Interview with A.J. Swoboda: Pastor, Professor, and Author

AJ SwobodaDr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and a number of other universities and Bible colleges. Previous to this, A.J. served as a campus pastor at the University of Oregon. His doctoral research at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) explored the never-ending relationship between the Holy Spirit and ecology. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. A.J. is the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way (Kregel), Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology (JPTSup, Deo), and Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic). You can find his website and blog at www.ajswoboda.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.

 

What prompted your desire to start keeping a Sabbath?

I burned out. Nearly ten years ago, I was working as a college pastor. Early on, before we had our child, there were little to no boundaries that forced me (or my wife) to take a weekly Sabbath. Then I snapped. I remember it was a Saturday, and I had worked nearly eighty hours that week. No breaks. No rest. No nothing for weeks. And I woke up late from exhaustion from the night before only to miss a meeting with a student I’d had a scheduled meeting with for months.

She called angry. I felt disgusted with myself. And I almost quit my job.

 With a sense of resolution that only comes about once or twice a decade, my wife and I agreed we needed divine margin in our life. Beginning ten years ago, we started taking one day a week to enjoy God, each other, and really good food and TV shows. Today, we take two days. I wish we could take five.

What have been some of the biggest obstacles or challenges?

There have been many obstacles to a life of sabbath-keeping, but none more than my own addiction to work. I recently read The Truest Thing About You by David Lomas, a pastor in San Fransisco. Lomas brilliantly weaves a breathtaking picture of what it means to be a Christ-follower. His point? There may be true things about me: I am white, I am an American, I’m middle-class, I play basketball, and I like kale. But nothing is truer than who I am—I am God’s Beloved.

As such, sabbath-keeping became my withdrawal from seeing my ministry and my work as the truest thing about myself. Sabbath-keeping, in the end, is the end of capitalism as we know it, for it reorients our life around who we are loved by rather than what we do, how much we make, or anything else.

On countless occasions over the years, I’ve grown depressed on the sabbath because I am not working. I have yearned to answer emails. I have craved being needed.

To sabbath is to protest false identity.

What scripture, community accountability, or practices have helped you overcome these challenges?

There are two practices that have proven time and again to be fruitful, life-giving efforts at sustaining a life of sabbath-keeping. First, we make pancakes on our first Sabbath morning. Years ago, I heard somewhere, there was a Jewish tradition of parents giving their children a spoon of honey on the morning of the sabbath as a way of connecting the sweet love of God to the rest of God. I admit, as a scholar, I can’t find literature on that practice anywhere. But I hold to it anyway.

The first thing we do is make pancakes on the sabbath. I have an agenda when we do this. My son is literally being discipled (as we all are) into the sweet, buttery flavors of God’s rest. I hope that as his tastebuds are connected to Sabbath in some Pavlovian way he will always imagine the rest of God as a sweet thing.

Secondly, I turn off my phone, my computer, and put my beeper and fax machine away. In the Bible, sabbath is not merely for the sabbath-keeper; it is simultaneously for everyone around the person sabbathing—the oxen, the workers, and the land. The closest my church is to actually living out Jesus Christ as its head in the flesh is the one day a week they don’t have a neurotic pastor lording himself over them.

It frees everyone around me to rest in God’s love too.

What, if any, benefits have you noticed in your physical, mental, and spiritual health since you began keeping a Sabbath?

Easy: I’m healthier, happier, and way more able to say “no.” Saying “yes” can be an addiction. Sabbath is my liturgy to remind me that I am not, as a pastor, a giant, massive, sign that says “yes”.

My doctor says my blood pressure has gone down, too. Also, my wife says I’m nicer.

How has Sabbath keeping affected your marriage, your family, and/or your ministry?

People don’t call me as much. This has actually been challenging. But by not constantly being available to answer my calls (particularly on the sabbath) it demands that others step up to the ministerial plate and take responsibility. I’m not the only person who should be caring for the church. A sabbath reminds us all of that.

Frankly, our sex life is better. Not perfect. But better. We laugh more, don’t take each other too seriously, and know how to be together and not feel like we are having to “perform.”

It’s a little bit like we are back in the garden with God. I dunno; I love it.

If you could share one encouragement with others, what would it be?

For me, the question that often gets asked is: what are the benefits? And I can understand what would lead someone to ask such a question. We are, as it has become known, a very pragmatic country. We do stuff as long as there are results.

But a follower of Jesus does not just do something of obedience because of the results. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has ever asked the question of why it is beneficial to pray for your enemies. What are the benefits of being generous?

We do it because God made us to do it.

I would encourage the reader to enter into sabbath a little less skeptical. I guess I’m saying turn off that little pragmatic American brain and just do it.

Often, in God’s Kingdom, the reward of obedience is just that: obedience. We are rewarded with the practice. I believe there are benefits—but starting is hard. Just do it as best as possible.

 

 

 

 

Asbury Seminary’s Sabbath Experience Year A Success

Watch a short video about the Asbury Sabbath Experience

Asbury Theological Seminary just wrapped up its year-long Sabbath Experience. The seminary community deemed it a resounding success.

The year included a variety of facets:

    • September 2014– 24/6 books were distributed to the seminary community at the beginning of the semester. The books were the “all-school book selection title” for the academic year.
    • January 2015- The seminary promoting “Asbury Sabbath Experience” across all media platforms including emails, social media, hall signs, and signs in bathrooms. They encouraged the campus community to register for a Sabbath community group.
    • Ash Wednesday (February) 2015- The seminary launched the Asbury Sabbath Experience in Wednesday Chapel service.
    • Wednesdays during Lent- Each Wednesday Chapel service during Lent featured a different person preaching on Sabbath at Asbury’s Chapel. Many of these services also included Sabbath liturgy.
    • Ash Wednesday through Pentecost Sunday 2015- Sabbath Community Groups met for 14 weeks. These groups of students, staff, faculty, spouses, administrators, and community members all gathered weekly in members’ homes. Most of the meetings centered on a meal. Hosts were given a $20 gift card each week, which they could use to purchase the entrée. Each group attendee was responsible for bringing a side dish to share. Groups also played with their children, played board games, and took walks during the Sabbath community group meeting time. These groups were organic feeling, and they didn’t include any kind of programming. Most groups consisted of 8-15 participants, depending on if members brought children or not.

I have kept Sabbath regularly since coming here 2.5 years ago, but I had never considered practicing Sabbath keeping in the context of community. It has really helped enhance my Sabbath experience to be formed in relationship with others, and it has filled a need in me for fellowship with a colleague and friend without being expected to be a minister/mentor to the person/people I am with. That is not to say that we don’t minister to each other. That is simply to say that ministering runs both ways during this time, and I don’t feel the pressure of being the one in a role of mentor or minister. That, for me, was refreshing and renewing to spend time with someone who is on level ground and doesn’t “need” me in a way that doesn’t reciprocate. – Asbury Community Member

During the Asbury Sabbath Experience of Spring 2015, there were weekly Wednesday Sabbath sermons during the Chapel service.

Watch several of them here:

Dr. Steven Seamands- Rest for your Souls

Dr. Christine Pohl- More than Enough

Rev. Jessica LaGrone- Sabbath Rhythm

Dr. Ellsworth Kalas- The Other Six Days

Several of the Asbury community shared their Sabbath experiences:

David Bauer, Dean, School of Biblical Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY

Marilyn Elliott, Vice President of Community Formation, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY

Karen Foldy, Administrative Assistant, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY

Jo Lew, Masters Student, Asbury Theological Seminary

Jessica LaGrone, Author and Dean of Chapel, Asbury Theological Seminary

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Interview with Tom Sineath, founder and C.E.O of T.S. Desgins

 

What prompted your desire to start keeping a Sabbath? 

Carol and I heard Norman Wirzba speak about Sabbath at a Caring for Creation Conference at Lake Junaluska. We also read Matthew Sleeth’s book 24/6 as soon as it came out. We felt that we had lost something and began our efforts to reclaim it. For about eight years, Sunday dinner has been an open invitation to any of our kids that could make it. Sometimes there are four or five, and sometimes ten or more.

What have been some of the biggest obstacles or challenges?

Work, shopping, travel, and busy schedules spill over into Sundays.

What scripture, community accountability, or practices have helped you overcome these challenges? 

We have only made baby steps. We have led small group studies using the 24/6 book and have been encouraged through many conversations with others. The standing invitation for Sunday dinner has created a time and space we didn’t have before.

What, if any, benefits have you noticed in your physical, mental, and spiritual health since you began keeping a Sabbath?

Setting aside time for family and God helps us bring balance to a life that can be ruled by work and other obligations.

How has Sabbath keeping affected your marriage, your family, and/or your ministry? 

Our children and spouses see that this time together is important to us and has become important to them.
If you could share one encouragement with others, what would it be?

Don’t wait until you can practice Sabbath perfectly. Reclaim it one piece at a time as you are able. Be patient with yourself and keep trying.

 

Tom and Carol church directoryTom Sineath is founder and CEO of T.S. Designs, Inc. Carol Sineath is Coordinator of Congregational Care at Front Street UMC. Tom and Carol have a blended family of five children, three sons-in-law and four grandchildren.