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Sabbath Part 2

Several years ago an article came out in Time magazine about the importance of siblings and birth order in shaping our personalities. Of course, the article could only deal with generalities, and there are always exceptions to every rule, but many of their assertions rang true for me. In general, the article said, the eldest child (or in some cases the only child) grows up to be a high achiever. Middle children are often peacemakers, and youngest children are often laid back, easy going and creative.

In my own family I am the youngest of four children. My siblings and I don’t fit into all the neat categories that the Time article predicted, but I do think the birth order in our family shaped each of us. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into the psychological  inner workings of my nuclear family, but I do want to reflect on one aspect of my growing up years that has shaped me because it has to do with Sabbath-keeping.

As the youngest in a big family, I arrived in the middle of a story that had been going on for a long time. I was born into a crowd that already had its patterns, its schedule and its dynamics. To put it another way, I was born into a noisy family. I don’t mean that everyone was yelling or that the noisiness was a bad thing, but with five people already established in the home there was just a lot going on. My job, at least early on, was to adapt and roll with it.Somewhere along the way in my growing up years, as crazy as it may sound, I actually made a conscious decision to be a good listener. And that one decision has shaped me my whole life. In fact, I remember writing one of my college essays on listening. (I’d give anything to find that old essay, written by my 18-year-old self, but it was typed on an Olivetti typewriter before the days of hard drives and The Cloud.)

All of this is to just to share with you how important to me the practice of listening has always been. Listening deeply to someone is the best way I know how to show love.  As I shared in the benediction on Sunday morning, “Truly listening to someone is so close to love that most people can’t tell the difference” (Dr. Jan Love).

If you were here on Sunday, you know that listening was the focus of our worship together. What I didn’t address in the sermon were some tools that we can use to help us listen to God and to each other. One of the best ways I know to listen for God is to read scripture. Do what Bishop Pennel suggested when he was with us this fall: pick a passage and read it slowly. (Psalms or parables of Jesus are good places to start.) When a word or   a phrase jumps out at you, stop. Ponder it. Ask God what that word or phrase has to teach you. Try going to the scriptures without an agenda, without expectation, and see what speaks to you.

Another practice is to try carefully to listen to other people in your daily life. When you are in conversation, pay attention to what the other person is saying. Do you feel yourself thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next? Notice that, but then let it go. Take a deep breath and let the other person speak, even if you react to or disagree with them.

Listening is not a gift that some people have and others don’t. I really believe it’s a skill that we can all learn and practice. The world needs more people who know how to listen. May that be just one more way that we show God’s love to a hurting world.

 

Sabbath

This past Sunday I began a sermon series on the topic of Sabbath. In preparation for my renewal leave, which begins on September 1, I want to invite all of us to be thinking about ways that we can find rest and renewal in our daily lives. If you were in worship on Sunday, you heard me say that the word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew verb “to cease, to stop, to rest.” What are some ways that we can regularly stop working, stop producing, stop looking ahead and simply rest in the present moment with God and with others?

I’ve put together a selection of books that might help you ponder the meaning of Sabbath and think about these questions. A book table will be set up throughout the month of August, and I hope you’ll find some time to read at least one of the selections over the next few weeks. (Unfortunately, the ones on the book table are just for display, but you can go to Cokesbury.com or another book seller and find any of the titles there.)

Each week during August we’ll be considering “Sabbath” as a verb and we’ll look at ways we can practice “Sabbathing.” This past week we explored what it means to CEASE, to REST. This next Sunday, we’ll talk about how Sabbath calls us to LISTEN. (If you want a preview of the rest of the month, we’ll also be considering how Sabbath inspires us to GIVE and to PLAY.)

As I’ve mulled over the idea of Sabbath in my own life, I’ve realized how children seem naturally to understand Sabbath. Children know how to rest. And they certainly know how to play. Hurry and busy-ness do not come naturally to them. They can be present to the world around them in ways that we adults sometimes forget to be.

Last Friday afternoon I was at home working on my sermon for Sunday. The kids were at home, too, but our sitter was still in the house keeping an eye on them so that I could work. After I’d been working at it for about two hours, I was lying on the bed going through the sermon in my head. I’d been struggling with how to conclude (you know, “big finish!”) and was feeling sort of stuck. Then suddenly I heard the sound of my bedroom door quietly opening, followed by the sound of little feet padding toward me. I opened my eyes and saw my daughter Martha. She flopped on the bed next to me and said, “It’s nice and quiet in here. What are you doing? I think I’ll stay in here with you.”

At first I was flustered. I need to work! I needed to finish this sermon! But then I remembered what the sermon was about and felt the pang of conviction. “Okay,” I said to God. “I get it. I’ll stop already and trust you to provide the rest of the sermon later.” So, Martha and I laid on the bed and talked. And sat in silence. She noticed a bird outside of the window and pointed it out to me. “Look at that beautiful bird, Mommy.” Actually, it was an awkward looking juvenile robin that seemed to be molting. Not that pretty at first glance. But then I tried looking as she was looking, and began to see the wonder and beauty of this little, growing bird.

What a gift children are. Martha especially is my little walking Sabbath. No matter whether we live with children right now or not, finding ways to spend time with children and learn from them is one of the best Sabbath practices that I know.

Isn’t summer supposed to be slow?

Isn’t summer supposed to be slow? Aren’t things supposed to move at a more relaxed pace in June and July? Apparently not. I came back from the beach two weeks ago to find life moving at a rapid clip, and I’ve had a little trouble catching up. But now that I’m finally breathing normally, I thought I’d share with you some of the things that have happened in recent days as well as what’s coming up. At least on my calendar.

Just a few days after returning home, we plunged into Annual Conference, our annual United Methodist gathering here in Middle Tennessee. The United Methodist churches in middle Tennessee sent 648 lay people and 648 pastors to this gathering, and I must say it was the most inspiring Annual Conference I’ve attended in years. Next week’s newsletter article, written by one of our delegates, will tell you in more detail about what we experienced there, but I came away feeling excited about what God is doing and will do through The United Methodist Church!

The next big event on my calendar is the mission trip to Uganda. (Normally, it would be Vacation Bible School, which starts on Sunday night, but our mission team leaves on Wednesday and we’ll miss the last half of VBS.) As you know, we are taking a large group from both Christ UMC and Blakemore UMC, but many of you have been asking, “What exactly are y’all going to be doing while you’re there?” Well, I’ll tell you…

We’ll be going to two rural villages outside of Kampala. Raise the Roof has a school in one village, and we’ll spend much of our time at that site in four different groups. One group will set up a medical clinic while another group will work on construction of classrooms at the school. A third group will run a Vacation Bible School for children (we’re expecting over 1,000 kids!), and a fourth group will meet with adults (pastors, teachers, politicians, community leaders) for conversation, training and empowerment.

One of the things I’m excited about is a youth rally that some of us will be hosting on Friday, June 28. While most members of the team will be resting and adjusting to the time-change, a few of us will gather with a large group of teens and young adults in Kampala. Chip Higgins is going to do some teaching around leadership, and I’m going to remind them that they are loved, they matter and they can make a difference. I have no idea how many youth will show up to this rally, but David Ssebulime has told us to be prepared for a crowd.

During our stay in Uganda we will be tending and building and teaching, but above all we will be building relationships. We go in the love of Christ to meet Christ in the people of Uganda. We go to love and be loved. To serve and be served. To share our stories and to hear their stories. We will worship in ways we’ve never experienced before. We will eat good food and get lots of hugs. And we will let our brothers and sisters know that we love them and we care about them.

Our team departs on Wednesday morning, June 26. We ask you to pray for us and for the people whom we’ll meet in Uganda. May we all experience the love and power of God in this holy encounter. And may we come home ready to love and serve in deeper ways than ever before.

 

The Beauty and Wonder of God’s Creation

 

Last week my family and I returned from our annual Dillon Trip to Sunset Beach. Every year we go with David’s parents, sisters and brother-in-law to the southern coast of North Carolina for ten days of rest, swimming, reading and togetherness. (Oh, in addition to the nine human inhabitants of the beach house, we have two furry ones: our dog Gabby and her “cousin” Peggy.)

This trip to the beach is a long-standing tradition. David’s family has been vacationing at Sunset Beach for about thirty years. I’ve been part of the family for the last fifteen of those years, and it has become an essential part of my summer. It is an important event in the life of our family. A ritual. Part of the rhythm of our year.

The only downside to this annual vacation is that it messes with my regular spiritual routines. On a normal day during the school year, I have time for prayer and silence in the morning after everyone has left for school and work. But when you’re sharing a house with eight other people, it’s hard to find that solitude.

But it’s not a bad thing to have your routines messed with. In fact, it can be a tremendous gift. And it certainly was for me. The change of setting and schedule gave me opportunities to commune with God in different ways, ways that I don’t really get in my day-to-day life at home.

For example, one morning I rode a bike to the end of Sunset Beach to see if I could glimpse the oyster catchers who were nesting there. (Oyster catchers are birds, not people. I’d never heard of them until I became part of this family of bird-watchers.) As I walked around the tip of the inlet, two of the unusual birds flew right in front of me. A few minutes later I caught one through the lens of my binoculars, and it was feeding its young. Amazing! I don’t know how long I stood there with my binoculars just watching these fascinating birds, but I definitely lost track of time.

My time at the beach immerses me in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. I enter fully into the world of birds, fish, snakes and crabs. Of course there’s the power and wonder of the ocean, but there’s more than that. The house we stay in faces a marsh, and we sit on the deck and watch the snowy egrets wading, the osprey going back and forth with fish in their talons, the fiddler crabs waving to us from the mudflats and the shy clapper rails sneaking out into the water for a quick bath. I found myself sitting on the deck of the house with my binoculars totally losing track of time as I watched God’s creatures going about their business.

It’s not often in my daily routines that I stop to watch birds. It’s not often that I stop long enough to notice God’s creation around me. The birds and squirrels in my yard don’t often take my breath away. In my day-to-day life—filled up with emailing, texting, working, cooking, parenting, producing—it is rare that I lose track of time.

The beach helps me to do that. But maybe it’s possible to remain in a state of wonder, open and attentive to God and God’s creation every single day. Maybe I could start by not packing away those binoculars. There are some pretty amazing mockingbirds right outside my window.

 

Summer Reading

When I was in high school, our English teachers always assigned us books to read over the summer. They worried that our brains would atrophy over the course of three months if they didn’t assign us some rigorous reading, so they would pick three or four books for us to read at the beach or at the poolside or at home on the couch. You couldn’t get away with reading the Cliff Notes or watching the movie, either. When we returned to school in the fall, they would test us on these books and would ask questions that you could only answer if you’d read each and every page. Teachers have always been good at out-smarting their students.

At the end of the spring semester, we waited with anticipation and dread as our English teachers would hand out the “Summer Reading List.” Sometimes the list would include grueling, non-beach-friendly tomes like books like Plutarch’s Lives. Always there was a Shakespeare play like Romeo and Juliet or Othello. And often we had classics like The Sound and the Fury or fun stories like The Once and Future King. (Is it strange that I remember so many of these summer reading books?)

As much as we moaned and groaned about having to read real literature during the summer (whine, whine), I actually looked forward to getting that Summer Reading List every year. I’m a geek who loves books, and I enjoy reading books that people I respect tell me are good. So, I read every dang word of Plutarch’s Lives and am glad I did. Well, I’m glad now that I did. At the time, I did my share of whining.

If you are a geek who loves good books, or if you are looking for some good summer reading, I’d like to invite you over the next two months to open up the Old Testament and read 1 Kings and 2 Kings. This two-volume history tells us the story of what happened in Israel after the death of King David. We hear about people like Solomon, Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel, Elisha, the Queen of Sheba and all sorts of other colorful characters. There’s war and intrigue, faithfulness and betrayal, righteousness and evil. We get to see Elijah in a showdown on Mount Carmel. There is compassion and healing as well as selfishness and idolatry. In other words, there are some great stories captured in these two books.

These stories will be our focus in worship over the next two months. It’s been awhile since we’ve gathered around the Old Testament in worship, so we’re going to let the books of Kings be our foundation for most of the summer. Starting this Sunday with 1 Kings 8, we will follow the kings, queens and prophets of Israel and see how God worked with them or in spite of them. And hopefully their stories will inspire us to be more faithful in our own life with God.

There won’t be a test at the end of the summer, but if you take the time to read this ancient book I think you will be glad you did.

 

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