Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on finding grace at the gym, particularly Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.
If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that I have been trying to get to the gym on a more regular basis.
When I first returned to an exercise regimen, I solemnly vowed that I would not use elliptical machines. They seemed simultaneously to require too little effort and too much coordination (more than I possess, anyway). When I grew tired of swimming every day, however, I sheepishly broke my vow and gave the elliptical a try. Astonishingly, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected I would. Sure, I looked a little like a baby deer the first time I tried to make my arms and legs work together, but I eventually got the hang of it. More importantly, I discovered that when you do it right, the elliptical is a lot more challenging than it looks. By the time I finished my first hour-long session, I was completely worn out and gasping for a drink of water. When I stumbled to the water fountain, I noticed the word etched into the plastic handle: “Oasis.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the experience of drinking water from that fountain after a long workout. Like an oasis in the desert, it was a place of refreshment and sustenance, a verdant patch of green in an otherwise forbidding landscape, a place that signaled it was time to rest.
Where is your oasis? Where is the place that you can stop, rest, and be refreshed? One of the important aspects of life in the Church that I believe we have forgotten is the practice of Sabbath. We have gotten seduced by the notion we always have to be doing something in order to be considered productive. Our ancestors, however, recognized that we are occasionally the most productive when we are doing nothing at all. The Torah lays out a fairly comprehensive approach to the concept of Sabbath. Not only are there rules requiring people to rest every week, there are regulations that specify when to let land lie fallow, when to rest livestock, and when to cancel debts. Sabbath, in other words, not about taking a breather every once in a while, it is about reevaluating our position in the world and reorienting ourselves to the God who created us. It was a way of rejuvenating the land and reinvigorating human relationships, something that we desperately need in this age of overconsumption and mistrust. So, as you consider where you might find your oasis, make sure it is a place where you can really stop. Make sure it is a place where you can go regularly and be productively unproductive, where you can reevaluate where you are and reorient yourself to God.
My grandfather was one of those people who poured his whole being into yard work. When he mowed the lawn, he did so as if he held a grudge against long grass. When he cut away dead branches, he did it with such gusto that one wondered whether he secretly prayed for his trees to lose their limbs. And when he raked leaves, he acted as if his life depended on stuffing piles of leaves into a battered steel garbage can. As you can imagine, this was an exhausting enterprise, especially given the heat and humidity of summertime Connecticut (yes, it does get hot in CT for a few weeks). Nevertheless, my grandfather refused to take breaks. He would not pause in his valiant struggle against the yard until he had finished all of the work appointed for the day. He even refused my grandmother’s offers of iced tea, lemonade, or water; he would forge ahead, sweating to the point of dehydration, until everything was done. My grandfather did not forgo breaks simply because of his herculean work ethic, but because he wanted the beer he would drink as a reward for his hard work to taste that much better. He wanted to be so thirsty that the Polish lager he pulled from the fridge as he walked into the house would be one of the best things he ever tasted. He deprived himself so that when the time came, he could feel even more refreshed than he would otherwise.
Tomorrow is known in some liturgical churches as “Refreshment Sunday.” Also called “Laetare Sunday” (from the Latin for “let us rejoice”), “Mothering Sunday,” and “Rose Sunday,” the fourth Sunday in Lent is a time when the Church is invited to pause in its Lenten fast, to take a break from the intensity of this penitential season, and refresh itself in preparation for the second half of Lent. The liturgy bears this out. While most of the Lenten prayers at the beginning of the Sunday service are about sin and our need for repentance, the prayer for the fourth Sunday in Lent is all about God’s grace and love: “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.” In some churches, the clergy wear rose-colored vestments (instead of a more mournful purple) for Laetare Sunday, a visual cue that this day is not quite as intense as the rest of the Sundays in Lent. Refreshment Sunday is a day that we remind ourselves that Lent is not supposed to be a time that we deprive ourselves just for the sake of being deprived, nor is it meant to be a time that we give something up just so that it will taste that much sweeter when Lent finally ends; Lent is a time that we prepare ourselves to embrace and celebrate the Resurrection life offered to us in Jesus Christ. So tomorrow, I invite you to take a break from Lent. Have a cupcake, drink a caffeinated beverage, eat a little barbecue. After all, Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection. However you observe Laetare Sunday, remember that Lent is a time to grow closer to God and prepare for the Resurrection.