A person once asked me, “Are you a practicing Christian?” The question took me aback for a moment. To me there wasn’t any other kind, But then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s right. I am practicing. I haven’t mastered this yet.’
I was reminded of that brief encounter when I started to read Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath. She begins her reflections on Jewish spiritual practices by saying:
“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judaism suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.)
…Madeline L’Engle once likened spiritual practice to piano etudes: You do not necessarily enjoy the etudes— you want to skip right ahead to the sonatas and concertos—but if you don’t work through the etudes you will arrive at the sonatas and not know what to do. So, too, with the spiritual life. It’s not all about mountaintops. Mostly it’s about training so that you’ll know the mountaintop for what it is when you get there.
Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians.”
Given the title of Winner’s book, it’s not surprising that the first discipline she focuses on is the Sabbath. As I read her description of Jewish Sabbath practices, I realized that the Deep Sabbath I wrote about a few months ago is actually the regular Sabbath. Oops. It’s not a once-a-year activity.
Every week, with no exceptions, observant Jews set aside a day and obey the fourth commandment. They light Sabbath candles at sundown and for 24 hours, they cease from all manner of work. The Hebrew verb ‘Shabbat’ means to cease, and that includes lighting fires [no cooking, no turning on lights], and shopping.
When I was working full-time for a publishing company and living a maxed-out life, I decided one year to stop doing laundry and grocery shopping on Sundays. It was a rather radical step, but I was surprised how easy it was to work those activities into the rest of the week.
Now I face other, more subtle challenges. Since Sundays is a prime work day for Jack as a pastor, we’ve tried over the years to take a regular day-off. But as I reflect on it, that’s not the same as a Sabbath. A day-off is something your company gives you for you to do whatever you want or need to do. A Sabbath is a holy day, set apart, and spent in the presence of God. Another oops.
After reading Mudhouse Sabbath, I decided it’s time to try yet again to take a weekly Sabbath. In other words, it’s time to practice. And that means I need to be ready to stumble and fail because establishing a new life habit doesn’t happen over night. Then I discovered a small group guide with a section [pages 10-12], “Developing a Sabbath Practice.” Over the course of a month, it helps you shape your Sabbath practice by having you reflect on what to exclude from your Sabbath. Then it has you practice weaning yourself off those activities, and also think about what to include.
I’m still working through the guide. I’m still thinking about what boundaries I need and want to put on the day. I’m still working on preparing better for the Sabbath, too. Winner writes that Jews spend Sunday, Monday and Tuesday remembering the Sabbath, and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday preparing for it. Having tried and failed a few weeks to take a Sabbath, I can see the wisdom in that.
This week, our Sabbath day fell perfectly into place. Monday, Jack and I walked to a nearby park, enjoying the cathedral of eucalyptus trees as the sun rose. Later I went with an old friend who was visiting and had a special hammam [Turkish bath]. I stayed off the internet and read a book. We ended the day sharing a meal with our visiting friends: roasted lamb and couscous stuffing and special desserts from a local bakery.
The Sabbath was so enjoyable that I’ve found myself thinking about it every day since then. It has helped me feel loved by God. It’s been a reminder of how He cares for me. I’ve experienced the joy Isaiah told about:
You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on My holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.
Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”
I’m already beginning to think ahead to this coming Monday. I need to carve out some time to plan and prepare for it. It might not be as perfect as last Monday, but that will be alright. I’m still practicing.
What about you? What spiritual habit are you practicing?