Siren song of summer

The church needs a season to rejuvenate and set concrete goals
November 1, 2005

There is always a sadness about the end of summer, as if summer were not so much a season as a country, a long landscape of days through which we travel and, with a small sigh, from which we return.

When I was teaching, I always tried to avoid the summer sessions. Who would want to give up the almost sensuous pleasure of having these long days all to oneself? But eventually, of course, time (and the powers-that-be of the English Department) caught up with me. I could no longer escape this particular teaching chore and, as often happens, I found that what I had dreaded was, in truth, a treasure beyond price.

As with most universities, our summer session comprises two semesters crammed into eight weeks apiece -- and without compromise. Everyone, student and teacher alike, lives submerged in his or her subjects, a book in hand throughout most waking hours. Summer is the time when the buildings become stale and old and you gather up the students to troop outside and discuss Crane and Hemingway and O’Connor beneath cool and ancient trees.

Summer is the time when juniors and seniors take the freshmen requirements they hoped would go away -- but didn’t.

Summer is the time when no one dresses up. Comfort is all, fashion is nothing.

Summer is the time when one focuses entirely on the task at hand. The pervasive polite gamesmanship of academe, the various and erudite power plays, take a back seat to the overriding purpose of surviving the semester, getting the work done and staying cool.

Summer is a laid-back time, on university campuses as elsewhere.

I came to love this time that is somehow outside of time, the small but profoundly restorative land of summer. I was always sorry to see it go, always looked back with regret: “Why can’t it always be like that?” Why can’t it always be like that?

We all need such a time. The church especially needs such a time, and it needs it now. The groundswell is rising, you can feel it in the congregations, and what it is saying is: “Enough. Let’s get on with it.”

So I suggest that now, in the fall of the year, we invent a summertime for the church. A summertime where we walk out (figuratively if not literally) from our walled precincts and look at the world. It’s a massively imperfect place, to be sure, but it’s vital and alive, and it’s ours to love.

A summertime where we set concrete goals because we have loved well enough to understand that a goal that requires us to serve is not at all the same thing as an agenda that requires us to agree.

A summertime where we set aside power, set aside ego, set aside everything but the tough job of love and service.

A summertime where we allow ourselves to learn the things we thought we’d never have time to learn, and thereby find an undiscovered joy.

A summertime where we welcome everyone who wants to share the goal, where we use all hands, value all talents and hear all voices.

And what are these goals? They are many. Some may be called to feed, some to educate, some to heal, all to pray for our beautiful, flawed world and its beautiful, flawed inhabitants. “Christ now has no feet but yours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila, “no hands but yours, no voice but yours.”

Never have we stood more in need. The church, to borrow a metaphor from Crane, is busily engaged in eating its own heart. The church needs to find its summertime again.

Who will restore it if we do not?

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