reflections on the journey so far...

Today is a quiet, gray day in Montreal - one given to rest and reflection rather than engagement with the world - so we are mostly inside. It is a tender time, filled with intermittent showers amidst hints of sunlight. At day 56 of our 109 day residency in this grand town, it feels right to review the original sabbatical grant proposal and take stock of what has and hasn't happened. Indeed, we started such a conversation during a long walk through Rue Marie-Anne yesterday.


This area of Le Plateau is a classy residential street of two story flats. Understated depaneurs appear every few blocks along with authentic yoga/massage schools and former high school buildings now converted into upscale condominiums. It is just one block away from the bustle and vibrancy of Rue Mont Royal, but very much a world set apart, too.  As we walked, I wondered what had surprised Di the most on this journey? After about eight blocks of her reflections, I tried to answer my own question as well. Looking at our grant application at this midpoint, I find these insights rising to the surface..

This sabbatical was intended to "nourish a deeper knowledge and practice of sacred jazz" for me through "an extended time for practice, study, spiritual renewal, rest and reflection." (There is also a congregational component to the sabbatical, but I am unable to comment on that until after we return and debrief.) The formal structure of the sabbatical involves three phases:  1) a three week trip to jazz liturgy centers in the US that allow for rest as well as learning ; 2) a three-month residency in Montreal dedicated to practicing upright bass in addition to deepening my spiritual disciplines of "prayer, rest and exercise;" and 3) a transition retreat in the Eastern Townships of Quebec for reflection on the residency as part of our transition back into pastoral ministry.  The sabbatical team put it like this:

A sabbatical will provide our pastor with an extended time to slow down, rest and listen to how the Spirit is speaking and singing in his soul. It will allow him to nurture the music and instrument closest to his heart: jazz and upright bass... 

+ First, although I knew I was weary, I had no idea of how profoundly exhausted I
actually was until we slowed life down. Even after two and a half months, we are both still sleeping 10+ hours a day. Our activity level has increased significantly with long 4+ mile walks most days. But that's a ton of sleep, yes? Ten or more hours every day - sometimes with a nap thrown in for good measure!  I wrote in the application: "After seven years as pastor of First Church, and 30 years of pastoral ministry, I am tired physically and emotionally." No shit!

But let's be clear: my weariness is not all related to my work at First Church. Yes, doing renewal work is demanding. But during this time there have been significant deaths in our families - Dianne's mother, my sister and father - as well as the loss of dear friends in our current church as well as previous pastorates. Most of the time, I am not even aware of how profoundly I felt this grief. I simply knew it was becoming overwhelming. And while I haven't done a lot of conscious grief work on this sabbatical, I know I have integrated some of my sorrow into my soul. Certainly, catching up on lost sleep has been a blessing worthy of this time and money even if I never picked up my instrument.

+ Second, it was unrealistic to think I would be able to spend three hours a day practicing the upright bass. The upright bass is a huge instrument. It is a full body work out so have been able to devote close to two hours most days. As my on-line guide teaches: this is the optimal time for practice. Anything more involves physical pain and diminishing results. It has been humbling and rewarding working carefully on music reading skills and playing my instrument with care and attention. I wouldn't have missed the scramble to adapt to upright bass two years ago for anything in the world. We played some great gigs. But I see that I also missed a lot of the fundamentals in that race for adequacy. Now I am relearning and retooling and know that my playing is becoming cleaner and more nuanced. (NOTE: wood shedding is fine - and necessary - but damn if I don't miss playing WITH some of my musical partners, too!)

+ Third, phase one of our sabbatical was spot on and I discerned a few important lessons from each of our encounters. I learned, for example, that my understanding and commitment to sacred jazz in worship is NOT hosting a jazz concert with a few liturgical prayers draped around the periphery. I really did not like what was going down when we visited St. Peter's in NYC: the music was superb, but the worship felt incidental and irrelevant. My take is that the jazz needs to enhance the contemplative journey. It must reinforce our encounter with community and help us return to our lives with more compassion and hope. I experienced that in Nashville where the readings and the music fit hand in glove. 


+ Fourth, during our residency in Montreal it has become a gift to spend a few hours every day walking and exploring. Our bodies feel better, our minds are less frenzied and we have a dedicated time for conversations.  I have found, however, that my formal time for prayer and contemplation has not ripened the way I thought it might. Rather, it seems that my new form of contemplation is connected to my bass playing practice: it is intense and focused in a way that strengthens my skill in preparation for sharing music for peace-making. And when I close my practice times with playing along with You Tube geniuses like Herbie Hancock of Wayne Shorter, I delight both in the progress I have made as a student and the potential I envision for more music after the sabbatical is complete.

+ Fifth, an unexpected challenge and blessing of this sabbatical has been given to us in the form of learning how to be more present and loving with our wacky, wildass dog, Lucie, who is overwhelmed with city living.  She has only known the quiet of our country-ish home in Pittsfield. She loves to romp in the fields and woodlands of Massachusetts. But she is a total basket case when she has to cross a busy Montreal boulevard on our way to the park.  It breaks our heart to see her so anxious, so we have been pushed toward finding new ways to help her - something we never dreamed of when we wrote the sabbatical proposal grant. Truth be told, we've helped a little. We spoke with a dog trainer this morning who said that the best we can do is help her cope.  If we had a year, then some real changes might take place. But given our short time, the most we can hope for is fun in the park and managed anxiety en route. He did give us some helpful hints about using her beloved tennis ball for a distraction and letting her enjoy a bit of beer to take the edge off life in the city. 

+ Sixth, we have experienced some incredible music that has been a deep blessing. The jazz liturgy in Nashville was spot on - and I got to sit in with the band!  The three performances we took in at the Ottawa Jazz Festival were transformative: Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton, Bruce Cockburn, and The Roots. Our time at the Montreal Jazz Festival has been equally wonderful:  Bad Plus with Joshua Redman, Wayne Shorter, Madeleine Peyroux were mind boggling in beauty and passion. And our wandering into various jazz venues along the way in Montreal - especially Dieze Onse - have been filled with serendipity and joy.

+ And seventh, being required to work hard at Quebecois French has been a discipline in humility, intentionality and silence. It is good for me to have to think hard about what I want to say. It is even better for me to have to listen deeply and not be in control. I love the sound of French and have fun trying to speak it with people who are generous and kind. And I totally dig the vibe of this multi-cultural city. Being in this setting, in a Francophone neighborhood with French speaking merchants and shop keepers, has been just what the doctor ordered for me.  

For the time that remains, I can see some of this happening:  my bass practice will ripen, our children will visit (along with a dear friend later in August), we'll become a little better helping Lucie deal with her wigginess, I will purchase a new bass and we'll continue to rest and grow closer in this great place. During the first week in September we'll be on retreat in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and then it is back to worship and ministry in Pittsfield. This is a LONG experience - only half over - and for this I am ever more grateful to the Lilly Foundation , my colleagues in ministry at First Church and my congregation.

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