Last week, as I was reflecting on all the chaos that was unfolding in the first days of the new administration, I came across this piece of advice. It emerged during the South African resistance to apartheid, and it felt like something I could hold on to.
In the midst of great turmoil, just do the next good thing.
Sunday there was a spontaneous march in Seattle on behalf of immigrants here in Seattle. For many in my congregation, that was the next good thing they could do. But I could not join that group. I was flying down to Northern California for a United Church of Christ Pastors’ Retreat. I did take a sign with me to the airport, but I did not march in downtown Seattle. I was stepping away.
Eight of us from churches up and down the West Coast gathered to talk together about how our churches and how our lives are going. I have been meeting with this group for eight years now, every January. Relationships have deepened. Trust has grown. When I come home from this gathering, I always feel renewed.
This year, I was particularly eager for my retreat. In the two months since the election, I have felt an ongoing need to be with people of faith who are feeling the call to stand up for love and justice and compassion. I arrived Sunday night at the Franciscan retreat center above Danville. Being surrounded by images of St. Francis, and looking across at the Mount Diablo fit my mood. It feels right now like I am wrestling with my own internal saints and devils, not to mention what I see all around me.
So eight of us spent our two days together speaking of new strength we have seen in our congregations and ourselves since November. We encouraged each other in our work. We shared our fears and our hopes. We laughed together and prayed for each other. We ended our time by breaking bread, drinking wine, and worshipping together.
While we were away, the chaos in the wider world continued. The executive orders that have been coming from the new president throughout the week, culminating with last Friday’s ban on immigrants and refugees from select predominantly-Muslim countries continued to cause heartbreak and confusion in this country and around the world. Six people were killed and eight wounded at a Quebec City mosque during Sunday night prayers. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the shooting by a white man a “terrorist attack on Muslims”. The governor of my state of Washington announced a lawsuit against the president over his immigration ban. The city of Seattle continued its strong stance as a sanctuary city.
I have returned knowing there is much work ahead.
But even as I rush to the work, I am grateful that January has been a month of retreats for me. Two weeks ago, I was in San Juan Batista, California, leading a retreat for the women of First Congregational UCC of San Jose, the congregation I served twenty years ago. I saw great strength and courage in that community of women as they committed to let their lights shine in the world. Last week I was with the women of my current congregation at Pilgrim Firs, the UCC camp in Port Orchard. Thirty five of us at that camp had our own Women’s March in solidarity with women, men and children all over the world marching for human rights. And earlier this week, I gathered with the pastors.
There will be a lot to do in the weeks, months, and probably years ahead. Staying engaged in the work will be critical. Sometimes we won’t even be sure what to do. In such times we can be on the look out for “the next good thing.”
But we also know we will need times of rest and renewal, space for strategizing, ways of recalibrating our internal compasses to match the touchstones of our faith. For the work ahead, we need deep roots and regular nourishment. Sometimes we “retreat” to move forward.
The biblical word for such times is sabbath. The profound spiritual principles underlying sabbath remind me that I do not do this work alone, and every one of us needs good rest as well as good work. We are bound together, and lean into one another, even as we proclaim ourselves also bound to a wider world. When I need a break, you step forward to keep watch. When you grow weary, I take up the torch. The saying I learned from my Kenyan friend Loyce is,
When you want to go fast, go alone. When you want to go far, go together.
We have a long way to go. May we find the balance between action and rest, between deepening renewal and “all forward” energy. And then let’s go far, together.