Why should we care about Sabbath-keeping?

The notion of “sabbath” is mentioned 172 times in the Bible, and 60 of those occurrences are in the New Testament. Why do you suppose that of all the 613 laws, Sabbath-keeping gets so much attention? Here is my theory. I believe Sabbath matters to God because it is like a stake in the ground for people freed from slavery. Sabbath is a call to rest, and rest is not the right of a slave. It is the habit of a free person. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, Sabbath became an every-week opportunity for an Israelite to proclaim his freedom. It was also how God’s people got in rhythm with God’s heart for the least, the last and the lost.

Should we still care about Sabbath-keeping today? Not as legalists … no. But as beings made in the image of God, Sabbath is  central to our design and worth our attention.

Sabbath-keeping restores us to our factory settings. Remember that Sabbath-keeping is the fourth of the ten commandments. When God gives the Israelites the ten commandments the first time, he pairs it with creation. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rests on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” Sabbath-keeping reconnects us with the rhythm of creation and God’s creative nature. It aligns us with holy work. Remember that work was part of the Garden of Eden before the fall. In the same way that God worked to build creation, we were given creative work to fill our days and give us purpose. Work at creation was good, and rest wasn’t required. It was designed. A good, perfect and loving God designed rest as a mark of completion in the work of creation. At the conclusion of creation God rested, and we lived inside his completion. Rest for God was completion, not weariness. And when we rest, we are putting faith in God’s ability to finish the work and make it holy.

Sabbath-keeping is an act of worship (love God). Notice this, in Genesis 2:3. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it, he rested.” This is the first time the word “holy” is used in the Bible. Holiness — to be whole — is first used in the Bible to talk about rest. That teaches me something about what it means to be whole. It means being at rest, at peace. It turns out that holiness means we have the right to put our work down and rest, because God — not our work — is what makes us whole.

There are two other Hebrew words that strike me as being related to the notion of Sabbath. Shalom means peace, or wholeness. When Jews are approaching Sabbath day, they say, “Shabbat Shalom.” The common meaning is “Have a peaceful Sabbath.” But the deeper meaning is something more like, “May you find wholeness as you cease your work.” This is what happened with God in creation. When he finished, he rested.

The other Hebrew term is shema, the Hebrew word for “hear.” It is the first word of the greatest commandment: “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema is the first and last word of a Jewish Sabbath.

Now, go with me on this for a minute. The last thing God created before he rested was us. Which means our first day on earth was God’s Sabbath. Which means the first thing we did as creatures was to take a day off with God! Not because he was tired (or us), but because that’s what he called whole, holy and good.

As I contemplate this profound idea of Sabbath being the first whole day of humanity, the image that comes to my mind is of the birth of my own child. When our baby was born, the doctor lifted her from my body and handed her directly into my arms. I immediately laid her on my chest, so that the first thing my child heard (shema) was her mama’s heartbeat and her mama’s voice. And her whole job in that moment — the whole job of a newborn child — was to listen, rest and attach. Which is to say that on our first day on earth when God ceased his work — Shabbat shalom — our whole job was to listen (shema), rest and attach.

And that is still our sabbath work today. My, how beautiful is this gift of Sabbath (and we thought we were just getting a day off)!

Sabbath-keeping teaches us not to “harvest to the margins” (love others). This idea seems woven into the fabric of Leviticus. It begins as a habit of the harvest. The Israelites are told not to harvest their fields to the edges (Leviticus 23:22), so there would be food enough left for the poor to come along behind and glean. Leave room at the edges of your field so people who don’t have can eat, too. In Leviticus chapter 25, where we get a more detailed description of Sabbath years and Jubilee years, all through is sprinkled a reminder to take care of the poor. This, I believe, is what distinguishes someone who just wants a day off (or who doesn’t even want a day off and resents the time they have to take for others) from someone who has laid his head next to the Father’s heart — who has heard God’s heartbeat for the least, the last and the lost. It is that there is room in their lives for others.

Hear this: When we harvest to the margins, we have no energy left for the poor and the ones who require extra grace. When we harvest to the margins, it is hard to be present to the people in front of us. When we harvest to the margins, there is no patience left, no bandwidth for the things that break God’s heart. Jesus himself said it is okay to do good on the Sabbath, but we can only do good when we have room left at the margins when those moments for mercy emerge. Sabbath gives room to be present to people.

Sabbath-keeping is an invitation to resist the culture of Egypt. The ten commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament, and the one about Sabbath is the only one with an explanation attached — both times (almost like, “Okay, we know why we shouldn’t kill people, but we’re not really sure why we need a day off”). The first time, the Sabbath is explained as part of creation and the second time it is explained as a freedom principle. God tells his people they must not do any work on the seventh day. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Sabbath by this definition is a memorial and a mark of freedom. We get a Sabbath because we are not slaves. The daily grind is not what we were created for. It is a call not just to cease working, but to take on the mindset of a free person — not just the behavior of Sabbath-keeping but the spirit of it.

Sabbath-keeping is how we practice Heaven. While our human tendency is to want to escape, the Kingdom call is an invitation to rest. In other words, rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. Paul told the Colossians that sabbath is a shadow, a vague glimpse, of what is ahead for us in the Kingdom of God. Which means that when we practice it well, we are practicing heaven. By practicing Sabbath we find what is most real … namely Christ. And when we practice Sabbath, we are proclaiming what is most real to us … namely Christ. It is the practice of becoming whole … the practice of listening to the heart of God … the practice of freedom.

 

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God in the darkness

Another guest post by Angel Davis, my friend and collaborator in ministry. In this blog she shares how a friend (whose story is told with permission) experienced the grace of God in a desperate season:

“Why? How could this happen?”

This was the broken-hearted cry of a woman sitting on my couch. Her heart literally felt like it was breaking and for very good reason. Her decade-long marriage which had begun centered around Christ had now dissolved, and not by her choice. She had entered into marriage believing it was a covenant with God that was not to be broken. Despite the years of subtle abuse and unloving treatment, she desperately prayed her marriage would be saved. She wanted her children to grow up in an intact family. She wanted to honor and keep the vows she had made to God.

And yes, she still loved her husband.

She had spent a solid year seeking counseling and receiving inner healing. She allowed God to heal the wounds of her heart and help her forgive. She prayed and asked others to pray — fervently — that the marriage would be saved. She prayed right up to the last minute, but her husband’s heart never softened. They divorced, and now the custody of their children hung in the balance.

And now she sat in great distress, true agony; the judge had ruled in favor of the father. Her children’s father, now her ex — this man who had treated her badly, who had lied, who had broken some of the separation agreement guidelines — this man would get “favor” financially from the judge and “favor” regarding the custody of their children.

“How could God allow this to happen?”

“Where is He?”

“Does He not even care?

“I just don’t see Him working.”

“It’s not fair!” 

My friend was devastated, not to mention legitimately concerned for her children’s well-being. She was desperate now to realize she wouldn’t be able to mother them daily. She’d miss out on developmental milestones. She’d be separated from them at such tender ages. The pain was beyond words.

Fast-forward several months. The ache was still there and depression had settled in around the sadness of having to split time with her kids with their father. There was still hurt over the unfairness of the settlement … but the pain was lessening. She was more ready now to process her situation through healing prayer.

As we prayed into her pain and concerns, what can only be humanly described as feeling like a lightning bolt from heaven, came down — first downloaded into my brain, and then into her heart. A flash of understanding: “God had to allow the ‘unjust’ settlement in order to soothe the anger of your ex-husband!”

I have to say that humanly, this didn’t settle well. It seemed … well … unjust. And it was, by any earthly standard. I can say with certainty that God didn’t cause this man’s hard heart, nor did God cause the divorce. But as I searched within for some scriptural anchor for this word about how God used the circumstances of fallen people, I saw it.

It was the unjust cross of Jesus Christ. 

He who committed no sin was slain and buried for three dark, bleak days. He who did not deserve that penalty became the very sacrifice that freed us from the penalty of sin. His willingness to do a very unfair thing allowed us to finally see the darkness for what it is. That unjust settlement bought us new life and paid for our sins while it negated the power of the enemy’s weapons against us.

Think about the death of Lazarus (Luke 11). When they brought news to Jesus, Lazarus was already arguably dead, but Jesus waited three days after he was pronounced dead to visit. Nothing seemed to be accomplished in that waiting, as far as Lazarus’ loved ones were concerned, except they got mad with Jesus. After all, Martha had asked him to come, and he waited … almost like he didn’t care. But when he finally did show up, he entered into their suffering and then did the impossible. He called forth life from a dead man, out of a tomb where unfair death resided. The effect? The witnesses to this miracle saw God in ways they couldn’t or hadn’t before. The glory of God was exposed.

The waiting time, where “nothing” was happening, became the soil for the greater revelation. 

And my friend? After this unexpected revelation from God, she started seeing … really seeing. She saw God do the impossible as He provided tangibly for her in ways that were totally unexpected — money for a car, down-payment on a house, extra days of visitation — exceedingly and abundantly more then she thought could happen (Ephesians 3:20). She began to get it that justice wasn’t dependent on “fair” or “unfair” treatment. Justice was dependent solely on God and His promises.

If you are waiting for Jesus to show up in an unfair situation, take heart, my friend. God is working in the darkness. The “nothing” days, the “unfair” treatment, the waiting time … in God’s care it all becomes a breeding ground for slaying the enemy, raising up redemption and exposing in His glory.

Take heart and hold on …

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo …

Choices shape futures.

We can blame this current hard choice of a new president on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 on our Israelite ancestors who created this mess millennia ago. Before the Israelites had kings, they were led (not governed, but led) by judges who submitted directly to God. It wasn’t a perfect system because they weren’t perfect people, but it was a God-centered system. Samuel’s sons delivered that system to its corrupt end by taking bribes, perverting justice and destroying the people’s trust (read the story here).

Call it a case of “king envy.” After seeing what his sons were capable of the people demanded that Samuel appoint a king like all the other nations had. Samuel warned them they’d be sorry. A system of kings, he said, would mean a loss of freedom. A king will draft your sons into the army and misuse the military for his own purposes. Your taxes will go up and your property will be over-regulated.

These were the desperate warnings of a prophet-judge to his people proving yet again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ignoring Samuel’s ominous warnings, the Israelites chose to hand all their freedoms over to a king who would then set government above God. Why? The story tells us they were looking for someone to fight their battles for them.

Let that sink in. The Israelites defaulted to a system of kings so they wouldn’t have to fight their own battles.

I suspect our worst choices still arise out of that motivation. In our desire to check out of the battle, we allow ourselves to listen to voices that promise all manner of happiness or relief, at the cost of our most prized freedoms. We want someone else to fix it/ legislate it/ outlaw it, so we won’t have to step up to the plate ourselves. Nowhere in scripture is that strategy promoted. To the contrary, the prescription for good lives and communities always begins with personal responsibility translated into better choices — those that look beyond systems to the God over them.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that nothing got better with a new system of kings; it only got worse. The Old Testament is riddled with stories of all sorts of kings who came and went, often punctuated by a line that sounded something like: “King so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord … and slept with his ancestors.” Some of those evil kings lived for decades, only to have their legacy boil down to a few words summing up a career of inadequacies and evils.

“He did evil in the sight of the Lord … and slept with his ancestors.”

This line reminds us that as harsh as this season has seemed, kings have come and gone for millennia with little effect. While they may have wreaked havoc for a generation, their infamy was fleeting. At the end of their reign, God was still God. His purposes were still in effect — sometimes because of them, sometimes in spite of them.

And the same is true today. Whatever happens this week, God is still God.

Our most constructive response to that truth is to cultivate a better brand of choice for ourselves, one that is less political, more prophetic. Micah 6:8 gives some good bones for building a better brand of choice. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This, in fact, may be the best litmus test for a godly vote on November 8th. A solid vote begins at the intersection of justice, kindness and humility.

Think prophetically, not politically.
Justice requires context. Justice doesn’t always mean doing the obvious thing and it almost never means doing the easy thing. Justice always bears the fruit of dignity in other lives. Fences and abortion and human sexuality and the answer for national debt … for me to vote justice into those issues, I need the cross of Christ, the voice of the Holy Spirit and the heart of the Father.

Kindness requires both companionship and conflict.
In this political season the kindness (or mercy) we most lack is the capacity to honor those with whom we disagree. I cannot love people I demonize. Steve Johnson says, “The first thing you need to come to grips with is that the call to go and make disciples is greater than any political opinion you hold. And if you find yourself labeling, demonizing, or looking down on people who have different political views than you, then you have the problem. The problem isn’t that they have misguided political views. The problem is your heart.”

Humility is the antidote to pride. 
Humility manifests as self-acceptance, which is the opposite of self-centeredness. It is the primary character trait of Jesus’ own personality. Those who practice humility know how to listen well, with one ear to the world and one ear to the Holy Spirit. This is how Christians fight our battles. We don’t leave them to a political system or party, or to our kings and rulers. We take part in welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God by acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly.

Take courage on November 8th. Ours is not a perfect system because we aren’t perfect people, but we can participate in making our system better by building a better brand of choice rooted in mercy, justice and humility. We may yet return to a God-honoring culture but make no mistake: it won’t happen at the ballot box. It will happen in our hearts.

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A sign from God

I am beginning to think it really was a sign from God.

I found it in front of The Holy House of Prayer of Jesus Christ (Elder William Butler, presiding). At the end of a string of other announcements about repenting and where you can find them on the radio, the sign read, “God have [sic] never called a woman to preach. Never will.”

The day IWomen-to-preach sign saw it, I knew that sign was for me. It stood in front of a little building with burglar bars deep in one of the most impoverished areas of Georgia — what is known as Frog Holler or Bethlehem — in downtown Augusta.

I will admit that the day I found it, I delighted in that sign. Things like that validate my experience of being a woman in ministry in the South. There is still a remarkable amount of prejudice. I don’t hear it in every conversation, but I’ll admit that over time I have developed more of a suspicion about people’s motives. I have had enough conversations with folks in my church to know that they debate their friends and co-workers regularly on this issue. They defend their church and their pastor admirably. I wish they didn’t have to, but I’m grateful beyond words for their convictions.

I wonder how many people I will never meet, how many opportunities I’ll never even know I missed, because the people I might have known don’t trust my place as a pastor. I have taken way too much time to reflect on this. The inequality exposes something broken in me. I feel trapped. I get angry, defensive. I obsess. I find myself talking about it far too often, with far too much passion. I go beyond good sense. Because I am so darn competitive, I have a hard time making peace with the realities of life.

You know what I want? What I secretly want is for someone to erect a sign that says, “People think this way. It is not just Carolyn’s imagination. This is real. But it is also wrong. It is not an educated response to scripture. It is an injustice and an impediment to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

That’s what I really want. I want someone to publicly acknowledge what I know to be true.

And that’s why Elder William Butler became my friend when I saw his sign. He has done what I only dreamed of. He put up a sign that pretty much says it all. People think this way. It is not just my imagination. This is real. But it is also wrong. It is not an educated response to scripture.

Elder Butler has exposed the problem magnificently.

Sadly, he has also exposed my heart. His sign is in the poorest part of town, in one of the poorest districts in the state. Rampant crime. Burglar bars on the church building. Deep poverty, serious drug issues. And I took a picture of the sign, and neglected to say so much as a prayer over the community.

Shame on me.

(This post was first published in the early days of my old blog, “Fivestones.” I publish it today as a sort of personal Ebenezer — a place in my life where I remember still an intersection where my brokenness met God’s grace.)

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