Thoughts on a Sabbath

I’m sitting at the corner table in The Common Cup, the coffee house located in the basement of the church building where our congregation meets.  I often sit here in the mornings when my husband, a pastor, preaches two services on a Sunday morning. I like the dedicated time to think, grade papers, or write before I go upstairs for the second service.  The baristas brew me an extra strong pot of English Breakfast and I sip on it while I sit listening to quiet worship music and working on whatever is in front of me.

Today, I don’t really have any work.  I finished teaching a summer course on Friday.  I don’t start teaching again for almost a full month.  Yes, I have plans and syllabi to write.  Yes, I have grade books to set up. I have plenty of work for the week ahead of me, but today I am resting.  I am resting from duties to spend my day blogging, reading, puzzling, and breathing.

I highly recommend it — this kind of resting.  I do realize that many of you have determined to observe a Sabbath every week.  You regularly take a day to turn away from work to rest for a full day.  I mean, it’s Biblical.  However, it’s been a difficult concept for me to wrap my brain around.  For a long time, the concept of Sabbath felt like an obligation rather than an opportunity.  I have felt guilty for not taking a Sabbath rather than thankful to have one.

Perhaps you can relate.  My husband and I have long been church workers.  Making Sunday a Sabbath is a challenge for church workers.  How do you find rest on a day when you have a sermon to preach, lessons to present, needs to respond to, and expectations to meet?  Some church workers manage to do it; I’ve never gotten the hang of it.

Or, perhaps your weeks are so full with work and family obligations that taking a full day to rest simply seems impossible.  So many of my weekend days have been crammed full of grocery shopping, laundry, house keeping, errand running, and catching up.  Some of you manage to do all of those tasks and still find room for a Sabbath rest; again, I haven’t really figured it out.

Even now, when I am no longer working full time, I still struggle to keep a day completely free from ‘work’.  I usually slip in a little bit of grading, a little bit of editing, a smidge of house work, or a trip to the grocery store.

However, one thing my chronic illness has taught me is this — our bodies (at least my body) need time to recover, time to heal, time to restore, time to prepare for what is next.  If I power through, if I fail to rest, fail to take consistent breaks, my body often shuts itself down and mandates a day or two of bed rest.  This has happened over and over again; I am starting to get the message.  If I preemptively take a Sabbath, as God’s Word has recommended, then I don’t crash as often.

Not only do our bodies need consistent breaks from work, but also our minds, our spirits, our souls. On Friday, after five weeks of teaching a composition class, I got caught in a rain storm — twice.  I was soaked to the skin, but I was determined to run a few errands before I went home.  I was tired before I started, but I pressed on. I stopped at four different places before I considered going home.  I was hungry.  I was exhausted.  I was cranky.  Instead of taking consistent rest during the five weeks of teaching, I had tutored; I had taken weekend trips;  I had pushed myself to my limits.  Later Friday night when my husband got home from a business trip, I really wanted to welcome him back, but my fatigued, depleted spirit was edgy.  My tone was sharp.  My glance was surly.

We expect a lot from ourselves.  We push ourselves to do just one more thing — one more email, one more errand, one more social engagement.  But guys, what we really need so that we can more fully experience our lives — fully engage with the people in front of us, fully care for the people we love, fully attend to our work — is regular time to recover.

It’s funny, I was writing this post this morning at church.  I saw my computer draining of battery, but I thought, I can probably finish before it runs out.  I couldn’t.  My screen went black, so I had to rest from my blog about resting.

I went to worship.  I chatted with friends after.  My husband and I stopped at the grocery on the way home. (Insert eye roll here.) We ate some lunch, then I worked on my puzzle while listening to a book on tape.

Since it was time for my afternoon tea, I grabbed my laptop, moved outside to the patio, and sat in my reclining lawn chair to finish my musings.  It’s after 4pm and I truly have rested from work most of the day (if you overlook the groceries). My aspirations for the rest of the day?  Right now they include staying on this lawn chair a little longer.  I haven’t thought beyond that.

I could get used to this.

Leviticus 23:3

“‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

Have Mercy

I’ve heard the story of “The Good Samaritan” countless times in my fifty years.  You know the one, the guy is traveling down a road when he is attacked by robbers and left for dead.  He’s lying there mangled in the dirt, gasping for breath, hoping against all hope that someone will stop and help him.

One of our pastors this morning set this story in the context of current events. He recalled with us the tragedies of the last week, month, year, years, and asked us the question, “What does it mean for us? for the church?”

Let me just go on record here and say that in the past weeks and months I have  NOT immediately gone to that question as I’ve witnessed all kinds of horrendous acts.  I have been more often found standing in front of the television, eyes wide, saying, “What the…”

It doesn’t take me long to launch into the words I used to hear my grandparents say, “What’s the world coming to?”  From there it’s just a short trip to quoting scripture about the end times and “wars and rumors of wars”.  Before you know it, I’m in a frantic outrage trying to find someone to blame.  It must be the Republicans.  No, it’s the Democrats.  Wait, I think it’s corporate America.  No, no, it’s the extremists.  I’m not really looking for what it means for me, or, to be honest, for ways that I could possibly help.

This morning, our pastor in his re-telling of “The Good Samaritan”  pointed out that each of us, like the man in the story,  is essentially half-dead, lying in the dirt, gasping for breath. He said, “Jesus is the good Samaritan.” Gasp! How did I get fifty years into my life and not realize that the point of the story is not that I would see myself as the good Samaritan and look for ways that I can be better than the priests and the Levites and actually help out the poor hurting soul?  How have I not seen that I am the poor hurting soul!?!?!?

Jesus was telling this story to a respected expert in the law.  The expert had asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He of course knew what was written, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and  mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  He just needed a little clarification.  “Uh, Jesus, who, uh, exactly, would you say qualifies as ‘my neighbor’?”

Can’t you just see Jesus inhaling slowly, thinking to Himself, “This one is gonna take a story.” He doesn’t just say, “Every living human, you moron!” like I might. Nope.  He takes this expert in the law, pulls him onto his lap and has a little story time.

The Teacher tells the expert that, in the story, the Samaritan didn’t first check to see what neighborhood the hurting man was from.  He didn’t ask him his last name. He didn’t try to find out if he was an illegal immigrant.  He didn’t check to see if he had a conceal and carry permit.  He didn’t examine the color of his skin.  He didn’t determine if they spoke the same language.  He didn’t check his ID.  No.

He saw a dude in the dirt that needed help. He used his own wine and oil to cleanse the man’s wounds before he bandaged them. He put the guy on his own donkey and then walked with him to a place of shelter. He paid for the stranger’s care. Period.

The Teacher looks the expert in the eyes and says, “Who was a neighbor to this man?” The expert says, “The one who showed mercy.”  And the punch line? “Go and do likewise.”

Is it dangerous to meet the need of someone we do not know? Yes. Is it scary to reach out when we see someone hurting? It can be.  Is it uncomfortable to stand up for the oppressed, the wounded, the outcast?  Sometimes.

Our pastor’s challenge to us this morning was that we ask God to show us the people in our regular flow of life who need us to see them, share with them what we have, walk beside them, and befriend them.  His closing words? “Take the risk to love for the sake of the Gospel.”

Go and do likewise.

Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid.

For I, the Lord your God, will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9

 

 

 

I am trusting…

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.”

First John 4:16

That’s all.  That’s all we can rely on.  It is the only thing that will not fail.  We will let ourselves down.  Our finances will falter.  Our friends will betray us.  Our leaders will disappoint us.  The world will hurl all kinds of venom full in our faces, but the love of God will not fail.

 I am clinging to that truth today.  I’m grasping it in a sweaty fist that I’m waving in the air as I say,  jaw-clenched, “I am trusting you, Lord.”

Trusting you as I stare in disbelief at my television screen showing live tape of atrocities I thought had died out decades ago.

Trusting you as yet another individual has amassed an arsenal and opened fire on unsuspecting people he didn’t even know.

Trusting you in the face of politicians hurling insults and accusations at one another.

Trusting you as the citizenry follows their lead.

Trusting you as brother fights against sister.

Trusting you as illness grabs at our throats.

Trusting you as uncertainty threatens to dash our hopes.

Why? Why am I trusting You? Because You have proven yourself faithful to thousands of generations. You have calmed storms, fed the hungry, healed the sick, dethroned rulers, measured out justice against oppressors, and still found time to speak in a still small voice to “the least of these”.

The Creator of everything, the Redeemer of the world, the Sustainer of all life, knows my name. He has numbered the hairs on my head.  He knows my coming and my going.  He knows my yesterday, my today, and my tomorrow.

He will never leave me nor forsake me. So I breathe in the truth, open my fist, and unclench my jaw.

Lord, replace my anger with purpose.  Replace my despair with diligence.  Let me bear witness to your unfailing love in a world that very afraid.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.