Here, nobody stands
for the national anthem.
There’s no debate about
no talk of bigger border
walls or who will pay.
Here no one snapchats,
sends selfies or sexts. Google
steals no one’s idle hours.
No political parties here,
no signs to say white
lives matter too: everyone
gets it here. There’s no
NRA, no second amendment,
no bumper-sticker zealots
declaring “if you can read
this you’re in range.”
here at the Pilgrim Home,
just across from the summer
play of a city pool, it’s all
for beloved son, daughter,
dearest husband, moeder,
madre. On this level
expanse no fences
separate black and white,
they enclose. In this green
space the Mexican lies down
with the Dutch, and under
fresh rectangles the refugee
rests with the rich.
old, sleepy spruces cast
long layers of shadow
among the graves. Lilies
and orchids and roses revere
each silent name and date
and the brief dash between—
briefer than an evening walk,
than a child’s splash.
Justice work is good work. It is a high calling. It deserves great effort and exertion. But in today’s world, if our work in the realms of social justice mimics the exhausting routine of the fiercely competitive struggle for wealth and power, we would do well to take a moment to consider the biblical rhythm of Sabbath.
The esteemed rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath that the holy day serves as a “sanctuary in time.” The invitation of the Sabbath is a summons to dwell in the eternality of time, he wrote, to turn from “the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
“There is nothing quite like the African bush to sooth and rejuvenate.” That experience was conveyed to me by a South African church leader who has been helping plan the speaking tour I just arrived for here in this beloved country.
My wife, Joy, and I decided to use this wonderful speaking invitation to South Africa as an opportunity to take our annual August family vacation here. We arrived for a week of rest before the tour began and spent a few beautiful days on the lovely beaches of the Indian Ocean, still warm even for this end-of-winter period. But then the last two days, our Washington, D.C.-based family did something we have never done before — visited the game park and wetland reserve to see some of God’s most extraordinary creatures. Of course we’ve seen these animals in zoos before, but we now had the opportunity to see them roam freely in their natural habitat. For a bunch of city kids like us, it was truly amazing.
In Hluhluwe Game Reserve, beautiful zebras slowly grazed with a South African sunset behind them over the mountains. There are no more graceful creatures than giraffes, elegantly tasting the leaves on the tallest trees as they wander together at peace. Buffalos with great horns shared the terrain with antelopes that showed us their speed when they decided to run. And hyenas really do laugh off in the distance.
It's no secret that most of us find ourselves longing for chances to vacate our normal scenery and the bustle of our everyday activities. It is, of course, a luxury and blessing of the modern world — and definitely of our country — that many of us have expendable income and time, but the ability and desire to take a break is something most of us would say that we need on occasion.
I think there is a biblical tie-in here as well. One of the spiritual revelations during my seminary years was one professor's focus on the “eighth day.” You are familiar, I am sure with Genesis' seven-day creation narrative. God created the heavens, the earth, animals, and mankind in six days. Then on the seventh day, God rested. This Divine day of rest then became the basis for God's gift of the Sabbath. It was a law (or was it Gospel?) given to God’s people in the book of Exodus, commanding that they break from work on the seventh day of the week — traditionally Saturday for the Jewish people. This day of rest was given so the people could find peace in not working, but also peace in God's presence. For the Jewish nation just released from slavery in Egypt, this day revealed a stark contrast from their lives as slaves — they now lived their lives as a chosen people of God.
This Sabbath tradition continued through the Old Testament and was even adopted by other cultures. But in spite of this gift, God's people never found true peace. Trouble continued, wars waged, life was still not perfect. Then, in the New Testament something happens. The Gospels each build up to, and point us toward, the cross. We see the seven-day passion narrative unfold beginning with the triumphal entry, climaxing in the cross, and then, following the historic tradition, Saturday becoming a day of rest as Christ is in the tomb.
But something changes.
"Time is money," wrote Ben Franklin in "Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One." The saying that has embodied the Protestant work ethic since 1748 is no less relevant in our 21st-century postmodern culture. Our consumer-based economy thrives on packing as much productivity into our 1,440 minutes per day as possible. And, with the demands of technology, we're too distracted to notice how stressed out we've become.
In my lifetime, I've seen blue laws repealed such that Sunday has become virtually indistinguishable from any other day for many service workers. But in 2012, we hit a new low: for the first time major retailers opened their doors for shopping on Thanksgiving evening. Several employees mounted petition campaigns — one garnered more than 30,000 signatures — pleading for the full day off to be with their families, but to no avail. Official corporate announcements stated, "The super majority of our 1.3 million associates are excited about Black Friday and are ready to serve our customers."
Really, they needn't have bothered. The Internet has already granted consumers the ability to shop constantly. Every time I log onto my computer and open the browser, items I've searched for once on Overstock.com now rotate across my screen, beckoning me like tantalizing dishes circulating on a sushi bar. The technology meant to make life easier now risks turning us into shopaholics and workaholics, while exposing our kids to cyber-bulling and cyber-sex. Is there no escape from this unrelenting, 24/7 lifestyle? Maybe there should be laws.
Wait, there already are.
Hurricane Sandy. Sandy Hook. The Fiscal Cliff. Next month the headlines will change and the (un)natural disasters will have new names, but the tsunami of information coming at us will continue to swell.
For the last decade, we’ve been told that we live in the age of information overload. We can do anything, buy anything, and find out about anything twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The problem is that our 24/7 world is not only making us anxious and unhappy — it is killing us.
A growing number of studies reported in the medical literature and popular press all point in the same direction. This generation’s brave new experiment of working more and resting less is making us fat, anxious, and short-lived.
When I alerted my readers that I would be taking time off from writing to recover from surgery, many sent me kind words with a common theme: “Take time to heal.”
“Give your body time to heal,” said one. “Rest and sleep,” said another. “Be sure to take ALL the time you need for a full recovery!” and “Don't try to power through. Stop, lie down and rest. ... We will still be here.”
I was hearing the wisdom of experience: been there, didn't take the time, thought I was healed, wasn't.
That certainly has been my experience from previous times of loss and stress. I haven't always taken enough time to heal. I moved on too soon, when my head, in effect, was still woozy.
Even now, a week after surgery, I find my mind drifting off. I will be thinking through a sentence and find I have jumped tracks. I will need to read the same page of a novel several times and replay a scene in a recorded TV show.
So this time I am taking time. No rushing back to work, no making important decisions, no feeling impatient to have my wits fully about me.
Increasingly, in meetings focused on a wide variety of human tragedies, I hear these words: "What are you doing here? I didn't think evangelicals cared about these things."
I understand those comments. I grew up in a form of Christianity in which "saving souls" was pretty much all that mattered. The God I discovered in that church was a harsh, demanding tyrant; I knew that if I wanted to earn God's love I would have to be very good, follow all the rules, and work very hard. As a devout adolescent I did that. As a young pastor's wife I did that.
Unfortunately, I worked a little too hard and eventually became utterly exhausted, seriously depressed, and physically sick. That plunged me into a total life crisis in which I felt compelled to give up the God of my childhood.
Fortunately, a wise friend said to me, "For a while, forget everything you've ever thought about Christianity; forget the Old Testament; forget Paul and the epistles-and just read Jesus."
So for months -- for years actually -- I just read Jesus. And slowly but surely, Jesus reshaped my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.