Discussions of the meaning of life often suffer from one of two deficiencies. Either they imagine a 360-degree vista, but only give the ticketholder a thin slice of it or they put life under such a granular view that we see the monsters living on our skin.

I can’t guarantee that one or the other won’t creep in here, but I’m going to beat a retreat to the playground in hopes that good exercise in the open air can stimulate a fresh look at the promise and paradox of growing up Adventist.

As I write, the Israeli army crouches like a hawk over the Gaza Strip after one of the most horrific mass slaughters of Jewish people since the Holocaust. Hamas, a terrorist group, has added up all the indignities and outrages Palestinians have suffered for decades and has launched a war in which there will be no winners.

As I write, my neighbor follows her two little dogs through the trees that cluster in the park within the oval of our neighborhood. It is cool in the shade and warm in the sun here in Maryland. Some of the trees are beginning to turn colors and we are now referring to the season with confidence as “autumn.”

It is difficult to imagine the suffering that festers in the world if I only look out at the tranquility of my street, but I need only flip open my iPad to the New York Times or The Washington Post to get a full array of the horrors present in our time.

The relative wealth of circumstances I enjoy, the present peace, the abundance of goods and services, the possibilities for change—all these tangibles and intangibles are things I do not take for granted. Why I grew up where I did not have to become a refugee is not something I understand, but it is something I am grateful for. And as much as I am able, it is also an imperative to ease the burdens of others.

As I write, I am reflecting on a series of minor bodily disruptions that have made me newly aware of how Descartes’ mind/body dualism is profoundly inadequate. During this moment when one friend is learning to walk again after a knee replacement and another is facing surgery for breast cancer and still another is trudging through a second swamp of chemo, my passing worries remind me that I’ve regarded my body for years as a reliable, if somewhat battered vehicle which I can jump into, knowing it will start up on cold mornings and not overheat in the dog days of summer. It is more than that.

My problems are minor, but still persuasive in the fact that we are constellations of mind-body-spirit, each of us carrying our own stamp of identity. I have Adventism’s wholistic view of human beings to thank in situations like these, to remind me that just as problems in one area of the system affect the whole, the flourishing of the whole system is as much a spiritual quest as it is a combination of luck, environment, and heredity.

On the playground at recess, some of us ran to the teeter-totters, straddling the aging oaken planks and gripping the iron handles worn smooth and dark as coffee grounds. It was best to have two partners of approximate weight and height so that the violence of the see-sawing could be balanced. We would push up from the ground with all the spring in our knees we could to make our partner bounce in their seat. Then came the swift descent, blocking the crash to the ground with our legs, and the pattern repeated. Sometimes we could achieve equilibrium, both of us suspended in air, each reliant on the other to keep the illusion of perfect balance.

This strikes me as a good analogy for the relation between the organization and the individual, especially when one employs the other. As individuals, we bring to denominational employment our energy and our commitment. We want to make a difference, to contribute to the cause. At the other end of the teeter-totter is the church or school or hospital or institution, amplifying our efforts with its weight and providing the means for us to keep going.

It’s a pleasurable relationship, almost familial, both of us facing each other, flushed with the joy of exercising our talents and commitments for something greater than either of us. But often there comes a moment—so many of us have seen it and experienced it—when the organization at the other end suddenly hops off, slamming the individual to the ground, stunned. What we thought was family is revealed as business—nothing personal—and the balance that was so fulfilling and invigorating is roughly upended.

The paradox here is that the very elements which drew us to the cause—a sense of purpose, our personal identity, the good use of our talents—are also some of the most vulnerable. To young people dedicating their talents to the church I would caution: remember your gifts are given by the Lord and returned to the Lord in good measure. Don’t think they fully define you nor are they only good for one cause. Create some daylight between you and the organization so that you can maintain some balance in your life. Realize you can be of service in many other places in the world. And, if you’re married, make sure one of you is not reliant on denominational employment.

On the playground, the merry-go-round always drew in the most children. Some of the bigger kids would stand at the circumference, pushing and yanking the wheel as hard as they could. The smaller children clung to the handrails, screaming with delight and fear. To be on that machine after lunch was to risk vertigo, nausea, and possible projectile hurling.

It’s a metaphor for life. The excitement, the spinning, the delicious strain as you lean back against the centrifugal pull. As a child you discovered the only way off was to leap. Or you could drag your feet and risk immediate censure by everyone else.

It’s so easy, even rewarding, to get caught up in that merry-go-round. In fact, it’s expected. None of us building towers using bricks without straw could think of anything else but the whirl and the force. One thing you discover in working for any organization, even the church, is its boundless expectation of your complete dedication and energies. If that is what you’ve set yourself to do and you find satisfaction in it, then it can be fulfilling. But it wears you down and the paradox is that all that energy and dedication can be spun off so easily if you’re not paying attention.

This is what Sabbath is for. Stepping off the whirly-gig for a day to regain your balance and help you see where the stillness at the center truly is. And it’s not just for the Sabbath day itself. Entering the Sabbath gives us a clear-eyed view of priorities. We labor and then we rest. It’s a rest that extends even to animals and to the land. It’s a wholistic vision of how interrelated our lives are with the seasons, the land, its animals, and plants.

There is a still point in the widening gyre. It’s not just a holy day—although it certainly is that—and it’s more than a holiday. It’s the healing balm in the week that rejuvenates us and realigns us to our purposes once again.

Of all the playground equipment, the swings were my favorite. You could pump yourself off the ground and into the air alongside a friend in the next swing. Or you could enjoy it by yourself. An adult could get a little child ticking with pushes that quickly increased the height of the swing.

Older children pumped up to the apogee so they could be upside down for an instant. Or, like a pendulum, you could swing up, down, up, down, until you finally came to a stop.

I’m thankful for all the mentors who gave me that push to get me going. I’m grateful, too, how they stepped back and allowed me to swing to the possible height of my arc. For an introvert who deeply enjoyed friendships but still needed time alone, the playground swing was an ideal metaphor of life in a community.

The paradox here is that it was a solo activity made easier when aided by a friend or mentor. Once you were pumping on your own the friend moved away to watch. Within the bounds of inertia, gravity, and other laws, you could increase your altitude and your motion. Of course, the best thing was to eject at the height of the swing, so for a moment falling with style looked like flying.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]