Lessons of Summer
Summer Trips audio to be added later
Pastors Marty Raths and Donna Buell
Part 1 – Pastor Marty
A few weeks ago we began our summer preaching series on The Lessons of Summer, exploring our experiences of some common summer activities. Since we have taken so many of them together, both Donna and I are going to talk this morning about some of the lessons that we can learn from summer trips. Now I have to admit to a personal bias here. I love to travel, and I have been fortunate enough to take a lot of summer trips through the years. And I know that such trips are not always possible, and that some of us would much rather just stay home, and that is okay, and there are lessons to be learned from that too.
But for me there are few things that get me more excited than taking a trip. And for me the excitement begins with the planning. I love to find out about where we are going to be going, and what we are going to be seeing. And my excitement grows with all this planning, knowing that I am going to be visiting places I have never visited before, and experiencing things that I might not otherwise have experienced.
And that happened to Jesus in his ministry. For the most part his ministry was an itinerant one. He spent very little time in his hometown of Nazareth, going instead from town to town preaching and teaching and healing. In his ministry Jesus was on a journey, and he invited people to follow him along the way. And the way suggests movement, and in many ways God is continually calling us to move out beyond, as a way of expanding our circle of familiarity in life.
Most of the stories we have about Jesus are encounters he had with people that he never would have met had he never ventured out beyond the familiar surroundings of Nazareth, encounters with people like Jairus and the unnamed woman in our story today. And these encounters were transformative for the people whom Jesus met, but they must have changed Jesus too. New experiences can do that to all of us.
New experiences have a way of unsettling things a little. They get us to see things in a different way, or maybe in a way that someone else sees it. Or they may get us to think about something that we not have thought about for a while, or maybe about something that we have not ever thought about it before.
That happened to me a few years ago on a trip we took out East, and if I may, I would like to share just a couple of experiences from the day we spent in New York City. As we made our way around the city we eventually made our way down to ground zero. This is a hallowed place for all of us, but it has a few personal connections for me too. I spent 4 years at seminary in NYC, and in my heart the city remains a sort of second home for me. And one of my roommates at Carleton College, and a good friend of mine named Joe, died in one of the towers on 9/11.
So we spent some time there, and I thought about the times that I had been down to the towers while they still stood, and I thought about my friend Joe. And after a while, and with a heart made heavier by our time there, we started making our way up Church Street, when we came upon this cross, which has come to be known as the ground zero cross. It stands some 20 feet high, and it is made of an intact cross beam that was found in the rubble just days after 9/11.
And it lifted my spirits, standing there in front of that cross, and in the midst of all the rebuilding that was happening at ground zero at that time. The human heart is such a mysterious mix of darkness and light, and ground zero embodies all of it, both our capacity for hatred and violence and our capacity for courage and hope. And that cross reminded me of a life and faith lesson that I can lose sight of sometimes, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. It reminded me that the grace of God is present, and at work, everywhere, even in the most tragic of circumstances, even at ground zero. Jairus had that hope too, hope that Jesus could heal his daughter, that with God change is always possible, renewal is always possible, restoration is always possible. In our troubled times it is easy to lose sight of this, and I was grateful for this unexpected and moving reminder that we are called to be a people of hope./
From ground zero we moved on. Our son, Nate, was with us on this trip, so we decided to give him a little taste of his home away from home by going to Chinatown. And after a wonderful meal there, we were walking through one of the side streets, when I noticed an older Chinese woman coming up some steps to the street level.
By this time I had seen countless faces in the city, but hers just struck me in a way that no one else’s did that day, her face, her countenance, and the look in her eyes. She had a distant look, and I wondered if maybe she was remembering China. Had she grown up there, I wondered, and if so, what all must she have experienced in those tumultuous years of Chinese history. Then I wondered about when she had come here, and how long she had lived in Chinatown, and what that was like for her, and what she missed most about her homeland, and whether she had ever been back.
This woman’s face was an old face, but also a beautiful one. But then I like lines. We earn them after all, and they tell a story, and I am a lover of stories. And this woman’s face told a story, a little of her life story, and that got me to thinking about all the life stories that were reflected in all the faces that I had seen in New York City that day. And that reminded me of another lesson: we all have a story, and one of the most gracious gifts that we can give to one another is to honor that story, and to give space for one another to tell it, to tell what has happened to us in our life, and what we have learned, and how we have struggled, and where we have grown, and how God has been at work in the midst of it all. In our faith tradition it is called witness, and testimony, and that is a very important part of our calling as the church, to be a community that offers this gracious space to one another, this space to tell our stories.
Jesus did that for people all the time. He helped them to tell their stories: the woman beside the well, Zachaeus, Jairus in our story today, and in the process they were healed. It can have that power. Last week I talked some about how we have worked ourselves into partisan and polarized corners, and how we need to step out from them, and listening to one another’s stories can help to draw us out some from our respective corners.
Like so many of the difficult issues that we face, I do not presume to have answers for the growing tensions that exist between our law enforcement and our African American communities. But I do know that both communities have legitimate concerns, and fears, and grievances, that both communities have stories that need to be honored and told and addressed. Otherwise, there will be no healing. You see, all of us, everyone, and every family, and every community, has stories to tell, stories that need to be told, for our collective wellbeing, and it was summer trips that taught me that.
Part 2 – Pastor Donna
My turn. I remember watching a movie more than 30 years ago called “If It’s Tuesday this Must Be Belgium.” It was a light-hearted satire of a “packaged” 7 country European tour, where the tourists were rushed breathlessly across Europe from one landmark to another. And after a while it all became a bit of a blur to them. Our family has never been big on “packaged tours.” As Marty said, we like to take time to learn about the places we are going to visit and to plan our own journey around the things that most interest us.
We also like to be able to choose where we are going to go, where we are going to stay and, most importantly, where we are going to eat! We do like to have a plan, but we don’t want that plan to be so detailed that we find ourselves becoming slaves to a rigid time schedule. I recognize that there may come a time in our lives when that will no longer be practical, but for now, that’s how we prefer to travel.
In the summer of 2001, Marty, Nate and I spent a month in Ireland. It was the center of a 2 month renewal leave we had arranged with our congregation. In the months leading up to the trip, Marty and I spent a lot of time pouring over guide books and maps to decide on the places we most wanted to visit. Then we plotted our route, identified Bed and Breakfasts along the way, and made our reservations. When we arrived at the Shannon airport, we loaded up our little rental car, and off we went.
Mornings always began with a traditional Irish breakfast, then we would set out to explore whatever we had planned for the day. At lunch time we often picked up some cheese and bread and fruit from a grocery store for a picnic lunch. We usually arrived at our next town late in the afternoon, so that we could check in to our B and B, enjoy a welcoming cup of tea from our host, and take a quick nap before heading out to find an interesting place for dinner.
Now one of the things we never really thought about as we were planning our trip was that Ireland is an island and that many of the places we were planning to visit were on or near the coastline. So many evenings after dinner we would spend an hour or two exploring a beach. Some of the beaches were rugged rocky outcroppings, some were flat and sandy, and there was one beach that was covered with small stones that had been polished smooth as they tumbled on the floor of the ocean before being washed ashore. As I look back on that trip to Ireland fifteen years ago, I find that some of my fondest memories of our time there were our long evening walks on those beaches at the end of the day.
One of the lessons of summer that has arisen for me during family vacations is the importance of building in time and space for the unexpected, the unanticipated, the unplanned, the unscheduled. As Marty said, Jesus’ ministry was itinerant. He traveled from town to town, preaching, teaching, healing, and in other ways ministering to those he encountered. The disciples weren’t handlers who kept him on a rigid time-schedule, with events planned for each hour on the hour. That’s not to say that Jesus had no plan; he did have an overall vision, a purpose, a focus. But it wasn’t a plan that involved a detailed minute-by-minute agenda. Jesus seems to have built in to his travels time and space to encounter the people and circumstances that came his way and to respond to whatever needs arose.
Today’s story from the Gospel of Luke is one good example of how Jesus’ ministry was shaped, in part, by what happened as he was on the road. As he stepped off a boat into a crowd, a man named Jairus approached him and asked him to come and help his 12-year-old daughter who was dying. I don’t know what Jesus may have had planned for that day, but he set right out with Jairus. And as he was making his way, a woman in the crowd touched his garment, and he stopped right where he was and paid attention to what she needed before continuing on to Jairus’ daughter. Like Moses who turned aside to see the bush that was burning but was not consumed, like the Good Samaritan who stopped and ministered to the man left for dead on the side of the road, Jesus was the kind of person who wasn’t so focused on doing what he was doing and getting where he was going that he passed by those opportunities that presented themselves along the way. In many ways, those interruptions were his ministry.
I’ve been reading a book for clergy called Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul. At one point the author states that we need “to leave margin in [our] daily routine.” He says that “when every single moment is spoken for, [we] leave [ourselves] no time for the divine interruptions God wants to send [our] way.” And he goes on to suggest that “most of Jesus’ life-changing encounters were unplanned and unscheduled.” (Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul by Lance Witt pg. 169)
I like that image of “leaving a margin.” Have you ever seen a piece of paper where there was no margin? Those who work in graphic design understand the important role that margins play. Margins keep the text from falling of the edge of the page. Margins are not wasted space. They frame the space. They provide visual breathing room for the eye. The white space on a page makes that page less cramped, confusing, or overwhelming. Those who don’t understand this may try to cram too much onto the page, afraid of leaving out something important or of wasting space. But without adequate white space on a page, the important information can get lost.
And I think the same is true in life. When we leave no margin in our lives we can end up feeling fragmented as we rush from one tourist site to another, or as we run from one meeting or errand or project or task to the next. When our lives are scheduled from top to bottom and end to end, it all starts to run together. When there is no space to breathe, no time to pause, it becomes harder and harder to identify and respond to what is most important. We need to leave margins in our daily routine.
Marty spoke earlier of a trip we made to New York a couple of years ago to spend time with my family. The day of our return trip was a day of planes, trains and automobiles, but we made sure to leave plenty early so that we wouldn’t feel rushed. We drove from my sister’s home to the train station in Hudson, took an Amtrak train to Penn Station, had lunch on 7th Avenue, and then took a cab out to LaGuardia Airport to wait for our flight. We had a long layover in Milwaukee so we went out to the main terminal to browse in a bookstore, have some dinner and watch some world cup soccer. When it was time to return to our gate we had to go through security again. I was amused as I watched a tall 20-something young man in front of us as he emptied all the pockets of his cargo paints and tossed each item into his bin with a loud thump – cell phone, wallet, change, keys, laptop, belt, shoes. I noticed he saved his I-Pod for last so that he could continue to enjoy the music he was listening to. After dealing with my own stuff, I looked up and noticed a sign hanging on the other side of the security checkpoint. It read: “RECOMBOBULATION AREA”. At first I was puzzled, wondering that sign was all about. But after a while it dawned on me and I started to smile. How often do we feel discombobulated, frazzled, as if our lives were fragmented into many parts, sort of like that young man’s possessions in the security bin. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place we could go to recombobulate – an area set aside for getting ourselves put back together again, not only after going through airport security, but in life in general? I later learned that this sign had been designed by the airport staff to give travelers something to smile about in the midst of the stress and frustration of going through airport security, and that it has caught on in other airports.
We had another airport security experience on our way out to New York. As we were waiting at 5:30 in the morning to check in at the Humphrey terminal we noticed that security agents were talking to three young Chinese people. They clearly didn’t speak English and at that hour of the morning the security agents couldn’t locate any one by phone who could provide translation. I could see Nate hesitate before he finally decided to step forward and see if he could use his limited Mandarin skills to be of some assistance. After some back and forth between Nate and the agents and Nate and the young Chinese people, he was eventually able to help the agents find out what they needed to know. And the agents were so grateful for his help that they ushered us to the head of the line at the security checkpoint. Because Nate noticed what was happening and because we weren’t in a rush, he was able to take the time to step forward and offer his help.
Well, those are just a few simple examples of the lessons of summer that I have learned through the years and that I have tried, not always successfully, to apply to my day to day life and ministry. I’ve learned the importance of leaving a margin – of leaving time and space in my daily routine and in my heart and in my mind and in my life so that I might notice and encounter and respond to the unexpected things that come my way. Whether a beach to walk on at the end of the day, a sign that lightens the mood and makes me laugh, or a place where I can stop and take a breath and recombobulate, a margin allows me to notice and respond to those divine interruptions God places in my path.
Well, Marty and I have each had our turn. But now it’s your turn to ponder and hopefully to share with others the lessons of summer you have had while on a vacation.