Welcome to vacation time at Christ Church. School starts in exactly one month. I know this because my five and a half year old granddaughter is starting kindergarten on August 19th and of course she is counting the minutes until the yellow school bus stops at her driveway. It makes me think of the days when I was young and had summer vacation. We would basically play outside all summer; ride bikes, walk to the pool, have picnics, play kickball and generally doing nothing in particular. There was some playing with matches and being mean to ant colonies, but in general it was a very lazy time that I loved. I am a summer girl from way back.
But I remember when my two daughters were young and summer started to be a full-out blur of activity. Several week-long camps, sports team intensives, choir tryout weeks, swim teams and all other manner of making sure they were improving and headed for the right life. One summer, however, we all mutinied. They were about 10 and 12 and we decided to do some cloud-watching, bike riding, game playing and generally laze around with each other.
Then the phone calls started. One of my friends called to say that she had noticed that my girls had not been on the softball team list so she signed us up. Another friend called to say that she had gotten me an application to Arts Camp because she had heard we weren’t doing anything and she thought maybe we just couldn’t think of what to do. And on it went– as our friends attempted to rectify this awful situation where we might have nothing to do. I was made aware that if they weren’t on teams this summer, they would not be ready for a team in the fall and then maybe ever again. They wouldn’t get into the right colleges. At 10 years old, my daughter’s life would be thrown into the proverbial gutter by skipping a team for five weeks.
I would like to say that I stuck to our plan to laze around, but the truth is I eventually caved in to the pressure. What if they were right? What if my kids would end up on the raw end of the deal because of my decision to laze around for a few weeks? What if they fell behind in school because they weren’t in enrichment activities so their brains wouldn’t turn to mush? What if their whole life depended on a fully scheduled summer? I regret giving in and not holding that space open for play and being together.
Unless you are visiting, I would guess you are not on vacation. And if you find yourself having a hard time contemplating my agenda-free summer with the kids, you are not alone. Last month’s Time magazine cover story was, “Who Killed Summer Vacation?” It heralded the birth of the No-Vacation Nation. We are the only advanced economy that does not require employers to offer paid holidays or time off. Not one state of the 50 has a law requiring vacation pay. Even the U.S. Travel Association, whose whole reason to exist is to persuade people to take vacation, could only get 19% of its own employees to take their full vacation time. And when we take vacation, 60% of us will be working on our smart phones anyway. I know that’s true because I do it. The reasons people give for skipping vacation are “A heavy workload,” “No one else can do the work,” “We can’t afford it,” “I want to show dedication” or “I don’t want to be seen as replaceable.” What’s the bottom line to all this? We like to work. It makes us feel like we are valuable, that we are productive, that we deserve to live. It’s one of the few remaining socially acceptable addictions. We want to rest and take vacation time, but we don’t. And when we do, we are actually working during vacation. Resting is wonderful for you, but it’s a waste of time for me.
So what do we make of Jesus asking the disciples in our gospel to ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while’? The apostles had returned from casting out demons, anointing the sick and traveling the countryside. John the Baptist had been beheaded. They were successful, stressed and tired. The text also says, “For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” When I call my 93 year old Mother late in the afternoon, she tells me she hasn’t had time to eat. She’s been too busy. Does this sound familiar to anyone? At the same time, Jesus is always working on the Sabbath, which is confusing; curing people, arguing with the Pharisees and picking wheat. Is the Sabbath the same thing as rest? Is Jesus telling us to take more rest? Will a week at the Outer Banks solve our problems and bring us inner and outer harmony? Will a two-week vacation save us and calm the craziness in our heads? Ah, we’re getting to the heart of the matter. I’m thinking that a vacation will not solve the no-vacation nation dilemma.
We are looking for more than ceasing our activity. We take vacations and we are not filled up—in fact sometimes we are more tired after the vacation. The truth is we are looking for the rest we find in Christ. Sabbath is resting with Him. The key to what he says to the disciples is the “with me” part. We don’t exist to work or go on vacation; we exist for our relationship with God, the anchor of our lives that will keep us from wandering around like the sheep without a shepherd. In our scripture, this happens in the deserted place, which is also translated most often as the lonely place. The gospel of Mark starts there, Jesus confronts the devil there and he invites the disciples and us to go there.
As a metaphor, the lonely place can be our hearts, the place where we are most alone. We hide and protect ourselves so that no one will guess how we rattle around in our heart’s hallways, looking for love and acceptance. We tack up our trophies, ribbons and paychecks on the walls. We cover the floors with wall-to-wall self. Resentments hang like Spanish moss in every room, reminding us of how we have been unloved, hurt and mistreated by others. We put on tough armor like aluminum siding to make our hearts impenetrable. It can get really lonely in there.
This is the lonely place where Christ meets us, where we cannot hide behind our smiling facade. With Christ alone we find that we are not being asked to produce or prove our worth. We are asked to exist, to be, to understand our relationship with our Creator and Redeemer, nothing more. Acts 17:28 tells us, this is where “we live and move and have our being.” When we stop, we hear his voice calling us. The voice of our loving guide and shepherd.
And what is Christ’s response to the people with human need that surround Him and meet him at every turn? He has compassion on them. He sees them wandering around, like we wander frenetically around. What does compassion look like in that moment? Teaching. He teaches them the Word of God, the Kingdom Come, of God’s love and grace. This Word is as comforting to us as it was to them because it has power, gravity and substance. It was the most compassionate thing he could do because the Word is the Holy Spirit guiding us and tethering us. We have over 60,000 thoughts a day and our swirling minds adhere to the gravity found in the Word. We become present to the moment and the presence of Christ with us.
Do we need to go away with Christ somewhere remote? It is not a cosmic vacation or long trip. Romans 10:8 tells us, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” Matthew 6:6 says, “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” This room is also your heart—your inner room. This is the deserted place—where you are alone with Christ and truly renewed and resurrected. We spend time with Christ and find we have all we need. William Barclay writes of this passage, “It may be well that we give God no opportunity to speak to us, because we do not know how to be still and to listen: we give God no time to recharge us with spiritual energy and strength, because there is not time when we wait upon him. How can we shoulder life’s burdens if we have no contact with Him who is the Lord of all good life? How can we do God’s work unless in God’s strength? And how can we receive the strength unless we seek in quietness and in loneliness the presence of God?” (155, The Gospel of Mark)
This also begs the question, is this renewal and refreshment for us alone? There is a rhythm to Jesus and the disciples going to the deserted place and returning with compassion for the people. It happens in Matthew, Mark and Luke where stillness and going to the lonely place precede compassion. The compassion is a gift from Christ in order to be with the neighbor in the middle of human need. We need this stillness in order to connect to Christ’s compassion for us and the world, to be made whole in order to serve the neighbor. And it is there that we find our true rest, identity, and worth and do not need to wander aimlessly. In the true paradox of Christian belief, we give away our life and find it. No amount of vacation or summer camps can give us what Christ gives us.
I want to close with a poem that Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in his book, “Made for Goodness.” (137) Tutu asks us to turn into the stillness and listen to God speak with the voice of the heart.
Why are you running, running, running?
Why are you hiding away?
You may think that what you have done is beyond my power to forgive.
You may think what you have said makes me shrug and turn away.
You may think that you are lost.
But you are not lost to me.
How could you ever be?
Where can you go that I cannot go?
Where have you been that I have not been?
What did you see that I have not seen?
What did you do?
No, it cannot be undone,
The pain cannot be unmade,
The life cannot be un-lived,
The time will not run backward,
You cannot un-choose your choice.
But the pain can be healed,
Your choices can be redeemed,
Your life can be blessed,
And love can bring you home.