saying yes and saying no...

A year ago, at the end of April 2015, we began a life changing pilgrimage that is still ripening: our Magical Mystery Tour sabbatical.  As I have written before, ( ad nauseum, I suspect, for many except myself) not only was this MMT (see above) liberating and profoundly restful for both Di and myself - as things connected to the Sabbath should be - it was clarifying too concerning how we want to live and with whom we want to share whatever life remains.  Dianne deepened her skills and focus as a photographer. I worked on better knowing and loving the upright bass. And we simultaneously discovered how important extended, unplanned time is for soul-satisfying intimacy. 

Further, we found out how little space we need to live a full and creative life. We learned how few things held value for us.. And came to see how much more we could simplify in our lives if we were intentional rather than capricious with our very limited financial resources. This time was another step in discerning how all of life can become soul food rather than mostly a grind to pay our bills. One year later, we are still grappling with this spiritual discipline, but we will soon realize our goal of cutting our expenses by $1000 a month.  We have worked with a financial advisor as if she were a spiritual director. We have prayed over and then pared back on those expenditures we once considered vital - if we noticed them at all. For this post-sabbatical season has become yet another way of practicing "saying yes and saying no."

Dorothy C. Bass and her colleagues at Valparaiso University received a Lily Grant to create the Education and Formation of People of Faith Project. Their goal was to reclaim the lost art of spiritual direction and formation but in a 21st century parlance. Further, they were clear that orthopraxis - right action - is how believers mature rather than simply sharing orthodoxis - right thought. Doctrine has its place, of course, but as the spiritual masters of all traditions have always taught: until our hearts and bodies have experienced the grace of God from the inside out, there is no deep wisdom or discipleship. Upon returning from Montreal, we realized that now was the time for us to continue the pilgrimage of priorities - especially with our finances. M. Shawn Copeland put it like this: "Christian asceticism is not spiritual boot camp, but neither is it effortless. Learning when and hot, to what and to whom, to give our yes and our no is a life long project."   

Tough decisions and persistent effort are required of those who seek lives that are
whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God. Many of us long to grow stronger in the Christian life; we want to learn how to say "no" to what crowds God out and "yes" to making space for God. But are we really ready to exert ourselves? Spirituality is not a spectator sport. We can't simply rely on others to get in shape for us. The spiritual life requires personal effort over the long haul. How has our culture trained us instead to expect immediate results for our efforts.  (check out the website here:

We unplugged from cable TV (with the exception of Netflix). We cancelled our subscription to the NY Times. We donated thousands of dollars of clothes - and now books - to those who really need them. We've kept receipts. We are only using one car. In Montreal we started to pay off credit card debt and have a plan to complete this in 15 months. We started to read out loud to one another (a practice we celebrated in our early days but which evaporated as life become too full over time.) Clearly, none of this is extraordinary. Smart people - and wealthy people - do it all the time. But as a clergy person who came to believe that my world was defined by the congregation - and there was never enough time to pay enough attention to all of their needs (real and imagined) - I learned to deny and ignore the wasteful ways we used money. This is not to blame the institution:  the egocentricity of a local congregation is just a fact of life - and a part of the human condition.

What I am naming is how I learned to disconnect from this reality.  Until our sabbatical, both my deepest sense of identity and the lens through which I evaluated the use of my time was shaped by the demands of my congregation. Not so during our Montreal sojourn. And what we have worked to strengthen since our return is a new relationship with ministry. That is to say, I no longer understand myself only as a minister. Ministry is important and I love it. But it is not my totality.  It is not the place from which I draw sustenance or value. And it is no longer the place I give my undivided attention. This awakening began with the birth of my grandson, continued into the death of my father and emerged full blown in Montreal. This shift in perspective has continued to mature over the eight months since our return as well. To be candid, for the first few months we were back, I was uncertain whether I could manage my new commitment to both self-care and ministry in a new way. As Advent began, however, new clues were emerging and they started to bloom throughout Lent and now Eastertide.

Fr. Richard Rohr recently synthesized his understanding of the essence of the Jesus life on his blog site and they gave me yet another resource for grasping what it means to say yes and say no at this moment in my life:

+ Jesus' basic justice agenda was simple living, humility, and love of neighbor. 

+ Only converted people, who are in union both with the pain of the world and the love of God, are prepared to read the Bible with the right pair of eyes and the appropriate bias, which is from the side of powerlessness and suffering instead of the side of power and control. 

+ One of the most transformative experiences is entering into some form of personal lifestyle solidarity with the powerless. 

+ Why does the Bible, and why does Jesus, tell us to care for the poor and the outsider? It's not only to help them, but because we need to stand in that position for our own conversion.

+ May we grow tired of sleeping and ask for flesh that feels, weeps, and even bleeds for the immense suffering of our world today. 

We were gone from Pittsfield for 125 days.  When the congregation sent us off for a time of renewal on April 26, 2015, no one knew what would change in us or them. As a part of our sabbatical plan, we used that final week of April to check in with the staff, re-clean the house one more time (and have professional cleaners come, too), have dinner with a few people in the congregation, make certain all the car arrangements were in order, and see to it that our keys had been shared - and then we were off. First to Woodstock, NY (a necessary part of this musical pilgrimage on our way to NYC), then the East Village of Manhattan, Nashville, TN and Pittsburgh, PA. We returned to Pittsfield on May 20th to repack, pick up Lucie, meet with the interim clergy couple, check in with our staff once again and then head off to Montreal on May 24. It is still hard for me to comprehend that such fundamental change could take place in my soul in those three plus months in Montreal. I just knew that when we pulled back into town after Labor Day 2015, nothing could be the same.

For the wisdom of those who have made similar journeys, I am grateful:  stay in place after you return from sabbatical, they told me, for at least a year - maybe longer. It takes time for the insights and blessings both to sink in and percolate up. They were right. In these months, I was able to work on three challenging, satisfying and beautiful music and liturgy projects: Missa Gaia, a Jazz Christmas Eve Contemplation Eucharist, and a Good Friday exploration of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." My understanding and commitment to pastoral care has changed, too and I regularly find myself giving time to those most in need. Not those, I should add, who are most needy, but those who are most in need of compassion, prayer and presence. My commitment to preaching/teaching has become more profound since our return - especially given the resurgence of fear-mongering, hatred, violence against women and people of color and immigrant bashing in the 2016 election campaign.

And lastly a sense of God's deep love within me that allows me to rest (mostly) despite my proclivity to fret and trust even when tempted with my obsessions is ripening. Yesterday, after working on my sabbatical evaluation I discovered that it was, indeed, needed in April - but April 2018 rather than 2016!  Another sign to continue to let the insights and blessings take their own time to emerge, yes>  Annie Dillard once wrote that there are two crucial "features of any spiritual journey."

One is that it will take us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our
lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealization, and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking... as we experience this we will meet the darkness that we carry withou ourselves - the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone out there into the enemy, become leaders who oppress rather than liberate... (Parker Palmer on Annie Dillard in Let Your Life Speak)

Such continues to be one of the blessings of our time away - hard, challenging and life-revealing all at the same time.  And now it is time to head off for supper and play time with our grandson.


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