Like many of you, I have vacationing on the brain.
Memorial Day is meant to remember those who gave their lives in service to the country. Still, judging by the weekend’s typical worship attendance, it’ll be akin to a test run of the forthcoming summer’s getaway potential. In other words, it’s a practice vacation. It doesn’t offer much time to rest, but it gives a sense of what rest could be. And if not rest, then at least the liberty to spend a long weekend with friends and family—some we like and some we don’t—doing something…or nothing.
I just used the word liberty.
I’m not above reminding anyone why the rest they enjoy in America is possible. People died to provide it. Considering that Thomas Jefferson once called religious liberty “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights,” I’m not above reminding folks to consider churchgoing as one of liberty’s best exercises. A far more critical death sits at its center—the death of God’s Son. His death won far more than freedom from earthly tyranny or foreign threats. His death stole you away from eternal condemnation and the power of Death. That’s certainly worth a day or two of any vacation.
At our Church Council meeting last week, our new Youth Board chairman, Jason, spoke about future opportunities for our youth to enjoy fellowship together and serve in the community. As he explained, I drifted back to my days as the youth leader, a time when we were heavily invested in international mission efforts, going to places like Russia and Lithuania. I share this because later that night, on the treadmill, I visited a travel website to check on airfare prices to Lithuania, figuring it might once again be a possibility. Of course, Russia seems like a stretch right now. Anyway, while ticket shopping, one of the side advertisements was scrolling quotations about vacationing. I don’t usually pay much attention to advertisements. The sayings caught my eye in this case, probably because the Thoma family is precisely 20 days away from our annual two-week getaway to Florida.
The first quotation I jotted down was from Robert Orben. He said, “A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in.” Another from Hal Chadwicke offered, “A vacation is a sunburn at premium prices.” I also saw one by Susan Sontag. She wrote, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Finally, there was the following from Gustave Flaubert: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
I know who Robert Orben was. In fact, he died just this year. He was a comedy writer who later became a presidential speech writer. I only know this because he managed to do something I’d appreciate doing, which is speech writing for political candidates. Other than that, I’ve never been a fan. I don’t know who Hal Chadwicke is. I’ve never heard of him. I’ll probably look him up after typing this. Known or unknown, he said something insightful that was worth sharing. Susan Sontag was a leftist crazy. She did all she could to depict America as a villain. For example, she was the kind of person who could visit an orphanage in Africa built by Americans and figure out how to blame America for the local warlord’s murdering the children’s parents. I’m not a fan of Susan Sontag. Still, she wrote at least one thing worth sharing.
Gustave Flaubert’s observation resonated with me the most. He was a nineteenth-century French novelist. He wrote Madame Bovary. I’ve never read it. It’s a classic, so I probably should. I guess I’ve never been that interested, mainly because of its reputation for having a class-envy theme. Still, Flaubert’s words about travel are pinpointedly accurate. Stepping beyond the front door of our lives has a way of revealing the uniqueness of one’s place in the world.
Vacations are inherently good for this.
Relative to this ramble’s start, I think I’ve sorted out a few things. One lesson learned concerns my being completely disinterested in spending a Memorial Day weekend with any of the authors I mentioned. However, even though I might not be fond of particular people, situations, or tasks, I can garner something of value from almost anyone or anything if I’m paying attention. Even Saint Paul found value in the pagan poets. With that, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, pay attention to what’s happening around you, even when you’re doing absolutely nothing. You’re bound to discover something worthwhile. This leads me to something else.
I suppose vacations are designed to provide rest. But they’re also supposed to be rejuvenating. Rejuvenation isn’t necessarily a do-nothing event. It’s restorative. It’s a creative act. It’s also self-contemplative. It takes in information and applies it to the self. It has a heightened awareness, one that’s undistracted from the usual day-to-day bustle and capable of looking around at life for new ways of making one’s regular days healthier and, perhaps, more productive. I can promise you that’s one of the only reasons I try new things while on vacation. I rarely do nothing. But I rarely do something to say I’ve done it. I eat food I’ve never eaten or try activities I’ve never tried so that I can decide if I want to add them (if possible) to my life back home. I discover things about myself and my everyday routines as I do this. As Flaubert hinted, I’m reminded how small my corner of the world is compared to the rest of God’s beautiful creation. The older I get, the more aware of this process I become. And it really is a splendid process.
Now, I didn’t set out at the beginning to sound like some new-age therapist bent on meditative self-help techniques. Instead, I’m thinking about my upcoming vacation, realizing I’m going away to a place that’s not my home. I will return to the real world and its seemingly endless tasks.
I’m also thinking about what I read in Ecclesiastes 3 this morning. Chapter 3 is that memorable portion from King Solomon that talks about how there’s a time for everything under heaven. I noticed vacationing fits into what Solomon wrote.
Interestingly, after Solomon lists various seasons in life, some good and some bad, he appears to connect all of them to man’s general toiling—his day-to-day vocation. In verse 13, he summarizes that God wants man to take pleasure in his work. His phraseology implies that the toil and its fruits are God’s gifts to us, not simply a package of things we endure until retirement. They’re proof of God’s love.
In verse 22, the final sentence of the chapter, Solomon adds one more thing. He once again restates that man should rejoice in his work, but then he ends by asking the rhetorical question, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” I won’t dig too deeply into this question because I’ve already been long-winded. In light of everything Solomon has written, it sounds like he’s assuming a life of labor in gratefulness to God produces a job well done. A job well done benefits those who come after us.
Finally, reading Solomon’s concern for times of laughter and healing—and knowing they’re relative to our daily labors—I think one of the “vacation” takeaways is that we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking about our time off as an escape from work. Instead, we vacation for the sake of our vocation. In other words, we take time to rejuvenate—we grow and learn and take in new mental and physical resources—so that we can return to our daily labors better equipped for faithful laboring to the glory of God and the good of the neighbor.
Returning to the real world after vacation can be depressing for some. I get it. Still, I think Solomon is telling us there’s a way to take a little bit of it with you. My advice: pay attention. Ask yourself while away, “What can I bring back to my corner of the world that’ll make my vocation more of a joy in thankfulness to God and a blessing to my neighbor?”
Now, if I can only figure out how to fit Florida’s sunshine, a few palm trees, and a swimming pool into my suitcase. I’ll bet that would make everyone in Michigan happy. Florida can keep its sharks.