8 Years of Sabbath

It was the very definition of a watershed moment, a dividing point from which things would never be the same.

On October 28, 2011, I shrugged a ratty old backpack onto my shoulders and set out on a trail called Rice Canyon north of Los Angeles. I had recently been exposed for the second time to the spiritual value of intentional rest, and my attempts to learn how to rest four years earlier had gotten no traction. Knowing there might not be a third chance, I was determined to carve Sabbath into my schedule. I knew that I wasn’t disciplined enough to rest at home, so stealing a page from Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles, I decided that my sabbath should be nature-oriented. For the first time, I went for a walk with God in the midst of His artistry. (The pictures are from that hike).

I had no idea what would happen.  I had no idea that I was entering into a spiritual discipline that would quickly become the most life-giving I had ever encountered. I had no idea that it would lead to a blog, and a bit of amateur photography. I had no idea that my wife and I would eventually embrace a ministry, and buy a house, in order to encourage missionaries to learn how to rest.

Over the last eight years, I’ve read a LOT of other books on rest (The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan still being my favorite). I haven’t kept track, but it’s safe to say that there have been well over 300 Sabbath hikes, with an unknown number of Sabbath drives when health didn’t allow for a hike.  Intentionally seeking long stretches of time to be alone with my Lord, in places that point me to Him, has taught me to enjoy His presence in ways that are transformational, and difficult to describe.

It would be impossible to summarize all that God has taught me (us, actually, since my wife has her own approach) in a short blog post.  But here is a partial list:

  • God’s creative activity was not complete until He had rested (Genesis 2:2).
  • Jesus’ command “Come to me … and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) is the only one of His commands that I’ve ever bragged about breaking.
  • Leading God’s people to rest is one of the responsibilities of shepherding (Ezekiel 34:15), and you can’t take others where you have not been yourself.
  • God’s nature and His attributes truly CAN be seen clearly through what He has made (Romans 1:20). In fact, they are vivid!
  • There is a Pharisee in me who wants to make Sabbath all about rules, and a Task-master in me who is irritated when I’m not productive. I hate them both.
  • If we can’t imagine Jesus saying “You’ve been busy. You’ve done enough for now. It’s time to rest” (Mark 6:31), our picture of Him is incomplete in a HUGELY significant way.
  • Sabbath is not about prohibitions. It’s about liberation, freeing time to do what refreshes you and brings Him pleasure.
  • Sometimes a Sabbath hike turns out to be more hike than Sabbath. That’s OK.
  • Our heavenly Father, the Perfect Father, takes delight in spending time with His kids. Why wouldn’t He? And that delight is delightfully mutual.

Eight years down – how many more to go?  That’s a mystery.  But I’m looking forward to them. Because with the help of the One who rested, they will continue to be filled with regular, intentional, contemplative, Christ-centered rest. I wish you the same.

 

 

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Feed and Lead to Rest

There were plenty of words that God COULD have used. When I saw the one that He chose, it grabbed my heart in a way that I hope to never forget.

I was reading Ezekiel 34 a few weeks ago, a fairly well-known passage, especially among pastors. It’s well-known for its sobering condemnation of the leaders of Israel for failing to care for the people of God. No one wants to hear this kind of rebuke: “Woe, shepherds of Israel … should not the shepherds feed the flock? …Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them” (vs. 2-4). It’s tragic when modern day leaders deserve a similar rebuke. Lord, please protect me from that.

I never noticed that the second half of that same chapter contains God’s solution to the problem. He would step in! He would bring to His people the tender care that their human shepherds had failed to provide. He Himself would search for them and gather them, care for them and feed them. God was promising to fix it!

And then, verse 15 happens. I hope that I never forget verse 15:

  • “I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to …”

How MIGHT God have finished that sentence? There are plenty of possibilities. “Holiness” would fit. So would “obedience.” No one would be surprised to find “righteousness” here, nor “faith.”

But that’s not what He said.

  • “I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to rest.”

There it is! The end goal of the feeding and leading is rest. As a diligent pursuer of God’s gift of Sabbath rest, it shouldn’t have surprised me. But I admit that it did – and it made me smile.

It also made me reflect on this beautiful image from Psalm 23: “He (the Lord, my Shepherd) makes me lie down in green pastures.” That one phrase (and the picture that it brings to mind) contains all of the beauty of Ezekiel 34:15. In both cases, the work of the Shepherd provides nourishment and rest to His people. As Phillip Keller explains in “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,” the ability of the flock to rest in green pastures brings honor to the shepherd whose work makes it possible.

If that is God’s goal, and if our ability to rest brings Him pleasure and honor, why are we so reluctant to pursue that rest? If THIS is what God wants for us, why do we have to convince ourselves that it’s OK?

Could it be that we have replaced “rest” with “productivity?” Are we evaluating our response to God’s work for us by measuring the work that we do for Him? Are we as individuals (and am I as a leader) falling for the lie of the performance orientation, the idea that God likes me more when I get a lot done? And more importantly, am I somehow communicating this idea to those who look to me for leadership?

These verses, and others like them, call us to a different kind of thinking. Actually, they call us to a different kind of life. It’s a life that includes work and service, of course. But it also includes, and in fact it is characterized by, satisfying nourishment and refreshing rest. That rest is a result of the amazingly gracious work of our Good Shepherd, whose care for us makes it possible.

He feeds me – and He leads me – to rest.

I love all of those words, especially the last one. My rest brings Him pleasure, which is why He leads me there. I never want to forget that.

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We are All From Piatre

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A woman who lives on a mountainside in Haiti said something two weeks ago that stopped me in my tracks.  I can’t stop thinking about it, and it makes me smile every time.

Eve Rose was working on some food with a machete when her nephew brought us into her yard so we could pray for her family.  I was on a short trip to the island on behalf of our church to explore partnerships for ministry, and we had just visited a possible location for a medical clinic not far from her house – once built, it would mean that the people of Piatre would no longer have to descend hundreds of feet to the coast on a treacherous road to get medical care. She invited us to sit for a while, and our host introduced us and spoke with her in Creole, translating for the three Americans. I am still fluent in French, and was able to pick up the gist of some of their conversation.

We learned that Eve Rose has spent her entire life, probably over 50 years, in this mountainside community north of Port-au-Prince. Our host, raised in southern Haiti, joked with her that he too was from Piatre, which she quickly denied – “No, if you were from Piatre, I would know you.” At that point, one of the Americans also joked that he was from Piatre. We all laughed – our Haitian host might have gotten away with the claim, but there was no way this white guy from Atlanta could pass for a member of her community.

That’s when it happened. As the laughter died down, Eve Rose said something that I hope I never forget. I recall it in French, though it could be that her Creole was close enough to French that I was able to understand it.  She smiled, threw her arms wide as if she were embracing all of us together, and said “Nous sommes tous de Piatre!

“We are all from Piatre.” With that generous proclamation, barriers shrunk.  The contrasting colors of our skin were set aside for the moment.  While the vast economic differences between us didn’t disappear, their significance diminished.  We had been welcomed into the community. We were from Piatre.

That gesture seemed to come naturally to her. It was hospitality in its purest form, meant to make us feel at home, part of the clan. In its own way, it was a revolutionary statement. It gently but firmly declared that, in her yard, that which unites us is far more important than that which divides us.

I learned from Eve Rose. I hope we all learn from Eve Rose. In a sharply divided American world, in a sadly and increasingly divided Christian world, her spirit is sorely needed. We quickly forget the Scriptural command to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Perched on a rickety wooden chair in the yard of a poor family in one of the poorest nations on the planet, in a group composed of blacks and whites, of rich and poor, I experienced the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I hope I never forget it.

Because we are all from Piatre.

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A Parking Spot, a Monaco Cop, and a Plate of Macaroni and Cheese

8094309366_40fef8dd8a_b“It’s not permitted, but it is tolerated.”

That was the response I received one day from a passing policeman in Monaco when I asked if it was OK to park in the spot I had chosen.  My first reaction: “What an odd thing to say. If it isn’t permitted, why is it tolerated?”

But that phrase has stayed with me these last 20 years, and I’ve come to realize that the concept is not as foreign to me as I like to pretend. “It’s not permitted, but it is tolerated.” How many times in a week do I tolerate in myself that which I would not permit? How many prideful or angry thoughts, how many harsh words, how many lustful lingerings of the eyes, how much labeling and categorizing and stereotyping of others do I shrug at in my personal life? If you were to ask me “Are these permitted?” I would say no. Of course not. I’m a Christian, after all.

But sadly, they ARE tolerated.  I know, because I’m the one that tolerates them. If I didn’t, there wouldn’t be so many of them. That needs to change.

But how do I cultivate a new, less-tolerant mindset toward that which I do not (and my God does not) permit? What exactly needs to change?  I think the solution is found in my daughter’s reaction to a stomach-churning moment during a meal last month.

slow-cooker-mac-and-cheese-4I had brought home a take-out order from a local restaurant, and Minnie eagerly started in on her plate of hot and creamy macaroni and cheese.  Her eagerness disappeared however, along with her appetite, with the discovery of … wait for it … a HAIR in the macaroni! She held it up, with globs of cheese dangling from it, and said with a disgusted look, “Dad, it’s long, so it’s not even mine.”

I know. Gross, right?

You know what DIDN’T happen next? No one in the room said “Well, at least there’s only ONE hair.” Minnie didn’t set it aside, shrug, and say “I guess these things happen.” Who does that?  No, we called the restaurant to complain, they offered to reimburse the cost of all three meals, and they invited me to come back to get a new order of macaroni and cheese (yes, I checked before leaving the restaurant – it was hairless).

No one tolerates hair in their macaroni and cheese. No one excuses it with thoughts like “EVERYbody has a little hair in their pasta.” No one says “Well, the chef made the meal this way, so it must be OK.” We are profoundly INtolerant, and even hostile, to the very idea of hair in our food.

Driving home from the restaurant, it dawned on me that God sees sin in the same way that we see hair in macaroni, and that we need to do the same.  I need to move my sin into that category – especially the sins that have hung around a while, the ones that have been tolerated for so long that they seem to be part of me. I need a holy disgust with that which offends my holy God. And I need to remind myself regularly that His forgiveness does not equal His approval.

“You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). There are positive and negative sides to growth in personal holiness: “Do more of THIS. Do less of THAT.” I think it might help to view the negative side of holiness as “Stop throwing hair in your macaroni and cheese.”

That is sound advice that I plan to take to heart.  Feel free to join me.

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You Are … and I Am

While hiking along the base of this amazing rock formation in Sedona yesterday, my prayer time shifted in this direction.  I hope it adds to your worship on this Good Friday. There are plenty that I’ve missed – please feel free to add your favorites in the Comments section.

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You are the Rock. I build my house on you. Help me to build well.

You are the Artist. I am your masterpiece. Help me to hold still while you paint.

You are the Word. I am the listener. Help me to understand.

You are the Lamb of God.  My sin is covered by your blood. Help me to sin less.

You are the Bridegroom.  I am a small part of your bride. Help me to love you faithfully.

You are the Way.  I am a pilgrim. Help me to stay on the path.

You are the Savior. I am the saved. Help me to point lost people to you.

You are Almighty God. I am a worshipper.  Help me to worship in spirit and in truth.

You are the Good Shepherd. I am a wandering sheep. Thank you for finding me.

You are the King. I am a citizen of your kingdom. May your kingdom come through me.

You are the High Priest. I am the one for whom you intercede. That amazes me.

You are the Master. I am your slave.  It is my joy to serve you.

You are the Potter. I am the clay. Shape me as you wish.

You are the Bread of Life. You satisfy my hunger. Help me to hunger for you.

You are the vine.  I am a branch. Help me to bear fruit.

You are the Crucified One. I have been crucified with you. Help me to die daily.

You are the Resurrected One. Thanks to you, I will live forever. May I never take that for granted.

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Go Ahead. Smell a Pine Tree.

IMG_1133I usually glance up and down the trail before I do it, because it looks, I don’t know, kinda weird (ya think?). But it’s rare that I take a mountain trail without at least once sticking my nose into the crevice of the bark of a pine tree in search of its unique fragrance.  It doesn’t smell like pine – that comes from the needles and the sap.  The bark fragrance smells to me like vanilla.  Others describe it as cinnamon, or fresh-baked cookies. Ever since an outdoorsy friend told me about it (thanks, Paul), it’s become a regular a part of my hikes. Yeah, it’s strange. But it’s worth it (and if you don’t believe me, here’s a link to an NPR article that vouches for me – with a picture that looks as crazy as mine).

If I hadn’t learned how to rest, I never would have discovered the vanilla fragrance of pine bark. And my life would have been poorer for it.

On a snowy mountain Sabbath Hike this afternoon (the pics are from that hike), I spent time thanking the Lord for the benefits of over 6 years of regular, intentional, contemplative, Christ-centered rest.  Included on that list was a host of experiences that I would have missed if I had never embraced this gift.  I didn’t see many of these benefits coming, because like the fragrance of bark, I didn’t even know they existed.  I had no idea what I was missing.

When I rest, I notice the fingerprints of God in my world. I take time to connect the dots of my life, to tie together the often-frazzled strings that drift in the wake of my hectic schedule. I slow down long enough to feel the breeze on the back of my neck, and to hear the music that God built into His creation. I walk with Him, enjoy Him, think big thoughts of Him, bring the tough questions to Him.

None of this happens when I’m on the hamster wheel.  You know what that wheel is like.  Lots of running, lots of energy expended, but little sense of progress. Plenty of sweat, but only occasional (and usually temporary) satisfaction.

I’m so glad that Jesus invites us to step off the hamster wheel.  After His disciples returned all excited about the great impact they had made when He sent them out two by two, Jesus didn’t send them back out right away to “seize the moment,” to leverage the earlier successes, to take things to the next level.  No, He told them to “come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).

“Come with me … by yourselves … to a quiet place … and get some rest.” These are the words of Jesus.

IMG_1109Do we dare to claim them as our own?  For a long time, I didn’t.  They were for the far-distant past, or the far-distant future. They were a nice theory, something I was supposed to look forward to, some day.

Now, I look forward to them next week. And every week after that one. Because I’ve recognized that He created us for a healthy cycle of work and rest. I finally learned that rest is a gift, not an obligation, and that good things happen when I embrace it.

So go ahead.  Go with Him to a quiet place. Get some rest. Connect the dots. Think big thoughts.

And while you’re at it, stick your nose into the bark of a tree.  You never know what you’ll find.

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When You Won’t be Home for Christmas

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I was in denial.  And it was time to do something about it.

We had moved to France just four months earlier, and were facing our first Christmas overseas.  We had put up the few decorations that we had brought with us to our apartment south of Paris, but I knew that I hadn’t really embraced Christmas yet, because I wasn’t playing music. I always loved Christmas music, and eagerly awaited Thanksgiving evening when my wife was finally OK with starting the Christmas season.  But that year, by mid-December I had yet to play a single tune.

I remember the day when I finally scolded myself. “This is silly.  Sure, you’re far from family and friends, dreading the holiday for the first time in your life. But you can do this.  Snap out of it.  Play some Christmas tunes.” I grabbed the first cassette that I saw (remember those?), thrust it confidently into the Boom Box (remember those?), and hit Play.  The opening chords of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” began to fill the room.

I hit the Stop button so hard that I almost broke the unit.

Christmas without family is tough, and there are all kinds of circumstances that can create a lonely holiday. Some, like me back in the day, are serving as missionaries in a culture that is not their own.  Some are serving their country, preparing for Christmas on military bases that try to look festive, maybe dreading the few minutes with loved ones on FaceTime or Skype that, while better than nothing, aren’t near enough. Some are traveling for business, others are in a hospital. Some are preparing for their first Christmas since the separation.  Many know that they will have to work while their family gathers and enjoys all of the traditions that they will miss this year.

If that describes you, can I pass on a couple of things that I learned over the course of 15 years of international living?  These two thoughts helped me, and maybe they will help you.

  • Home is portable

If you are facing the first of what will be many family-free Christmases, I hope you will learn what I learned.  Home can travel with you.  That first Christmas was rough – we hadn’t made many friends yet, we didn’t speak the language, we hadn’t yet become part of the culture.  But it was our last Christmas without kids – our first daughter was born the following September, which changed everything, including our holidays.  We made friends, got comfortable with the language, and learned to embrace the Christmas traditions of our new home.  Yeah, it became home. We are allowed to have more than one of those.  That surprised me.

  • Jesus gets you

In his book Because of Bethlehem, Max Lucado puts it well: “(Mary) and Joseph were far from home on the night of Jesus’ birth; that was all right. Jesus was even farther from his.” The One whose birth we celebrate knows exactly what it is like to be far from home on Christmas. Hebrews 2 tells us that the humanity of Christ assures us that He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He understands the loneliness that we feel in moments like these.  That matters to me.

So if you are planning for a lonely Christmas in a few days, I hope it helps that you are not alone.  And know that, even if this one is rough, there are more ways than you realize to be home for Christmas.  By next year, I hope you will discover some of them.

And remember, Jesus gets you. You can go to Him with your loneliness, confident that he knows exactly how you feel. That probably won’t replace your family, but it matters.

Merry Christmas.

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