Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sabbath and Silence

 One of my New Year's resolutions was to slow down, so this video got my attention. I'm facilitating a study of Richard Foster's Freedom of Simplicity, and as I've been reading in preparation for each week's discussion, I am sensing a connection between simplicity, singleness of purpose and slowing down.

The deeper I dig into spirituality and simplicity, the more counter-cultural I find Christianity to be. In Freedom of Simplicity, Foster observes that if we practice Sabbath, it goes against our urges to get ahead, be productive and provide for our own futures. The discipline of Sabbath leads us, if faithfully practiced, to recognize that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions or promotions or productive actions. Life is only found in our obedience to God and in the recognition that our God who loves us provides all that we need. As we detach from our culture's ravenous pursuit of status and possessions and power, we can learn to be content with what we have, to enjoy all that God has already given us in creation (including relationships), and we become more aware of the needs of others and thus, more compassionate. We then finally begin to live what we pray in the Lord's Prayer: thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as in heaven.

Silence is the complement to Sabbath, because silence causes us to learn to quiet our minds. It is the inner manifestation of Sabbath, for if all we do is cease actual activity, our minds are likely to work overtime to make up for the lack of external busyness. In my own experience, without the discipline of contemplative prayer, I shift into thinking about what I will do when I am no longer practicing Sabbath. Silence is Sabbath for my mind.

Ironically, these disciplines are likely the most difficult for us to practice in our American society. When I've suggested dependence on God's provision, I've received sometimes angry protests. I understand, because I struggle to be dependent on God and find it difficult to reconcile productivity and dependence. It seems to me that we are often unwilling to accept that who we are is not defined by what we do, that, in fact, anything we do, for it to actually glorify God, has to arise out of who we are. And we cannot know who we are at the pace we live our lives. We can only discover who we are through the faithful, regular practices of Sabbath and silence.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Modern Manna

Last night, our pastor, Tommy Mason, began a Bible study entitled “Generous Living.” His primary Scripture reference was Luke 3:1-15, which tells of the work of John the Baptist. After John tells the people they need to change their ways, three different groups of people ask him, “What then should we do?” To the first group, the crowds, John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” The second group is the tax collectors, to whom John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers are the third group, and John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Tommy pointed out that when people asked John how to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” John’s responses consistently addressed possessions. As I looked at the three responses John gave, I also noticed that they also focused on sufficiency of possessions. People were not to hold onto more than they needed.

St. Basil the Great takes John’s words and makes them even more pointed:
“The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry;
the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked;
the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot;
the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor;
the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”

For me, the way God provided manna to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years is the best example of how we should handle our possessions. When God provided the manna, he told the people to collect what they needed for that day, not any more, unless it was the day before the Sabbath, when they were to collect enough for the current day and the Sabbath. Of course, people didn’t follow instructions, and some collected more than they could eat in the one day. The following day, when they awoke, the amount they had laid aside for the future had spoiled and was full of maggots. God did not honor their planning for the future, which really was hoarding.

I wonder if our possessions putrefy our souls in the same way the manna did. When we possess more than we need, when we go from living with an attitude of sufficiency and contentment to purchasing more than we need and holding onto assets for the future, our priorities shift from God to our “manna.” We have to store it, maintain it and invest it and in the process, we put our faith in it instead of God.  We pray “give us this day our daily bread” but we live as if we do not trust God to provide bread for today, tomorrow or the next day.

What is the manna I hoard? What is the excess I cling to while others have nothing? How can I live faithfully with possessions in the state with the third highest poverty rate (Georgia)? These are questions I am asking myself. I am not sure I will be comfortable with the answers, but faithful living means I cannot avoid them.