Sunday, November 30, 2008

Unforced Rhythms of Grace

Sabbath is a holy word. It must be--it's in the ten commandments. Then again, so is kill, but the context is different. So there. Sabbath is a holy word because sabbath is a holy concept. It's at least a twofold idea: (1) on the seventh day, God rested, therefore we ought to mark each week with a time of rest; (2) to be human is to be enslaved--either literally, to another person, or spiritually, to sin--but to be a child of God is to be free, therefore we rest to celebrate the freedom that God gives his children. The Jewish people and later, in modified form, the church have ordained opportunities to honor this twofold idea, and so sabbath has become a sanctified concept, a holy word.

Rest, on the other hand, has gotten a bum rap. Rest is remedial, an admission of our limits. While sabbath is for the saints, rest is for the weak.

Keri Wyatt Kent has written a book on rest. It's also ostensibly a book on sabbath, because it has to be: a Christian book on rest is a tough sell. So Keri coins the phrase "Sabbath Simplicity" to extrapolate sabbath from a weekly rite to a lifestyle of rest, working out from the biblical conversation about sabbath to a rhythm of life for twenty-first century American families.

I should note at this point that I took up Keri's offer to bloggers she knew to read the book at the proof stage and review it online. Consequently, quotations I make of the book should be checked against the final, published form. I suspect there will be only minor editorial differences between what you read here and what you'll read there.

I gladly took this project on even though I'm fairly far removed from the Kent family lifestyle. I became a fan of Keri Wyatt Kent when InterVarsity Press (my employer) published her first book, God's Whisper in a Mother's Chaos. It was fresh, honest, helpful and charitable. I'm not a mother, of course, so I appreciated the book from a certain epistemological distance, and while Kent hasn't quite been pigeonholed into writing only for women, she has taken on a "family writer" kind of brand that as a nonparent I struggle to fully identify with. I also don't have any hard and fast sabbath routine to speak of. Nevertheless, I'm a fan of writings on the sabbath, ever since my early editorial experience working with Lynne Baab on the book Sabbath Keeping, a great introduction into the history and practicalities of the discipline. So I was pleased to read this book and write up a review of it.

Keri is a no-nonsense writer; a busy mother and type-A Christian, she cuts to the chase and gets to the point, which is interesting considering that the chapters of this book are unusually long. I suspect she recognizes that, while we are all likely to nod our heads and mutter "Amen" to talk of sabbath rest, we are more likely to think of it in a similar way to how we think of the resurrection, which is to say, we think that sabbath has very little to do with our everyday lives. That, coupled with a cultural bias against rest that leads us to brag about our busyness and experience shame during times of inactivity, is a big hurdle to the kind of lifestyle retraining that Keri has in mind for us, so she spends extra time making the case that rest is achievable and desirable.

Keri makes sabbath local, telling stories from her home and her neighborhood that tether the idea of rest to similarly elusive concepts such as loving your neighbor. When we practice rest regularly, we put the activities that preoccupy us into proper perspective, so that an interruption from an acquaintance becomes less a nuisance or a crisis and more an opportunity to serve, to enter into the reality of another person, to entertain angels in disguise. It was in the context of sabbath, she reminds us, during the Israelites' exodus that the manna which normally spoiled within twenty-four hours miraculously lasted for forty-eight. Sabbath, and the lifestyle of rest that flows from it, is an act of faith: a hyper-reality in which the rules don't necessarily apply and what is normally impossible becomes possible--like Jesus showing up in a locked room, like us loving our enemies.

Sabbath is a means to an end, a sanctified practice that opens an avenue to a lifestyle rooted in rest. "When people ask, 'How can I do Sabbath?' I ask them, 'Do you know how to eat, relax, and sleep?'" Obviously there's more to sabbath than these three things, and Keri goes to great length in defining and realizing them for her readers. But such is the paradoxical faith we celebrate: entering into a discipline opens up to us a world of grace. "Take my yoke upon you," Jesus invites us--and we might consider a day of inactivity for every six of our culturally approved hyperactivity to be something of a yoke--"and you will find rest for your souls."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dave Zimmerman Googles Himself

I admit it: I occasionally monitor the Internet for chatter about Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I'm one of those authors with no platform of his own, so my success as a writer depends on the viral potential of the Internet. So yeah, every now and again I google myself.

Today, somewhere around page 18 of a Google search for "Deliver Us from Me-Ville," I found a user profile on GodTube, which is a Christian video alternative to YouTube. The user is a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona. Listed on her profile under "Favorite Books" is "The Bible!! Deliver Us from Me-Ville." Take that, Purpose-Driven Life.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that the first entry under "Favorite TV Shows" is Cops. Take that, Meet the Press.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

John Stott Is a Genius

When it comes to Me-Ville, Jesus, says John Stott in his Basic Christianity, is a stranger to these parts.

It is this paradox that is so amazing, this combination of the self-centeredness of his teaching and the unself-centeredness of his behavior. In thought he put himself first; in deed last.He exhibited both the greatest self-esteem and the greatest self-sacrifice. He knew himself to be the Lord of all, but he became their servant. He said that he would one day come to judge the world, but he washed the feet of his friends. . . .

This utter disregard of self in the service of God and man is what the Bible calls love. There is no self-interest in love. The essence of love is self-sacrifice. Even the worst of us is adorned by an occasional flash of such nobility, but the life of Jesus irradiated it with a never-fading incandescent glow.

Jesus was sinless because he was selfless. Such selflessness is love. And God is love.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


A kid from my church ditched school this week. He told me about it on Facebook. In his mind, for reasons I won't bother to go into, it was entirely justified; I, on the other hand, was dumbstruck. I never had such moxie when I was in high school.

We got to talking about rules and regimens and whatnot, and because this particular kid has a particularly sharp wit and thoughtful streak, we came up with a new system of government that honors both his fondness of anarchy--a state of no oppression, or something like that--and his and my and, let's face it, all our desires to reign supreme over our own existence. We each have this shadow streak in which we want to be in charge and yet we just want everyone to get along. I think our epiphany came when my friend said something like "If I were in charge, nobody would be in charge."

We named our new system tyranarchism and defined it as a paradoxical form of government accommodating a universal desire for tyrannical rule without consequence; an anarchy in which everyone, from a genius like Barack Obama to a weirdo like Tyra Banks, rules his or her own empire of one.

I recently rewatched the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which may, come to think of it, actually be an experiment in tyranarchy. And Ferris reminds me, and each one of us, even as he launches his own tyranarchistic campaign, that systems ultimately collapse on themselves in a paradoxical comment that does just that:

Isms in my opinion are not good. A person shouldn’t believe in an ism; he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: "I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me." Good point there; after all, he was the Walrus.

Or we could read the second half of the book of Judges, which bookends tales of horrible, disastrous self-government with the simple, tyranarchist refrain: "In those days there was no king; everyone did as he saw fit." Good point there; after all, it's the Bible.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

This Is How to Save a Life

A friend of mine, Tony, is a bit of a nut about people who are homeless. Some time ago he was looking for a way of being more involved in our community and started helping with Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS). Now every week he drops by the local shelter to see if they need help, and twice a month he organizes a team of people to serve meals, clean up and get to know the homeless guests.

One of those two times a month is brand new, as of last night. Until yesterday there weren't enough volunteers to staff the site for the Tuesday/Wednesday of the month. Tony decided that wasn't OK, so he got a bunch of us together and opened the site. This morning he told us that last night one of the guests had a heart attack; they had to pull out the defibrillator and call in an ambulance. To date it's Tony's wildest PADS experience. I wasn't there; I came for breakfast instead: pancakes and precooked bacon. Not nearly so remarkable.

Tonight Tony e-mailed everybody with an arresting realization: the site almost didn't open because there weren't people to staff it, and if the site hadn't been open, a man would have had a heart attack alone, on the street, with no ready access to emergency medical care. Last night a few people sharing a couple of hours with a small crowd of homeless folks were the difference between one man's life and death. Tony wouldn't say this himself, so I'll say it: by getting people together, Tony saved someone's life. So here's to Tony. May his tribe increase.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Anne Lamott Is a Genius, Part Two: Or, Why Who We Vote For Doesn't Matter

Further thoughts from Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, this time on a Christian's relation to a president. I had heard ahead of time how much of this book was a rant on George W. Bush, but it still caught me off guard. Today, however, roughly half of the country will feel about Barack Obama or John McCain similarly to how L. feels about W. So we might as well spare ourselves some despair and ennui, and give some thought to some of the genius's more humble thoughts:

I know the world is loved by God, as are all of its people, but it is much easier to believe that God hates or disapproves of or punishes the same people I do, because these thoughts are what is going on inside me much of the time. . . .

To be honest, I am never going to get anywhere with this president. But Jesus kept harping on forgiveness and loving one's enemies, so I decided to try. WHy couldn't Jesus comand us to obsess about everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey's Kisses in bed?

Maybe in some translations, he does. . . .

Loving your enemies was nonnegotiable. It meant trying to respect them, it meant identifying with their humanity and weaknesses. It didn't mean unconditional acceptance of their crazy behavior. They were still accountable for the atrocities they'd perpetrated, as you were accountable for yours. But you worked at doing better, at loving them, for the profoundest spiritual reason: You were trying not to make things worse.

Day 1 went pretty well. All things considered.

My friend Lisa Rieck has posted some ideas for how to pray for the new president at Strangely Dim. I encourage you to check them out. Thank you, and God bless the United States of America.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Anne Lamott Is a Genius

The thing that most consistently can rob me of sleep, beyond the temporary pressures of work or the momentary turbulences of relationships, is the clear and present danger of aging, to be defeated only by death, to be defeated only by resurrection. The thought of aging will take me abruptly from being nearly asleep to wide awake. It's the non sequitur I most dread when my mind and body are supposedly at rest.

The Heidelberg Catechism's reminder that whether in life or in death I belong to Christ offers some comfort, but only some. Creedal assurances, I guess, don't fully address my existential angst. I'm too good a worrier for that. But sometimes I'll read something that is less creedal and more folksy, something that for whatever reason puts my soul temporarily at rest. Today that creedal surrogate is Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. She's got a few years on me, enough to anticipate some of the angst on my immediate horizon, but she's not so far out in front or so ethereal an author that I can't feel in my bones the comfort she takes in her own creaking. She doesn't replace creedal assurances for me, but she does bring them down to earth for a little while. The following did so for me today; maybe today or tomorrow or the next it'll do something similar for you:

Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life--it has given me me. It has provided time and experience and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. . . .

Left to my own devices, would I trade this for firm thighs, fewer wrinkles, a better memory?

You bet I would. That is why it's such a blessing that I'm not left to my own devices. . . .

I know two things now that I didn't know at thirty. That when we get to heaven, we will discover that the appearance of our butts and our skin was 127th on the list of what mattered on this earth. And that I am not going to live forever. Knowing these things has set me free.

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