Monday, September 14, 2020

Six Months Ago: Personal Reflections on COVID-19

My phone beeped. A mad succession of pings followed. A group text. I was busy washing a pile of dishes from dinner but stopped to dry my hands and check the thread. So it began.

Tom Hanks has the coronavirus!

Really? Is nothing sacred?

Yep!

The NBA has cancelled their season.

We've been watching this for weeks. It's really coming.

Our vacation to Europe is cancelled.

That sucks!

Time to bunker down and read some books.

That sucks.

Of course, the conversation was laced with GIFs, emojis, and exclamation points!!!! This was Thursday, March 12, 2020. Six months has passed since the day our world changed.

Since COVID-19 rocked American soil, our nation has suffered terribly. A great divide runs down political, racial, and scientific lines. Some call COVID a "scandemic," saying "the numbers don't add up" and prophesying the end of democracy as we know it. They're planning to burn masks. Others cite rising infection rates, death numbers, and unsafe work and educational environments as cause for spikes. They're pinning their hopes on a vaccine.

Add to clamor--hurricanes, wildfires, orange skies, riots, police brutality, politicized sports, unemployment, economic instability, church restrictions, virtual education, mental disease, upcoming election, and domestic abuse--and we have ourselves a glorious mess.

While COVID-19 has not affected everyone to the same degree, it has touched every life in some way. It is, after all, a global pandemic.

For the next eight weeks, I will provide personal reflections on COVID-19. Consider this my personal, pastoral journal of the last six months. I have always viewed journaling as a powerful spiritual discipline. It not only peers into the deep waters of my heart, but also shines light on God's activity in my life. 

COVID-19 did not stop God's work in and through me, my family, and church. Pandemic is powerless in comparison to the Almighty God. He sneezes at pandemic. (Forgive the imagery.)

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Next Week: "The Epic Quarantine of 2020"


 

Monday, September 7, 2020

In Praise of the Trinity: Four Things Paul Said in Ephesians

As I've been preaching through Ephesians, I've appreciated Paul's insistence on the inter-workings of Father, Son, and Spirit. He mentions Trinity* in his opening eulogy, prayer for clarity, and plea for unity in the church. Trinity fills Ephesians with the fullness of God. I wanted to respond in praise.


1. I praise the Triune God for existing in love prior to creation. 
Several times Paul mentions the "beforehand" or "before time" work of the Trinity. "Before creating the world, the Father chose the church (1:4). He hatched the plan to bring all things together by Jesus in eternity past (1:10). Paul learned this "mystery hidden for ages" from the Spirit of God. What drove the Trinity to create and then rescue this cursed world was our Triune God's endless, unconditional, immeasurable love (1:4; 3:18-19). My mind may not be able to comprehend the concept of eternity, election, or the three-in-oneness of God, but I find hope in the notion of the Trinity's everlasting love.  
   
2. I praise the Triune God for working out our salvation.
Each person of the Trinity plays a part in our salvation. The Father authorized our rescue (1:3-6). The Son executed our rescue (1:7-12). The Spirit secures our rescue (1:13-14). We rely on the Spirit's power (1:17-20; 2:22), rest in the Son's presence (2:5), and relish in the Father's plan (1:10; 2:10; 3:9-10). Not only is salvation a gift, but it is bequeathed by all three persons of the Trinity. I praise God for ensuring our faith outlasts our emotional ups-and-downs and spiritual battles (Eph. 6:10-18).

3. I praise the Triune God for inviting us into intercession.
Trinity implies relational engagement: The Father has had two other conversation Partners since eternity past. Some church fathers preferred the metaphor of dance partners, using the term Perichoresis to define the graceful, mutually submissive movements of Father, Son, and Spirit. Prayer is our summons to the dance. As we talk to the Father, the Spirit empowers us and Jesus's presence fills us with love (Eph. 3:14-21). Elsewhere, Paul told us that as we pray to the Father, Jesus mediates and the Spirit intercedes (Rom. 8). I praise God knowing when I enter his presence, I have an active, engaged audience who attends to my needs with personal care that will exceed my expectations.

4. I praise the Triune God for empowering us for reconciliation.
In his most succinct statement of the Trinity, Paul wrote: "For through [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father" (2:18). In the context, Paul has linked the vertical and horizontal dimensions of reconciliation. God brought us close to himself; he wants us to draw near to others. In other words, salvation starts a work of personal transformation overflowing into social change. Individual believers become more like Jesus by abiding in the Spirit (Eph. 4:20-32). We mortify our selfish ways and misplaced loves, adopting an attitude of compassion, purity, and humility. This results in renewed modes of relating to family, Christ-followers, neighbors, and coworkers (Eph. 2:14-22; 5:19-6:9). The Trinity changes us and calls us to mission. I praise the Triune God for sharing the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

We do not create the church. It is. We enter and participate in what is given to us… there is more—far more—to the church than us. There is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… We miss the complexity and glory of church if we insist on measuring and defining it by the parts that we play in it. (Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 121)

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* Paul never used the word "Trinity." Some have used this verbal absence to undermine the doctrine. Of course, many other terms do not show up in Scripture by name: substitutionary atonement, verbal plenary inspiration, inerrancy, incarnation, and Great Commission. A theologian's work is to synthesize material spread across the canon and make sense of it. They trace themes, establish categories, and define terms. We appreciate this type of work in history, literature, and science. We would be foolish to dismiss it in the science of biblical studies.

When church fathers, creeds, and councils reached a settled point in history allowing them to finesse their understanding of Trinity, they were not drafting a doctrine from scratch. Trinity was not an ex nihlo creation, if you will. Rather, these early authors of the doctrine were piecing together traces and theses from Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul. References to Father, Son, and Spirit pervaded the Christian Scriptures. Church fathers, creeds, and counsels simply recognized the teaching and organized its meaning.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

When I Feel Uninspired: Four Pivotal Steps

I'm feeling uninspired right now. I'm going to write about it. This post will either feel like an emotional dump or an insulin shot. You be the judge. Tell me in the comment section.

If I'm honest, inspiration rarely strikes. I'm too busy with checklists and To-Do items. I have 

  • bills to pay, 
  • sermons to prep, 
  • emails to write, 
  • meetings to attend,
  • errands to run,
  • calls to make,
  • practices to oversee,
  • and administrative responsibilities to shirk.
My responsibilities squeeze out space for inspiration. And I suppose you're like me. You don't have the luxury to lean back until a burst of inspiration throws you from your chair into a full sprint. Fortunately, I've stumbled on four pivotal steps to reclaim my least inspired days.

1. Making motivation more important than inspiration will get you moving.

I've learned to distinguish between motivation and inspiration. Motivation internally pushes; inspiration externally pulls. Motivation persists; inspiration comes in bursts. Motivation grows from setting personal goals and showing grit. Inspiration comes unbidden from creation, circumstances, or God's Spirit (see below).

Motivation precedes inspiration. Anders Ericcson, a pioneer in the science of expertise, makes a direct link between exemplary effort and outstanding performances. Inspired athletic performances stem from motivated training. Inspired musical performances flow out of hours of motivated practice. An inspired article, sermon, or story typically comes from countless hours of motivated research, study, editing, and word-crafting. Finding healthy motivators (love, productivity, justice, beauty, personal growth, spiritual impact) will move us toward an inspired life. 

2. Making time for thinking long-term will build endurance.

When I fail to create margin in my schedule, I exhaust my mental capacities. A tired or cluttered mind has little space for inspired thoughts. Hectic schedules more often lead to burnout than breakthroughs. I have recently had to firm up my master calendar to keep my mind fresh and receptive to new ideas.

According to Daniel Pink, most of us respond well to beginnings and endings. Our motivation peaks at the dawn of a new week (#mondaymotivation), month, or year. At least, this is when most people make resolutions or visit the gym. He also observes that people most often register for marathons at the close of a decade (e.g., 29, 39, 49).

Nonetheless, I have routinely made the first Monday of each month as a time to sit before God with my preaching calendar, church directory, and annual goals. This practice has built endurance even in seasons when inspiration has run dry. Finding healthy rhythms will sustain us for an inspired life. 

3. Discover inspiration in doing rather than trying to manufacture it.

Inspiration, as our world conceives it, is overrated. People don't win contests, receive awards, or advance in their career because they were inspired. They excel because they did something. They got moving, made progress, and worked toward completion.

I don't wait for inspiration to run. I lace my shoes, start my watch, and hit the street. Within a mile, my muscles warm and stride quickens into an inspired pace. I don't wait for inspiration to hit before I write. I start typing and eventually the rhythm of my fingers on the keys makes an inspiring melody. Sometimes I even produce something worth reading!

Motion is good for the body and the brain. It heightens our senses. It activates our receptors. It opens us to latent thoughts and buried feelings, new insights and rich connections. Doing leads to discovery. We need not manufacture inspiration at the outset of our efforts; it greets us as we go.

4. Relying on God's Spirit leads to an inspired life. 

The word spirit is buried in the word inspiration. That is intentional. To be "inspired" means to have the spirit "in you" or to be moved along "by the Spirit." Jesus employed this imagery in his conversation with Nicodemus. God grants new life by the Spirit. Like a wind that blows where it wants, the Spirit goes where he will (see John 3). The Spirit/wind (same Greek word) is an external force that moves on and within the redeemed person.

The apostle Paul taught us to pray for inspiration. He implored God to give followers of Jesus the Spirit of wisdom, revelation, and clarity (Ephesians 1:15-19). Inspiration ultimately comes from the Scriptures, which were written, recorded, and preserved by God's Spirit (see 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). Reading Scripture and talking to God put us in touch with the source of divine inspiration. Thus, living an inspired life means keeping in step with the Holy Spirit: denying the flesh, bearing fruit, crucifying myself, and embracing Christian community (Gal. 5:16-6:10). 

Our culture may deem gourmet meals, vivid paintings, moving songs, or compelling lectures as "inspired," but unless the power of the Spirit and ethic of love undergird them, these works are merely impressive. Walking in the Spirit is the surest way to live an inspired life.



Monday, August 10, 2020

When I Feel Depressed: How I Bounce Back

During our statewide "Stay at Home" period, my life took on a predictable cycle. On Monday, my outlook was positive. I packed a lunch and drove to my study, wrote emails and blog posts, made phone calls and plans, watched webinars and researched for my sermon. 

Tuesday and Wednesday I worked from home, fighting distraction and isolation. 

Thursday, I returned to my study-turned-studio, massaged the message, plugged in the equipment, and pressed record. By the end of the sermon, my energies were depleted. Preaching to an empty room felt, well, empty. Knowing that a full day of editing and production loomed, filled me with dread. My Thursday night commute became a gloomy passage home. I was officially depressed.

This is the not the first season that I've felt emotionally depleted and defeated. My early years of college were colored in gray. Other periods of depression have followed disappointment and failure, exhaustion and isolation, suffering and loss.

Although depression is not sinful, neither is it a state I want to dwell in. The following are four ways I have learned to bounce back from felling depressed.

1. Normalizing depression keeps it from metastasizing.

Depression is a common human experience. It ranges from chronic and clinic experiences stirred by chemical imbalance to intermittent disappointment that can take a temporary dive. Everyone feels down sometime. The Psalms capture this, especially considering nearly half of them are laments (e.g., 6, 10, 13).

According to one counselor, depression is a God-given mechanism to help us recover from anxiety, fear, mania, or over-exertion. After running on high alert for too long, our bodies and brains need a way to regain strength and stability. Depression is the downturn. Viewed as a recovery, of sorts, it can play a helpful role in mental health. 

Of course, seasonal or lingering forms of depression may have more to do with personality, temperament, and brain chemistry. They go beyond typical bouts of depression everyone feels and benefit from counseling and medication.

2. Understanding triggers and rhythms prepares me for my lows.

Historically, church outreach events depress me. I'm typically the last one to leave our parking lot after a poorly attended evening. I sit in my car, stare in the void, and grovel. "What's the point?" I moan. Personal confrontation pushes me to a similar state of discouragement.

We all have triggers. Many people feel sad in the winter or around holidays. Some are brought low by large crowds, a difficult person, or a string of lonely days. Depression hits some folks after a vacation, mission trip, conference, or busy season at work. We crash because we're tired or have returned to reality. Suddenly, the bold commitment or brilliant idea feels like a childish dream or mammoth task; the daily grind feels too tedious to bear.

According to a spiritual director, our life with God encompasses high and low moments. In consolation, we feel spiritually vibrant and intimate with God. In desolation, we grasp for God during the "dark night of the soul." Depression is a form of desolation; it teaches us to depend on God despite painful feelings. When viewed from this angle, depression has a redemptive purpose. 

3. Finding friends in the valleys keeps me from crashing alone.

I recently confessed to a friend feeling lonely, left out, and generally down. He invited me to shoot baskets with him. My initial reaction was to graciously deny the pity invite. So I did. He graciously pressed. So I came. Between the physical outlet and personal interaction, my attitude rebounded. 

Why we're compelled to sit alone and lick our wounds when others draw us out is a mystery to me. Isolation does little to lift us from an emotional pit. We all need friends in the valley. They can bear our burdens, hear our laments, cheer our spirits, and get us moving. Friends aren't required to serve as curbside counselors. They provide, perhaps, a more crucial role in our depression: companionship. 

Jesus offers such companionship. Not only does he know our valleys with vivid detail, he prays for us and empathizes with our pain (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 4:14-16). Furthermore, his promise never to leave or forsake us applies even to our most desolate moments (Matt. 28:20). One of the clearest ways he shows himself is in the company of good Christian friends.

4. Naming the good helps me dispel my gloomy thoughts.

Gratitude research is booming. Positive psychologists have marked its numerous gains: 

  • better relationships, spiritual awareness, moods, heart health, and life satisfaction; 
  • less stress, anxiety, depression, addictions, and materialism (McMinn, Science of Virtue, 78). 
The research aligns with a core refrain in Scripture: always give thanks (Phil. 4:6; 1 Thes. 5:18; 1 Tim. 4:4).

The reason for gratitude is obvious: God fills life with good things. Every good gift -- from a choice parking spot at the store to an unexpected check in the mail to a gentle summer breeze to a forty-fifth anniversary  -- comes from our Father in Heaven (James 1:17). 

Keeping a gratitude journal has forced me to name the good each day. The last five months have not been easy. Church is weird. Politics are rancorous. Masks are stuffy. Information is murky. Racism lingers. Safety is elusive. Kids are bored. Division swells. If these factors steal my focus, I'll begin to slide. Naming the good keeps my mind set on God above, who is good, who continues to work, even in these dark days.

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Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

NOTE: I am a pastor, not a clinical counselor. Moreover, my personal temperament is optimistic. I stand behind the value of these principles as biblical and practical helps, while recognizing that bouncing back is not quick, easy, or hardwired into certain temperaments.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

When I Feel Shame: How I've Learned to Lift Up My Head

After my mother-in-law's memorial service, I stood in a line with family members to greet guests. One of them, a former pastor of mine, commented on my eulogy. "Outstanding," he said.

I looked at my feet and murmured, "Thanks."

As much as I love a compliment, I have often found them hard to receive. Criticism is the same. I look down and mumble. I demur.

The pastor persisted. "Don't look down. Lift your head. It really was exceptional." He proceeded down the reception line, offering condolences and shaking hands. (We used to do that.) Seven years later, his admonition to lift my head still rings in my ears.

What I felt in that moment was something akin to embarrassment. Shame is the more precise word. A sense of unworthiness wriggled within me. I felt undeserving of the compliment. Perhaps the pastor was delusional. Perhaps he made a trade of funeral flattery. Perhaps the somber moment and reflective context inflated everyone's words. Whatever the reason, my mind could not accept the affirmation. Shame made it hard to lift my head.
*Photo by Filbert Mangundap on Unsplash
I have wrestled shame throughout my life. We all have. Shame is that toxic companion that won't leave you alone. In a nagging voice, it calls us by false names. "Loser. Failure. Slut. Homo. Hypocrite. Liar. Moron..." Shame combines low self-image with others' criticisms, creating a distorted projection of ourselves. We become our worst moment, biggest lie, most public failure, and greatest fear. In a word, we become worthless.

Fortunately, I am learning to lift my head. The following four ways are releasing the weight of shame and providing a biblical sense of worth.

1. I am learning to distinguish between doing and identity to lessen shame.
Jesus reveals a tension in his teaching about trees and their fruit. Good trees bear good fruit. Bad trees bear bad fruit. In other words, the root--good or bad--determines the fruit. Thus, I might infer after a bad day of course jesting, rude gestures, bitter complaining, and gluttonous snacking that I am bad. Only a bad dude could be so crude, right? Wrong.

We all have surly days and weeks, angry hours and moments. Scripture calls this "the flesh." Shame wants to define us by the deeds of the flesh. "You do, therefore you are," shame says. God says, "You're not condemned but forgiven. You're not pathetic but in process. You're not miserable but mine. So lift your head."

2. I am learning ignore the faceless, nameless masses who shame for sport.
Early in the pandemic, I averted the eyes of masked faces in grocery stores. I was unmasked but not unashamed. I felt uneasy in my resistance, unconvinced by the science, and judged by the covered faces. Once I started "masking up" in public, the feelings remained because the nameless, naked faces scrutinized me. Or so it seemed. I have the tendency to project my insecurities on others.

There are, however, people who shame for sport. They call out your misquotes in a sermon. They talk about your typos to others. They use the "rate and review" option as an opportunity to rant. They spew negativity. They wax critical. They point fingers, hunt witches, start boycotts, and leverage social media like a lethal weapon. These people exist, but they are not my concern. I am a pastor; I serve the named who have faces. Building their faith, not a digital following, is my goal.

3. I am learning to accept constructive criticism and genuine compliments.
I won't lie: I like the stock phrase "Good sermon, Pastor." Most Sundays I hear it once or twice. When I drive home and meet my family for lunch, I hope to hear it again from my wife. (Her version is this: "You were spot on this morning." She doesn't call me 'Pastor.') 

Here's another truth: Sometimes I think I'm pretty awesome. I believe my own press. In a recent meeting with a spiritual director, I actually said, "I wish people know how great I really am."

Then lightening struck. Then my live stream stopped. Then my joke bombed. Then my COVID-19 response plan proved brittle. Then my tooth fell out. (All of this is true; I'm just not sure where the lightening struck.)

Shame makes us fear others. It prohibits us from receiving their compliments or criticism. God has given others to us (and us to others) to encourage, reprove, and refine us. Spiritual growth, our crawl toward glory, does not happen alone. We need others' constructive criticism and genuine compliments to drown out the menacing voice of shame. It starts with this: "Good post, Blogger."

4. I am learning to lean into the weight of glory for which God is preparing me.
Shame amplifies the voice of others. This can be paralyzing. I once avoided a part of town for half a year because of a shameful moment I experienced at the site. The mob echoed in my head for months. According to psychiatrist, Curt Johnson, 
Fortunately, neither my inner voice nor the public echo chamber gets the last word on my true identity. Jesus willingly bore shame to secure my new name as his brother and God's son (Hebrews 2:11; 12:2). When I face my Heavenly Father, Jesus will stand as my advocate, saying, "I'm with him. My righteousness is his. My honor is his. My glory is his." (1 John 2:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:29-31). The feeling of shame is temporary; the hope of the gospel is shameless (Rom. 1:16; 5:5; 9:33). When I apprehend my glorious, God-given identity in Christ, I lift my head high.

You may lift yours, as well, fellow believer. Christ face shines upon you.



NOTES:

This blog was written in conjunction with a The Shame Game devotional prepared for 212MediaStudios. To view full PPT, click here.



Tuesday, July 21, 2020

When I Feel Envious: Four Ways to Make Way for Contentment

I remember standing on the edge of small talk at a small group gathering a few years ago. I had a hard time breaking in. The men clustered around a play set in the backyard talking shop: house projects, car maintenance, side jobs, and vacation plans. I couldn't relate to any of it. I break things in my house. I take my car to a mechanic. My latest side job was a speaking gig to a kids' soccer camp where I was paid with a free shirt. As for vacations: Does a trip to Chick-fil-A in Fort Wayne, IN count? (The apostle Paul said, "Certainly not!')

I remember kicking blades of grass and feeling the same shade: green. Envious.
To clarify, I didn't want their vacations or jobs or tendency to spend the whole weekend with an oil pan or miter saw. I didn't envy their stuff, only their capacity. All the men around me seemed to have more skill or opportunity than I did. My claim to fame was the ability to alliterate always. (I call it the AAA of Pastoral Persuasion; AAAPP, for short).

Envy extended beyond the men in my small group. I found myself feeling envious around...
  • parents who send their kids to sports camps;
  • pastors who headlined at leadership conferences;
  • in-laws on social media with a glut of followers;
  • college classmates who could afford new cars--especially minivans.
Again, I didn't envy their stuff, only their capacity. This green feeling felt gross. It squelched gratitude. It bred discontentment. I've had to learn to put an end to envy. The following four ways have helped me make way for contentment.

1. Giving my envy a name helps tame it.
Envy is a destructive sin. Philosopher Peter Kreeft (Back to Virtue, 122) calls envy the only sin that gives no pleasure or satisfaction to the sinner. It says, "If I can't have it, you shouldn't either." Like a petulant child, envy wants every X-Box broken rather than being without one. It views life through a lens of scarcity.

Furthermore, the apostle Paul calls envy "idolatry" (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Envy turns material goods into merciless gods that will inevitably destroy us and our relationships. If this sounds extreme, consider the following:
  • Envy of another's social media influence may provoke me to develop a false online persona I confuse for my real self.
  • Envy of another's career impact may lure me into making compromises in my work ethic and reporting.
  • Envy of another's well-furnished home may tempt me into ill-advised purchases.
  • Envy of another's perfect marriage may plant seeds of resentment toward my spouse.
  • Envy of another's physique may lead me to disparage my own body.
When I begin to name this sin in my own heart, it helps me tame the green beast before it destroys me.

2. Avoiding comparisons eases my competitive spirit.
I am a competitive person. I like to excel, win, and prove my competency. If fact, frustration erupts when my incompetency is exposed. In an official race, contest, challenge or game, a competitive spirit can be a real gift. However, treating all of life like a competition gets ugly fast. Others become obstacles to overcome or competitors to crush. I judge myself against them. Comparisons abound. I notice my losses. I celebrate my gains.
+ I spend more time with my family than Bob. - I make less money than Brian.
+ I am thinner than Rich. - I have less facial hair than Randy.
+ I can cite the Bible better than Dave. - I can't sing or play music like Dylan.
Envy enhances the competitive spirit, making every comparison a contest. To ease this internal battle, I often cite Andy Stanley's pity phrase: In comparison, no one wins.

3. Appreciating others keeps my envy from making enemies.
In fact, I have learned to go a step further than easing competition. I want to appreciate others. Rather than envy a friend's handyman skills, I want to appreciate his craftsmanship, attention to detail, and acuity with power tools. Rather than envy a fellow pastor's larger church, I want to appreciate his ability to navigate organizational complexity and vision-casting. Rather than envy a neighbor's regular weekend retreats to the family lake house, I want to appreciate his opportunity for hospitality. (I would really appreciate him if he invited me to join him next Saturday!)

4. Naming my gifts makes me grateful.
Finally, when I take inventory of all the goods God has given me, I cannot help but feel grateful. Gratitude is the antidote to envy. Counting our blessings builds contentment. God gives and gives and gives galore. He provides daily bread, family and friend, opportunities for impact, purpose and protection, and eternal salvation. I overlook the generosity of God when my envious eye wanders to the capacity of others. However, when my eyes remain fixed on God -- the giver of every good gift (James 1:17) -- I find my heart's true Treasure. He is enough. More than enough. When we learn this secret, we can do all things (Phil. 4:13).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

When I Feel Restless: Four Ways to Calm My Heart

I'm coming off a good weekend. I rested. I relaxed. I remained present.

Some weekends, I cannot sit still, attend others, or calm my heart. I can hear Jesus say, "Timothy, Timothy, you are worried and bothered by so many things." He doesn't need to list them; the stresses and obsessions beat in my chest:
  • my sermon and Sunday morning needs
  • my bank account and budget
  • recent texts and missed phone calls
  • that recurring calf cramp and tender Achilles
  • a mirthless heat wave and relentless churn of the AC unit
  • vulnerable people and racial tensions
  • COVID-19 surges, school openings, and face masks
  • my wife's anxiety; my daughters' faith; my son's shame
  • the monotony of the new normal
By the time Thursday evening rolls around, I want to take off my shoes, crawl in the hammock, and bury my face in a good book. I want sabbath. Life unburdened my problems and the world's woes.
But this is pseudo-sabbath. According to Scripture, sabbath is not only withdraw, but also embrace. Sabbath includes God and others. It replaces work with worship and labor with play.* Sabbath establishes barriers around my need to produce, solve, fix, and do, which can result in preoccupation, worry, idolatry, and distraction. Instead, sabbath invites me to slow down, attend, delight, and waste time. Sabbath turns my focus from What-I-Need-To-Do to What-God-Has-Done-and-Is-Doing.

Even though I know this about sabbath, every week I have to retrain my restless heart. By Thursday evening, worry and bother have worked up a formidable pounding in my chest. Fortunately, I have learned the following four practices to invite Jesus's calm into my heart.

1. Keeping Thursdays consistent prepares my heart for rest.
My work week concludes on Thursday. I finish my sermon, tidy my office, schedule my emails, follow up with those serving on Sunday, and pray on the drive home. Thursdays I limit my meetings and lunches with others. Thursdays I fast from media, mindless snacking, and general study. Thursdays I hone my focus so I can go home free from worry and bother. This is great preparation for sabbath, which requires the practice of saying NO to nonessential labor.

2. Treating my body (well) rewards my heart.
My body rarely lets me sleep in. Fridays are the exception. I wake to the smell of coffee and songs of sparrows. The day begins with no rush and little agenda. On Friday my "essential" responsibilities are minimal: some cooking, school drop off, writing checks, and one or two clean up projects. These tasks engage my body; I do them leisurely. My wife and I take a walk on Fridays, adopting Eugene and Jan Peterson's practice. We watch for sandhill cranes and bluebirds; we share our recent laments and concerns. Later, we read fiction and take naps. On Fridays, I consume food and beverage that tastes good without counting calories or planning ways to work them off.

3. Limiting my time online buffers my heart from distraction.
Online distractions interrupt my flow during the work week. Social media feeds and urgent texts cause me undue stress. I cannot escape the latest report of COVID-19 wreaking havoc on our country. I have to craft another careful response to an upset church member. I receive another detailed email. Online access stretches me thin. It flattens the world before me. It shouts in my face. It deceives me into thinking I can be everywhere all the time. This modern form of idolatry makes me restless. So when I observe sabbath, I set my phone aside and keep my computer shut. Limiting online time helps me remember God rules the day; he alone is everywhere all the time.
 
4. Being present during sabbath brings my heart rest.
Multitasking is a myth. I cannot do any two things well with precision or focus. I recently tried to listen to a lecture on listening while taking a shower and shaving. I missed half of the talk at the expense of a smooth face. Apparently, looking good matters more than listening well. Being distracted or preoccupied comes naturally to me. I'm constantly scanning the environment for sermon illustrations or clues to a murder mystery. Sunday's message plays on a loop in my mind. I get weary. Being present, however, counteracts this background noise. In the evenings, on the weekends, or sitting one-on-one with others, I call my attention forward. I set my phone down. I slow down and settle. I lock eyes, lean in, and tune in with my whole body. "Help me be present, Lord," I often pray. Presence prioritizes people over problems. God made us for relationship to him and others. Tomorrow's problems will take care of themselves (Matthew 6:34).