As I went through this past week here in South Windsor, in the aftermath of our youth mission trip to South Dakota the week before, I kept wondering why it was taking me longer to recover than usual. And maybe the main reason boils down to the catch all category so many of us fall back on as rationalization. I’m just not as young as I used to be.
I suspect, however, that there are a number of other contributing factors. As an example, I spent more time riding in a school bus on the mission trip than I have at any point in my life since elementary school. For good reason, I now know. School buses work better for short distances and shorter people. It’s hard to get comfortable when the seat in front of me jams into my knees while the seat back behind me hits below my shoulder.
I also spent more consecutive nights sleeping on the floor in South Dakota than I have in years. And sleeping on the floor after a day of lifting sixty pound bags of concrete doesn’t do well by your back. Of course it’s entirely possible sleeping on a bed after a day of dealing with concrete wouldn’t be much better. But there were a couple of times during the week when I would have been more than willing to try…
On the other hand, maybe my recovery process has taken longer because I’m still trying to put the mission trip in perspective and it’s gonna take a while. How do I reconcile, for instance, the fact that La Plant is a community of two hundred people where there are no stores of any kind…and yet there are four cemeteries within the town borders? How do I wrap my head and my heart around the idea that the average youth on the Cheyenne River Reservation, due to suicide and alcoholism and overwhelming poverty, attends one hundred and twenty-six funerals by the time they reach the age of eighteen? Statistics like those make it exceedingly hard for me to find a frame of reference.
Or could it be that on some psychological level I’m reluctant to recover from the mission trip? Because the moment I recover from the mission trip I take another step in distancing myself from the experience. Another step away from remembering so viscerally in my body and mind and spirit why the trip made such an impact on me and why it was so important for all of us in the group. I can only hope fully recuperating from the trip doesn’t lessen my resolve to do something creative and positive and dynamic for the people of La Plant going forward…
Don’t get me wrong…I’m not complaining about the slow recovery. On the contrary, the mission trip was so profound recently that I find myself yearning to go back to La Plant. Seeing lives changed before your eyes is a powerful incentive. Immersing yourself in another culture, especially one that is effectively hidden from most eyes, is a rare privilege. And there is so much work still to be done.
In the meantime, I find myself using this post-mission trip time to rest and recover more intentionally. Thinking and reflecting. Looking at pictures of the Lakota people whom we now consider friends. Putting words and images down on paper and ultimately offering a few of those thoughts and images to all of you this morning. Resting with a purpose is how I would describe it…
There’s a Biblical word for the kind of intentional, care full, reflective, rejuvenating rest I’m talking about. The word is “Sabbath.” The fourth of the Ten Commandments in the Bible, Sabbath is one of the first and holiest concepts in all of creation, dating back to the beginning of time when God took six days to create the world and all living things before resting on day seven.
“Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” As I put today’s sermon together over the course of this past week, I found moments of Sabbath along the way. Perhaps not full days of Sabbath, but certainly moments. And I discovered this past week, as I often do, that God has the right idea. Work hard and then rest hard. Find some balance in your life. And in the end perspective will follow.
Unfortunately, finding and taking Sabbath time in our culture is almost unheard of. No one talks about it. No one encourages it. When was the last time you ever heard anyone talking about Sabbath? Or better yet, have you ever in your life heard anyone use the word “Sabbath” outside the walls of a church?
Since the time of the Enlightenment late in the eighteenth century, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that setting aside one day of the week for resting, the way God once did, is a waste of time. Replaced by an unrelenting Protestant work ethic, most of us have instead adopted for ourselves some version of an eleventh commandment. “Thou shall not rest. Thou shall not look back, for someone else might be gaining on you. Thou shall not produce less this year than thou produced the year before. Thou shall not show signs of weakness and slacking off when there’s work that needs to be accomplished right this very second.”
Noted social prophet, Jeremy Rifkin, offers this insightful critique. “It is ironic that in a culture so committed to saving time we feel increasingly deprived of the very thing we value.” “Despite our alleged efficiency,” writes Rifkin, “we seem to have less time for ourselves and far less time for each other. Even the idea of savoring an experience has become an anachronism in a world where ‘being’ is less important than ‘becoming’ and where experience is a substitute for participation.”
In myriad ways we have become a society of tired and anxious workers. We reward compulsive, workaholic behavior. We honor and lift up those who live their lives on the fast track. Meanwhile we fail to find time to contemplate matters that ultimately matter. We may not believe it and we may not think about it or practice it, but we need the Sabbath…or at least something equivalent.
Looking back over my time in South Dakota, I realize I have a renewed appreciation for the concept of Sabbath. But it’s actually not for the reasons I initially expected. It is true that we worked really hard in South Dakota and accomplished a tremendous amount. We felt productive and successful and proud of what we had done. And I came home longing for much rest and reflection as I could possibly squeeze into this week.
But over the course of this week, something else occurred to me. Some of my happiest moments in South Dakota were actually moments of Sabbath. When I sat at the picnic table and watched the kids ride their scooter from the top of the community center ramp all the way down past the picnic tables and onto the basketball court. With huge grins on their faces.
When we took turns building life size Jenga blocks around the Lakota children and around some of our SPF youth until they were literally encased by the blocks from head to toe. And then I witnessed the joyous expression on faces as they pushed the walls out and the blocks crashed and scattered loudly across the floor.
Watching a group of Lakota men pitch horseshoes with pinpoint precision and uncanny accuracy long past the time the sun went down for the night. Winning a game of Bingo and being able to offer my prize to a young teenager named Delaney who will have a little extra spending money for herself the next time she goes to Walmart. Walking early in the morning around the nearby school track, alongside a handful of men and women from the Lakota community. Listening to their stories, understanding what they value and hold sacred, seeing small signs of hope, and watching their community come together thanks in large part to the efforts of Simply Smiles and the volunteers who come and spend a week with them.
Some of the very best moments I spent during the mission trip were Sabbath moments. Smiling children. Laughter over imaginative LEGO towers and bubbles blown rapid fire. Watering plants and picking ripe radishes with children from the community. Times when I was observing and playing and thinking and participating more than I was working. Remembering what’s really important in life. And holding those images in my mind as clearly today as I did a short time ago.
Over the course of this summer, I urge all of you to find your own time and your own place where you can rest with a purpose. You don’t have to go all the way to South Dakota. And you don’t have to spend a whole week. Whether you find a day or even a few hours, create Sabbath time and space in your life where you rest as hard as you work.
Go outside and marvel at the sunset on a warm summer evening. Head to a nearby beach and help build a sandcastle with a child who might delight in burying you underneath the sand. Look for happy faces and laughing people and the kind of peaceful expressions you might not find when you’re at your workplace.
There is no such thing as an eleventh commandment that expects us to work harder. But there is a fourth commandment. Rest, relax, take labor less seriously. Above all, give thanks to God for things that matter. Amen.