At 583 miles per hour, a thousand miles from home, far above the eastern reaches of the Sahara desert into northern Sudan, we speed southwards towards the equator. In two hours the epic which has been a two-and-a-half month sabbatical for me, and a two-week family visit for Scott, will end. So before that happens, a few more thoughts on the value of sabbath.We are coming up on 19 years in Africa, 21 years with World Harvest Mission. And while we've failed to keep the sabbath at many turns, to our own harm, I think the rhythm of our life has not been completely off of the patterns established for good. A weekly day of rest? Mostly, at least a day of worship and family time, though in medicine one does get pulled into the mercy exceptions. Yearly weeks of festival? The Israelites traveled, gathered, camped three weeks a year, and we've done similarly, with team retreats and adventures, though the return travel in Africa generally seems to negate the rest of that time away. Years of sabbath every seven? Hmm. We did that after the first seven years, but then as leaders we felt less option to leave for extended periods. One year after 6 1/2, 5 months after the next 9, perhaps another year after 5 and that will even out a bit. The once-in-a-lifetime Jubilee, the 50th year after seven cycles of seven, debts forgiven? Not exactly, but this summer was my approximation of that, a true forty-day period of solitude, prayer, reflection, rest. Perhaps not all these rhythms are eternally applicable to a non-agrarian society, but perhaps they do reflect the way we are created, and the concept of sabbath is part of the ten commandments.
The old missionary pattern was four years on the "field" and on year back at "home" in every five-year cycle. This pattern was set when travel took weeks not hours. When kids had little schooling option or flexibility. When expectations were low for maintaining American culture and relationship in the interim, when letters crawled back and forth over the globe, when those in "foreign" lands had little contact with their family and friends left behind. And when those kids were expected to fully immerse in American school on that fifth year, because they were more American than global citizens. It's a different world now, where we can fly to America for important events like weddings and Parents' Day weekends, where we can check on facebook and find out immediate news, where we don't want to miss anything. What used to be the year-long furlough can be parceled out into smaller chunks that allow us to remain connected in more immediate ways with people we love. Where our kids have consistently attended Ugandan and missionary boarding school because we haven't pulled them out for a full year. This is largely good. I believe it was the RIGHT thing to be physically and emotionally and spiritually more available to at least some of our kids this summer by taking a trip. And as my mom said, it's the most time I've spent with her since I was married 25 years ago (or more likely since I left for college 32 years ago . . . ). Perhaps one surprise of this phase of life is that graduating from high school is not graduating from the family, that it may take more from us to get ourselves to regularly input and support in young-adult lives than it seemed to when we all lived together.
"Furloughs" or "HMA's" involve visits with family, because through the years away one can't just show up for the weekend, or gather for Thanksgiving dinner. They involve doctors' appointments, dentists, getting glasses. They involve paperwork and shopping and errands compressed into a few days that someone in America might spread over a couple of years. They involve thanks to supporters who are the essential bedrock of everything, but too often silently taken for granted, as we show up at church, at lunches or dinners or prayer meetings. They involve (often) meetings with supervisors, plans for the future, or debriefing the past. They involve recruitment of new help. They involve updating of skills and qualifications, perhaps study of some sort, a course, an apprenticeship, access to resources after years of isolation. All of this takes time that a normal person might spread out over weekends here and there, afternoons, phone calls, vacations or study leaves. Instead we do it in concentrated doses. All of that with international travel can probably fit into an annual 6 weeks, or a biannual 3 months. All of that except the most important part, the actual sabbath. The rest.
That's why this summer was so different for me. I did a lot of that visiting time and appointment time and errand time, and it was good. But in the middle I had the inviolable 40-day block thanks to Caleb's basic training and the kindness of our friends who leant me a cabin-like home on a ranch. I don't know all that happened on a soul level just by doing that, but I sense that some good things did.
It would be easy for the shorter more frequent time periods to always fill with the fixed amount of family/church/errand/appointment time, because those events are a constant whether done every year or every five years. There is freedom, I think, for us to take the sabbath principle and use it for our good. The sabbath was made for humankind, not humans for the sabbath. As always truth lies in two paradoxical poles: hard work, solid rest. We can easily drift into over-busy over-working over-self-importance. We can also drift into fixation on our right-to-rest, fear of the challenge can drive us to be away from ministry more than is right It's hard enough to strike the right balance for ourselves, let alone for others. If sabbath is always equated with leaving the "field", that can lead to disruption of bonding and language and sense of home. I think that's why I rarely use the missionary-ese "HMA, Home Ministry Assignment". Home is a complicated concept. So is ministry. The phrase implies geography, leaving Africa and going to America, which is not necessarily better for purposes of rest and reflection. And not necessarily home for 2/3 of the family who spent their entire lives in Africa. As I said, complicated.
More Christians who are not in professional ministry probably need to think through issues of sabbath and sabbatical, of rhythm and rest. We're blessed to be in a profession, and a mission, where such time is valued and even required. In the end for us it boils down to the same issues of faith that determine the rest of life. Following God's patterns involves cost, to me, to my kids and coworkers and extended family. Following God's pattern requires faith that the time of not-being-productive is good time, that Gods' grace will bubble up to infuse the spaces created, to supply our needs. I need that faith as we land this evening, that the cost others have borne will not truly hurt them. That I'll be able to walk back into relationships and work and life after such a long absence.
Khartoum has passed beneath us as I type, and we are nearly to the Ethiopian border, nearly to the curtain of night time. My body has changed time zones a lot lately--this is the seventh switch in a month, from 1 or 2 to 7 or 10 hours difference. Ironic that rest should make one weary, but anything that is worthwile usually does.