February is a dark, gray, slushy time of year in the Midwest. In my hometown Chicago, the days seem longer than they were in January, and the promise of more sunlight in March seems still-distant. In ministry it can feel like a “gray” time of the year as well. I’m a bookworm, so when the midwinter doldrums hit, I often turn to writers. This winter I’m reading two very different books: Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest: From Sabbath to Sabbatical and Back Again by Ruth Haley Barton, and This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us by Cole Arthur Riley. They are very different in their writing styles, but in the end, there is at least one shared message…
In the first, Barton reminds us of the gift of Sabbath—of the need for a rhythm that invites us to pause, to rest, to “delight” in. There is a contemplative feel to it, but it’s not about contemplation. It’s about the need for Sabbath, the role of the rhythm of work and of rest, and finally what happens when we resist that rhythm. Barton speaks to the loss of what Sabbath is really about. I nod my head in agreement. Sabbath is good. Sabbath is for us. But as she says, “The distance between insight and practice is huge for most of us who are active in Christian work and ministry—or really any work at all.” We strive toward constant productivity. We need to produce and achieve. Barton bemoans the fact that the church is the only large-scale institution in society that is uniquely positioned to help us embrace this rhythm, and yet interestingly enough, it doesn’t. Ministers are at least as guilty as those outside the church of resisting and ignoring the full meaning of Sabbath.
- How can we in ministry remember the grace found in Sabbath, the communal aspect of this beautiful practice?
- How might we avoid fatigue in ministry, the stuckness of certain seasons, if we attended to this practice more intentionally?
One of the most striking messages for me is that Sabbath is not about quiet time alone. Sabbath is truly about communally delighting in the gifts of our Creator.
Before I describe the second book, I have to let you know this author challenges me in ways that are hard to define. Riley’s words are like poetry; they speak deeply to my soul. And yet they are not comforting words. They are prophetic. They are an examination of conscience. They make me uncomfortable. They call me to something more. I was looking for inspiration, perhaps rest, and pause that might breathe life into the “gray” season. What I found in Riley’s book was a new perspective that opens me up. Even though it speaks to the story of contemplative life, it’s outside my previous understanding of contemplation. It’s an embodied sense of attending to God in me. It’s a being that requires me to be completely—not just silently, not just alone, but together, in community, in song, in experience, with everything I am.
In the preface, Riley calls it a “storied contemplation.” She says, “I was not raised in an overtly religious home; my spiritual formation now comes to me in memories—not creeds or doctrine, but the air we breathed, stories, myth, and a kind of attentiveness.” It is a spirituality that says, “Pay attention!” This contemplation is not quiet. She says, “…I’m learning sometimes the most sacred thing to do is shout.” Describing a matriarchal scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved she says, “But this literary moment of intergenerational, dignity-affirming, embodied liberation is my model for spirituality to date.” (Emphasis mine)
I’m challenged by her description of all that we carry in our bodies, especially of all those who have been oppressed carry in theirs. This spirituality is something within that awakens us to wonder if we do not resist, that gives us permission to lament, and to rage against all that is unjust. There is collective memory and a communal joy that we can only experience when we are connected to one another. We need people who carry the heavy load with us, but also those who hold our joy with us.
She goes on:
Cole Arthur Riley
“I am interested in reclaiming a contemplation that is not exclusive to whiteness, intellectualism, ableism, or mere hobby. And as a Black woman, I am disinterested in any call to spirituality that divorces my mind from my body, voice, or people. To suggest a form of faith that tells me to sit down alone and be quiet? It does not rest easy on the bones. It is a shadow of true contemplative life, and it would do violence to my Black-woman soul.“
I am not a Black woman. I cannot know all that she describes, but I do feel an affinity for the spirituality she paints on these pages. I do feel called to what she calls a “true contemplative” life. One that calls to me to pay attention always and in all ways. Contemplation is defined as the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. Her definition of a contemplative life would suggest this is a lifetime’s journey. Perhaps this is what it means to “pray always.”
So, although my inclination is toward hibernation this time of year, I believe the cure for the doldrums might come in communal action, not silence. I was looking for rest, and what I found was a charge. Pay attention. Delight together. Walk together. Give praise together. Take a pause together. See where God is at work in all that we are about—together…
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.