For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘practices

Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.

A full house for our Sausage Supper! I love these folks. (Photo by Ann Swilley)

The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.

The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.

Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.

One of my readings at morning prayer said, "May you experience Jerusalem's goodness your whole life long." (Psalm 128:5, CEB) That is what spiritual disciplines help me do---experience to the presence of God in everyday life, just as I did during my pilgrimage. (Photo of a Jerusalem street, by me.)

Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.

As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.

Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, by Dorothy C. Bass as part of the Practices of Faith Series. Jossey-Bass, 2000, 142 pp.

This was exactly the right book at exactly the right time. I have owned it since 2004 (according to the inscription from my mother). At that time, we had both been doing a lot of reading about the practice of keeping Sabbath, and sharing our favorite books. For some reason, I never got around to reading this one until now. As I began my sabbatical, I desperately needed a resource to help me slow down and be present to this time. Far more than a guidebook to Sabbath-keeping, Dorothy Bass devotes much of this book to simply exploring and explaining how to receive time as a gift, rather than spending our lives judiciously spending, managing or using it.

In the spirit of the book, I did not allow myself to consume it in one day, but divided it up and read it over the course of four days. I wanted to be able to spend time reflecting on each section, instead of just assimilating information. Although it could be read in one sitting or one day, I recommend against it. The book deserves a slow reading.

In sum, Bass attempts to reposition our relationship with time from use to gift.

What we really need is time of a different quality. We need the kind of time that is measured in a yearly round of feasts and fasts, in a life span that begins when a newborn is placed in her parents’ arms, and a day that ends and begins anew as a line of darkness creeps across the edge of the earth. (3)

She then goes on to explore Christian practices that help us cultivate this different kind of time. She examines practices to welcome the day (like morning and evening prayer), to mark the week (keeping a Sabbath day in ways familiar and new), and to follow the rhythm of the Christian year, which enables us to keep company with God’s actions in the past and God’s promises for the future.

I have already written about how this book has impacted my sabbatical journey by helping me to let go of my to-do lists for the remainder of sabbatical. There is another practice Bass suggests that I have already incorporated into my daily life. As we contemplate each day as a gift, she tells the story of a mother who asks her children every night, “Where did you see God today?” That is everything I wish to reclaim in my spiritual life, everything I wish to learn and see in this sabbatical time—the ability to see God in every day, and take time to name it and give thanks for it. Yet it took Bass’ book to give me the right question to ask, and a framework for asking it. Starting three days ago, I began a new journal. Every night, I ask myself the question: “Where did you see God today?” and write it down in a little notebook by my bedside. It is already starting to attune me more deeply to the God-moments of each day, and the practice of writing them down gives me a chance to reflect on them. I can keep prayerfully meditating on God’s presence in the day as I drift off to sleep.

The challenge will come when I complete sabbatical and return to “regular life.” But this practice is one I hope to hold on to, and I hope it will hold me in a spirit of holy time, receiving the working days as easily as the resting ones.

If you struggle to find God in the everyday, if you feel like your life is living you rather than you living your life, if the time is moving too quickly or just seems too full, read this book, and read it slowly. And try out a practice or two to appreciate the gift of time and receive the day.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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