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Practicing the Sabbath

By March 23, 2015 One Comment

Today we welcome guest-blogger Grace Claus. Grace and her husband Dan are interim co-chaplains at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Grace blogs regularly at forsythiaroot.wordpress.comThank you, Grace.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a message, saying that he and his wife had been trying to observe the Sabbath in a deliberate and meaningful way. They wanted to welcome others into it, and he was asking for ideas for prayers or simple songs or other Sabbath suggestions.

I was tickled to get the note, both because I’ve given a lot of thought to Sabbath observance and because someone else was giving this a try. I could already imagine their rich, spacious, shared meals.

But when I sat down to respond, I suddenly felt incompetent. What did I have to say about Sabbath-keeping? For a whole month, Sabbaths had escaped me. As much as I love the thought of observing Sabbath, as much as I feel fuller and more content just picturing the quiet routine—the long wooded walks, the space to read and write, the attentive dinner preparation—I’ve failed miserably at putting it into practice.

Sabbaths become catch-up days, errand days, to-do list days. There’s nothing that resembles remembering and making holy.

And yet. All those verbs we use with the Sabbath—remember, keep, observe, practice—are surprisingly generous words. They’re meant for real people, not super-Sabbath-people.

Remember: in the muscle rather than mind sense, put it together again. As in, Humpty Dumpty. Our Sabbaths have fallen off the wall and shattered into a thousand pieces the size of chores and e-mails. Unlike that of all the king’s horses and men, our task isn’t impossible. Piece by piece, breath by Spirit breath, we aim to make our Sabbath rest whole.

Keep: care for it. The way you’d care for a child. Don’t shut the Sabbath up in a room so it won’t face danger. Don’t keep your distance so it won’t see your flaws. Kneel down next to it, play Candy Land with it, go outside and point out the constellations you know, come back in and zoom spoonfuls of yogurt into its mouth. You’ll make some mistakes when you care for the Sabbath this way, but don’t let one of them be neglecting it.

Observe: watch it, attend to it. Take it in. Marvel at the Sabbath. Learn everything you can by giving it your wholehearted attention. You don’t have to know everything right from the get-go, and you will have to blink a few times, maybe even take a water break, before you really get the hang of it, but like those Magic Eye images, if you give it enough time, things will come into focus.

Practice: try, again and again and again. Work at it. Yep, it’s a day of rest, but that day of rest cannot be had without work. We’re no good at Sabbaths. We have to practice them, just like we had to practice clarinet and take swim lessons.

This last Sabbath-verb gives me the most hope these days. It occurred to me recently [ ] that I’ve relegated the word practice to the realm of nouns, a safe distance away from any verbs I might actually have to do. I drop sophisticated-sounding phrases like “the practice of discipleship” and “Sabbath practice,” but I don’t practice anything.

Six years have passed since I last sat down at the piano and did anything other than tinker. No metronomes, no practice logs, no timers set to 30 minutes, no forcing myself to try the same measure over and over and over until I work the kinks out.

It has been longer still since I stayed after school to sprint and run ladders and swing my leg at a soccer ball dozens of times until it ended up at the spot I was aiming toward.

And I certainly haven’t practiced Sabbath. Not in a dedicated way. Not in a way that assumes I’ll mess up, that I’ll have to come back next week and try again.

Or maybe that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, but without realizing the grace of the verb practice. One week, I try watercolors with my sister. The next, I sleep in and then later take an afternoon nap. Some things works, others don’t. When something sticks, I do it again the next week. And the next.

As with piano practice and soccer practice, I have to make rules. Practicing can’t be sloppy. So I don’t allow myself to turn on the computer before 9am. I forbid myself from checking work e-mail. In the space of those bounds, practicing flourishes.

I am practicing the Sabbath. Some weeks, it sounds really rotten and I have to go back and tune the instrument before I can play the notes. But it’s earnest and sweet and I like to think that God hears me practicing and takes great joy in his beginner student.

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