Selah: Pause and Listen
I’ve claimed Christianity as my own more than 16 years now. Sometimes it feels like my whole life and yet I have to remember that it’s only a microblink in the scope of eternity. I have so much yet to learn, so much to discover. (And so many new words to make up like microblink.)
I look back over my fumbling adulthood so far – so many moments of chasing after God, laying down my life for His purposes, wanting desperately to be obedient and please Him – and I’m glad for it. My desire to make him Lord of my life has helped shape me, shaving off some of the layers of selfishness and arrogance and other forms of pride that wrap themselves through the pages of my story. And as much as I’ve dedicated huge quantities of my internal real estate to investing in my “Christian life”, I also wonder at times – have I loved Him like a bride? Have I loved Him like a daughter? Have I loved Him like a friend?
We’re given multiple metaphors in scripture about giving and receiving love, about being in relationship with a God who’s love for us is fierce, unrelenting, and without condition, and yet I still so easily default to works and tasks and agendas and accomplishments in order to “demonstrate” my love to a God who loves to call himself my friend.
Selah is intentional, not a filler.
My family and I, we’re taking a Selah. We’ve called it a sabbatical, a furlough, an extended break – many things depending on who we’re talking to and how we perceive they might interpret the words. But really, what we’re doing is selah.
The word selah is used 74 times in scripture and generally means to pause and listen. It infers reflection, a breath, margin, space, meditation, rest. It’s intentional, not a filler, and it’s used in the scope of music and poetry.
Selah makes space for the beauty to be absorbed and for the melody to stay on course.
I was recently at a writing conference, doing my best to navigate the dreaded introductory small talk and my fragile emotional state after a tumultuous few months preceding our Big Move, when I answered the question for the twenty-thousandth time: What do you do? I told the polite, inquisitive, unsuspecting soul that my husband and I have been in ministry for close to fifteen years and that we had just left our positions to take a sabbatical in order to rest.
Yes, the woman said in response to my explanation, but what will you DO on sabbatical?
Nothing, I told her. We plan on doing nothing. It’s actually our plan to do. . . nothing.
I probably don’t have to tell you that our conversation didn’t get very far after my eloquent and insightful response.
Obviously my family and I won’t be doing nothing for the next several months but I found myself frustrated by the need to explain to a stranger why it was important for us to take this selah. (No fault whatsoever to her – she was just trying to understand.)
The concept of selah is foreign to our culture.
Unfortunately our society has no basis for understanding pause outside of freezing our DVD player while someone goes to make more popcorn. We spin our wheels on the adrenaline of our overstuffed schedules and we wear our “busy” like a badge of honor for the Important and the Much Sought After. We consider a bath a luxury and a book an indulgent pastime.
But what if a bath and a book are essential ingredients in the very fuel our bodies need for our engines to keep turning?
There is a lot of chatter on the internet about self care and I’ve had many conversations with girlfriends and with Ryan about what exactly that looks like in this fast paced, on-demand, high bandwidth world we live in. There have been times where I’ve been better at the disciplines of self care than others. And yet I can look back over the last years of my life and ministry and see that I was in a rut of too much most of the time, which always left me feeling not enough.
I was like one of those brides that worked so hard to prepare for the perfect wedding that by the time the wedding day came she didn’t have enough energy to enjoy being the bride. Her centerpieces are exquisite and she looks stunning in her dress but there is no sparkle in her eye. (Smiles can be manufactured but eye sparkles sure can’t.)
Selah is not separate from the music we’re creating with our lives, it’s part of it.
When we first began talking with our pastors about this need for selah we discussed terminology and what others might think about our decision. Because our income rests squarely in the generosity of supporters and their conviction to give toward the work we’re doing, we needed to make sure that we were careful to describe this time in a way that wouldn’t cause people to pull the plug on our paycheck.
Be careful what words you use, our pastor cautioned us. Many people think ‘sabbatical’ is what you take when you’ve been fired and you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life next. (Can I just mention here how grateful we are that our pastors not only understand and endorse what we are doing – they insist upon and applaud it and are looking for ways to help facilitate it? Ah-mazing.)
The term furlough also comes with baggage in tow. In the world outside the church it’s most commonly used to refer to a forced leave of absence – an alternative to being laid off – but without pay or say in how or what that looks like. And within the church a missionary furlough often has the connotations of being an extended holiday or a focused time to fundraise or recruit more workers. (Although it’s actually so much more.) And while both of those things are important for overseas missionary workers like us, they are far too simplistic to describe the individual needs and assignments of a missionary or missionary family.
While Ryan and I do need time think and pray about “what’s next” in terms of our vocation and outworking of our ministry, and we also need some good old fashioned vacationing (guilt-free fun), and some intentional and strategic fundraising and recruiting, what we really need most is a pause.
We need a selah that is not separate from the music we’re creating with our lives, but is actually a key part of understanding and appreciating it.
We need a selah to set aside those agendas and responsibilities and the constant pull of more-work-more-needs-more-opportunities-more-obligations-more-ought to’s so that we can purify the receiving of the “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” of Jesus, and free ourselves to give it a little better, too. (Thank you Sally Lloyd Jones for the description of God’s love that speaks so deeply to me and our children and countless others.)
Selah allows us to drink it all in.
So far, our selah is taking the form of reading chapters in books, rather than just paragraphs. It looks like family bike rides just to be outside rather than to get somewhere. It’s taking the form of meals prepared more slowly, games of Elmo Dominoes at the kitchen table with cups of hot chocolate. It’s morning devotions or scripture reading because we want to, not because we should (or because we have a sermon or teaching to prepare). It’s backing off the internet a little, taking naps without feeling guilty, and dreaming about what “pulling down heaven” can look like right here in the midst of our parenting and marriage and community and our dreams for the future.
We’re redefining the cantata of our lives and making room for the uncrowded harmonies that come when the melody is not overly complicated and the rhythm is unhurried. Our pause is not an ending or an aborting or even just “checking out” for a while. Our selah is an intentionally defined moment to drink it all in and let the notes resonate a little deeper, a little truer.
You may not be able to take the type of pause that our family is taking right now (and this might be our once-in-a-lifetime – we don’t know). But how can you find selah regardless of your circumstances? How can you find selah in your carpool lines and mounting to-do lists, in your deadlines and financial pressures? How can you find it in finishing an essay or cramming for an exam? How can you find it in mounds of laundry and doctors appointments and the tricky work of navigating a diagnosis or while you gasp for air in the waves of grief? How can you find it in the mundane of wiping countertops and the steady, hard work of building friendships or strengthening a marriage? How can you find it balancing budgets and attending night classes and pumping out blog posts? How can you find it in the bleachers of a little league game or the small gathering of the saints around bread and wine and scripture at your table?
How can you find your own selah?
How can you pause to make your life’s song a little sweeter?
Learning to selah,