“So, how are you?” Have you found, as I have, that many people answer this simple question in the same way? “Busy!” Life can throw a lot our way. On top of that, we can contribute to our struggle by filling up what little free time we might have with more stuff. Now I make no judgments on how you fill that time. I would guess a strong case could be made for that stuff being really good stuff. I know I can argue this for my own stuff really well. The question is not if it’s good stuff, but how much is too much, and when should I say “No more!”
I have been challenged in recent months with a barrage of thoughts on the subjects of rest, sabbath, pace, spiritual disciplines, and how all of these things are lived out, practiced, and embodied in my life. It started over a year ago with books, articles, and podcasts. Little “drips” that were all saying the same things – “Alan, is your life focused on the right thing? Are you really living the life that Jesus has in mind? You seem to be busy, but you don’t seem to rest much.”
I think I’ve always struggled with the idea of rest because I am a “doer.” I like getting things done (and I really like the book Getting Things Done and a hundred other life-hack type books that help me be more efficient and get more stuff done). I like seeing items on my to-do list get checkmarks. I love what I do vocationally and that drives me to work hard. Basically, everything in my life screams “Go fast! Do more!” To be honest, I think I have found my identity in this for a long time.
Then, in the midst of the struggle going on inside my heart and mind—the battle between “do more” and “rest more,”—one of my kids came home from college and asked a heart-felt, but piercing question. “Why did we not practice sabbath as a family growing up?” That may be a hard question for anyone to hear from their kid, but for a pastor, that was really challenging. I’m supposed to be good at this kind of thing and while I think we tried to honor the sabbath by making church a priority, we obviously failed at actually slowing down and resting on the sabbath and observing it in any sort of biblical sense.
Can you relate? I’m guessing (or hoping) you can.
So, at this point, in our new COVID-19 induced time of “slow,” I think I am grateful for a change of pace. It is in the “slow” that I am more ready and willing to focus on and hear the still small voice of God.
In his book The Attentive Life Leighton Ford points out “the ‘burning bushes’ in our path are signs planted in our life, opportunities to listen and pay attention. How often does God put signs out that we miss because our life is filled with so much stuff?”
I am also wondering how to make this “slow” or change of pace last. How will this not just be a phase we go through? How will I not allow the 127 things on my weekly calendar resume control once our quarantine is over? How will I teach my children to rest and not allow the myriad of activities they have the opportunity to participate in to take over their life and mine? How can I learn to rest more in the goodness of my Savior? How can I “observe the sabbath and keep it holy”? Again, Leighton Ford suggests “[we tend to think] it is the crazy pace of our lives that is killing us when really it’s our inattention to our deepest desire, the desire for God.” I would suggest it is the crazy pace of our lives that is a major contributor to our inattention to God.
Will you join me in praying for something different in the future? Will you join me in seeking to capitalize on our current circumstances and use it to learn a new rhythm? Will you join me in creating new family habits and new family traditions? Ones that are centered on and grounded in Scripture, not culture? Will you join me in being able to answer the question of “How are you?” with something other than “busy”?
NOTE: If you want one resource that may help point you down this path of questioning, I recommend John Mark Comer’s book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. It is one of many contributors that have helped in my struggle.
Guest Author: Meryl Herr
On Christmas Eve, our family typically attends an early evening church service and then returns home for a not-so-traditional holiday meal of pizza and cupcakes. We have a quick birthday party for Jesus before setting out a plate of milk and cookies and tucking our boys into bed for the night.
On Christmas morning, we exchange gifts in our living room and then emerge from a pile of discarded wrapping paper and boxes to share a breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls, bacon, and orange juice, just as I did when I was a child. These are our simple holiday traditions.
While traditions can be fun, they can also be formative. It’s not always easy to see precisely how they shape us from one year to the next, but the Bible helps us understand how certain traditions can be instrumental in our spiritual development.
When God set apart the people of Israel for Himself, He put certain traditions at the center of their life together. And when Jesus set apart the church to be His witnesses in the world, He established a tradition that would bind them together around His death and the hope of His return.
To deliver His people from Egypt, God sent a series of plagues on Pharaoh and his country. The final plague was the plague of the firstborn: every firstborn son in Egypt would die. But God would pass over every firstborn son of Israel. God ordered that every Israelite family sacrifice a lamb and smear some of its blood across their door frames. He told them, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13).
And God wanted them to remember what He was going to do. So before the first Passover was even accomplished, God commanded his people to celebrate a Passover feast every year. Why? To honor the Lord for how He delivered the Israelites. But annually celebrating the Passover would have another purpose: to form the children of Israel around the story of their good God.
Through Moses, God told them, “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians’” (Exodus 12:26-27).
OLD TRADITIONS WITH RENEWED MEANINGS
Before He died, Jesus celebrated a Passover feast with His disciples—to invite them once again to remember God’s faithfulness. But Jesus brought new meaning to the Passover feast when He broke the bread, shared the cup, and then submitted Himself to a death that would break His body and spill His blood. Jesus’ blood would be enough to cause God’s final judgment to pass over all who would believe in Him.
The Apostle Paul received this old tradition with heightend meaning. He told the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). And he reminded them that whenever we gather around the Lord’s Table to share the bread and the cup in communion, we also share the story of God. We “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 1:26).
HOW TRADITIONS FORM US
Even in our shared meals—whether or not they contain a turkey—we point to the welcome of God in the simple practice of fellowship. Every tradition, every symbol big or small, allows us an opportunity to invite others into the story of God.
In his book, You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith reflects on the formative power of the practices and traditions in his household. He writes,
“Family worship will be formative to the extent that it taps into our imagination, not just our intellect. To do so, worship needs to traffic in the aesthetic currency of the imagination—story, poetry, music, symbols, and images. There is a physicality to such household worship that encourages us to understand the gospel anew, in ways that endure in our imagination and thus shape how we make our way in the world” (p. 129).
The symbols and the rituals—the unleavened bread, the Passover sacrifice, taking the bread, taking the cup—invite us to participate in the story with our whole selves.We do not merely hear the story told, we touch it, we taste it, we re-enact it. The story becomes imprinted on our hearts and minds because it engages our senses, our emotions, and our intellect.
So many of our traditions shape us through what they symbolize. When we don’t understand a symbol or a ritual, we naturally ask someone older or wiser, “What does this mean?” When our symbols point to Christ and to His work in the world, we have the opportunity to share the story of God, the story of the gospel.
NOTICING OUR TRADITIONS
Too often, we take our traditions for granted. We do them because we’ve always done them. And we don’t notice how central they have become until they’re gone.
When I was in high school, my parents decided that we would spend Christmas break serving Christmas dinner and distributing gifts to children in Jamaica. My sister and I selfishly protested because that meant we wouldn’t spend Christmas with our extended family. No turkey. No ham. No dressing, sweet potato casserole, or creamed corn. None of Nanny’s slightly-overbaked-but-still-perfect sugar cookies. At that moment, I felt the value of our family traditions in a new way.
And then there was last year, the year when I sat at home in a Norco-induced haze on Christmas Eve, recovering from an emergency surgery two days earlier. I missed our Christmas Eve service. I missed standing in a circle around the worship center and passing the light from one candle to the next. I missed looking at softly illumined faces as we sang “Silent Night.” We didn’t have pizza and cupcakes for dinner. My children missed the cinnamon rolls, the orange juice, and the bacon.
But when they missed our traditions, when months later they asked, “Why didn’t we have cinnamon rolls last Christmas?” I knew that our traditions were somehow forming them and forming our family. When I missed the Christmas Eve service at church, I knew that the annual practice of looking at my church family as I prayed, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” had formed me.
Our family traditions form us as do the traditions we share as a church. When we light the Advent candles, sing our favorite carols, when we take the bread and dip it in the cup, we remember what God has done and look forward to what God will do. And, by His Spirit, God creates a community centered on His story.
This holiday season, let’s pay attention to our old traditions and, perhaps, start some new ones. Let’s create opportunities to tell others, “This is what it means.” Let’s fill our lives with rich symbols and repeated practices that point to a story greater than our own.
Meryl Herr is a former pastoral resident at Christ Community and current adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Cornerstone University. She is also the founder of The GoodWorks Group, a consulting firm specializing in educational program planning and evaluation.