It was the first vacation of my adult life. Since childhood, I’d dreamed of going on a cruise, island hopping and swimming and maybe watching whales. And I finally did it, booking the ticket to leave from New York City – just a subway ride from home.
It took awhile to settle in. The first night, I jerked awake repeatedly – “Why is my bed moving? Oh, yeah …” Then two minutes later, “Why is my bed moving? Oh, yeah …”
I found the basketball court on the sun deck and shot hoops for an hour a day, discovered the soft serve machine and had ice cream at every meal, explored the decks and made use of the best reading chair in history, and awakened (inexplicably) at five o’clock every morning.
Most importantly, I turned off my phone. I needed it as a clock, but I put it in airplane mode for the duration. I work pretty much full-time in ministry, with a lot of that work happening online – email, social media – so it’s normal to have the work at my fingertips, responding to others’ needs within minutes. It’s a joyful ministry – work that I love – but it’s also something I carry with me twenty-four hours a day, and sometimes, it gets heavy.
I warned everybody. “I’ll be completely unreachable for the following dates …” And I’m not indispensable. I knew perfectly well that the world would spin on just fine without me.
But when I turned off the phone, it took awhile to let go. I spent the whole first week in a state of constant readiness, repeatedly reminding myself that there was no place I had to be and nothing I had to do. Intellectually I knew this, but spiritually and physically, it took a little longer for the message to sink in. Around the end of the first week, I felt the shift very distinctly, and suddenly I no longer felt tense or anticipatory or vaguely guilty but was able to sink into a state of true Sabbath – just being, resting, praising, appreciating. The second half of the cruise was undiluted joy.
The last morning, I woke (as usual) around five o’clock and decided to go up on deck and watch our approach to New York City. I bundled up in about three layers of clothing (strange, after being in the Caribbean, but necessary) and climbed several flights of stairs. It was still dark, but my city is the city that never sleeps, and the skyscrapers lit up the horizon like beacons calling me home. As we eased up the Hudson River, the ship’s intercom system played “New York, New York,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind.” I confess I wept in happiness. My city means a lot to me.
I also prayed. It wasn’t clear when this Sabbath was meant to end. When do I turn on my phone, God? Now? When we dock? When I get off the ship? When I get back to my apartment? It was a bigger question than the phone, of course. Really, what I was asking was, When do I go back to carrying this ministry?
When I finally surrendered to the winter’s icy wind, I ducked inside and went in search of hot coffee. The ship was pretty empty. Most people were still asleep. But I did encounter a very old man, hobbling down the hall with his shoes in his hand.
“Excuse me,” he said, “can you help me? Somebody was supposed to come to my room and put on my shoes. I can’t do it myself, and nobody came.”
Of course I said that I would, and we walked together to the nearest lounge, where he settled into an armchair. I knelt at his feet, which were slightly misshapen, and I wrestled them gently into his shoes.
Wow, I thought. Sometimes God is not subtle!
When the task was done, we smiled at one another. “Get home safely,” I said.
And I turned on my phone.