Cover Story

Vacation as vocation

Summertime travel can be a means for spiritual and cultural repair

Issue: "Summer Travel 2001," May 12, 2001

The Bible tells us to work, but it also tells us to rest. Under the Old Testament, people who insisted on working all of the time, without taking the Sabbath day of rest, were subject to the death penalty. Maybe that would get the attention of today's overly busy, stressed-out workaholics, who are so busy providing for their families they never spend any time with them. So if God desires us to rest occasionally from our labors, it is surely only stretching the matter slightly to see in the Sabbath principle a justification for taking off work for a couple of weeks when summer rolls around, packing the kids into the car, and going on vacation. Thou shalt get away from it all No longer are we limited to working a mere eight-hour day or a 40-hour week. Thanks to electronic pagers, we can always be on call. Thanks to cell phones, we can wheel and deal in those down times of commuting, shopping, and driving the kids around. Thanks to the Internet, we can bring the office into our homes. Now we can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The busier we are, the more exhausted we get. We are burnt-out cases, neglecting our spouses, our kids, and our own spiritual well-being. We are in great need of recovering God's great gift of the Sabbath. "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy" is one of the Ten Commandments, right up there with not killing, stealing, or committing adultery. Of course its main significance has to do with worshipping God, with attending to His Word, which alone, said Luther, can make something holy. The Sabbath also speaks to us of Christ. That God wants us to honor Him by not working at times is a reminder that we are not saved by our works, that in Christ we enjoy a "Sabbath rest" in the grace of God (Hebrews 4). Though Christians have often disagreed about how strictly to observe the Sabbath-does it mean that all businesses should be shut down? Is shopping work? Does playing a game violate the Sabbath? How about watching it on TV? Is it lawful to have fun on the Sabbath?-it should be remembered that the Sabbath, properly speaking, is not just Law but Gospel. When Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath by helping people, He set forth an important principle: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). That is to say, the Sabbath is God's gift to busy, distracted, weary human beings. He gives us a break, time to recharge our lives by spending time with Him, our families, and ourselves. The Sabbath, of course, is a particular day of the week, but the Old Testament also provided for taking off for longer chunks of time: letting the land rest every seven years (Leviticus 25:2) and canceling all debts on the seventh of seven years. (Such "sabbatical years" may be the only biblical principle still honored in many of the nation's colleges and universities.) Just as we are called to our work, we are called-by the Word of God-to rest. God gives us our vocations. And He also gives us our vacations. Are we there yet?
Vacations also allow us to attend to one of our vocations that we often neglect: that of the family. Being a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister-each of these, the Reformers taught, is a vocation from God. There is thus something holy about everyone in the family piling into a car and spending, in that space, time together. ("Are we there yet?") Vacation allows for quantity time, which is even better than quality time. Car rides mean the chance for conversation, for the cultivation of in-jokes, and for having experiences together that, remembered, constitute a family history. A good percentage of vacations consists in visiting extended families, which are now typically spread across the country. These relationships are also important to keep up, since the adults in one family are still sons and daughters-children-to their parents as long as they are living, not to mention brothers and sisters to their siblings, and their vocation in their original family remains. And grandparents and grandchildren are unalloyed blessings to each other. Even when family members, in close vacation quarters, get on each other's nerves, it is still better than being alone. Get some culture
Vacations can also be a time of cultural repair. We live in a time when the pop culture-that realm of commercialism, entertainment, and mass-produced superficiality-has all but driven out both the folk culture of our American heritage and the high culture of our American achievements. A good antidote to the empty cultural calories of the pop culture is to experience true, authentic culture. Vacations are an excellent way to seek out high culture (that is, learning something) and folk culture (getting in touch with the American heritage). America is composed of rich regional cultures, each with its unique history and personality. But nowadays, without a little effort to go off the beaten paths, every place seems exactly the same. The same fast food franchises, the same chain restaurants, the same nationally branded hotels, the same strip malls, the same music and generically accented disk jockeys on the radio--this sort of pop commercialism has driven the regional folk cultures out of sight. But they can still be found. Travel tip: Instead of having every meal under the Golden Arches, unless you are in a real hurry, stop at places with a big neon "EAT" sign or, better yet, a gigantic pig wearing a chef's hat and an apron. Learn the difference between southeastern barbecue (pork; hickory smoke; a thick, sweet sauce), and southwestern barbecue (beef; mesquite smoke; a thin peppery sauce). Then search out the subtler varieties (that yellow sauce you can sometimes find in Carolina; the Memphis dry rubs; places that put slaw on their sandwiches). Make a point of eating deep dish pizza in Chicago; cheesesteaks in Philadelphia; gumbo in New Orleans; blue tortillas and chipotle peppers in New Mexico; Asian/Mexican/yuppie fusion dishes with sprouts in California. Have a taste of the real America. It is possible, of course, to take a purely pop culture vacation. This would mean theme parks, the ultimate in manufactured fun for the entire family. Since a worthy goal of a vacation is, in fact, fun, I do not want to put them down completely. But the best theme parks, knowing that the human spirit needs more than a roller coaster, even for fun, often bring in at least some elements from the high culture and the folk culture. Thus, one can learn about science in Epcot Center and shoot a black powder musket and watch Ozark craftsmen at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. Vacations are a way to get up close and personal with history. Chances are, neither you nor your children learned very much American history at school, at least not the exciting parts, such as battles. Go to Yorktown in Virginia, where you can see how George Washington trapped the British army and won our independence. Visit a series of Civil War battlefields, preferably in chronological order. Go to the Lewis and Clark sites, trace the routes of other explorers, travel the Oregon trail. Try to imagine how people back then got through those mountains without the benefit of automobiles and interstate highways. Appreciate the prowess and the values of our pioneer forebears in opening up the country for the rest of us to come. Look at all this scenery
There are two kinds of vacation destinations: to culture or to nature. Going to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, camping out, going fishing, lying out at the beach-these are all ways of simply enjoying the natural order. Apparently, human beings, in all of our sophisticated, high-tech civilization, have a need for this, and "getting out into nature" can be the most soothing and healing vacations of all. Many people today look at nature and think how fragile it is, waxing indignant at the prospect that man is destroying it all. Such people think they are environmentalists, but they are really humanists with a guilty conscience. They assume that man is all-powerful, the center of the universe over which he holds tyrannical sway. But man cannot destroy nature; nature destroys man, every time. At most we litter it a little bit, but the grandeur of nature exists beyond man. The natural landscape can help remind us of the obvious but roundly attacked notion today that an objective universe exists, that it transcends our mere subjectivity, and that it constitutes an orderly, dependable design. Nature is not a human construction; it is God's construction. Christians tend to prefer natural landscapes that are vast, sublime, awe-inspiring, vistas so great that the human figure shrinks into insignificance and we are left breathless at what seems like a glimpse of infinity. At least this is the kind of landscape rendered by America's first Christian artists, the Hudson River School, whose paintings (worth tracking down in museums across the country) helped inspire America's tourist industry. This is not the romantic's mystical pantheism of "becoming one with nature"; rather, it is experiencing the otherness of nature, while at the same time being filled with praise for its Maker. The vast, rugged, snow-clad Rockies; volcanoes such as Mauna Loa or Mt. St. Helen's; the heart-stopping depths of the Grand Canyon; the sheer empty space and the big sky of the Great Plains; the mysterious power of the ocean-these are exalting, ironically, because they make us feel small. And that's a healthy and oddly soothing feeling for us to have these days. Reason enough to go on vacation.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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