Joy in the world

The other day it occurred to me that my grandfather, who was born in 1903, never went on vacation, not once, and I don’t think he missed it. Perhaps you remember somebody like that. I found myself wondering when people started going on vacation and where the word vacation came from.

What I learned is that, until the 1850’s, Americans used the word the way the English do: vacation is the time when teachers and students vacate the school premises and go off on their own – not necessarily to play, though. The custom of  summer breaks, first for the law courts and, later, for universities, was introduced by William the Conqueror from Normandy, where its purpose wasn’t leisure, but assuring a successful grape harvest.[1] Now that’s the kind of vacation my grandfather would have been familiar with: a break from school so everybody can lend a hand during the harvest. I also remember from my earliest school days that some grown-ups called the week of fall break, Kartoffelferien, potato break.

Cindy Aron wrote the first full length history of how Americans have vacationed – from eighteenth-century planters who summered in Newport to twentieth-century workers who headed from the city for camps in the hills.[2] At first, vacations were taken for health more than for fun. The wealthy traveled to watering places, seeking cures for everything from consumption to rheumatism. But the notion that people need a break from work and get away from it all, took quite a while to develop.

For Puritans, work was blessed, and idleness suspect. They worked six days a week and on the seventh day they went to church where the preacher affirmed from the pulpit the goodness of work and warned them against the vices of idleness. But in the 1850s, things began to change quickly and rather dramatically. The railroad allowed people to get to the shore with relative ease, and railroad companies built resort hotels to give the growing white-collar middle class a reason to ride the trains.

Part of what made the middle class was that they had strong values like hard work, discipline, and sobriety, which allowed them to accumulate enough resources to go on vacation. But when they got there, they were tempted to idleness, drunkenness and other worrisome things. So there needed to be a form of vacation where middle class people could relax without worries. The churches were paying attention, and they developed their campgrounds in Martha’s Vineyard, in the Delaware shore, and in other places into worry-free resorts. No drinking, no smoking, no gambling. You couldn’t even bathe on Sundays.

Middle class people were still uncomfortable with the notion of leisure, though, and the resorts responded with a host of programs to keep vacationers busy. They developed schedules of lectures, classes, and courses, and organized hiking and competitive sports absorbed the idle hours. Working on self-improvement – spiritual, educational, physical – helped people feel productive while at play.

But Americans’ uneasy relationship with leisure remained. Robert Siegel, in an interview with Cindy Aron, quoted the saying that Europeans work so they can go on vacation, and Americans go on vacation so they can go back to work. And the author responded,

I think there’s something of a truth in that, and I think it’s an old story. I think if you look at the history and you look at this tension between work and leisure in American culture, I mean, we have this love-hate relationship with our vacations, and I think we’ve had it from the beginning. Some people maybe really like work better. I think being on vacation means dealing with your family, sometimes in ways some people would rather not.[3]

Now that opens another can of worms, and I may have to get to that another time. For now, I want us to think about this desire, this need perhaps, to get away from it all. Feeling the need to get away tells us that things are seriously out of balance where we are. I don’t want to make my grandfather the standard of a balanced life, but I am curious why he never said, “Man, I need a vacation so bad.” I suspect it’s because he took a walk in the woods every day, and a long one on Saturdays. And he worked in his garden every day, and talked to his chickens. He never worried about finding a rhythm for his life, because his life already had a gracious rhythm of work and rest. I never heard him use phrases like running on empty or needing to recharge.

We go on vacation to the beach, to the mountains, to the little house by the river, and inevitably we come back sighing, “I wish I could bring back with me that sense of being alive. I wish I knew how to nurture my mountain soul (my beach or river soul) in the city.” This language is very close to religious sentiments. “I wish I knew how to nurture my heavenly soul in this world.” The language is similar because the longing expressed in those words is very similar, and at its root, it may well be the same. We long for life to be whole and we experience our lives to be out of balance, out of tune, out of sync.

Now we encounter Jesus who says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[4] We struggle to name the thief who robs us of life, because in so many ways it’s our own doing, our own misguided ambition, our own misunderstood appetites that, while promising fullness, never fail to drain us.

Jesus was sent by God that we may have life, and have it abundantly. He embodies a life where holiness and wholeness are one, and giving himself to us he draws us into this fullness.

It is Thursday night in the part of John’s account we heard earlier. It is the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion. He has given his friends everything that was given him from God, and only one thing remains for him to do to complete the gift. He doesn’t give them last-minute instructions, though, no hurried notes about the good life, lest they forget. He prays, and we get to hear what he says. He lives this moment, like every moment of his mission, in the intimacy of his relationship with God. He is at peace, not because he knows he’s going home, but because he already is at home.

In the gospel of John, “world” is not another name for “earth” or “universe.” The “world” is that part of creation that doesn’t know God, it is that part of life that is out of tune, out of sync to the point where it is actively opposed to God’s rhythms and seasons.[5] But the “world” is also the object of God’s love. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[6]

Jesus is at peace, he is completely at home with God and his friends, and we overhear the words of his prayer. He prays for them and for us. He asks God to sanctify us and protect us. He asks God to set us apart for the sacred mission of testifying to the truth in the world, the truth and the life that has found us in Christ. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

The evil one, the ruler of this world, the thief, that reality we struggle to name because we find ourselves so thoroughly entangled in it, the evil one has been judged and condemned,[7] but we need God to keep us safe.

The holiness and wholeness of life is not found through separation from the world, getting away from it all, but through our being sent into it, through our participating in the mission of God, through our sharing in the intimate relationship between Jesus and God. And as much as we live in that relationship of mutual love, we are in tune with life and at home. In that relationship our ambitions and appetites are healed, and we know who we are and what we are to do. We are at home already, which allows us to live amidst the tangled complexities of the world without getting trapped and exhausted. We know that we do not belong to the world, but that the world is God’s. And that allows us to stop serving the ruler who robs us and drains us. Knowing that the world is God’s, we praise the giver for the beauty of earth and sky and sea, for the rhythms and seasons of life.

We overhear Jesus saying, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” He speaks of joy, and I can’t think of a better way to describe in a word what fullness of life feels like. Joy is that wondrous gift that is more enduring than the best vacation. Joy is the song our soul sings on the beach and in the mountains. Joy is the tune of our one-ness with God and God’s creation and the people with whom we live our days. The joy of being at home with God allows us to live fully and faithfully in the world, engaged with its needs and its wounds, knowing that we are participating in God’s mission of loving all things into wholeness.

Now this may sound like I figured it all out, but I didn’t. All I did is spend a few hours listening carefully for the word of God in scripture, and come Monday morning, like most of you I will struggle to remember. But what I heard and tried to put into words, will still be true, beautiful, and promising.


[2] Cindy S. Aron, Working At Play: A History of Vacations in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1999)


[4] John 10:10

[5] See John 1:10

[6] John 3:17

[7] See John 16:11