Summertime, and the living is easy…
The smell of the season is a blend of peaches, tomatoes, and watermelon, hot dogs and fresh corn on the grill, and just a hint of sunscreen lotion wafting through the air. The sound of summer is a mix of children laughing by the pool, the faint thunder of a distant storm, and the raucous choir of crickets and treefrogs at night. The dress code is simple: barefoot, shorts and t-shirt; shaving is optional.
David Johnson, our camp manager at Bethany Hills, saw me after Nancy, Miles and I had spent a great week on the beach in Alabama, and he captured the experience perfectly in a little drawing: a preacher on the beach, with a sign next to his chair, “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”
Summertime – and blessed are those who can sit in the sun and watch the waves rolling up on the beach. You get up when you feel like getting up, and you go to bed when you’re tired. It’s a different rhythm, a different beat, and most would agree a better one than the relentless ticking of the clock driving you from one task or appointment to another.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves,” says Jesus, “and rest a while.” What a sweet commandment, and what a pleasure to keep it.
I love getting up early in the morning to make my coffee and sit on the back porch. Sometimes I take a book and read, sometimes I just sit and listen to the world waking up. Early morning is really the only time of day other than the night hours to enjoy the quiet and safely avoid the curse of the suburbs: anytime you sit outside or settle into the comfort of your hammock under a tree, at least one of the neighbors decides to mow their yard. Yet another great benefit of going to the beach: no one feels tempted to bring along a lawn tractor.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves,” says Jesus, “and rest a while.” We had arrived on Sunday afternoon, and on Monday morning I got up, made some coffee, grabbed my book and my readers, and sat on the deck. From my chair I could see Mobile Bay on one side and the gulf on the other; I could hear the waves, a few seagulls, and the soft voices of a couple of joggers running past the house. I watched brown pelicans fishing for breakfast as the sun slowly climbed above the pine trees. It was a moment of great beauty and peace – until a horrible sound pierced the morning air—a leaf blower.
I will not repeat the words that came across my lips on that first morning; let me just say that they felt highly appropriate at the time. First I thought that the curse of the suburbs had followed us nine hours south and that not even the early morning hours were safe from disrupting intrusions anymore. Then I saw him. The noise came from the house across the road; a house just like ours, sitting about nine feet above ground on pylons, with two vehicles parked underneath on the concrete slab, and wooden steps leading up to the deck and the entrance. Our neighbor, just as pale as myself and dressed in red shorts – clearly a very recent arrival – was blowing sand from the carport. The house was practically sitting on the beach, but he seemed determined to keep the sand where it belonged.
“I just hope this isn’t part of your daily routine, buddy,” I said to myself, wondering if their house came with a leaf blower or if he had brought it all the way from home. It takes a while to get used to the different rhythm of life by the ocean, I told myself. He probably woke up before everyone else in the house, and he was so used to doing stuff and staying busy, he just had to find something to do until the rest of the family got out of bed, I told myself. The rest of the week, thank God, the leaf blower remained silent.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus said to the disciples. They had just returned from their first mission trip. He had sent them out two by two, empowered to proclaim repentance, and bring wholeness by casting out demons and anointing the sick. They were no longer just followers, pupils, students or disciples – Mark refers to them here for the first and only time as apostles, that is, sent ones. They had been hearers of the new, authoritative word, and now they had become its bearers.
These emissaries, these newly-named apostles of the Lord gathered around Jesus, two by two, to tell him what they had done and taught. On their mission they had discovered, to their surprise, that they could do much of what they had observed Jesus do; that his authority and power became manifest in their own words and actions. They had stories to tell; yes, they were tired, but they were also wound up like children who cannot possibly go to sleep until they have shared every wondrous moment of their day.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus said to his excited and exhausted missionaries who had no leisure even to eat. There were people everywhere; people driven by curiosity and drawn by the promise of wholeness. People came to wherever they heard he was. So they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves, to a place with the promise of soul-nourishing solitude.
Just to be out on the water in the boat was great.
They pulled away from the shore, away from the daily demands, away from the needs and the noise.
Soon they heard nothing but the sound of the bow cutting through the swells and water dripping from the oars.
It didn’t last, though. When they pulled up on the other shore, they discovered that a crowd had followed them on land. It was as if there was simply no getting away from it all.
They could feel how the care and compassion in their bones was slowly turning into resentment, and they hated it.
They didn’t tell each other because they felt ashamed for what they could only describe as a profound lack of love and presence.
We’re all in that boat, disciples of Jesus, sent to proclaim good news and bring wholeness. But how do we respond when we feel emotionally and physically drained by the brokenness we encounter constantly? Compassion fatigue is a modern expression, but the men and women in that boat have known the reality it describes for centuries. Our emotional capacity to perceive, let alone respond to the demand made on us by human suffering is limited.
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art, we sing with Charles Wesley, and the song reminds us that we cannot depend on our own wells to draw strength for the great work of loving the world. God alone is all compassion, God alone is unbounded love, and we must learn to draw from the wells that never go dry.
The scene in Mark is so short, you have to intentionally slow down to not miss an important little detail.
As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
We are so eager to know what it was he taught them, that we almost miss what he is teaching us. We are so eager to know what it was he taught them, that we almost miss the fact that we are part of them. He looks at us and has compassion for us, because without him, we are like sheep without a shepherd. And then he goes ashore. And he does the teaching. And we stay in the boat and listen; we receive his gifts.
Some of us hear the word that forgives and renews, equips and sends, and we get up and go. Others hear the sound of the waves lapping gently against the shore, until we doze off, rocked to sleep like babies in a cradle. And when we awake, we rub our eyes and realize that the world turned without us.
We follow Jesus because in his presence we experience a conversion to a depth of life we did not know existed. We follow Jesus because in his presence our heart and mind and strength are transformed. We follow Jesus so we may live as those sent by him, drawing compassion from no other wells but his boundless love for God and the world.
In our mission work of teaching and healing we learn that our small words and actions can make the compassion of Christ manifest.
And when he calls us away to rest a while we learn that the same compassion can be at work without us; that can be a humbling experience for newly-named apostles, but ultimately it’s the most liberating experience for a disciple of Jesus Christ. Enjoy the summer.