Today was a stunning autumn day in the Berkshires: choir practice resumed tonight, I
made two pastoral visits - each vastly different from the other - I continued to search for my church keys that have gone AWOL and began reviewing my notes for this weekend's wedding. I am only working "half time" for the next two weeks of re-entry, but that is a squishy term when it comes to ministry. People can - and should - be in touch whenever they have a real need. In fact, they have and I have found myself grateful for the chance to reconnect. The rest of this so-called partial work week includes other pastoral connections, phone calls and more worship planning. I also continue to devote one hour each day to writing.
Returning to ministry after an extended absence dedicated to rest and renewal continues to be a challenge - but in totally unexpected ways. One is the resentment some people express. No shit. Resentment. Nobody has been so bold as to say: I don't get to go away for four months on a leisure cruise funded by a grant for prayer and play! But that's how they act. Not a lot, but a few. And given the world we live in and the way work is organized in the USA, I can't really blame them.
There are also some who don't know that the whole point of clergy renewal sabbaticals is to refresh the soul and return to a NEW way of doing ministry. I was once in a conversation with a conference staff person back in Arizona who told me that the only way most ministers stay in a church after ten years is to: 1) go on sabbatical; 2) re-imagine their ministry; and 3) return to the parish with a very new emphasis.That is what is going on with me, but some (I guess it is to be expected) resist being open to the Spirit. Currently, my post-sabbatical suggestion - and commitment - is that we spend as much time as necessary listening to one an other's stories. We each have experienced this sabbatical in different ways. I want to hear what has been a blessing (and a curse) to our leaders as well as the wider congregation. And God knows I have some stories to tell, too.
I sense that we would be well served taking some time to hold these stories in prayer, too. There are deeper truths to be discerned after the first round of stories are shared. I know this from the development of fairy tales, myths and archetypal poetry. My conviction - especially after the privilege of this sabbatical - is to insist that our invitation is first and foremost: Wait upon the Lord and do not fret. Small wonder that I found myself turning again to a small volume by M. Craig Barnes, now President of Princeton Theological Seminary, who wrote THE essential book for 21st century ministers: The Pastor as Minor Poet. In a sub-section entitled, "human life is limited," he wrote::
The first two chapters of the Bible provide our only picture of the life that God desired for us as creatures. It was paradise. But we were not created to enjoy all of it. Planted in the middle of the garden was a tree whose fruit was forbidden. It is significant that this tree was not located off on the margins of Eden, where it could be ignored. Every day Adam and Eve had to walk past this reminder that they were not created to have it all. That is God's idea of paradise for us...
Whatever the forbidden tree represents in a person's life is not as important as the realization that we humans were not created with the capacity to take whatever we desire. There can be 999 trees in our garden to which we can freely go and enjoy their fruit, but where do we pitch our tent? Under the one tree we cannot have... and so it goes... as every pastor knows, the greatest regrets people have are not over their
victimization but over the things they've done to themselves.
From the beginning we have been created to be receivers, not achievers. Nothing is
more counter-cultural to contemporary Americans. We have been raised to set our goals high, work hard and achieve our dreams. Clearly there is merit to this work ethic, but it has limits, and the greatest one is that it seduces us into thinking that we are the creators of our own destinies. The only destiny that comes from reaching for whatever we want is finding ourselves east of Eden. Every page of the Bible presents God as the achiever and us as the receivers of this sacred, good work.
Everywhere I look in our society there is a frenetic rush to fix things: it could be the wild-ass and cruel extemporizing of Donald Trump or the pedagogical verbal overload of Bernie Sanders. We are all certain that things are broken and need somebody to DO something. But without careful and patient spiritual discernment, we humans tend to make bad situations worse. That's why I told my church council: for almost all of my 33+ years of ministry I have always had a plan. But now I don't. I trust that God has a plan, but I don't. And while I trust that God will reveal this plan to us if we are willing to listen to the still, small and quiet voice of the Lord, this is hard work. It is counter-cultural work. It is the work of the true contemplative who yearns for the healing of our culture.
So my prayer this season - and this year - is that we do exactly this: listen to one another and wait upon the Lord.. As the body of Christ we have been invited to be a gentle, clear alternative to the busy cruelty all around us. Not as a private prayer club dedicated to just our own spiritual peace, but as a community offering hope and compassion in the flesh to real people. After sharing a few stories about my sabbatical - and listening to a few of theirs, too - my council lovingly affirmed this "inchoate" plan, trusting that God is just and tender and then approved holding a community prayer vigil next week in support of Pope Francis' call to action on behalf of healing climate change and income inequality. At choir tonight, we practiced "The Prayer of St. Francis" and I realized: this is going to be a great year!
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