Monday, November 29, 2010

Generational Sabbath

Sixteen years ago the Kuniholm family gathered for a two-day Thanksgiving celebration, a combined family reunion/ lock-in at a church where one family member was pastor.  That initial event turned into a long run of bi-annual Thanksgiving gatherings, with wheel-chair races, impromptu plays, endless rounds of hide-and-seek, and plenty of amusing stories I’m not at liberty to share.

When job changes made the church gathering space unavailable, the tradition faltered, but the discovery of an affordable and available retreat center opened new possibilities. This year, from Thanksgiving until the Saturday after, twenty-five Kuniholms gathered at the Welcoming Place, a simple, beautifully-executed, environmentally-friendly Mennonite center.

Dan Allender, in Sabbath, says “To practice eternity on the Sabbath, we must give way to curiousity, coziness, and care.” It’s hard to explore those in a fast-paced holiday dinner, with half the crowd worrying about gravy, half wondering which team is winning, one eye on the weather, kids shy around relatives they haven’t seen in months - or years. Spread the time a little, though, and much deeper connections become possible.

When we started our Thanksgiving gatherings, we had one set of grandparents, four siblings and their spouses, and seven grandchildren. We’ve added five more grandchildren ,and one grandchild has married, adding another member of the “cousin” generation  and two small great-grandchildren, just two years behind the youngest of the cousins

Pie is a strong family tradition – and we had twelve: pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No one counted the pots of coffee, but there were many. Hide and seek for the small ones gave way to impromptu charades, then a silly sliding game across the radiant concrete floor. Fast-paced Dutch Blitz, contentious Settlers of Catan, Set, ping-pong and carpet pool kept older cousins and parents occupied, along with excursions to the Lancaster market and to an area rec center.

There is something about multigenerational play that helps create a sense of belonging, that lowers barriers between generations and creates shared laughter and memories. After dinner one night, one of our teens suggested a game he’d learned in his youth group, and soon we were laughing and sending crazy signs around the room.

More memorable than the games, though, were the conversations. It was exciting to hear our oldest family members sharing new experiences in contemplative prayer, encouraging to hear the stories of God’s financial provision through the past two difficult years, exciting to hear new directions God has taken some of us, to share our own sense of what God is asking, and to hear that affirmed in the responses of others.

What a luxury to have time for questions beyond the obvious. We had time to ask “What books have been shaping you and your thinking?” “What’s next on your reading list?” Time to ask “What do you want to accomplish in the year ahead?” A surprise question prompted good conversation: “If you had to try a new job – for a year – and it didn’t matter if you were good at it, or prepared, what would you like to try?”

Much has been written about how today’s adolescents are segregated and cut off from older generations, and the damage done as they try to navigate life without the example of an extended community of elders. Chap Clark’s Hurt explores this in depth, observing “We are a culture that has forgotten how to be together,” to the great harm of our children.

But the harm extends beyond children. All of us need to be reminded of our value in God’s larger family, and all of us need to see, in the lives of those we come to know well, the continuing work of maturity.  We are not alone in this walk of faith; as the generations are woven together, God’s care, purpose, and provision become clearer.

Our family gathering was one form of generational Sabbath, and treasured more deeply because we weren’t sure those gatherings would continue. I’ve also experienced that kind of Sabbath on some of our youth retreats. Youth ministry, at its best, can provide that same expansive opportunity to see God at work across generations. Our spring retreats often offered a similar sense of play, care, gratitude, excitement. Our legendary Golden Fleece games allowed adults and teens to face each other in play, while ample free time allowed more casual groupings of older and younger adults, college students, older and younger teens. In large and small groups, as we shared our stories, we could see the ongoing work of God in different personalities, different stages of life. And as we shared repeated retreats together, we could look back at moments when we had seen God move powerfully, and look ahead to what he would continue to do.

In an odd way, our mission trips to Kensington, an inner city neighborhood in Philly, have provided generational Sabbath as well. I was most conscious of this this past summer, knowing the trip would be my last. I went into it feeling physically tired and spiritually drained. I had just started reading Sabbath, and was wrestling with some of Allender’s ideas: division surrenders to shalom, destitution surrenders to abundance, despair surrenders to joy.  I began to pray that God would allow me to experience the trip as Sabbbath, not sure what that would look like.

What I saw and experienced surprised me. For the team, the week, despite the work and challenging circumstances, provided a kind of multigenerational fellowship rarely experienced. Team members from their sixties (the vicar of our partner church) down to early teens played games together (Apples to Apples - endlessly), told stories, worshipped together late into the evening. We shared uncertainties, prayed about challenges, told stories of our own walk with Christ, discussed what we were reading and thinking.

Each evening, from five to seven, the team went into the neighborhood to create a Sabbath space for children, teens, parents, grandparents. The fenced church yard became a place of shalom, safety, fun, for everyone who gathered. As we shared, from our different ages and our own unique experiences, our view of God’s goodness at work in us, and in the world, as we shared our knowledge of what God is doing, now, and our hope of what he will do, tomorrow, next week, on into the future, we were all enriched, strengthened, encouraged, fed.

“Sabbath calls us to act against division and destitution – defying it through the celebration of peace and abundance. We are invited to write the script for our character each week, to act on the stage of Sabbath a new play of redemption. We are to pretend, to play as if the new heavens and earth have dawned and all despair and death have been swallowed into the glory of the resurrection. For Christians the Sabbath is the day we play in the light of untrammeled freshness.” Allender

During our trip, instead of using my daily “rest and reflection” time for rest, planning, weary prayer, I found myself reflecting joyfully on God’s goodness, and writing poetry for the first time in years. The challenges hadn’t changed – my perspective had. Which is what Sabbath is about: taking time to shift perspective. Taking time to see from God’s point of view, rather than my own. Taking time to sit with others, older, younger, further along in the journey, just starting.  Taking time to listen for the cries of justice, the whispers of blessing. Asking God to make us more fully alive in fellowship with each other.

A few Kensington Sabbath poems:

Justice is this ache,
This lingering limp – this –
Silence, echoing.

God breathes, a breeze stirs
Cool air from the river, sweet
Whisper of blessing.

I will pray . . .
I will
For hope beyond this corner bar,
For joy that lifts
Beyond the salsa beat
And rains
Like kindness
Down on flat tar roofs,
For peace, a peace beyond mere calm,
A peace that sings
That blooms
That shimmers off the streets
And shines
Like sun
On sun-starved skin.
I’ll pray.
But if I pray, good God,
But if I stay
Alive enough
To care
To hope
To wait
Then meet me here
Right here
Beneath the broken light
Here, on this narrow strip
Of rubbled pavement
And teach
My tired