One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries). I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries). In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake Park in Eastern Ohio.
As I write these lines, I am deeply aware of the privilege I enjoy in being “on Sabbatical”. Most of my friends do not have the opportunity to simply step away from the day-to-day-ness of their work and family in order to wander and wonder in ways such as I have done. I know some folks in academia who are given “sabbatical time”, but they are expected to produce something at the end of that: a book, a groundbreaking insight in their field study, or a fat grant for the university. Clergy Sabbaticals, however, are different. The purpose of these seasons (I last was granted one in 2010) is to intentionally step away from the practice and context of ministry for a specific amount of time. There are several benefits for this to both the clergy and the worshiping community:
- Such intentional disconnection is a great antidote to burnout
- There is a great relief and release that comes from not having to “produce” something 24/7/365 – by design, I am not supposed to be coming up with sermon ideas, outreach programs, policy manuals, etc.
- The congregation is forced to consider who they are going to be in the absence of a long-time pastor. Let’s face it – I have an inordinate influence on the day-to-day life of the community. For three months, someone else is picking the songs, preaching the Word, tending the sick, crafting the policies, and changing the light bulbs.
A Sabbatical, at least for me, is really different from a vacation. A vacation is a brief escape either from something difficult (“Wow, the pressure from this job is really building. I just need to get away!”) or to something marvelous (“Who knew that there were so many birds in Costa Rica?”). As most of you reading this will recognize, when one takes a vacation, it’s an interruption of normal tasks and duties for a brief span and then those are all re-engaged fairly quickly upon re-entry.
With a Sabbatical, though, it’s a more intentional setting aside of the daily practices, behaviors, and in my case, environment. I didn’t plant a garden this summer, because I’m not going to be home. This week, I’m missing (like nobody’s business, I might add) the Youth Group Mission Trip. I can’t preach, lead Session meetings, or do Fall program planning.
And so instead, I wander. I wonder. The first month of this Sabbatical was a wonderful healing time with my wife. In the past three years or so, there have been some traumatic events in the community and in the lives of people about whom I care deeply. When something horrible happens, I remember what a privilege it is to be a pastor… and yet, each time I enter into the grief of one I love, I battle enemies with names like “loss”, “depression”, “anger”, or “burn-out”. Taking a few weeks and not worrying about what day it was or who would remember to let the gas company in or turn off the exhaust fan after worship was a wonderful way for Sharon and me to remember that before we said “yes” to either Carnegie Mellon or the Crafton Heights church, we said “I do” to each other.
The time in Africa was strenuous in a number of ways, and yes, I did engage in a number of behaviors and practices that required a lot of concentration and energy and leadership. However, the nature of that work was such that it was virtually all done in a context that was new. I was so busy in Malawi, South Sudan, and Ethiopia that I literally didn’t have time to worry about what was happening in Crafton Heights. I prayed for folks there every day, but I was forced by virtue of distance and geography to fully disengage from the ongoing ministry of that place. Those who know me well will gladly point out that I can be a “hoverer”. I’m involved. I’m always around, always “nudging”, tweaking, and inserting myself. I simply couldn’t do that while in Africa, and that meant that while I was tired at the end of the days, I was not as exhausted from the level of emotional investment and involvement.
The final leg of this Sabbatical experience will be a huge shift again. For most of these next three weeks, I’ll be alone in a small cabin in Eastern Ohio. There’s a big lake, and I’ve got a dock for my boat. I’ve brought a pile of books, a few crossword puzzles, some exercise equipment, and my binoculars. My goal for August is to stretch and to grow and to improve my inner life so that when I am granted the privilege of re-engaging in my “normal” life, I’ll be able to do so from a posture of strength and health with plenty of reserve.
Because most of my days will look the same, and I won’t be running to catch flights in tiny airports or encountering amazing new natural wonders each day, these blog posts will be different. I hope to share a few images of my life here, to be sure; but I also hope to share with you some of the ideas and content that will be shaping me. There’s a separate “page” on this blog that is labeled “What I’m Reading”, and I try to update that once a month or so. But I’ll be more intentional about offering reflections on a more accelerated reading schedule this month. I suspect that will be of more interest to some of you than others, but that’s my life…
Today I’ll consider one of the most important books I have ever read. It’s an incredibly slim volume (about 50 pages) entitled From Brokenness to Community. The author, Jean Vanier, had been a Naval Officer in two countries (Canada and the UK), a Philosopher, and a University Professor. However in 1964 he invited two men with mental disabilities to move into his home with him in France. From that humble beginning arose a network of communities known as L’Arche– or, “The Ark”. He began a movement recognizing the power and dignity of the disabled, and developed an amazing theology of power and wholeness that is rooted in the understanding that some of the most precious human gifts are rooted in weakness and in welcoming the poorest and most vulnerable into our midst, it is we ourselves who are blessed. From Brokenness to Community (one of two books I had with me during my week in Ethiopia without luggage) is a transcript of two lectures that Vanier gave at Harvard University in November 1988.
There are a lot of sections of this brief work that are underlined, but this morning I’ll focus on just this: “…we believe that our knowledge and theology are important only so long as they are used to serve and honor the poor.”
That is who I want to be! I read this book on a plane flight from Rochester NY to Washington DC in the early 1990’s. It was so long ago that this is what I did: I got off the plane and I found a pay phone in the airport and I called the church where I was serving. I gave the secretary there the name and publisher of the book, and I asked her to try to find out how to order me 15 copies so I could share them with my friends. Can you imagine? No cell phone, no Google, no Amazon… just words that seared themselves into my soul and changed my life. If you want a copy, you can find it by clicking here. Or, if you want to go “old school”, send me an email or a text and I’ll send you a copy myself. It is a deep and profound work, and I would commend it to your reading!
Of course, the other thing I need to say about the last month of Sabbatical is that this State Park was not chosen entirely at random! It’s situated about halfway between our home in Pittsbugh and my daughter’s family in Ohio. That means that from time to time, I’ll be able to entertain visitors from either Pittsburgh or Ohio. Yesterday gave me the opportunity to re-connect with some pretty amazing and special people who I haven’t seen for a long, long time. And it was good!