As above, so below...

One of the insights that is slowly dawning within me is how different a clergy sabbatical is from an academic or business-related sabbatical - especially a clergy sabbatical for renewal. My time away is NOT grounded in uninterrupted research for writing. Nor is it intended to promote team-building with my work colleagues. Rather, this sabbatical is for rest.  It is focused on the pastor but only in collaboration with the congregation.

The Reverend Callie J Smith of the Lilly Foundation borrows from Parker Palmer's wisdom by noting that over-work is a form of violence with deep roots in popular Western culture. She writes:

Over-work is an issue. As needful as rest is for clergy, it’s needful for laity, too. Unique as the pastor’s roles are, and uniquely relentless as the pastor’s responsibilities can be, clergy inhabit these roles and responsibilities in a larger culture which itself struggles with imbalance. Many Americans own the technology to be connected with work 24/7. Many Americans work long hours at whatever jobs are to be had just to make ends meet. Work can crowd out sleep, exercise, attention to relationships and health, recreation, reflection, and anything we might even attempt to call prayer. This is indeed a form of violence upon our lives.

To speak of clergy renewal means in some ways to speak of more than clergy. Yes, by providing opportunities for clergy to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life, clergy renewal grants can allow more intentional space for things like sleep, exercise, relationships, health, recreation, reflection, or prayer to come into new balance together in a clergy person’s life. But, it’s not just clergy. All people were made for more than the over-work and imbalance that do violence to so many lives. When clergy have the opportunity to engage in periods of renewal, when our recognized spiritual leaders are given opportunity to explore matters of work, rest, and balance in their own lives, they can become prepared in special ways to engage these topics with and on behalf of the larger congregation and community, as well.

As my preparation ripens, I've found it instructive to sit with the biblical roots of sabbatical and
let their wisdom nourish my mind.  The Hebrew Bible offers a clear Sabbath oriented spirituality that begins with the Lord resting after the start of creation in Genesis 2. We know from history that this sacred story was shaped by the exiled Temple priests from Jerusalem who sought a way to reclaim their distinctive identity as God's people in a foreign land. The subsequent spirituality of Sabbath keeping suggests order over the chaos, refreshment from harsh labor and time for people, land and the animal kingdom to lay fallow for renewal. Indeed, the Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25: 8-13 lays out a liberating and grace-filled Sabbath of Sabbaths: 

And thou shalt number seven Sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven Sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed. For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. In the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession.

I have always been attracted to the radical justice components of such a spirituality. It is no secret that in Luke's gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with the statement that he has become the embodiment of Jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Rarely, however, have I been able to apply this wisdom to my own body and  soul  Yes, I know and intellectually celebrate the challenge and corrective Jung urged us to make with scripture when he inverted the feminist axiom - the personal is always political - into its spiritual corollary - the political is also always personal . I've asked countless others to make it so for themselves in pastoral counseling:  "You know, when Jesus tells us that whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the stranger and love the wounded... that also includes the hungry, naked, wounded and lonely stranger within yourself, right?" And now what goes around has come around: it is time for my body and soul to rest.

The Rev. Smith closes her article by reminding us that in preparing for our sabbatical of rest, it is essential to acknowledge what Wayne Muller recently noted in the Huffington Post. There is a toxic:

sense of shame in our culture when (ever) we feel overwhelmed and unable to be as productive as we would like to be. He calls attention to the value of small groups which offer permission for honesty about the over-work and overwhelm, about the “bizarre concoction of ridiculous metrics that drive us, our choices, our policies, our lives - and the lives of everyone around us.” In such gatherings, Muller contends, we can “play with ways to seed an impossible optimism for positive change” and “chart paths to carry these conversations back - to our workplace, our homes, our loved ones.” In such gatherings, he says, “[g]ently, lovingly, we begin to re-dream the world.”

One of the experiences that took me by surprise  when we first called together our sabbatical writing team was the resistance some members shared whenever my weariness peaked through our deliberations. They were both unwilling and unable to accept that I was bone tired and no longer in love with the reality of ministry. The opposite, my refusal to accept their own exhaustion, would have been inconceivable, of course; and that is probably why I was so stunned - and hurt. In time, my anger and insistence burned through their denial but the shame Muller mentions was in the room in many ways and took a long while to exorcise. And now that all my major projects outside the congregation - our organizing campaign and other teaching commitments - are completed, the time has come to step away from the remaining internal busyness and start to prepare for sabbatical.

There are a few things yet to do within the church - and they will unfold over the next few weeks. There are a few details for us to work on as a couple -  passport renewal, renting my bass in Canada, securing the car rental - but they too will be addressed this week. And then, I think, we'll be ready to quietly watch and wait for what the Spirit yearns to share. I am ready for what the Lilly Foundation calls: A time for drinking again from God's life-giving waters, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry.


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