Pauses for Hope
a praxical theologian's modest collection
A Prayer for Shmita
Some three-day weekends are like an unplanned visit from a friend you’re always ready for. A long weekend is welcome on my calendar any time. If you are like me, the rituals and meaning of Labor Day pass by without much thought, making the weekend just that, a nice treat at summer’s end, marking autumn's beginning. When I was working at church, Labor Day marked the weekend before Kick-Off or Welcome Back Sunday. When I was teaching, it helped gauge when I should be mentally ready for the start of classes in the new term. This year feels different.
With so many struggling with unemployment and others working in vulnerable conditions, I pause to reflect on this holiday set aside to recognize the work of those who keep our communities and society moving forward. Labor Day was a hard-won national response to activists and everyday working people asserting dignity of the human person too often discounted under the prize of production and profit.
What was declared true in 1894 is true today: workers are more than components of an assembly-line, more than useful agents of economic systems. We are humans, people with basic and superfluous needs, desires, and hopes.
We need the dignity and reward of work. We need the dignity and reward of rest. We are best when we can be innovative, productive, disciplined. We are best when we can pause, wonder, sit with loved ones without an agenda.
12-hour work days were changed to 8-hour days thanks to those who fought in the first organized labor movements. Harsh working conditions and lack of policy protections were continuously challenged by subsequent waves of significant movements that chart our nation's progress on humanizing a collective ethos of work.
For people of faith who find grace and practical principles in the Bible, we draw from an ethos of work established by Creator God. The Genesis narratives tell a compassionate story of God who provides work and rest for creation. People made in the image of God are given the responsibility of stewarding the earth and given charge to be fruitful. Then God blesses a particular day set aside for rest. It is the only day (the seventh day) in the creation narratives specifically attributed to being holy (Genesis 2:2-3).
The people of God abided by this holy ethos of work and rest. When imbalances struck because of human greed, impatience, insecurity, and possession, God provided principles for returning to holiness. The Sabbath laws were among such provisions. We are to stop from the work of our own hands to remember that we belong to God, that we are beloved and worthy beyond and before our productivity.
Among the Sabbath laws is the shmita (שםטה). Lands were to remain fallow and all labors cease every seventh year, the shmita, literally meaning release. This was so that the poor among communities may eat from the previously harvested fields, so that the workers and foreigners may rest free from the pressures of those who hold power over them (Exodus 23:10-23; Leviticus 25:1-7). This mandated release provided a necessary pause for everyone to reset their ways, a long-awaited relief for laborers, hope for the weak among the community.
As we continue in this blurry season, the pains of the multiple crises in our midst are palpable for so many. Relief and restoration, hope and healing for those who are hurting can come in the form of bills and policies as well as in the generous decisions of ordinary people who see those in need of relief, recognize the resources in their reach, and move into holy action.
Until all who are weary make their way to the fountain of God’s mercy, the beloved community of faith is called to feast at the table of grace and open wide the extensions of this abundant table so that all can hear and feel the welcome invitation to come—to come and eat, to wonder, to sit with loved ones without any agenda, except to be mended and loved by their Creator.
As we bring the scatterings of this unusual Labor Day weekend, I invite you to collect hope from a word—for yourself, for your loved ones, for our world—in the offering of a prophet’s glimpse of the kin-dom of God.
May we pray with our hearts and with our deeds:
On earth as it is in heaven...
Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-12
Everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found,
call upon the Lord while the Lord is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that the Lord may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Walk with the Wind
So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters,
and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide. -John Lewis
There are those among us whose noble stature is at once grand and meek. Grand enough to command the attention of the masses; meek enough to understand—stand under—the pain of the suffering. They are leaders who capture our imaginations and lift them to higher planes. They are leaders whose expansive canopy of wisdom and kindness nurtures the proud and weary alike.
Though most of us will not have known the Distinguished Congressman John Lewis personally, I join with many of you in the collective sense of mutual affection for this civil rights icon. If our affection comprised mostly of awe and respect, we see today that his affection was deeply pastoral.
I read Congressman Lewis’s op-ed in the New York Times this morning as an exhortation a pastor might write to her beloved parish. A letter to the generation following the hard-fought strides of his own, the op-ed challenges and loves its readers. Lewis’s letter, like his life and words many of us have come to learn more widely in the past several weeks, reconnects us to our soul’s longings and determinations. His encouragement does just that: gives courage.
Courage lives in the heart, through the heart, to the heart of others. Derived from le cœur – coraticum – cor-"heart”, courage originally meant speaking one’s mind by telling all one’s heart. This may be why the hearts of justice-seeking and peace-building people of our nation and of the world are affectionately drawn to a man we have not met in person. He speaks to the common human desire for connection, belonging, inspiration…for love. So today, while we mourn the death of this towering gentle figure, we face the rising swell of possibilities and challenges of our day with renewed courage.
I loved learning about Congressman Lewis's preaching dreams. Though as a shy young boy, he ministered to chickens on his family 's farm, even practicing baptizing them, he became a distinguished public servant who faithfully led a nation. His life was a sermon for a world struggling to find peace with itself. For people of faith, we recognize this preacher's Spirit-dependent heart resounding in the posthumous op-ed published today. We hear a beloved of God's encouragement to walk with the Spirit who is calling us to act justly, to love mercy, and to commune humbly with God. May we walk with the Spirit. May we walk with the wind.
The wind blows where it chooses,
and you hear the sound of it,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
And suddenly there came from heaven
a sound like a mighty rushing wind,
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Send us everywhere you would have us go.
Only go there with us.
Lift Ev’ry Voice
The common heritage of our nation is the great ebb and flow of history’s path on which each of us find ourselves—standing next to one another.
The path behind us is not a narrow one, certainly uncontainable by one narration. The path was neither smooth nor straight, making the beginning, middle, and the present day more jagged than the story we’d like to tell. Yet, all of the cracks on this common path, the struggles still jammed in them, the boulders that blocked progress and every pebble that stumbled our collective steps, the peaks of our united victories and low points of violent divisions narrate the multiple resilient strands of a diverse nation’s common heritage.
E pluribus unum is commonly translated—and understood—as Out of many, one. Today, I am reflecting on the other side of this notion, with this interpretation: One, out of many. Each one of us belongs to the many, many, many with whom we stand on the common united states. Each one belongs to the many, many, many histories of people, their plights and perseverance, that make up the common heritage of American identity.
We are more than our worst and ugly parts; we are also inaccurately defined by only the shining parts of our nation’s tenacious will toward the noblest ideals of democracy. When we brace the countenance of our history mirroring back its brilliant peaks and rotted crevices, its tales of myopic greed and exceptional generosity, its ebbing and flowing path marked by strife and hope, we gain a wider, clearer view of our collective identity, a fuller recognition of our collective inheritance.
This Independence Day, without the usual parade and circumstance, we are given a chance to reflect. As a daughter of immigrants, I pause to recall not only my family’s short history in this country but to re-member all of my freedoms—to think, to voice, to consider, to debate, to engage, to protest, to affirm, and to believe—to the greater ebb and flow of America’s history pulled and pushed, crushed and cultivated by people who believed in and continue to fight for the possibility of a society that "hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
What grace that I can be counted among the blessed heirs of the transcendent fortitude of brave leaders who gave us words to sing and freedom to envision each of our place in the harmonies of liberty! As dusk approaches on this solemn Fourth of July, let us refuel our common hope on this stony road, led by those who faced the rising sun, lifted their voice and marched on:
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing
James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamand Johnson (1900)
Lift ev'ry voice and sing
'Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on 'til victory is won
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
'Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land