Pastor Mark Buchanan’s love for God shines through everything he writes. As the author of five books, including THE REST OF GOD, his abilities as a wordsmith and precise prose spring from a love of books and a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Columbia and a Masters degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Vancouver’s Regent College. His articles are regularly found in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today and The Christian Century. Buchanan’s delight in creation is evinced in his penchant for gardening, fishing, swimming and scuba diving around his home on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his wife Cheryl and their three children --- Adam, Sarah and Nicola.
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October 6, 2006
For Mark Buchanan, a working pastor, there is a delicious irony in trying to make Sunday a day of rest. His wrestlings with creating his own Sabbath and taming the frantic pace of his life to a slower, more reflective way of living make THE REST OF GOD an instructive and interesting read; his beautiful prose makes the journey a delight. FaithfulReader.com’s Cindy Crosby talks with Buchanan about the process of finding his ideal Sabbath, his love affair with books and poetry, how he has quit breaking the speed limit, and why busyness is killing our hearts and souls.
FaithfulReader.com: It’s difficult to set aside a day of quiet, as you talk about in THE REST OF GOD. At what point did this become imperative for you? What were the signs in your life that you needed to stop and rest?
Mark Buchanan: Doing more, getting less. And even when I was seeing fruit from my labors, I was losing the capacity to savor it. Mostly, I felt a strange mingling of lethargy, apathy, guilt and driven-ness. Something was going to give.
FR: You call the Sabbath both “a day and an attitude.” Can you explain to our readers what you mean by that?
MB: Obviously, biblically, Sabbath is a day --- the seventh day or, more accurately, the day you stop. But the ability to receive the day and enter it is dependent on our capacity to rest in God. This is the Sabbath heart --- to be able, as Paul describes it, to be content in every situation because we can do all things through him who strengthens us. If we cannot rest in God, we cannot rest, period, regardless of how much time we have off.
FR: As a pastor, do you find that it is difficult to set aside Sabbath time? How do you manage to keep the Sabbath?
MB: Ha! Of course --- the vocation's cruelest irony, maybe. There is perhaps no line of work that so tempts us to play God as the pastorate --- to think that Jesus got mixed up in John 15 and really meant to say, "Apart from you I can do nothing." My family and I experimented with taking Sabbath on Friday (my day off) --- it didn't work for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that we needed a day to catch up with household matters. We landed on taking Sabbath on Sunday, along with most of our congregation. Jesus said, "on the Sabbath the priests of the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent" (Matt. 12:5). Principally, I think Sabbath is a community event --- and at its heart is corporate worship. I do not see Sundays as a work day (to explain this perspective would take more space than I have here), so I approach my tasks on that day very differently from how I would, say, on Monday. But on Sunday we also take the rest of the day, after church, for feasting, playing, resting, delighting in God's creation.
FR: Describe your ideal Sabbath.
MB: It begins with worship, includes a nap (and lovemaking), involves much play and food and beverage: nothing that has to get done is done, and people and things we usually never have time for we enjoy abundantly.
FR: I like the distinction you make between God wanting us to “do something” and God just wanting our attention.
MB: In the book, I talk about a man who was always going in a dozen directions. He got ill and was laid up for several months. He said, "I know God's trying to get my attention for something, but I haven't figured out what." My response: "Maybe he's just trying to get your attention." So much of our lives are squandered in inattentiveness. We're hardly present for most of our own existence. Both a gift of Sabbath and, paradoxically, a pre-condition for Sabbath-keeping is being present and fully awake right now, right here.
FR: It seems as if “gratitude” has a lot to do with Sabbath keeping.
MB: Biblically, gratitude is not just an act but an orientation. It is a way of seeing the world. Thanklessness skews reality toward scarcity, not abundance. Conversely, thankfulness opens our eyes to see life's beauty and richness --- whatever is true, whatever is lovely, etc. The more you give thanks, the more you are thankful, and then the more you have cause for thankfulness. It's an upward spiral. The connection with Sabbath-keeping is, I think, obvious: Sabbath is to delight in God's salvation and creation. It's very essence is thanksgiving.
FR: I loved your phrase, “Busyness kills the heart.” How is Sabbath a remedy?
MB: The more I keep Sabbath, the more time I have. Over the course of this journey I have completely stopped speeding --- I usually drive under the speed limit now, and back off to let people in, and hit the brakes and not the gas when I see an amber light. Yet I have not been late once, and I don't leave any earlier. Plus I enjoy driving now. Sabbath-keeping is like tithing: it gains more than it spends. Just as those who tithe find that, indeed, God throws open the floodgates of heaven, so those who keep Sabbath find he makes the sun stand still. Here's the rub: I've lost my edge of impatience, thinking I don't have enough time. That's got to be good for my heart.
FR: Do you think our need for a sense of wonder, an attentiveness, has been a victim of our busyness? Is this how we've lost it?
MB: Oh yes! God and creation rarely reveal their treasures at a hundred miles an hour.
FR: I like the term “soul sickness” you use in your book.
MB: There are occasions when we look good but feel terrible --- the opposite of what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 4: we're renewed on the outside, but wasting away on the inside. There is a deep dislocation in the soul. We become distant from people, and ourselves, and our God. We collapse in sloth or distract ourselves with endless mindless activity. This is soul sickness --- where the deepest part of us, our inmost self, is dead or dying, and we stop caring about what we care about.
FR: One thing that comes across in your books is a love of the craft of writing, which is sometimes unusual in Christian literature. Why is writing important to you?
MB: I grew up pagan --- I came to Christ at 21. My background is in literature, fine arts, philosophy and creative writing. It's always bothered me that, in general, Christians are so consumed by the message that they fall negligent in the rendering of it. This is just not biblical: the language of Scripture --- pungent, eloquent, poetic, fierce --- is part and parcel of its content. I don't think I'm on a crusade, but I long to see the people of God care about this, to care about how the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.
FR: How do you find preaching a sermon different from writing a book?
MB: I must dispense, in preaching, with some of the complexity of both language and thought that writing permits and even demands. People hear more simply than they read, if that makes sense, and the two forms of communication must take heed of this. Also, preaching has its "props": inflection, expression, gesture, backdrop, PowerPoint, the worship band that got people ready to hear, the relationship the listeners have with the speaker, etc. All that's more or less absent in the written word. So a writer must compensate (and, please, not with dramatic punctuation): the language must carry some of what, in speaking, the voice can do.
FR: In your book, you’re an excellent storyteller, just as you were in THE HOLY WILD. Why is story so important to you?
MB: It is to God, and to Jesus (not to sound too pious, I hope). But we must ask, Why, of all the ways God might have imparted truth, does he most prefer story (and, next, poetry)? Story awakens everything in us --- memory, imagination, reason, fear, wonder, doubt. It calls upon all our senses --- to smell the fatted calf roasting, to hear the fiddle reeling, to feel nightfall gathering on the field and pricking our skin. The glory of God, Irene's said, is a man fully alive. Stories help us be fully alive. I could go on and on.
FR: You quote some wonderful poetry in THE REST OF GOD, including some lines by Mary Oliver. What other poets are your favorites?
MB: T.S. Eliot, Wendell Berry, Jane Kenyon, e.e. cummings, John Updike, some of W.H. Auden…and did we mention Mary Oliver?
FR: What books have you enjoyed this summer?
MB: Tim O'Brien's IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS; C.S. Lewis's TILL WE HAVE FACES; Walter Wangerin's PAUL; Pat Conroy's PRINCE OF TIDES; Mark Galli's JESUS MEAN AND WILD; Stephen King's ON WRITING; Dan Marshall's THOSE WHO FELL FROM THE SKY; Rudy Wiebe's A STOLEN LIFE.
FR: How does the place you live --- Vancouver Island, Canada --- influence your writing?
MB: It's spellbinding here. The rivers run clear and fast and warm. The ocean ---above and beneath (I dive) --- is a world of enchantment, teeming with strange and tasty things. The mountains send down wild concoctions of weather, and the snow from them gives us the best drinking water on the earth. Everything here is so inspiring it's almost distracting. But don't move here.
FR: I heard that you were working on a novel.
MB: Yes, two novels. One is set in the ’60s, mostly in Vietnam during the war, and involves a large cast of characters whose lives collide. The other is set in New Guinea and explores, albeit fictionalized, the story of Francis Ono, warlord and self-proclaimed king of New Guinea. I also write for a number of magazines. I finished (this morning) an article on the Prophets for Discipleship Journal, and will start next week a piece on the church and the culture for Leadership Journal.
FR: If you could be anything other than a pastor or a writer, what would you be?
MB: Hmm. That's tough. A volunteer pastor and writer?
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