: stop thinking about the future. Stop planting, and eat what grows. I think that is what God is calling me to right now, and what that looks like concretely for me right now means not working, not studying, not producing, not accomplishing, just being and receiving and relying on my husband's work to provide for us financially, and relying on God to somehow provide for me socially and intellectually.

So this is my Sabbath and this is what it looks like. I don't know what anyone else's Sabbath year would look like, though. It comes down to asking God--relying on Him, which is what it is all about.

And I think I will close this post here, although there is more to say. I realized a little while ago that I hadn't actually looked up the Scriptures that command the Sabbath in the first place, and when I looked at them, I found they emphasized something else that I haven't addressed at all. But I'll write about that tomorrow! Stay tuned :)

Friday, February 17, 2012


This is my four hundred and first blog post! Considering that I've been with this blog for just about four years now, I suppose it's only reasonable to have stacked up so many posts. Still, it feels like an accomplishment, a significant accumulation, like a pile of autumn leaves large enough to leap into.

Lately I've been thinking about the nature of this internet chronicle of mine. Some of my thoughts are finally enough in order to record and share, and this seems a good occasion. So read on, for some reflection on different sorts of blogs and which sort this one might be.

I have noticed that, when I stumble onto strangers' blogs in the tangled forest of Internet, there are two types that snag my curiosity enough to make me linger. The first type is informative, educational, thought-provoking: the idea-driven blog. In these blogs, it's not important to me who is writing, because the ideas speak for themselves, and their relevance or importance is determined in relation to the world outside, not by their relation to the blog's author(s).

Then there is the second type: the self-disclosing blogs. The story blogs, the personal blogs. The blogs where I get to see the person on the other side of the writing, not just in a snapshot or a statistical analysis, but in an on-going account of life in which I know fairly soon who the main character (the blogger) is: her key relationships, his ideological standpoint, her job, his hobbies, etc. I quickly lose interest in personal blogs that do not make clear the who behind the writing.

My own blog does not fall into either these categories. It is definitely not an idea-centric blog, since I so often write things that take their significance primarily (or entirely) in relation to my personal experience. And while I do often write about events taking place in my heart and soul, I carefully excise most of the eternal references that would root the emotions and meditations in a story. This is largely because I do not want random strangers to know my story. I feel exposed and vulnerable to a person who knows the story-shape of my life, in a way that I do not feel exposed to someone who has seen intimate snapshots of my life but has no larger picture of how those images fit together. The shape of this blog has been largely or entirely determined by what I feel like and want as a writer, with minimal consideration for what readers might want. Does this mean any stranger who stumbles across this blog will abandon it after a few sentences in favor of a more story-centric one?

I suppose those story-centric blogs are like memoirs being written in real-time. Meanwhile, my kind of blog is more like a collection of lyric poems. In reading a memoir, you learn an entire history, the story of how a person came to be. You learn a thousand things about them, though it may be (depending on the memoir) that you gain very little understanding of what it feels like to be that person. On the other hand, in reading someone's poems, you can get to know that person in a very intimate and intuitive way. But you don't know anything about their life, necessarily; what you know is the indefinable, indescribable, invisible pattern of their thoughts and emotions. You carry the imprint of their heart upon your own, and yet you wouldn't recognize the writer if you met him or her on the street.

I would be okay with having hundreds of strangers read a book of my poems. (More than okay: I would be so proud and happy.) But I would not be okay with having hundreds of strangers read a biography of me or a memoir by me (which I will never write). So I guess it only makes sense that my blog has the flavor of a collection of lyric poems, rather than the flavor of a memoir. And that's okay, because there are people out there who read Rilke, if not in the same numbers as people who read Dreams From My Father.

Thanks for reading, and here's to the next 401 posts! :)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The View from the Window

The edges of the houses lining the street seem impossibly clear and sharp today as I look at the world, my vision mediated by three layers of glass. The first layer is so near to me that I almost forgot to count it: the lenses of my glasses. How blurry and blundering my life would be without these, and how glorious the sudden clarity of my surroundings when I slide my glasses on! I should thank God more often for optometry.

The second layer is the window. Here too, the glass is almost unnoticeable, it is so clear. This I do remember to give thanks for, because it contrasts so sharply with the windows in our previous home. Between their double panes was a fog of water droplets and grime that made it impossible to forget the presence of an impermeable barrier between inside and outside. Miserable and uncleanable. The windows here are quite the opposite, new and fresh and well-nigh invisible. They are perfect. They even afford me a view of the sunset every evening.

The last glass in the series is a gigantic mirror. Left for us on the landing by our landlord, it stands now in the living room, in what we intended as a temporary location. We may well keep it here though, forever reflecting the window and the world outside it. This way, the room has windows on three sides. Sitting on the couch, I am surrounded by sky. I catch glimpses of movement out of the corner of my eye. When I startle and look up, I see pigeons wheeling by.

Today, the sky is a blank. Its clouded surface is clean and colorless, like the part of the paper the artist left untouched. At best, today's sky holds one layer of watercolor wash, a blue-grey too faint to really notice. The bare tree branches are inked on, behind the real subject matter of this still-life--the silent houses, their crisp lines, roofs and walls and chimneys and windows, standing patiently, perfectly defined.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


The bread is singing on the counter. Even from the living room I can hear it crackling as it cools. This loaf came out bulbous. It rose so high that even its bottom is round, not flat, and the loaf lolls sideways, lopsided.

The warm smell of bread fills the house.

In the bedroom, the laundry is folded and mostly sorted. The kitchen sink is empty, the dish drainer full. The floors are cleaner than they were this morning. The spare bedroom is more orderly than it's been since we moved in here. Everything is done, ready. And I am waiting.

I am waiting to eat the bread. I am waiting for O. to come home. I am waiting for companionship, I am waiting to come to life. For while I am, absolutely, alive here when I am alone with God, there is a different life to be had with O., or with other loved ones. There is a different life, when I am not waiting. When O. arrives, I won't be traveling toward a moment: I will have arrived.

In that moment, we will sit, and take the bread, and break it. We will give thanks, and we will take and eat. And there in the warm kitchen, we will remember, and the newly broken loaf will be the bread of life.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bayfront Park

A memory from last week, when I was home in California:

Eucalyptus trees, tall golden grass; a blue sky, a deluge of sunshine pouring through broken clouds. I am walking in the lap of the earth, among small hills. The hills close the horizon. They keep out the sounds of the rushing world, and the sight of its straining. Here, in this quiet park, peace descends upon me. The quiet creeps into my soul. For the first time in--how long? is it days, weeks? months?--my mind is blessedly empty. I look up, and the lingering clouds are radiant, splendid with diffuse light.

Across a field of dry grass, the geese are grazing. They are placid as cows this morning. They have all the time in the turning of the world. They have chosen what is best--tranquility--and no one shall take it from them.

Of course, the geese are not thinking such thoughts.  But then, neither am I, really. I am not thinking, my mind is not spinning out ideas. The images and words grow of themselves.  I merely gaze upon them, and see: this is home, this is peace.

I climb a hill, and the world unrolls before me. I see: marshlands, pickleweed, Pacific shovelers, sandpipers; cell phone towers sprouting from the marsh, boardwalks I wish I could explore; beyond these, the bay like a distant mirror, and the sky open above it, and the buildings of all the teeming humanity that lives here, toils here, runs and laughs and worries here, breathes here, under the vast sky, and the wheeling white gulls, and the eternal possibility of peace.

Friday, February 3, 2012


This week, I've been accused of many things. By default I react with fear mixed with guilt, which sends out roots to squeeze my conscience. This unhealthy seed produces sickly fruit: self-justification wrapped in a rind of indifference. Inside the fruit nestles the same seed that sprouted the whole plant--guilt and fear. The fear of man, which must be the beginning of folly.

What I need is the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.

When I spoke to a wise friend about these feelings, she said, quoting a recent sermon, "The devil attacks people in two ways: temptation and accusation.  Accusations are never from God. 'There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.'" When she said this, I felt the relief of truth. Do you know that feeling?--when a truth settles over you and your chest opens up and you breathe in deep, involuntarily, and your shoulders drop and your jaw relaxes. "... Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free," Jesus said (John 8:32).

Accusations are not from God. --Of course, I thought. Satan is called the Accuser. God is not an accuser. God judges, God convicts, God speaks the truth, but He does all these things in love. I have an Advocate, "one who speaks to the Father in my defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 John 2:1). I have a Counselor, "the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father and testifies about [Jesus]" (John 15:26). And "God is light: in Him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5)

I want to be free of accusations, to know the truth, to be set free in the truth. How? How?

"If you hold on to my teaching, you are truly my disciples," Jesus said. "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

What does it look like to hold on to Jesus' teaching in the midst of accusation? How do I love my enemy? What do I pray for the person who persecutes me? In high school when everyone condemned me for being a Christian, I thought I learned the flavor of persecution. But that was nothing. This is what it feels like to have my character condemned. This is the place from which I must pray for my persecutor, and love the one who attacks me.

This is what I've been memorizing and this is what I pray for you, my accuser:
that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and in depth of insight, that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the praise and glory of God. (Philippians 1:9-11). 
O God, give her love. Give her knowledge and depth of insight. Enable her to discern what is best. Make her pure and blameless, all the way till the day of Christ. Fill her with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Your Son. Transform this situation into one that brings praise and glory to Yourself.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mortifying Fear

On Sunday, I heard a (great) sermon on Romans 8:13-14: "If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death [mortify] the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." Convicted and inspired, I resolved to put to death the sins God has been speaking to me about lately--especially fear of man. I resolved to kill my fear, to execute it, to exterminate it. I resolved to show no quarter, "have no sympathy" with my sin, as the pastor put it.

Sunday I resolved this: I must fear God rather than man. And then Monday morning came, and I had a terrible fight with O. And then Tuesday morning came, and my phone rang with an unknown number, and when I answered, the voice on the other end was the familiar voice of accusation. Prime opportunities to fear--or to mortify my fear.

I do not have to sympathize with my fear. By the Spirit I will put to death the misdeeds of my body, and I will live. This was my resolution, this is God's promise.

The promise and the resolution have both been tested this week, and I don't think it's a coincidence, the timing of the resolution and of the testing. It's been hard. But it's also been good, because God is good, and His mercies are new every morning. Every morning: Sunday morning when the truth flows, God's mercies are new; Monday morning when your heart breaks, God's mercies are new; Tuesday morning when you hang up the phone, Wednesday morning when sleep leaves you hours before dawn, Thursday morning when you wilt in the gray-scale world--His mercies are new, new, new. O Lord my God, your mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.

Wild Geese

Heart pounding, blood rushing, I hunt through my heart, searching for the peace I felt this morning, the wonder I felt, when I heard overhead the trumpeting of the wild geese. In this city, where the street lights veil the stars and turn the night sky creamsicle-colored, and on this road, where the acrid air burns in my nostrils, here in this place, the wild geese are still flying. They are still singing. I turned my face upward and thanked God.

Now my body is in the same place but my heart has gone elsewhere. It is not with the geese anymore. Where is it? Lost among the streetlights. Yet the geese are still nearby, floating perhaps on the water in the abandoned reservoir. It is quiet, where the geese are. I will quiet my heart and listen: for the song of the beautiful wild geese, for a word from my Lord.