He Listened to Jazz on Thursday

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Today is his birthday.

My dad was a pastor. So Sunday, being a workday, his “off day” was Thursday. I remember two distinct things about growing up with dad who was off on Thursday.

First, Thursday was report card day and that was never a good day. But better to give my report card to dad first, then mom.

But a gentler memory is walking in after school with Jazz filling the house. If he was home, that’s what was playing. He had this one Lionel Hampton tape he played a lot. I don’t remember liking it. I don’t remember hating it. It was just part of the air I breathed in. But while in college I borrowed his car and sure enough, that Hampton cassette was queued up and for the first time I listened and my love of Jazz was born that day.

He wrote poems for family occasions, too. They were not very good as poetry but they were exceptional as heart and hearth.

And baseball. Some of my best early memories involve baseball with him. And my last best memory is talking baseball in that miserable hospital room from which he took his first step  to go on ahead of us all.

Most of all, he loved my mom, which is one of those gifts I opened every day and only saw the value of when I was much older… just like all the other things above.

Rest: Part 2

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Everyone is still asleep. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is spinning slow and soft on the turntable. My stomach is wishing it was later in the morning so I could begin fixing breakfast. Only coffee for now. Anxiety for tomorrow’s fantasy baseball draft with friends is in the forefront of my thoughts (Trout? Altuve? Goldschmidt?). Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poem, “The Objective” has swirled in my head since I woke up.

Chapter One of Subversive Sabbath is titled “Sabbath and Time.” Each chapter is broken into parts a few pages long. I will list those sections and provide some quotes from each – I did more underlining in this book than I can ever remembering doing before – and then give some reflections on what I have read in this chapter.

Remembering Sabbath

“We have come to know Jesus only as the Lord of the harvest, forgetting he is Lord of the Sabbath as well. Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God.”

“Sabbath is assumed to be the sign of a shrinking church. So time poverty and burnout have become the signs that the minority church remains serious about God in a world  that has rejected him.”

“The result of our Sabbath amnesia is that we have become perhaps the most emotionally exhausted, psychologically overworked, spiritually malnourished people in history.”

Made to Rest

“Adam and Eve’s first full day of existence was a day of rest, not work.”

“Their (Adam and Eve) first knowledge of God and the world God had made was that rest was not an afterthought – rest was of first importance.”

“Sabbath reminds us that our time was never our time in the first place.”

“Sabbath is that kind of complete reorientation of our lives towards the hope and redemption of Christ’s work.”

The First “Holy”

“Sabbath is a moment of eternal glory momentarily breaking into our finite, present world.”

“Interestingly, the only thing God deems as qadosh, or ‘holy,’ in the creation story is the Sabbath day.”

The First “Not Good”

“The Sabbath is a celebration, a day of rejoicing over the goodness of what has been made and who made it.”

“Relational needs are not a by-product of the fall. Likewise the need for rest, or Sabbath, is not an aftertaste of human sinfulness, unlike our chronic inability to receive rest.”

The First “Rest”

“What is the culmination of creation? In Genesis 2:2-3, there are three sentences of seven Hebrew words each, and the middle word of each sentence is the word for the seventh day. this textual feature is used to state that the seventh day is the goal of creation. The climax of creation is not humanity, as we have so arrogantly assumed. Rather, the day of rest is the climax, when creation all comes together and lives at peace and harmony with one another.”

“Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are not what we do…”

“A Sabbath day is not merely stopping our work; it is also stopping our thinking and scheming about work.”

The Taste of Sabbath

“Sabbath does not always pay off the way we wish it would. Resting is costly.”

“Years ago, Harvard  theologian Harvey Cox argued that the death of God in our culture was related in some way to the fact that we no longer celebrate, or integrate festivity, in our culture. That is, our celebration deficit is part of our loss of God in culture. And when festivity and play ended, argued Cox, culture and community begin to erode at their very core.”

“What was intended by God to be a celebration reflecting on his goodness and the goodness of his creation has been, once again, replaced by the devil’s false forms of celebration: drunkenness, loss of self-control, and debauchery.”

“Sabbath is about delighting in God for his sake and the sake of the world.”

I finished this first chapter about a week ago and have not really been able to move on in my thoughts.  There are two reasons. The first is so much of the teaching was familiar like a song you have never heard before but has been around forever. You know it regardless. Maybe that is because my soul was hearing what it has been needing to hear for forty some odd years.

But also, there are a lot of new ideas. New to me, at least. The idea that the Sabbath was the culmination of creation was an entirely new thought to me. Also, I had never noticed that it was the only part of creation called “holy.” I don’t care who you are and what you believe about all this, that is worth thinking long and hard about.

My wife and I had a discussion the other day about the religiosity of sports in the lives of people all around us. We love sports. Especially baseball. But we feel like sports has become the de facto religion in our community. It is seen as the thing you do not say “no” to, whereas corporate worship and community are optional. Sports is Lord. There is no use really denying this.

As we were talking about it, Bethany asked me “Why, though?” and I could not answer her. It offers community for those who may not have it? Significance, too? Also, just like church it keeps the kids out trouble and busy? But I could not find an answer, so that question hung like a mist in my mind for a few days. But then I read on in this chapter and when I got to the section on celebration, it dawned on me. This may be part of it, that need to celebrate we were created for, may be part of the answer as to why sports has become so religious in our culture.

The one quote I cannot get over though is that, “Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are not what we do.” This week I got to talk about Justification with my ninth graders. And one of the things I wanted to make sure they knew was that one day they will be tempted to value themselves based on their vocation and what they do and how much money they make. The gospel changes that. And Sabbath is a weekly reminder of this reality.

Bethany is now stirring in the kitchen as a foretaste of the meal we will enjoy with friends tonight in our home. The Clarinet Concerto has ended, the record flipped over to the one for the Bassoon. My kids are watching cartoons. And the last lines of that poem by Berry cannot be gotten rid of –

having never know where they were going/having never known where they came from

Nineteen Years, Nineteen Moments

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1. We are sitting on a bench. A stone bench. But it’s the kind of moment you would not even notice how uncomfortable the bench is. Only the moon provides light reflecting on the water of the lake – the lake which now sits at the bottom of the mountain we live on. We are looking into the water. There is a lot of talk about “what we are.” I think I lied through my teeth. Anything to keep close. I picture my arm around her but that would be a stupid risk. And while I may be stupid enough to think I could keep this up, I am not so stupid to take any chances at this point. Also I’m not entirely sure she is all that glad to be with me.

2. Spring’s darkness is a distinct part of the memory. I remember standing out in front of O’Henry’s Coffee. We’d been inside earlier with some friends. We had not been on a date in over a month. She is standing there in the night under the lights of 18th Avenue. We are shuffling our feet behind her red car, a Mazda. I lean against it. Her arms are folded. She is not entirely happy with me. Not entirely mad. And in a moment of insanity, I think about how she is the kind of girl I want to marry. Not love, but close.

3. I’m in my roommate’s bedroom. I’ve no idea why. He’s not there and I’m lying on the floor next to a dusty ficus tree. But I’m on the phone begging her for one more date. This is no exaggeration. She was afraid. I finally had to tell her she can tell me ‘no’ but I will call her back tomorrow and ask again. It sounds pretty annoying. It was. But it worked.

4. Night sky again. The sky looms large. Bethany looks magical. The Shakespeare Festival’s lights cascade across the well-manicured grounds. We walk with hands worked together as natural as breathing. Other couples take advantage of the near silence and paradisal scenery. Carefully sculpted hedges. Reflecting pools. The noise of the theatre whispers in the background. Forever seems close. And If I close my eyes, the scene is before me.

5. It’s funny. She is moving into a new apartment. I’m helping. If I’m lifting anything heavy, it is only to impress. And I’m not sure where the idea came from. Curiosity? Calculation? Hope? The kind of hope that crowds out all rational thought making it impossible to make good decisions. “How long is your lease?” While I thought I was being inconspicuous, she knew exactly why I wanted to know. But I remember us going to Johnny Ray’s BBQ afterwards and I was happy with her answer.

6. We have not spoken in three days. And the recollection of hearing how she did not want to be the wife of a pastor is ongoing. She is standing in front of me sad. Tearful but lovely. After not seeing her for more than a day, she looked altogether painfully stunning. We argued outside the church. She was going in to the worship service and I was leaving. We left together and I started scheming for forever that day.

7. Back at the lake again with stars above and laid out on the surface of the water. She knew I was looking for a ring already. So I had to be as sly as possible. Disheveled and unshaven,  it was a bid to quell any expectations. I sat next to her on the bench. Firm seat and steely resolve. I told her we could not afford to get engaged and start planning a wedding. Then I proceeded to get down on one knee. The rocky, root-strewn ground sloped into the water. Diamond out and held up to the moonlight, her voice glides across the water, “We’re engaged!” Anonymous congratulations resound from shadows on the other side.

8. She did not want me to see her before the ceremony. She moves into the room – 500 standing in honor of the beauty before them. Most see her innumerable moments before I do. Anxiously I wait, peeking around the crowd. Words simply are not nearly enough. It was the emotion of every great myth, the birth of every legendary act, and the very pushing back of the Fall itself.

9. Halloween night at a retreat center in rural Alabama. The night air is cool – on the verge of cold. Sitting with our feet propped up on a fence, we had met only hours earlier. We’re getting to know each other – both facing into the Alabama sky over the tops of pine trees up into the vast expanse full of pinpricks, the very guides of sailors into adventure, time out of mind.

10. Twenty-four hours later – the wedding is over – we are sitting in a Ruby Tuesday’s in Williamsburg, VA. Little did I know that every bite of every meal is wondrous on a honeymoon. I remember sitting there in a corner of the restaurant looking at her and thinking, “Here we are. We’re married.” I might have said something out loud. It was a more real moment than any previous. Hipster opinions be damned – I cannot pass a Ruby Tuesday’s without remembering that moment. Thankfully, they are everywhere.

11. After a church softball game we are at a Mexican restaurant on Green Springs Ave. The name escapes me. We are sitting there in love. Happy to the hilt. You know the happiness. Playful. Laughing and smiling at everything. Every moment is an opportunity to celebrate. It has a rhythm to it. Two souls full of the joy of all that is in the moment, this moment. No wonder Edmund Dantès was so full of revenge. You cannot even imagine any other ‘courting’ couple could feel this way.

12. My face hurts from smiling so much. We are standing in the receiving line. The glorious echo of ‘congratulations!” heard under the stars six months earlier is being repeated again and again and again. Hundreds upon hundreds of reverberations of that moment pushing against the walls of space and time. That echo from friends and family stretching across every season of life. Some echoes from voices not heard but in another life. And we stand there fixed in the movement of heavens. We stand there dressed in the “already and not yet” of which theologians across the centuries have written volumes.

13. I think I can remember “the first time ever I saw” her face. It was in the Sunday School room and she stood in the back. It is possible I was teaching that morning. Or helping with announcements. Anyway, I was in the front of the room, she was in the back. And I remember being struck by her face. After meeting her for the first time, my mom talked about her striking features. That room where I saw her for the first time was later my son’s Sunday School room.

14. One of my favorite memories of her is captured in a picture and so the memory has stayed with me well. We are in Estes Park, Colorado and hiking. She is ahead of me on the trail. Her hair is in a ponytail. She is wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and hiking shorts and standing by a mountain stream and the Rockies are rising up behind her in honor. She is squinting and smiling and I can remember the joy of being there and sharing every moment. The smell of the campfire. The wonder of the scenic views. The laughter at all the Elk around our tent in the morning.

15. The day I bought her ring was Friday. I look back and think how she should’ve seen it first. But I showed it to everyone at my office and felt like I was spreading joy among those people I spent so much time with during the week. When my kids get excited about something like Christmas, they cannot contain their excitement. It’s like they’ll explode with joy and anticipation. That is how I felt all day on Friday. Except on Christmas, you cannot wait to *get* something as a kid. I was dying to give that ring to her.

16. I’d been living in that Brook Highland apartment for a few months. But the night before was her first night in the apartment because it was the day we got home from the honeymoon. It was Monday. I was anxious to get home for the first time because she was there. In our home. Our home. There is nothing like coming home and your spouse is there and you are thinking about dinner for the first time and talking about the day after that first ordinary day of work.

17. We stood in the kitchen and hugged. I may have just gotten home from work. The sounds of the kids were all around us. I started to let go and she said, “No, not enough.” And so I didn’t let go. And she’s right, you know.

18. We are sitting on a beach. Both of us are watching the water meet the horizon. Something about the sea air, the light of dusk, and the waning sun causes us to look at each other and smile. We’ve been here a dozen times. We know this place and maybe it knows a little about us. The kids are playing nearby in the sand. Some others are playing in the water. Another family is having pictures made, trying to capture something only cameras wish for. Our bellies are full of seafood. Our hearts are full, too.

19. It’s snowing. Our chairs in the living room are turned so we can look out onto our white front yard, which has never looked so beautiful. A Christmas tree sits between us. We are drinking coffee and watching the biggest snow flakes we’ve ever seen fall from an Alabama sky. John Coltrane plays in the background and the snow just keeps coming defying all predictions and expectations just like lovers do in all those great stories that’ve always been told.

Rest: Part 1

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My wife sleeps nearby. My kids too. I’ve risen before the sun with Hugo and Springsteen. When I poured my coffee a full moon lit the kitchen well enough, no other light was needed. Now the sun hides that mirror and day arrives. Eponine has just told Marius she does not want money for the address. The Boss sings, “I work all day out in the hot sun.”

When I started my new positions as teacher and pastor back in August, for the first time in my life I began to observe a day of rest. No work for 24 hours. This resolve came from reading Eugene Peterson. I pretty much swore to myself if I ever went back to ministry, I would observe a day of rest every week. No work for 24 hours. And since August, I have only failed to do this once. Maybe twice. And even then it was Sunday School prep for which I at one time was not paid. But still, it was work. I felt the pressure of teaching…preaching really to 100 men and women in my Sunday School class. That day showed me the rest was worth more to my teaching than my preparation. The next week showed me this even more when I did rest.

That lesson seemed to be more effective and powerful showing me that I am not in control and my smarts are not the end all be all.

You may have noticed that I have been using the word “rest” and not “Sabbath.” I just noticed that too. There are probably two reasons for this choice of words – my history and a new book I’m reading

When I was a youth pastor in Greenwood, Mississippi, I was enjoying what could only be called a successful ministry in a small PCA church. The lead pastor encouraged me to get ordained with the full approbation of the Elders. I had not been all that interested  because a previous pastor I worked with at another church had encouraged ordination so as to reap the tax benefits. That turned me off to ordination for a time but the encouragement of these men with whom I served softened my heart. So I studied and wrote my papers.

It has now been over 10 years since I sought ordination so the process is a bit hazy. I know all the papers I had to write were accepted and were seen as very well done. I was examined in committees and that went well. But before ordination can happen, you have to preach and then be examined on the floor of a presbytery meeting. This examination consists of being asked theological questions, which I answered without any problem. All was going perfectly till they asked me if I had any exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Now there are two things you need to know about this whole process. First, there are differing opinions within the PCA on whether you should be able to take exception to any part of the WCF. Some Presbyteries will allow you to take an exception on certain issues. Some Presbyteries will allow none. Second, you need to know this was one of those presbyteries that allowed no exceptions.

I let them know that I did take exception to the Confession’s teaching on the Sabbath. I did not believe that the Sabbath laws of the Mosaic Covenant were still in force. That did not go well. That whole event is a blur but I can remember a few things. One is an old man pointing at me and calling me an “antinomian” meaning that I am anti-law. The word heresy might have been used. A few men shaking their heads in disapproval. Anger. I had done my homework and was able to quote stalwarts throughout Presbyterian history and leaders within our denomination. All for nothing. My ordination was indefinitely tabled.

Since I was not a Sabbatarian in confession, I had no hope of being ordained in that presbytery. I not only felt defeated, I was angry. And my anger grew as I learned that I only needed to say that I was wrong in my conviction. My practice did not matter. Actually, I was told by one pastor that I only needed to rescind my exception and I could keep my private conviction. Knowing most other presbyteries would not have even blinked did not help.

Needless to say, I not only soured on Sabbatarians, I soured on Presbyterians. I soon left and went back to my Baptist roots.

Earlier this week, I listened to an interview of A.J. Swoboda about his new book, Subversive Sabbath. Before the interview was over I had ordered the book.

Why?

How did I get from drowning in the floor of that Presbytery meeting to swimming further out into what feels increasingly like refreshing pools of teaching on Sabbath rest? Swoboda points to it in that interview and his book which I have just begun. Taking a Sabbath is God’s gift of rest. Rest we were made for. Rest that reminds me that I am not God. And neither is the world with all its demands.

I would like to resume this blog with a few posts as I read through this book. My hope is that I will find rest and those of you still interested in reading this nearly abandoned space will find some hope in rest also.

Springsteen just sang, “The way the winds rush through the trees.” Marius is waiting. The sun waits along with the day. My kids stir in the next room waiting for breakfast. And I have already felt the pull of work and how hard it is to say, “no, not today.”