The recording played on loop during my first week of sabbatical: “Do this, do that; accomplish this, accomplish that. Why are you taking a nap?” My inner urge to produce battled against this rhythm of renewal. Internally, I live in constant summer – produce fruit! Get things done! For nine weeks beginning in February, my only task was to reflect with body and soul the late winter landscape on my block. Here in North Carolina, that means remaining still.
“Great work is done while we’re asleep,” Wendell Berry says. In the darkness underground, the work of digging deep roots into nutrient-rich red clay proceeds slowly, without a sound.
The first week required turning off that tape on loop, but soon the rhythm of this sabbath worked its way into me. The volume of the voice demanding greater production decreased. The chattering of the millions of cells building roots within me got louder. I learned to listen to the hidden work, which was cultivating within me the depth I need to thrive. I grew to love the restful season, which looked barren on the outside, but inside hummed with life.
“I am inclined to think that my work is indispensable for creating God’s justice in the world.”
The renewal did its work on me. I learned to submit to the cycle of the earth, to be still and reflective. As April approached, I readied myself for the emerging growth that spring promised. The winter held many surprises. My soul kept discovering more life in the quiet under the surface.
But the biggest surprise yet awaited on my first week back to work. I sat down, ready to begin again, only to discover that the bills were all paid, the pastoral visits had been made, the communication plan remained on pace, the maintenance was done, the grants were written, the volunteers were scheduled, the advocacy team had advocated and the organizers kept organizing. Everything was in good shape. I wanted to work, but I had no idea what to do.
My return to work had one clear thing to teach me: I was unnecessary. Still am.
I lacked the wisdom on those first days back to understand what a gift this knowledge is. I could not discern it initially, but I see now that knowing this is a path to freedom. Operating in the world of Christian ministry and activism, I am inclined to think that my work is indispensable for creating God’s justice in the world. The problems are so immense. And when you get proximate to the problems, you see the faces and know the stories of the people who so bravely stare down the oppressions of our society every day. The urgency only increases.
“I learned to listen to the hidden work, which was cultivating within me the depth I need to thrive.”
To compound it all, built into the DNA of our faith is a missionary impulse. We can change the world, Christians think. Perhaps we can. Maybe even for the better, notwithstanding centuries of evidence that western Christianity has done the work of empire rather than of liberation.
In my neighborhood, that work for God’s justice includes building a livable, affordable district with spaces for every neighbor, especially those oppressed by an unjust economic system.
God’s justice demands repentance and repair from those of us who have been taught we are white in a racial system that values whiteness and despises Blackness. God’s justice involves preaching Good News to the wealthy, reminding them that their cesspools of excess, when freely given away, can become springs of beauty for the realm of God and the life of the world.
All of that work matters. The tape that runs on loop in my head wants to convince me that I am indispensable in the struggle. Without me, who would do all the good? But that story is not true.
Good work is done by communities, in community. What I do matters, but without any one of us, folks will continue the work. They were doing it before I arrived in Charlotte’s Enderly Park, and they will keep doing it long after I depart. Though I have been graciously welcomed into the struggle, nothing depends on me.
“Good work is done by communities, in community.”
What I am saying is that I am unnecessary, but not insignificant. I have a role, just as each of us who gets caught up in the in-breaking of God in the world has a role. But that role only has meaning in the context of a community that struggles together.
In “The Farm” (This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems), Berry writes:
But praise, in knowing this,
The Genius of the place,
Whose ways forgive your own
And will resume again
In time, if left alone.
You work always in this
Dear opening between
What was and is to be.
In this dear opening of my dear neighborhood, I do have good work to do. I have the great gift of doing it. But it is not necessary, and should I disappear tomorrow, the work would continue without me.
Learning this is freedom. I can rest, I can labor and I can walk lightly in the gift of community.