What I did this summer...

Over the summer, I've spent a lot of time thinking ~ and praying ~ and listening for God's still speaking albeit still, small voice that is deeper than wind, fire and earthquake. This quiet listening is rooted in one of my favorite passages of Scripture ~ the story of the exhausted   prophet Elijah ~ who after challenging the idolatry and sin of the status quo of his day, wanders into the desert and falls asleep under a lone broom tree.  He is played-out and feels like the time has come for him to die.

But, as is often the case, God's wisdom and grace is bigger than our feelings.  So after the burned-out prophet rests, an angel of the Lord appears saying:

“Get up and eat!” He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep.The angel of God came back, shook him awake again, and said, “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.” He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep. Then the word of God came to him: “So Elijah, what are you doing here?”

“I’ve been working my heart out for the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,” said Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” Then he was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.”

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper. When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there.

At the start of this summer, I was feeling worn-out and a little used up.  Not surprisingly, these feelings kept pushing me towards the idea of early retirement.  "I don't think I have the juice left to keep doing ministry much longer" is how I often went to bed. To be blunt, I was ready to go out into the desert and sleep for a long time under a lone broom tree ~ not necessarily to die ~ but certainly to give up active ministry.  But all summer long, different angels of the Lord kept coming to me saying, "Get up, man, what are you doing here?"  That is, different people and insights kept showing up in my life that suggested alternatives to leaving ministry.  They appreciated my feelings ~ and encouraged me to get the rest I sensed I needed ~ and at the same time they offered an encouraging and quiet whisper towards something deeper. 

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

+ One voice of grace came from Dianne who urged me to explore a real Sabbatical.  Not every congregation can afford to help their pastor take a Sabbatical ~ and that has been the case for me in 30 years of ordained ministry ~ but my current faith community has made plans for this to happen.   And just the thought of spending three or four months in study, rest and reflection has brought a measure of healing to my soul.  So, over the next few months, I'm going to apply to the Lily Foundation for resources to help my first Sabbatical come to pass.  I'll work carefully with my congregational leaders, too so that this time away not only nourishes me but also the community of faith. (Currently my thinking about all of this involves working/writing about a "spirituality of jazz" while spending some serious time practicing both electric jazz bass and acoustic bass for use in worship and our various ministries of sharing joy through music in the wider community.)
+ Another voice of grace came from the congregation itself:  not only have they eagerly worked with me to forgive a financial loan, but they are hosting a celebration for my 30th anniversary of ordination.  Both acts speak volumes of the love, trust and commitment we have come to share ~ and both have touched my heart at a deep level.  Here's the thing: most of ministry is about planting seeds ~ not harvesting the fruit ~ so you need a long vision in order to keep at it.  And sometimes it feels like you will never see any of the fruit of your labor.  Like Niebuhr said.  "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

+ And the third voice of God's angels came to me over the past month while I have been wrestling with the death of my sister.  Her life was such a mess ~ such a tangled web of bad choices, fear and resentment ~ that I have become hyper-sensitive to these things.  You see, a life-time of poor decisions, denial and cynicism always leads to tragedy.  I know that thought was running through my heart when I stopped by a local hip hop club during vacation.  And as I watched about 200 beautiful young adults get trashed, parade about on the dance floor like satyrs and strippers and try to end their night in ways that would abate their loneliness, I kept thinking:  what does my life and ministry ~ what does my church ~ have to say to these sweet, broken souls?  That question has haunted me all summer.  It is how I have been wrestling with my own sister's life and death as well as what worries me about a generation that knows precious little about God's healing and grace.

And then, in a little rural bookstore in the Eastern Townships of Quebec this summer, I found a brilliant extended essay about reverence.  Ralph Heintzman suggests that this is how we might best speak to people raised in a thoroughly secular world about God's grace.  It is, I think, another still small voice that brings depth, integrity and even hope back into our lives:

Reverence conveys a human attitude of respect and deference for something larger or higher in priority than our own individual selves; something that commands our admiration and our loyalty, and may imply obligations or duties on our part. In a gesture of reverence, either physical or mental, we acknowledge superior worth, our relationship to it and our potential obligations toward it.  "Reverence results from humility," as a Jewish text puts it... and it is clear that modern societies have not only lost a sense of reverence itself, but also the very idea of reverence.
There is much more to say about this ~ and I will ~ but I sense that this is key to the next phase of my ministry.  Reclaiming a sense of awe, passing on the habits of reverence to our young families and even inviting those from the wider realm to explore their deepest longings through the arts ~ hip hopsters included ~ is an alternative to wasted lives, the trap of bad life decisions and the consequences of both stupidity and resentment.

I am grateful that I saved two weeks at the end of this summer to rest.  During that time a lot of thinking took place ~ prayer, too ~ as I painted the walls of our living room and bed room. A lot of reflection and conversation happened as Di and I drove through the beauty of rural Quebec.  As I finished playing our jazz gig last night ~ and shared a few drinks afterwards with my band mates ~ I felt at home.  No longer in the desert resting under the lone broom tree.  I experienced a sense of grounding and challenge ~ even hope ~ as so many people from my church passed through the club and welcomed me home.  And man did it ever feel good to be playing again!

That's what I did this summer ~ and I give thanks to God for all of it.

picture credits:  Dianne De Mott (with one obvious exception.)

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