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by Matthew J. Sleeth
by Nancy Sleeth, Managing Director of Blessed Earth
For a long time, a visit to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest has been near the top of Matthew’s bucket list. Named after the WWI veteran who wrote the beloved poem “Trees,” it is one of the largest contiguous tracts of old growth forest in the Eastern United States. It encompasses trees that are over 400 years old and 20 feet in circumference standing 100 feet tall.
So, when I saw that we had a free afternoon during a three-day trip last month, I asked some friends if they’d like to join us for a hike. The forest was about 90 minutes from where we were staying. From the moment we got on the Foothills Parkway, every vista was an affirmation of God’s goodness–mountain overlooks, leaves just beginning to acknowledge the coming change in seasons, and streams interrupted by lively waterfalls.
It was midafternoon by the time we arrived. The four of us chatted while navigating the first half of the hike, pointing out especially large tree specimens to each other and marveling over the girth of the trees. It felt like we were exploring an outdoor cathedral. Walking in the presence of God’s oldest creatures made us feel both small and large at the same time–our lifespan fleeting, our responsibilities as God’s appointed caretakers great.
As soon as we ascended the second half of the figure-eight trail, other hikers became far fewer. We spotted two fallen trees and decided to rest. Our friend suggested that we begin in prayer and then sit in silence for five minutes. As we closed our eyes and listened, the wind picked up. For the first time in my life, I heard a wind approaching. Stronger and stronger, it gathered over the valley and ascended the mountainside. The leaves began ringing, almost like wind chimes. Our five minutes of silent contemplation stretched into ten, then fifteen. No one wanted it to end. The wind died down, and we opened our eyes. We had a long drive back, and a dinner meeting scheduled, so we headed back to the car, our ears still ringing with echoes of our sacred silence.
Over the course of the three-day conference, our friend Boyd Bailey, head of the National Christian Foundation in Georgia, led the morning devotions. Providentially, the topic he chose was silence. Boyd believes that silence is the language of God, and God expects us to be fluent in His language. While no one pats us on the back for being skilled in silence, learning to sit with the Lord in quiet grows our inner strength, sensitivity to the Spirit, and Kingdom perspective invaluably.
After Jesus fed the 5,000, he dismissed all but the twelve and then went to be silent with his Father. As many of us have learned the hard way, BUSY stands for Being Under Satan’s Yoke. Either we manage to have quiet in our lives, or the noise will manage us.
Our fifteen minutes of quiet in the Joyce Kilmer Forest reminds me of Psalm 1. God wants us to be like a tree, with deep roots that reach out for water and hold us firm. No matter what hurricanes or wildfires or floods come our way, we will stand fast in the Lord.
On July 31, I made a decision: For the coming month, I would Sabbath from checking the news.
About a year ago, when the elections were heating up, I fell into the habit of checking three news sources each morning. One of the sources was on the conservative end of the spectrum, one liberal, and one moderate. It was interesting to me to see how the same event could be interpreted through such vastly different lenses.
As the race grew closer and closer, I began checking the headlines twice each day. Every time I thought the news was as crazy as it could get, it grew even more absurd. I told myself–and my husband–that this relatively new obsession was not affecting my emotional or spiritual life, but of course it was. How could such an influx of pessimism and hostility not darken my soul?
When I found myself checking the headlines not once, not twice, but three times a day, I knew I had crossed a line. Enough was enough! I asked for God’s help. Then I embarked on an August experiment.
Even without the angst of 24/7 news, August is usually a hard month for me. Twenty-two years ago, my brother drowned on August 19 in front of our kids. Nearly two decades later, my mom also died on August 19. August is also the month my daughter and mother shared the same birthday, so the entire month is filled with bittersweet memories.
For more than a decade, my family and I have abstained from news on our Sabbaths. It’s one of the many ways our Sabbath is made kadosh (holy), literally set apart. This weekly oasis from headlines always has a calming effect. Imagine what a month without getting swept up in the whirlwind of news could do for my soul?
It turns out, the experiment proved easier than I expected. And better. I assumed I would be tempted to take a peek. Who, besides God and Google, would know?
But I didn’t look (though occasionally I would ask Matthew if the world was still there….) The rewards were tangible and immediate. I have slept better, felt more rested, and worried less about things I have no control over this month than I have in a year.
On September 1, my news sabbatical officially ends. What have I learned? Sufficient unto today are today’s worries. Or, to paraphrase Matthew 6:34, don’t angst about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own trouble.
My sabbatical from daily news reminded me that the only lens that really matters is the Gospel. Jesus gave us the answer to today’s headlines and the angst they stir up in Matthew 6:33: Seek FIRST the King of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.
Dr. Guy Brewer, Director, North Carolina Sabbath Living Initiative
(Guy offers this reflection on the Sabbath Living retreat held on Memorial Day weekend for pastors and clergy of AME Zion Beaufort District and UMC Sound District in North Carolina.)
“Everybody in church was your momma. It didn’t matter where you sat or who you were with. Those church ladies were all in cahoots! They had their eye on you and they would bless you out at the drop of a hat. If need be, they could give you that secret pew pinch, too, if you know what I mean. Dear Lord, I grew up with so many mommas!”
That is how an AME Zion pastor described her memories of Sabbath from childhood. This recollection illustrates what it means to be a Sabbath community. In a Sabbath community, everybody is your momma; people take the term “church family” seriously. In such a community, folks’ lives are closely bound together. They love each other deeply, know each other well, and look out for each other as a mother cares for her own children.
Our experience at the Sabbath Living retreat over Memorial Day weekend was filled with deep love. The retreat began on Friday night with the celebration of a “love feast” in which community members served each other the bread of life and living water with the words, “God loves you and so do I.” What a moving scene. Old persons serving young persons. White folks serving black folks. Tough men with tears in their eyes hugging one another.
Across our three days together, we reflected on how we might live at the pace of grace, how we might make a space for grace in our lives, and how we might find our place of grace in the Body of Christ. As our time drew to a close, folks had the opportunity to come to the altar for anointing with oil. Every person in attendance—fifty-five people—came forward. It was a Holy Spirit moment, a time of healing, reconciliation, and empowerment.
It was hard to leave that place. In three days together, we had come to love one another. How could we say farewell? We joined hands, each person turned to the other, looked in their eyes and said, “God loves you and so do I.”
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This week I’ve been preparing to lead a Lenten day of silence for a nearby church. I know that may sound like an oxymoron: How exactly does one prepare for leading a silent retreat? Well, in this case, the organizers asked me to pick a theme that relates to Lent and then select three meditations, followed by questions that the people attending can contemplate in silence.
The theme I chose is Shabbat Shalom, Sabbath peace. It’s based on a few pages in a book I recently read: The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, by Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager. The authors speak briefly about four kinds of shalom that Jews seek on the Sabbath.
The first is peace within ourselves. The Jewish Sabbath laws are designed to bring peace on earth, a foretaste of heaven, one day each week. This peace must begin with the person we see reflected in our mirror each morning. To promote inner peace, religious Jews don’t use machinery and external sources of entertainment on the Sabbath. All week, we engage with (and are often enslaved by) email, television, Facebook, news, chores, and cell phones. In the quiet that descends on Shabbat eve, we re-learn how to be still and rest in God.
The second source of shalom is peace between people. Turning off external, mechanized sources of noise on our Sabbath produces another bonus: we suddenly have ample time to invest in relationships. One of the nearly universal consequences of Sabbath observance is the strengthening of ties among family and friends. In particular, the Sabbath meal allows time for uninterrupted conversation, with no one rushing off to make a call or keep an appointment. Sabbath is a chance for husbands and wives to reconnect, for children to engage with their parents and each other in a relaxed atmosphere, and for friends to have leisurely conversations and share their hearts.
Third, Sabbath also promotes peace between people and nature. Biblically, the injunctions to offer animals a break on the Sabbath, to give the land a rest every seventh year, and to practice Jubilee principles by not squeezing out every possible penny of profit are Sabbath practices that ensure rest for creation. In practical terms, if every Jew and Christian in the world worshipped on the Sabbath and then came home and didn’t buy anything or drive anywhere the remainder of the day, we could save about 14 percent of our carbon footprint. But even more significantly, by filling the emptiness inside with God rather than nonstop consumption, Sabbath peace flows into our habits the other six days of the week and allows us to stop and value our surroundings.
Last is peace between people and God. All week, we run around trying to fulfill immediate needs and desires. Shabbat is God’s day, when we look beyond the tyranny of the urgent and reflect upon the eternal consequences of our actions. Instead of focusing on my needs and desires, we focus on His generosity and goodness. On Sabbath we are invited to walk out onto the bridge between heaven and earth and meet the Creator of the Universe, the living and ever gracious God.
Which of these four kinds of shalom are you most drawn toward? For the remaining five Sabbaths until Easter, consider focusing on one of these. Then reflect upon the following questions:
- What practices can you eliminate during your remaining Sabbaths before Easter that will promote peace within yourself? No social media? A television fast? A break from the Internet?
- What practices can you add that will promote peace between people? Consider a Sabbath meal with family or friends, or reading a chapter aloud from an inspiring book and discussing it.
- What practices can you add or eliminate that promote peace with nature? Walking around the block and stopping to admire the spring blooms? Not driving anywhere except church? Abstaining from shopping–in stores or on the Internet?
- What practices can you add that will draw you closer to God? Thirty minutes of prayer on your knees sharing a heart of confession, adoration, and thanksgiving with God? Singing the Psalms? Memorizing a piece of scripture that has always delighted you?
from The Temple (1633), by George Herbert
Sunday O Day most calm, most bright, The fruit of this, the next worlds bud, Th’ indorsement of supreme delight, Writ by a friend, and with his bloud; The couch of time; cares balm and bay: The week were dark, but for thy light: Thy torch doth show the way. The other dayes and thou Make up one man; whose face thou art, Knocking at heaven with thy brow: The worky-daies are the back-part; The burden of the week lies there, Making the whole to stoup and bow, Till thy release appeare. Man had straight forward gone To endlesse death: but thou dost pull And turn us round to look on one, Whom, if we were not very dull, We could not choose but look on still; Since there is no place so alone, The which he doth not fill. Sundaies the pillars are, On which heav’ns palace arched lies: The other dayes fill up the spare And hollow room with vanities. They are the fruitfull beds and borders In Gods rich garden: that is bare, Which parts their ranks and orders. The Sundaies of mans life, Thredded together on times string, Make bracelets to adorn the wife Of the eternall glorious King. On Sunday heavens gate stands ope: Blessings are plentifull and rife, More plentifull then hope. This day my Saviour rose, And did inclose this light for his: That, as each beast his manger knows, Man might not of his fodder misse. Christ hath took in this piece of ground, And made a garden there for those Who want herbs for their wound. The rest of our Creation Our great Redeemer did remove With the same shake, which at his passion Did th’ earth and all things with it move. As Sampson bore the doores away, Christs hands, though nail’d, wrought our salvation, And did unhinge that day. The brightnesse of that day We sullied by our foul offence: Wherefore that robe we cast away, Having a new at his expence, Whose drops of bloud paid the full price, That was requir’d to make us gay, And fit for Paradise. Thou art a day of mirth: And where the Week-dayes trail on ground, Thy flight is higher, as thy birth. O let me take thee at the bound, Leaping with thee from sev’n to sev’n, Till that we both, being toss’d from earth, Flie hand in hand to heav’n!