As I began to prepare for this blog post, I had just come out of a staff meeting where everyone was sharing how they were gearing up for fall. There was a lot of energy. Our first big season of ministry on this side of COVID. Everyone was ready to go! I was leading the devotion that morning. My devotion was about paying attention to the spiritual rhythm in our lives in the midst of all of this bustle and activity… because once the floodgates open, and life becomes crazy, it’s really hard to establish a routine of rest and self-care and prayer if we don’t have it already.
The pace of life just feeds on itself… and if we’re not careful, we end up planning and doing only out of our own strength, our own wisdom, and our own capacity… All of which are limited and finite.
We need a rhythm that gives space for our relationship with God – to be reminded that we are not what we do. A place in our schedule to rest in the truth that we are loved and accepted as we are. Space for our ability to hear God, to change course if necessary, to not just be carried along by momentum, but to notice the holy moments we are in. A rhythm that allows our ministries to be a response to what God is doing and who and how God is calling us to be.
A peace and a quiet fell over the room as we took a deep, collective breath, pondering silently what that might mean for each of us.
As soon as we were done our pastor responded. Pay attention to this… because the train is leaving the station right now and it’s going to be 100 mph from now til Christmas!
We all live in the tension of Putting our Foot on the Gas and trying to keep our tanks from becoming empty…
The irony for me is that – the day of that staff meeting – it had not been very long – just a couple of months – since I had returned from sabbatical – where I had wrestled with these very challenges of rhythm and balance.
A few years ago, I was on a mission trip in South Africa, and the local pastor told our team a story (which I’ve heard told other places since) of a missionary around the turn of the century, traveling through the jungle, anxious to get to his new post and begin the work to which God had called him. Two local tribesmen traveled with him as guides, helping to navigate the unfamiliar and dangerous terrain; a third man served as an interpreter.
Determined to get where he was going as quickly as possible, the missionary pushed the team to travel at a relentless pace for days, until one morning, his guides sat down and refused to move. The missionary tried to prod them along, to convey the urgency of his work and of getting to where they were going. But still, they refused. Finally, he asked the translator to find out why they would not get up.
One of the men replied, “We must sit here, and wait for our spirits to catch up to our bodies.”
Have you ever felt that way? Where your body and your work and ministry have gotten way ahead of you, taken on a life of their own. … and your spirit is longing for rest. To breathe deeply. That’s how I was feeling going into my sabbatical. What I was longing for. For my spirit to catch up to my body.
Sometimes momentum and routine in our life just carry us along. The pace feeds on itself and we stop and think – we don’t even know how we got here. We get ahead of ourselves, ahead of God.
So the focus of my sabbatical was to let my spirit catch up to my body. My theme was Walk with Me. It is Jesus’ call to each of us. And it was my prayer for this time.
I wanted to walk at God’s pace, not my own.
There’s a great book called, The Three Mile an Hour God. Three miles an hour is the average pace that a person walks. And so the author contends that “3 miles an hour is the speed of love, because it is the pace of God walking beside of us”.
I wanted to walk at God’s pace and rediscover God’s rhythm in my life and ministry.
And so walking anchored my sabbatical. Particularly a weeklong 100 km walk on the last section of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury England to St. Peter’s Square in Rome. And also a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
I walked labyrinths of all shapes and sizes. I walked around medieval towns, across ancient bridges and ruins, in urban parks with crowds of people, and in forests and hazelnut groves without a sole around. I even managed to accidentally walk my way into a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
I chose walking for my sabbatical because walking as a spiritual practice helps us to empty and let go of all that clutters our minds and our heart and our life. Physically, mentally and spiritually – walking opens up space in our normal routine to encounter God
To be refilled with hope and discovery, imagination, clarity, and strength.
Because when you walk – intentionally, mindfully – you see things differently
You move more slowly, more deliberately
You notice your surroundings
Your thoughts have a chance to wander – if you let them – and somehow in that freedom of wandering they land exactly where you didn’t know you needed them to be.
In walking You remember that you are a small part of something much bigger – something you do not get to control but get to experience and enjoy. The anchoring grace that God is God.
You gain a knowing in your body of God’s presence. A sense of what incarnation is all about.
Walking at the speed of love.
It was a month into my sabbatical before the thoughts in my head began to detangle… fall away… and create space in my mind for something new and fresh and free – that wasn’t just me trying harder to think differently.
It was a month before I stopped waking up at night in a panic – that something had fallen through the cracks or needed to be done. People or projects that needed tending…
It was a month into my sabbatical before I genuinely felt at rest.
How often do you feel at rest? Not just ‘not tired’ – but at rest.
The greatest lesson of my sabbatical… is how desperately we need to Stop. How desperately we need a healthy rhythm in our lives. God has wired us for that. The rhythm of breathing in and out… of sleeping and waking, of creation and sabbath, of work and rest.
Instead, we go and go and go… but we rarely stop. The word sabbath literally means to Stop.
It is like we are always inhaling but never exhaling. Like there is always noise and never silence. Mozart said – it’s the silence between the notes that makes it music. Without punctuation and pausing, life is just a run-on sentence.
We need to learn how to stop… to be still… to be quiet… regularly… Daily… Weekly
I am convinced that if I had been practicing a better sabbath rhythm in my life before the sabbatical, it would not have taken a month for me to learn how to breathe deeply and freely again.
And most of us don’t get the luxury of a month to figure that out.
I have not yet made my way to incorporating a full 24-hour sabbath practice into my life, but there are some sabbath rhythms I have learned along the way that I would commend to you.
Some of them are daily. Some of them are weekly. You may already have practices of your own. This isn’t a call to do more. Less is more in this case. But it is about being intentional in creating a consistent rhythm of rest in your life.
- My number one practice is Centering Prayer.
Centering Prayer has pretty much saved my emotional and spiritual life. – 5 minutes, 10 minutes – sitting silently before God. For those who like to get things done, centering prayer can feel like a colossal waste of time. Nothing happens… And that is exactly the point. Centering prayer is a reminder that we come before God with nothing. That we are welcomed and received because of who God is and because of who we are to God. Not because of what we do or don’t do. Not with any eloquent prayers on our lips.
We are the beloved of God. Made in God’s image. That is our identity. That is the most important thing about us. That is what will be true at the end of each day, no matter what goes well or what goes badly. Centering Prayer is a discipline of embodying what is true but what we often choose to forget. We are empty before God and we are loved beyond our ability to comprehend it.
2. Another practice is The Daily Office – or Praying the Hours. One of the highlights of my sabbatical was returning to St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota for a week and praying the liturgy with the Benedictine community there. If I’m honest, I would have never thought going to church four times a day for a week would be a highlight of my sabbatical, but it was exactly what I needed. When the Abbey bells ring, the community is called to prayer. It is a deep reminder to me that I am called to order my life around God, not squeeze God into the chaos of my day.
Most of us don’t live or work in communities where physically praying the hours with others is a practical option. But there is an app that I use – It’s called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. It is a take on the Book of Common Prayer written by Shaine Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove. The app sends a notification for Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, and Evening Prayer and opens to the appropriate liturgy for that day. I’ll admit, as much as praying the hours is a part of my desired sabbath rhythm, I am still surprised most days when the notification goes off. Life is busy and crazy. The app helps me to remember what is most important, to order my life around God, no matter what is happening around me.
Another practice is one I call the 5 Minute Sabbatical – You can call this Daily Office Lite. But it still functions well as a reminder of ordering my life around God. For a few years, I set my watch alarm to go off at noon. When it would go off I would stop what I was doing – to the extent that was possible; or do it very soon thereafter – and just sit in stillness and silence for 5 minutes. I would also set the timer on my watch for 5 minutes because we grossly overestimate how much time has passed when we are sitting in silence. I would sit in silence and be received by God. Often I would do an examen of my morning and thank God for what had come my way, confess what I would like to have done differently, and pray for God’s guidance and direction for whatever was coming up that afternoon.
The 5-minute sabbatical is a way of remembering whose day this really is, whose business I am really trying to be about, and whose wisdom, strength, and direction I need the most.
These sabbath rhythms are not focused on study or learning or even interceding for others. They are about intentionally stopping and resting and being – with regularity, with intention, and with humility.
When it comes to weekly rhythms, there are wonderful resources available about practicing a traditional sabbath day. I long to work my way more fully in that direction. Because all of my orthodox Jewish friends who have never known a time without Sabbath, without stopping every Friday at sundown, they would tell you that sabbath is an absolute gift – of life, of community, or trust, of rest.
One resource that I like a lot is from Practicing the Way. It is a wonderful spiritual formation ministry. You can find their sabbath practice material at Practicing the Way.org.
I know that the practice of a full-day sabbath can feel overwhelming or out of reach. I am there too. I always tell people to pray with what they have, not what they don’t have. Sabbath rhythm is about regularity. Rhythm. Better to consistently stop and rest and delight for a couple of hours every Saturday than to take a day once every six months.
Do what you can do; don’t fret over what you can’t. <>
And, given my sabbatical journey, I do commend to you the spiritual practice of walking.
Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your sanctuary. Walk around your church. Walk intentionally, not just to get somewhere, but as a discipline to go slower, to notice more, to enjoy what God has created, to walk at the speed of love.
We all have a rhythm to our life. Intentionally or unintentionally. Some rhythms bring life and some rhythms drain it. The question is really, What do you want the rhythm of your life to be?
The other great lesson of the sabbatical for me is that life is always lived in the tension between opposites. And that paying attention to some of these can help us to recognize, in real-time, whether the rhythm and pace of our lives need some adjusting.
The Tension of Busy vs. Full –
How are you doing? – I’m really busy. I was challenged once when I gave that answer, I’m really busy, with – But is your life full? Being busy isn’t bad if it is accomplishing something if it is taking us somewhere we long to go if it brings meaning to our day. Is your life full?
We all know what busy calendars feel like. Work vs. Busy work. My daughter is an unpaid intern. She complains a lot about busy work. The stuff that keeps us moving but doesn’t really seem to matter for much.
There will always be some measure of busyness in our lives. Are we paying attention to all of our activities? Does it lead to fullness? To abundant life?
Another Tension is Emptying out vs. Filling up
If you’ve ever had to say – I won’t buy one more pair of shoes until I get rid of a pair – because your closet is full of shoes – some that you haven’t worn in years… this tension fits into that category.
Emptying out vs. Filling up
For anyone who has asthma, you know that mystery of breathing in but struggling mightily to breathe back out again. Struggling o exhale. It hardly seems possible to inhale deeply and exhale but a whisper. Where does the air go? It fills us, little by little until we are suffocating on the very thing that gives us life. Holding our breath.
Whether it’s holding on to activities or programs or ideas or stuff – If we never let go, we will always be weighted down. If we never exhale, we will suffocate on the very breath that brings us life. We need to create space for God to do a new thing in us.
There is the tension of Savoring vs. Consuming – I will confess, I ate my way through my sabbatical. It was fantastic.
We consume experiences, relationships, and food. Doing. Taking. We simply consume it and move on to the next thing. I did a Bible study several years ago on savoring each day – whatever it holds… It is a gift. A gift of the present moment. A gift that we too often take for granted – people, opportunities…
Are you savoring your life or are you consuming it?
There is the tension of the Holy vs. the Ordinary – Sometimes the holy and the ordinary are not always what we expect. If I’m honest I tried to create holy moments during my sabbatical. I visited dozens of churches. And they were all beautiful and moving in very different ways – from the ornate to the simple, from the crowded to the empty. At St. Bart’s in NYC, there was scaffolding and workmen hammering away in the sanctuary. I tried to reflect theologically that we are all under construction, that we are all holy works in progress… But it was a stretch at that moment I so wanted to feel holy.
And yet one of the holiest moments for me was standing in line outside of a pharmacy in a small rural town along the Via Francigena. No one spoke English and we desperately needed bandages for our feet. My Italian was weak… but I overheard a woman who had been looking at Wes and I turn to her friend and tell her – they were going to see Papi – the Pope. And that encounter just opened my soul. We were in pain at that particular moment… but we were going to see Papi – Papa – Abba, Father. The words were so simple, but they renewed my spirit.
BE OPEN Be Expectant We don’t always know what moments will be holy and which ones are simply ordinary.
There is the tension of Alone vs. Together – The Via was the longest walk on my sabbatical. For about 66 miles my husband and I walked as pilgrims through medieval towns, and olive groves, through parks where wild boar and horses and sheep roam free.
People make Pilgrimages for different reasons. Some are hoping to dream a new dream. Some are seeking discernment. Some just want to clear their head and test their limits.
The Via is not as popular as the Camino. But there were a handful of folks that we were on a similar schedule with and would bump into them along the way, hiking or stopping for lunch.
We kept running into a retired professor from New Hampshire. Ron. He had started in Switzerland a good two weeks before we got on the trail. It is encouraging to see people when you’re walking alone. To have support. To hear their stories and to get to tell your own. To share a similar experience – with all of the adventure and the challenges that it contains.
Alone/Together. A lot of church is being alone together. There is soul work that only we can do for ourselves, but how much better when we do it alone/together? When we encourage one another and share our stories along the way. It is the balancing of the individual and the group; the Balance of Solitude and community. Alone/Together.
And finally, the tension of Awe vs. Familiarity – The Guesthouse at St. John’s Abbey has a wall of windows on one entire side of the building that overlooks the lake and the forest that surrounds the lake. It is spectacular. Whether I was walking through the front door of the guest house or into my room, it simply took my breath away every single day.
I mentioned this to Fr. Cyril who runs the Guesthouse. He agreed that it was beautiful. But he also confessed, “Some days I just come into work… and I don’t notice it.”
God is making all things new all around us. but Some days we just come to work, don’t we?
Routine can breed familiarity. We can miss the awe of what is right in front of us. How do you see your people? Your Church? Your community? Where or when do you experience awe?
- Busy or Full
- Emptying Out or Filling up
- Savoring or Consuming
- Holy or Ordinary
- Alone or Together
- Awe or Familiarity
If we pay attention to these tensions in our lives, they will help us know when the rhythm of our lives is moving too fast; if we are putting our foot down too hard on the pedal… or we if our tank is running on empty.