Sensing God :: See

John 9 is one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible and will be the chapter we look at for the First Sunday in Lent as we talk about Sensing Jesus. In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man. I realize that we can find a lot of these instances in the Gospels, but this one is very different. It includes a conversation challenging a flawed theology of what caused the man’s blindness, an intense conflict between the healed man and the Pharisees, and a realization that the authorities who placed themselves as the judge of others bring judgment on themselves. We also watch the amazing development of the blind man in his knowledge of Jesus move from, “I do not know him” to proclaiming him Lord and worshiping him…quite a transformation.

Today, on Ash Wednesday, I want to focus on the first of many lessons I glean from this passage. In Jesus, God is revealed as the giver of life, not as a rules-maker and rules-enforcer (take a moment to look at his healings on the Sabbath as a primary example). Early in this story, Jesus radically reorients how his disciples (we) see and think about God. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This question reflected the theological belief of the day among Jews – that someone did something wrong for him to be born blind. It was cause and effect. That’s how God works because God is a God of rules they believed. Jesus challenged that.

It is very important to recognize that how we see God impacts how we live life, how we see ourselves, and how we see others.

If you see God as the divine rule-maker and rule-enforcer, they you will see yourself and others in those same terms (well, mostly others). If that is who God is then we will find ourselves constantly judging others by how well they are following codes of behavior.

If you see God as a giver of life, you will participate in sharing that life in yourself and with others. You will participate in healing, reconciling, and loving.

How we SEE God directly impacts how we live, move, and have our being. The beginning of John 9 and this question of the disciples before the actual sign (miracle) doesn’t seem to have the impact of the rest of the story, but I think how the chapter starts is critical…because it challenges us and calls us to examine how we understand sin and its effects. Once we wrestle with this opening section, the rest of the chapter will make a lot more sense. John 9 is about how we all begin our journey through life in blindness. Our spiritual life hinges on our willingness to allow Jesus to transform our capacity to see everything.

This is the first step on the first day of Lent…recognizing that we all begin our journey in blindness.

Sabbath and Multitasking

Multitasking is a word that has taken on new life in the last 20 years with the advent of computers and smart phones that run multiple programs at once.  When I first started in ministry in 1993, the church office computer was still running MS-DOS for our word processing with floppy disks (talk about feeling old).  While I would never want to go back to those days, I remember that it took a little while to set my word processing up and get started.  The idea that I would switch to another program before I was finished was crazy.  The only thing that interrupted me was the telephone.

This morning as I write this, I am working on a PC that has 5 open programs running at the same time while my iPhone is on speakerphone attending a Board of Trustees meeting for Magnolia Manor.  My iPhone alert just went off as I write telling me not to forget to call a church member when I finish.  I am literally doing 5 things at the same time.  (Whether I am effective at those things is up for debate).

Recently, I read an article on (here) that discussed the pros and cons of multitasking vs. unitasking.  The truth is we are more focused and productive when we are focused on one thing at a time…but that is not the world we live in.  We all struggle to slow down and focus on the things that matter.

In his book, Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Michael Lerner says that anyone who sets out to engage in a disciplined practice of Sabbath can expect a rough ride for a couple of years at least. This is because Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, none of which comes naturally to us with in our culture with our technology.  Most of us are so sold on speed, so invested in productivity, so convinced that multitasking is the way of life that stopping for one whole day can feel at first like a kind of death.

Personally, when I work I am glad to be able to multitask.  The problem is this multitasking mentality is hard to break out of on my days of Sabbath.  I find myself on the golf course or with my family or alone in reflection on my day off replying to text messages and emails.  I convince myself “just one text/email more and I will be finished” or “this one is very important”.

What would my Sabbath look like if I could totally unplug?  What would people think if they couldn’t get in touch with me as fast as they think they should?  What happens if it takes me three hours to return a text message?  All of these worries wage war against the practice of Sabbath.

After reflection, I discovered that what I am doing is multitasking my Sabbath.  I really should be unitasking my Sabbath to experience it as God commands.  How can I really experience God, pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness when I multitask Sabbath?

It may be time for me to die to some of the technological crutches that tie me to my need for productivity.  It may be time to rededicate myself to Sabbath.

Sabbath and Billable Hours

Many people who move to settle on St. Simons Island from the North are drawn by more than the beauty of this place.  They continually refer to the style and quality of life…the way we relate to one another…how we spend time getting to know one another and how we are willing to “move a little slower” in all things.  I don’t know if there is any science behind it, but I’m just anecdotally sharing what I hear on a regular basis.

But even in the good ‘ole South, I am continually struck by how many people are struggling in life with stress, relationships, time, and spirituality and how few people associate their ordeals with the lack of understanding and keeping Sabbath.  The church doesn’t do a good job teaching or modeling about Sabbath.  I just thought I’d share a few reflections from an article I read this morning.

Dorothy Bass, in her article Christian Formation In and For Sabbath Rest, writes, “most contemporary Americans are caught in an alternative set of practices for living in time that affects many dimensions of their lives…although we have been taught we should use time well, it now feels to many people like time is using them…”  She continues quoting from The Overworked American by Juliet Schor, “recent research has confirmed that on average Americans work more hours than those in any other developed country, in spite of large increases in productivity during recent decades…Americans have chosen to take the economic surplus that immense productivity provides not in time but in more and more consumer goods.”  Simply put, we could have more time if we chose to cash in our productivity towards it.  Instead, we cash it in for money and more stuff.

Bass also references the poet Noelle Oxenhandler in a stimulating image that should call us all to reflect on our need for Sabbath rest.  Our 24/7/365 way of life can be seen most clearly in two institutions that exist in every town, lit by the same “shrill, twenty-four hour light, the doors that never shut, the windowless air, and a counter or front desl manned by the same rotation of pale clerks with their free-floating body clocks.”  The two are the 7-Eleven and the emergency room.  Oxenhandler continues, “What does it mean that the 7-Eleven and the emergency room are atmospherically similar?  The emergency room is a necessity…but a Pop-Tart and a six pack of Coke in the middle of the night?  We have come to believe that convenience is a necessity…our own definition of a world in order is one in which all goods and services are always immediately available.”

Finally, another resource Bass calls upon is Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and humanities at Notre Dame.  Kaveny explores the logic of a system that shapes both work life and the self-understanding of lawyers: billable hours.  The world-view of billable hours teaches five lessons: “(1) human time is not intrinsically valuable but rather a worth only so far as it is productive; (2) human time is first and foremost a commodity with an identifiable monetary value; (3) every hour is financially equivalent and thus worth the same amount as every other hour, regardless of claims from family or tradition that mark some hours as especially precious ones; (4) lawyers live in an endless, colorless present; and (5) they are therefore unable to participate fully with loved ones who live by other patterns, and so become increasingly isolated from community.”  I would argue that this self-understanding is also true for all of us who evaluate work and productivity in “man or woman hours”…equating a monetary value for our time.

For all of us, how we organize and understand time creates for us a framework for our entire lives and all our relationships…including our relationship with God.

S3 for South Georgia – A Sanctuary in Time

“S3 has helped me develop the discipline and self-awareness to have an eye on my reserves. I believe that this is an important guard against burnout.”

– Rev. Dr. Jimmy Asbell

“. . .the difference between wandering through a barren land all alone or travelling with deeply loyal friends…”

– Rev. Creede Hinshaw

“What I did not know when we first began was that the time we would spend together investing in building relationship with God and each other would spill over into ministry and life.”

– Rev. Teresa Edwards

“The luxury of spending two or three days with people you respect, trust, and love has been a real gift. It has given us a safe place to fall and a nurturing place to grow.”

– Rev. Karen Kilhefner

I continue to grow in my understanding of Sabbath. As an ordained United Methodist elder, I continually experience the deep need for margin and reserves in my life. I don’t control when the crises will inundate me. As I pastor, I try to focus on the urgent needs of the week. Unfortunately, the reality of ministry tends to be extremely chaotic. Just two weeks ago, three tragedies struck in one day. But I was not overwhelmed. I was ready to minister. How? I am learning to remember and observe Sabbath practice.

I wish I could tell you that came naturally. It does not. My cultivation of Sabbath came through a unique blessing called S3. The S3 learning experience offered me and seven other elders from South Georgia the opportunity to create a sanctuary in time – providing a Sabbath environment for us. Through the S3 program, we were afforded a significant amount of time together over a two year period. Through Sabbath, study, and service (S3), the experience created deep relationships with God and one another.

We studied Centering Prayer. While other members of my group thought I didn’t get that much out of the prayer videos, the experience has broadened my spiritual practice. I am a better and deeper preacher. It encouraged me to develop contemplative practices in the local church. It transformed my ministry.

We gathered for Sabbath experience five times per year for two years. We played golf. We ceased labor. We experienced the gift of life and friendship. We laughed, ate, drank, and shared our lives with each other. Even though we no longer receive funding, we still meet three times per year. The same is true for every other S3 group!

We committed to service by mentoring new S3 groups. Our group started new groups in South Georgia and we are now laying the groundwork for birthing the S3 program in South Georgia.

S3 speaks for itself. Take time to call up and ask a S3 participant (South Georgia has 20 graduates), “What difference has this made in your life and in your church?” Every single one will tell you it has been effective and powerful.

If you are a lay person, encourage your ordained elder to participate. Give them the time and support to engage fully in S3. It will make all the difference in their life and it will make a difference in your church.

Very soon, we will have detailed information, a helpful video for churches and clergy, and an application on the conference website,