Lessons of Summer
Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There! Click here for audio
Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Mark 6:6b-13, 30-32
Pastor Donna Buell
For those of us who live year round in Minnesota, the summer months provide a much needed change of pace. The days are longer, the air is warmer, we get outside more and enjoy all of the kinds of things we’re preaching about this summer: golf and baseball, mission trips and church camps, national holidays and cross country travel, weddings and family gatherings, gardening and yard work.
We need that. We need that change of pace now and then. But I believe we need more than a change of pace. I believe we also need to completely stop now and then, to lay aside the burdens of our daily lives and allow ourselves to rest. It’s good for us. It’s good for our bodies, it’s good for our minds, and it’s good for our spirits. But most of us find that very difficult to do.
For those of us who are adults, the “lazy, crazy, hazy, days of summer” are a luxury we cannot afford, not now, for we bear the responsibility of earning a living, of paying a mortgage, of housing, clothing, feeding and raising a family, of caring for aging parents, of securing our own retirement and contributing to our community. Nowadays it seems that in almost every field of work, people are under tremendous pressure to put in longer hours, to be more efficient, to be more productive, and to be more effective, to create “S.M.A.R.T.” goals and report measurable results. This leaves us constantly feeling less than. Add to these pressures the many complex issues that face our churches and communities, our state, our nation, and our world, and our genuine desire to do something that will make a real difference, and it’s no wonder that so many of us feel overwhelmed and weighed down by life’s demands. Sometimes we want to shout with the words from that old musical, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”
Far too often we live with the mindset that we have to be doing something, fixing something, improving something, accomplishing something, and we suffer pangs of guilt when we aren’t doing, fixing, improving or accomplishing. Now obviously there are times when action is called for; when the words “Don’t just sit there, do something!” are relevant. But surely not all the time. Too many of us have lost that ability we likely had as children to become completely absorbed in the thing right in front of us, whether it was playing with our toes as an infant, reading a book or coloring a picture, staring at the clouds, watching a caterpillar, throwing pebbles into a pond and observing the ripples, or digging a hole to China. We have applied Paul’s words about putting away childish things a bit too broadly.
There comes a point when all our striving – all our effort – all our doing actually becomes counter-productive. We need times to stop and rest and allow things to settle. Sometimes it is only then that we begin to see more clearly, so that we are able to move forward with renewed clarity and intention and energy. I recently read a comment by a business person who was returning from a family vacation. He wrote: “It took me years to realize that rest isn’t the enemy of hustle, it’s one of hustle’s biggest allies.” (Jon Acuff)
The other day I found myself feeling a bit overwhelmed. I was frantically trying to fit far too much into my day, and I was unable to sufficiently focus on any one task. I had planned to spend time writing this sermon, but soon found myself working on our new website and then I got caught up in troubleshooting internet issues with Comcast, which apparently meant a trip to purchase a replace our modem which the Comcast representative described as end-of-life. I also needed to get some overdue books back to the library and take Nate’s keys (which he left behind) to FedEx so they could be shipped back to China. All of these things needed to be done and I could feel my anxiety rising. Finally I remembered that I was writing a sermon on Sabbath keeping. So I laughed a bit at myself, took a few deep breaths, prioritized my list and focused on accomplishing one thing at a time.
Stopping to take a deep breath helps in the moment, but it isn’t enough. Perhaps you, like me, long for an opportunity to lay it all aside and take a real break. To not have to be responsible – just for a while. To stop and rest. Perhaps, like me, you sometimes need to hear and heed a voice telling you: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” After all we are human beings, not human doings, so we need to give ourselves permission to do nothing sometimes.
Years ago Marty’s parents built a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin. While Nate was growing up we would spend time there with grandma and grandpa each summer. Our days were full of swimming, golfing, and walking in the woods, fishing off the pier and paddling in the canoe, s’mores on the campfire and Yahtzee tournaments. In recent years Marty and I have more often gone there by ourselves, and the cabin has become a refuge for us. Though we usually have a few projects to do, we spend most of our time sitting on the porch staring out at the lake, listening to the music of the woods, reading through a stack of books, taking long walks and frequent naps. Most years it takes us a few days to unwind and really start to relax. It is so good to lay aside the burdens of our daily life and to breathe and to rest.
Because we have worked together as co-pastors for over 25 years, Marty and I have learned how important it is for us as a couple to set aside times when we don’t think about or talk about church. We try to do that for a little bit each day, and certainly on our days off, with some limited success, because there is always that sense of being on call. We have been better about that when we take vacations. We always make arrangements ahead of time for Sunday preachers and pastoral care so that when we leave we can leave. And as we are driving out of town we usually set a landmark for ourselves, allowing ourselves to say any last things we need to say to each other about church stuff for those few miles, and then that’s it – no more church until we return. When we catch ourselves starting to think about or talk about work, we stop and gently remind ourselves, “No church, you’re on vacation.” You see, as much as we love all of you, we know that we need to take that break. And we know that we have left you in good hands and that you will be just fine without us. And we also know that the work of ministry is never done and that all those things that we left undone will still be there waiting for us when we return.
Not all pastors function that way. We certainly discovered that when our seminary friend Clarke and his family spent some time with us at the cabin. Clarke is a United Methodist pastor in the Florida Conference and his wife Sallie is a Presbyterian pastor. And we hadn’t seen them in ages, so we were looking forward to spending time with them and their three children. But we were stunned to discover that they talked about church all of the time, they regularly checked their email, and at least once a day they were each on the phone with their office. Now I realize that people are all different, and I respect their right to spend their vacation time as they choose, but I have to believe that our friends would benefit from completely letting go of that mantle of ministry for a week of vacation with their family.
I once helped to organize a spiritual retreat for pastors. We asked them to bring a favorite clergy stole with them, and during our opening worship time we invited each person to tell the story of that stole, and then to take it off and place it on our worship table as a symbol of their intention to lay aside the mantle of ministry during the time of the retreat. At the end of the retreat we gently and lovingly placed those stoles upon one another’s shoulders once again as an act of blessing before returning to our places of ministry.
But it isn’t only people in ministry who need to stop and rest and take a break now and then. We all need to do that. Henry is a dairy farmer who watches All My Children every day at noon. You see, Henry’s wife went back to work outside the home when their children were all in school, so he was on his own each day for lunch. And he had gotten into a bad habit of just grabbing a quick sandwich and heading back out to do whatever chores needed doing, which on the farm were, of course, always endless. Henry came to realize that he needed something to help him stop and take a real break in the middle of the day; after all, he was up every morning at 5:00 to do the milking. So that’s when he started watching All My Children. And this became a way of assuring that he would take a full hour break in the middle of the day. One summer our son Nate was in the midst of an intensive training course where 6 days a week he spent 12 hours in class and several more hours at night doing homework. He told us that he kept sane by allowing himself little breaks during the day to play Scrabble on his Kindle.
We all need to find ways to take a break in the midst of our hectic lifestyle. And with all the technology that keeps us connected to one another and to our work and to our world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it feels as if we need it all the more. But you know this really isn’t a modern problem. This week I was doing a lot of reading on the subject, and I found that whether the authors were writing last year or 10 years ago, or 20, or 50, or even 100 years ago, they all wrote about the fast pace of modern life and the need to find ways to stop and rest and renew.
Even Jesus recognized this need and tried to address it. The gospels don’t tell us about Jesus taking vacations. But as a faithful Jew we know that he observed the weekly Sabbath and he also had a regular practice of withdrawing from the crowds for brief periods of rest and prayer, even if that meant getting up early in the morning before anyone else was up, or waiting until late in the evening after dinner. And he tried to model this pattern for his disciples, as well.
In the story Lisa read this morning from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to do ministry in the towns around the region of Galilee. They ministered to the people, casting out demons, anointing the sick and curing them. And when they all returned Jesus set aside time for them to debrief, time for the disciples to talk with him and with one another about their experiences. And following this time of reflection, he said to them, “Come away with me to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” And they got in a boat and they headed across the Sea of Galilee for a deserted place.
Jesus understood that the disciples needed what he needed; what we all need. They needed time apart.
Now what I didn’t have Lisa read this morning is what happened when they reached the other side of the sea. You see people had seen them leaving, and these people had run along the shoreline, so that by the time Jesus and the disciples stepped out of the boat on the other shore a great crowd was already there to meet them. So much for a time of rest and renewal. But Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowd, and he ended up teaching that crowd and then feeding them, some 5,000 souls, with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual guides of the late 20th century, often wrote about the interrelationship between taking the time needed to care for our own spirits and our ability to reach out and respond to others with Godly compassion the way Jesus did in that story. When our own spirits are completely depleted, our caring can become perfunctory, obligatory, and burdensome. So he recommended that people practice this pattern of withdrawal for spiritual nourishment: an hour each day, an afternoon each week, a day each month, and a week each year. Now I suspect that specific pattern may be unrealistic for many of us, especially those with full time jobs and children at home, but I appreciate the point he is making: that we need a regular pattern of withdrawing from our daily routine in order to nurture our connection with the life sustaining Spirit and presence of God, that then allows us to reach out in genuine love and compassion and service to others.
I believe this is what lies behind the Hebrew commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. This was a command to set aside one day each week from daily labor in order to worship in the temple and attend to the spirit. It is the longest of the commandments because it has been augmented by reminders that the Sabbath was not just for the adults of the household but for their sons and daughters, their male and female slaves, their ox and their donkey and any other livestock, and the resident aliens in their midst. The Sabbath commandment extended to everyone. And it was a matter not only of worship but of justice. The Sabbath is also a reminder to our modern-day selves that we are not meant to be slaves to our calendars, our smartphones, our jobs, or our to-do lists.
When you visit our new website, you will be able to access the text of this sermon and at the end of the sermon you will find a series of quotes. I hope you will take time to read and ponder them. Several of those quotes come from a book by Wayne Muller called Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives. And one of them reminds us that this pattern of Sabbath keeping has its roots in the story of Creation itself. He writes:
There is yet one more aspect of the Sabbath that I find particularly delicious. God creates the world in six days, and on the seventh day, God rests. But a closer reading of Genesis reveals that the Sabbath was not simply a day off. It says, “On the seventh day God finished God’s work.” How can this be? Wasn’t the seventh day when God, exhausted, took time off and rested, satisfied with the laborious work of creation?
The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.
According to this ancient tradition, this pattern of Sabbath rest is not just part of the 10 Commandments which gave order to the common life of the Hebrew people, it is built in to the very fabric of creation. So I’ve found myself pondering this pattern or rhythm of withdrawal and rest. And I think this ancient practice may hold some promise for those of us who struggle to find rest and restoration in the midst of our hectic and restless lives.
I think the practice of faith has something to offer here, for our life together as people of faith is built on such patterns. We have the pattern of the church year, that annual cycle of worship which follows the advent and birth, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as the ongoing work of God’s kingdom through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We have the pattern of weekly worship, of setting aside time each week to gather together as a community of faith so that we may be reminded again and again of who we are and whose we are as beloved children of God. We have the pattern of worship itself: of coming into God’s presence with praise and thanksgiving, of hearing and reflecting upon God’s Word, of responding to that Word through acts of prayer and dedication, and then being sent out into the world to love and serve God and neighbor. And we also have the invitation to engage in daily practices of prayer and reflection, which can be as formal as a regularly set aside time of daily devotions and as informal as silently lifting up a word of thanks, offering a word of prayer on behalf of someone in need, or a plea for strength or courage or grace to face a difficult task. It can also be as simple as taking 2 or 3 deep breaths that help us to breathe deeply of that ruach, that wind or Spirit of the living God.
I believe that when we build this kind of Sabbath rhythm or pattern into our daily lives, we expand our capacity to consciously live in the presence of God who is already there with us in all things. And this awareness of God’s presence helps to sustain us so that even when we are not able to take an extended break, or a long summer-like vacation, we can learn to carry within our daily lives that deep and abiding sense of Sabbath rest. Let us pray:
Help us, O Lord, to build a Sabbath pattern into our lives; a pattern that allows us to stop now and then and rest in your presence, so that abiding in your steadfast love and empowered by the Spirit’s presence, we may live with grace and generosity and compassion, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Quotes about Sabbath Keeping and Sabbath Rest
Be still and know that I am God
~ Psalm 46:10
Better is one hand full of quietness
than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
~ Ecclesiastes 4:6
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
~ Tao Te Ching
The invitation to rest is rooted in the undeniable spiritual gravity that allows all things at rest to settle, to find their place. There comes a moment in our striving when more effort actually becomes counterproductive, when our frantic busyness only muddies the waters of our wisdom and understanding. When we become still and allow our life to rest, we feel a renewal of energy and gradual clarity of perception.
~ Wayne Muller
We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us, that they may see their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even a fiercer life, life because of our quiet.
~ William Butler Yeats
It took me a long time to learn that rest is not the enemy of hustle.
Rest is one of hustle’s biggest allies.
Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops. If we step away for a time, we are not, as many may think and some will accuse, being irresponsible, but rather we are preparing ourselves to more ably perform our duties and discharge our obligations. When I return home, I am always surprised to find some questions I sought to evade had been answered and some entanglements I had hoped to flee had become unraveled in my absence. A day away acts as a spring tonic. It can dispel rancor, transform indecision, and renew the spirit.
~ Maya Angelou
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.
~ John Greenleaf Whittier
There is yet one more aspect of the Sabbath that I find particularly delicious. God creates the world in six days, and on the seventh day, God rests. But a closer reading of Genesis reveals that the Sabbath was not simply a day off. It says, “On the seventh day God finished God’s work.” …The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete. . . . When we breathe, we do not stop inhaling because we have taken in all the oxygen we will ever need, but because we have all the oxygen we need for this breath. Then we exhale, release carbon dioxide, and make more room for more oxygen. Sabbath, like the breath, allows us to imagine we have done enough for this day.
~ Wayne Muller
Gracious God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all life, help us to see today the largeness of your love in even the smallest part of creation, to be ravished by traces of your beauty in earth and sky, and to experience the eternity of your grace pulsing within each moment. Grant us grace this day to rest and remember that there is nothing we have to do, nothing we have to buy or sell, nothing we have to produce or consume in order to become who we already are: your beloved creation. And may your overworked creation and those who cannot rest today come to know the liberation of your Sabbath.
STOP – BREATH – REST IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Set aside some time, perhaps five minutes, to do nothing. Simply sit down …and say, “I am seated; I am doing nothing. I will do nothing for the next five minutes.” Having declared your intention for this little space of time, decide firmly that nothing will pull you away during these five minutes. If you find yourself emigrating mentally into the past or the future, bring yourself back to the here and now with the thought, “I am here in the presence of God, in my own presence, and in the presence of all that is around me, just still, moving nowhere.” I have discovered that doing this exercise regularly builds up the capacity to live more deeply in the present within our everyday lives.
~ Trevor Hudson
When you set aside time for Sabbath – whether it is an hour, a morning, or a day—put in the box those things you do not want to use, [for example, your smart phone or tablet, the TV remote, or a piece of paper listing the things that are left undone. These] can serve as a physical reminder of what we leave behind when we enter sacred rest…Then at the end of your Sabbath time, be aware of how you open the box, and how you respond to what you receive back into your life.
~ Wayne Muller
Choose a place in your home, yard, or a nearby park, where you can go to be still in God’s presence. Place a candle nearby or choose a tree or something to serve as a symbol of your desire to be still in God’s presence. Make regular visits to your Sabbath Space.
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know