Friday, October 30, 2015

some slowly emerging sabbatical insights...

Back in Cleveland, when we first started to explore, practice and then celebrate a holy Sabbath in our home, I was caught off-guard by the push-back from discrete congregational leaders. It wasn't widespread, of course, but it was real. "What do you mean you don't answer the phone on Fridays? That is just selfish!" There were other versions of this song, too all of which equated resting and renewal with selfishness.
Part of my shock was born of my own naivete: in retrospect, I should have anticipated some negative reaction to changing my public engagement. That is certainly true whenever a person in an alcoholic family starts to alter her/his own behavior with a move towards greater health. When we finally realize that we cannot change others - and can barely change ourselves - those seeking equanimity begin a process of acceptance, spiritual discipline and surrender. And as this commitment takes root, it creates turmoil in a broken family or relationship. One person starting a journey towards healing throws everyone off course. Consequently, those who don't want to change - or cannot change - often blame the changer for disrupting the family. They tend to project all their fear, shame and anxiety on to this person and do everything in their power to disrupt the pilgrimage towards serenity. Having spent some time at the Hazleden Treatment Center's seminars for clergy, I might have predicted this commotion - but didn't.

So I was stung by the critique. I felt attacked and diminished - even disoriented. Three factors helped me go deeper into Sabbath in those early days:

+ First, the encouragement and wisdom of my spiritual director. Fr. Jim was a rock solid elder in the contemplative tradition.  He not only supported my practice of Sabbath-keeping, he showed me ways to enrich it. "Stopping is only the first step," he said over and again, "and a baby step at that. The whole point of stopping has to do with trusting God to care for creation not your ability to stop for a spell. So what are you doing to nurture a radical encounter with trust?"

His counsel was clarifying.  My first assignment, after a few months of gentle conversation

andperiodic overnight retreats at the Oasis House, was to take 20-30 minutes twice each day to "experience" myself "resting in the palm of God's hand." This was not a linear prayer. It had nothing to do with my rational realm and everything to do with learning to live from my heart. Jim was explicit: "You are too smart for your own good and don't know how to get out of your own way. So, the time has come to learn to sit quietly and await upon the Lord. In time, God will come - and you will know a love greater than anything you can imagine from the inside out." And he was right. It took about seven weeks - and I was often bored and unconvinced - but when I was able to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" then I knew much like it is written in Job 42: 5: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you."

+ Second, the experience of renewal I felt in my flesh. Beyond my propensity for whining, there is an objective weariness that weighs down all parish clergy. It goes with the job and is born of seeing the sacred significance in human relationships, dealing with regular but often contradictory complaints and wanting to love and care for sometimes unlovable people. What I found when I started to regularly keep the Sabbath as holy - even imperfectly - is that I had more inner assurance in my heart and much more stamina in my body. To sleep deeply is a spiritual practice. To stop fretting is equally refreshing. To walk in the quiet woods, to eat a simple meal in candle light and music with my loved one, to read aloud to one another: all of this helped me remember that my life was blessed. There is heartbreak and anguish woven through the tapestry of everyone's existence, and, there thousands of ordinary miracles and joys, too if we have eyes to see. One of my current spiritual mentors from a distance, Carrie Newcomer, puts it like this in a poem she entitles, "Remembering."

I am remembering
My unbroken self,
Which understands that silence
Can be considered an absence of sound,
Or experienced as a fullness of spirit.

I am remembering
That all is vanity in the end,
Except for the love that tumbles out of us,
Or shines down upon us,
In fleeting, glowing moments.
I am remembering
My own wholeness,
The perfect soul I was born with,
Assessing my long endeavors to name the unnameable,
And describe what I know only from the corner of my eye..

I am remembering a lifetime of trying to map
The shape of shadow and light,
To draw the clean edges of change.
And what has made me an oddity
Asked me to live far more closely
To the center of all that awe and ache.

I am remembering my promise,
My willin decision to stand
In a shaft of January light,
Fascinated by the shimmer of the dust,
Suspended in a quiet room,
And how the light travels across the floor,
As a short day lengthens,
Reaching out like hands,
Covering the wood planks like spilled water.

As Israel's ancient poetic prophet, Isaiah, told us: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength.

+ Third, the joy of being with my beloved friend and wife. To have time to laugh - and love - to listen and grow closer in the stillness of a day is a miracle. A blessing not to be taken for granted or rushed through as is so easy to do. Love is a sacred gift that must be nourished and honored.  To paraphrase St. Paul, it can only endure all things if there is a foundation of trust - and trust is never automatic. It is earned. It is incremental. It is fashioned upon simple but regular acts of tenderness. Thus, it must be savored and cherished - and this takes real time. 

Small wonder that the modern master of Sabbath-keeping wisdom, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes:

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

As we start to honor and live into another rhythm of Sabbath - different from our four month sabbatical in Montreal but no less grounded in real time - I am starting to understand and appreciate what that time means for us right now. And while there isn't enough recorded wisdom about re-entry from an extended Sabbath, two insights seem to be common:  a) for the first year both clergy and congregation will be on a journey through "in-between" time; and b) whatever misunderstandings may arise during this year, the blessings and practices of Sabbath keeping must not be discarded.

Twenty five years ago, William Bridges wrote a wise volume about this "in-between time" in a short book he entitled: Transitions: Making Sense of Life's ChangesBecause all things now living are constantly in flux - even churches with a 250 year history - he reminds us to become aware of what transitions are at work in our current experiences. Many transitions feel like the movement of God's people out of bondage towards the Promised Land. That is, they are filled with resentments, anxieties and challenges. Bridges writes:

We resist transition not because we can't accept the change, but because we can't accept letting go of that piece of ourselves that we have to give up when and because the situation has changed....  “In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t “take.” 

On the flip side of our sabbatical, I have been trying to  both reclaim and share the blessings of the contemplative journey. This takes time - and patience - and trust. And I suspect I will get it wrong at least as often as I get it right. But I have a fundamental commitment to advancing the experience of Christ's peace with a world that seems out of control. The insanity and fury of our busyness is killing and wounding us all.  Our cultural mistrust and disdain of the inward journey is also a challenge the evokes anxiety. So to name this as an "in-between time" - a transition that is different from a destination - is helpful.

The other insight has to do with finding ways to help myself and others link the experiences of
our sabbatical with our current ministry. Mark Millier-McLermore writes in "The Dark Side of Sabbatical" that without clear interpretation, some folk will misunderstand the lasting value of a sabbatical, In my case, I am just now beginning to see that the two sabbatical "take-aways" involve a deep inner connection with Sabbath rest and a new ability to play sacred jazz on the upright bass. These are not the traditional work of theological insight nor a publishable tract on doctrine, to be sure, but they are no less valuable for the work of caring for the congregation's soul and the enrichment of worship and community outreach. That it has taken me more than two months to begin to find language to interpret my encounter should not come as a shock - deep truths take time to find shape and form - but it still perplexes some. Especially given the non-traditional nature of these blessings. Miller-McLermore writes:

A sabbatical forces a pastor to negotiate a transition in role, responsibility and self-definition. Transition involves an “in-between” phase that is hard. Pastors should expect and plan for such a transition when they begin and end sabbaticals. It is hard to move from the world of engagement and authority and accountability to a world of rest or a world of study or writing and back again.

No fooling. Perhaps that is why the Lilly Foundation encourages us both - clergy and congregation - to go slowly. Clergy are advised to ease back into the rigors of parish life. rather than hit the ground running. Leaders are asked to be open to the uncertainties of this "in-between" transition time.  And everyone is invited to take a full year to rethink how all of this might work in our life together. Our report to the Lily Foundation isn't even expected until after Easter 2016. They obviously sense that we all must move through the wisdom of Sabbath living in a slow and deliberate manner. 

I suspect that the more I am able to interpret how our time way connects with the needs and work of the congregation, the more at rest some folk will be. But the deeper truth is this: the more at rest I live in God's grace and peace - and the more I am able to share this with my presence and love with the people I love in church - the better we will all understand the gift of this sabbatical.  We can't hurry this realization no matter how anxious, confused or even resentful some may be for a season. We are on a journey towards grace in real time - it is a sacred journey - that takes patience, practice and trust. Truly it is only in returning and rest will you be saved; for in quietness and trust we shall find our strength.


No comments:

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...