The Sabbath of Sabbaths (and a winner!)

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Last night at sundown, Jews around the world ushered in Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement. In Leviticus 16:29, God mandated this holy day on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar as the day of atonement for sins. Yom Kippur is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths because Leviticus 23:27 decrees it as a strict day of rest.

When I realized the significance of the day, I called one of my Jewish friends and asked if he would take me to Temple with him. “Oh, Laura,” he said. “You don’t want to go to that service. It’s soo long. And it’s all in Hebrew. You’ll be bored to tears.”

So I started reading more about Yom Kippur, falling down so many happy little rabbit trails, delighting in feeding an endless curiosity about the roots of my faith. Jewish traditions are fascinating.

I learned that, according to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, which is the first day of the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar and considered the start of the Jewish New Year, God writes names into the Book of Life and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” a fate of life or death. There is a ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as The Days of Awe, in which individuals seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and people, and try to influence the sealing of their fate. This is done through prayer (of repentance), fasting, and giving to charity.

The span of the twenty-five hours of Yom Kippur, from sundown on Tuesday to Sundown on Wednesday, are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

As I read about the traditions of Yom Kippur, I couldn’t let go of the idea of attending the service. I found a reformed Jewish congregation nearby and called their office (surely this service would be in English?). I told the nice man who answered the phone that I was interested in attending their Yom Kippur service that evening but I am not Jewish. Is that something he would recommend?

“I want to say that anyone is welcome to come to any service at any time,” he said, and I heard a cautionary note in his voice. “But generally we recommend to people who are visiting to come to our Friday Shabbat services. A Rosh Hashanah or a Yom Kippur service would tend to run very long and could be a bit overwhelming. But you are welcome to come any time.”

I acceded defeat.

So I finished up my workday and drove on home, where I read more about the traditions associated with Yom Kippur.

  1. No eating or drinking
  2. No wearing leather shoes
  3. No bathing or washing
  4. No perfumes or lotions
  5. No marital relations

It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur, which symbolizes purity and reminds that our sins shall be made as white as snow. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

I could go on and on.

I spent some time in prayer, repenting personally and for my community. And when my husband came home from work, we took a long walk in the last receding light of day. The falling sun bathed everything in amber and I felt my soul shift into a holy place. I imagined Jesus in the synagogue with his family—Jesus the boy, Jesus the young man, Jesus my Lord—ushering in Yom Kippur with prayer and song. I felt a rush of gratitude that my salvation rests in his hands, not my own. I felt a rush of gratitude that all these rules have been replaced by grace.

And this morning when I awakened, still flush with the love of this high holy day, even though I couldn’t make this a strict day of rest, I felt rest in my heart. And I remembered what Mark Buchanan said in a panel discussion with Ann Voskamp and Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh: Sabbath is a heart attitude.

And this makes me smile.

Shelly Miller’s new book Rhythms of Rest is all about how Sabbath is a heart attitude. I’m glad to give a copy of her lovely book (along with a couple others in the bundle) to:  Sharon O.! Yay! Congratulations, Sharon. You can email me your snail at laraj@suddenlink.net and I’ll get these out to you ASAP!

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West Virginia Morning: Hidden (and a giveaway)

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‘As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,’ Thoreau wrote. You don’t want to kill time but to welcome it, to pick off its leaves and petals one by one, second by second.” ~Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

It’s the time of year when I can’t go outside without getting caught in a spider web. I no sooner walk out in the yard and I am wrapped in bands of light, clawing at my face and limbs to wipe off the sticky threads. I cannot be irritated, though, for the spider has long held my admiration. What beauty she gives us on these dewy mornings. This is the best time to go out and see—star shards left behind in the night, captured in the silken webs.

I found her hiding place this morning while filling the finch feeders. Black oil sunflower seeds dropped down plastic tubes and out of the corner of my eye I saw the morning breeze exhale across silken threads. One does not usually get to enjoy such artwork before sunrise so I padded over to gawk, wet grass clinging to bare feet.

She wasn’t home but I made myself comfortable anyway, let my eyes linger on light-studded gossamer as a cardinal complained noisily in a nearby tree.

There it was again—faint ripple in the design and as the toile-work lifted and fell it was as if an invisible string joined my soul to its gentle rise. In your light, we see light, the Psalm I read this morning said, and I can feel eternity stir inside of me—the place that beauty always touches.

Things are changing around here. Teddy decided not to come home this weekend for fall break and the emptiness of these rooms echoes deep in my heart. I wonder what he is doing with his time, long for a text that says more than, “hi,” feel this new kind of mothering like being caught in a spiderweb. Flailing.  But there is something else, too, in this restless season. The fire of expectation burns the empty into promise. The earth models for us how to handle these transitions with grace and my hungry eyes seek its tutelage. Autumn whispers on the edges of the days and last night I noticed the fireflies have finally made themselves scarce.

“From now on we lose two minutes of daylight every day,” my friend Frankie told me yesterday at work. “And in November, we lose an hour.”

Later today I will pull up my ramshackle beans, what’s left of the tomatoes and squash. Then I will plant the fall crop of greens. I texted my mother-in-law this morning, “Am I too late?” And she said, no, there is still time.

As I wait for the spider to appear, the sun burns off the morning dew. I feel time move over me—my shoulders, my neck, the curve of my cheek. I have a million things to do today, my only day off from the day job. It’s like that, I try to crowd too much into this one small gap of time. And yet, here I stand, lost in the wonder of a light-studded web.

An allowance for unbridled joy through playdates with God on Sabbath can provide the same result as a quiet, meditative retreat.” Shelly Miller says, in her lovely new book Rhythms of Rest: Finding the Spirit of Sabbath in a Busy World. “Extravagant wastefulness with time might prove the most productive thing you choose for yourself.”

As I read her words I am feeling seen, for the first time in a long time, perhaps. And I know this tender ache of missing my boy is something beautiful, something to be celebrated, just as is the coming of light each day.

Slowly, sweetly, the light saturates the morning, and my unseen spider friend’s hiding place becomes invisible once again.

To celebrate my friend Shelly’s new book release, I’m giving away a copy of Rhythms of Rest: Finding the Spirit of Sabbath in a Busy World. I’m also including a copy of my book Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, which Shelly so graciously quotes in Rhythms of Rest. But wait! There’s more. Also included in the gift pack is a copy of Francine Rivers’ new devotional Earth Psalms: Reflections on How God Speaks Through Nature.  Simply leave a comment for a chance to win. I’ll announce the winner Wednesday, Oct. 12.

This post is a partial reprint from the archives.

West Virginia Morning: Gathering Light

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The summer storms these past few days have left us waterlogged and droopy. This morning the air is heavy with moisture and the Queen Anne’s Lace in the meadow collects the memory of rain. I tiptoe through the sodden grass in flip-flops, try not to disturb the family of House Wrens in the nesting box. The day begins with thousands of drops of light, dripping from leaf and bole. The grass is littered with yellow leaves from the Walnut tree, tiny boats sailing this wet land. I watch a baby rabbit disappear through a door of bending grasses.

It’s been a while since I’ve welcomed morning this way.

I feel my spirit quicken within me; my eyes begin to open fully. So many days lately I’ve been sleepwalking through life. Too many things on the to-do list and there is never enough time. I’ve let that list become too big again, gotten lost in the checking off the items. This is a danger I live with constantly: I lose myself easily.

But this morning I promise to only lose myself in beauty, get lost in time. At first if feels like swimming underwater, awkward, muted. But my body remembers quickly. It just takes practice. Practice. Yesterday I listened to an audio book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés—that esteemed cantadora who woos my heart with story. She talked about that word, practice. She said how sad it is that it has come to mean “to do the same thing over and over” in our world. She shared an old Latin word that is a synonym for “practice.” This word means, “to sing aloud in order to remain close to.”

éYes. That’s my kind of practice.

I begin to hum quietly as I search for light.

Welcome, Morning, I sing. Welcome.

On Sleeping Trees and Sabbath-Keeping

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Last week I read an article about a study that indicates trees may actually sleep at night. Scientists have discovered that from about two hours after sunset to right before sunrise, a sample of trees studied drooped their branches and leaves about four inches in a posture of rest.

The researchers hypothesize that this droop is either caused by a loss of water pressure inside the trees due to the absence of photosynthesis at night (turgor pressure), or they speculate, trees may have a natural circadian rhythm—just as humans do. That means, the tree was designed to need rest.

Apparently, and this is something I’ve not given much thought to but it makes perfect sense, circadian rhythms in plant life are well documented and known. But until recently, we haven’t had the technology to study a plant as large as a tree.

Why does it surprise me that science is discovering how much of creation has a built in need for rest?  I read about the drooping trees at a time when I am struggling to find more rest in my life. This morning, to remind myself how I have managed this in the past, I re-read the chapter on Sabbath from my book Playdates with God. I thought I’d share a tiny portion of that chapter here—a gift reminder for me and for you.

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I remember long afternoons under the shade of the apple tree—cooling our tongues with the juice of green apples, drifting in and out as the sun played chiaroscuro over eyelids. And I remember the scent of summer rain through open windows as my little brother and I lay whispering on my bed—waiting for our bodies and minds to drift into our afternoon nap.

Rest.

As I gently touch these memories with the finger of my heart, a pit of longing wells up inside of me and I wonder, when did I forget the way the slowing down leads me into the arms of the Father?

My Jewish friends would not be surprised at this tender ache that pulses inside of me. “You are missing the keeping of Sabbath,” one tells me. “Your life is too busy. How can you hear the voice of God amidst all that noise?” He believes this longing for rest is built deep into my spirit; he believes God put it there. Indeed, Judith Shulevitz in her book The Sabbath World, tells us, “[A]t the core of Sabbath lies an unassuageable longing…”

It is a longing, she goes on to say, for something that is unattainable. For, in this fallen world we live in exile—separated from a perfect union with God or with one another. Yet, in Sabbath-keeping we experience a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.

…  And so I began to sit with the longing. I started small—Sabbath moments. With each setting sun I would gather a bit of the day together at its edges and be still. Light a candle, play some music, contemplate beauty, and meditate on the pure and lovely things in my life.

These moments took me back under the apple tree—looking up through the branches at the clouds moving slowly across the sky. And I felt the promise of new life; the hunger was sated for just those short moments.

The rabbis speak of the additional soul that is granted on the eve of the Sabbath—the neshamah yeterah. In his beautiful book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Neshamah yeterah means additional spirit. It is usually translated ‘additional soul’…Some thinkers took the term neshamah yeterah as a figurative expression for increased spirituality or ease and comfort. Others believed that an actual spiritual entity, a second soul, becomes embodied in man on the seventh day…”

This is a soul which is all perfection, he says, and when the Sabbath day is over, this soul ascends once again into the heavens from which it came.

I do not know about such things. But when I remember those Sabbath moments from my youth—and when I capture them now in this old skin—I am tempted to receive this rich lore into my heart. For, those moments are counted the sweetest in my mind and are perhaps the closest to perfection I will ever come.

**This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press.

Christmas 2015

On Christmas Eve’s eve we grilled burgers and sat out on the back deck late into the evening. I looked up into the night sky and wondered about Mary, about that star, about the night sounds in Bethlehem. As we wait for the swaddled one, our Advent has been swaddled too—in family, quiet moments, books, and home. I’ve been reading about Sabbath again, and this week these words jump out at me:

Sabbath is a fiction, true and sure, the promise of peace. ~Dan Allender, Sabbath: The Ancient Practices

I have been living a fiction these past days, dreaming within a dream—a woman come back from the dust. How wonderful to know only the warmth of kith and kin, to be formed by the waiting, and let my ardor for God be stirred by love.

I pray the same for all of you, Beloveds. I am wrapping you in the swaddling clothes of my love.

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