On Sabbatical 8/30/15
Dt. 5:12-15; Mk. 2:23-28
This is painfully quaint. The Aged and Ancient among us will remember the world of “Blue Laws” that closed most stores on Sundays until the 70’s. In the South, we were not really allowed to play games on Sunday afternoons and we had to go to church on Sunday night. Indeed, my first brush with religious authority was to organize a boycott of Church so that we could watch the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Somehow I won out and my Mother gave us an exemption from Church. It has been down hill ever since.
We’ve repealed the Blue Laws in every state- too restrictive. And we’ve slowly expanded our sports programs, and expanded and expanded, so that now practically every kid plays on a travel team because, of course, all our children are elite and deserve to travel lengthy distances to compete with the elite in ye foreign town.
Now we spend several hours every weekend driving to Flemington in search of a game, the pedestrian fare available in Chatham simply not exotic enough. If you multiply that schedule by three children in four different sports, you are buzzing this way and that most of the weekend, and when you get there, you are answering text from your spouse, on a sideline somewhere in Ridgewood, in a state of near constant movement and distraction the whole weekend long for most of the fall, spring, and half of the winter. You know more and more people more and more superficially, coordinating who is bringing the pizza and who is picking up the jerseys, but without any time or context to exchange more than a ‘how you doing?’ ‘good to see you.’ ‘Brad had a great header last week.’ We’re outta here. Be Good.
I remember being in King’s running into one of the parents whose child was on my child’s soccer team all the way through High School and I finally had to say to them, now that our children were in college, “You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually asked your name.” Usually, I was quicker than that, start waving at a hundred yards like you used to do with Great Uncle Whatshisname at the family reunion. “How’s everybody doing? You good. I’m good. You Good?”
It is not that you are a vain, supercilious person, you just don’t have time to develop much depth. And standing on the sidelines rooting for the same team is not necessarily a gripping bond. You can act like you are sharing a life, but sometimes you realize that what you are really sharing actually is a ‘to do list’. Of course, we actually have dear friends from those years also and most of my investment advice I got standing on those sidelines from people who went on to become Managing Directors at the bank, so I jest a bit, but the truth is we are getting busier and busier every year- more, longer tournaments. We have long weeks when we have almost no unstructured time, all week, almost no unstructured time all weekend. And then we do it again.
What you find yourself doing is running and running to keep juggling all these events and obligations, even fun time is kind of intense because we have exactly 90 minutes for beer and cutting up and then we have to go on to the next thing.
And every once in a while, you’ll have this block of open time, maybe the morning of a family wedding (this time of year), and you are out jogging (or walking) on the beach somewhere open, ready to drink in the moment… And there you are in the beauty of the morning, drinking it all in, and, strange, you are just swept with a wave of sadness, sometimes a startling sadness. What the hell is that?
You try to explain it to your spouse, who may get it or who may just wonder if they’ve done something wrong and aren’t living up to their “spouse” job description. But it is not that… And you don’t need Xanax… It is not that either.
What is it?… It is your soul in a state of neglect, crying for some reflection. Since you don’t actually have time for any sustained reflection, what you sense is this powerful emotion from your subconscious rising up. All through these past few weeks/months of running, you have actually been talking to yourself about why you are doing what you are doing? What it is costing you? What gets compromised? But since you don’t have time to engage this reflection, left alone in a reflective setting and whammo, the doors burst open from underneath, awash in wistfulness, perhaps melancholy…
We know that time is passing by, that we are actually living the ‘good ol day’s right now and it is concerning. Are these good old days actually good enough? Apart from what other people think you should feel, how am I doing? Am I happy? Is this as good as it gets? Am I becoming who I am supposed to be?
God thinks we need to build some time into our schedules to simply reflect on what is happening in our lives, to simply reflect on where we are headed. So after the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt, God encouraged them to take a day off every week. Change the channel. And you know what, let your family change the channel too. And you know what, give everyone who works for you a day off so they can change the channel too. The agenda on Sabbath day is some reflection, getting in touch with your soul, having a deeper conversation with yourself, with God.
And that is really why we worship together. We create a communal space for prayer, to sing in adoration, hopefully with a sermon that helps us get outside the box for a moment. And Jesus was right in our passage today, the Sabbath was made for you, not us for the Sabbath. Worship is important but Sabbath is bigger than worship simply. At some point, you have to do the reflecting yourself. We Clerics have a way to trying to tell you what to think rather than encouraging you to think for yourself. We Clerics have a way of presuming that what is meaningful to us is meaningful to you too. And that is not always the case.
Part of Sabbath is worship but that is not all of it. Sunday morning can degrade into another obligation, another item on the check list, if we let it.
Deeper Sabbath is a little bit different. Deeper Sabbath puts us in touch with our creativity. It opens the door back into that perspective where you look at the dawn with eyes of wonderment, when you feel the radiation of goodness in the universe. It puts you back in imaginative mode. It feels great. It feels alive. It is full of hope.
What is it that wakes you up like that? What gets you dreaming? How do you get your groove back? God wants us to build this into our lives. God wants us to become richer, deeper, more imaginative people.
What we reflect on and how we reflect on things change as we age but most of us have a couple three things that will work every time. For me, it is travel, ever since I put that first backpack on in college, headed to Europe, landing in the Alps. Going through the passport line for me is the start of ‘adventure time’ and I wake up in a more meaningful way.
So when Christ Church gave me some time off for sabbatical a few years ago, that is exactly what I did. But I knew what I needed to grow into as well, so we let that set the agenda. Many moons ago, when I was in Divinity School, one of our Mentors, John Claypool, made a comment to me that really stuck. A group of us boys, all flush with confidence at our futures, had asked Claypool about ministry, since he was near retirement. Among other things he said, “Just remember that you can never take your congregation any further than you have actually been yourself.” I just received this news, somewhat soberly… I knew he was right.
And I’ve never done much with contemplation. I’ve been to monasteries probably 6 times in my life for a weekend retreat of some kind but I would say that I play golf better than I meditate. I presumed it was as painful for God to watch me fidget in meditation as it is for God to watch Shaquile O’Neal shoot free throws. Ugly… Wicked ugly…
But I am older now and my focus is different. And I still don’t like it but I can do it, especially if I know that Kate is near. So for part of our sabbatical, we went to Brett Haire’s family house in Donnegal in the far North of Ireland. It was a wee farm house in a town of 20 very friendly folks.
Brett’s place is up a dirt road. And if you look one way, there are a few sheep farms. But if you look east, it is ten miles of open ground to the next farm. And that next farm was right near where Bill Campbell grew up. It is a free range and different herds of sheep graze there. No TV. No phone. I could get the BBC on the radio in the car.
And every day I would walk with the sheep for several miles. And in the evening, the sun went down around ten. We had an outcropping of rock not so far from the farm house. We would bring Mr. Jameson’s potion with us and sit on that outcropping of rock with my daughter and niece and watch a pair of Badger’s and their children. Badger’s, as you probably know, are very shy of humans, so it was quite a quiet treat. And, you know, when it is just the four of you, you don’t talk so much. We could embrace the silence and just watch the sun go down. Of course, in Ireland, you embrace the rain. And the other thing they don’t tell you about those wonderful photos of the Old Country, you embrace the bugs that are everywhere.
Kate and I would walk down the country lane in the quiet and sit on the rock outcropping in the quiet. And we would walk back home down the country lane in the dark and quiet of the night. The girls were in their last few weeks of being girls and they played fairy. They goaded me to sing hymns and Irish ballads in the dark while they fell asleep. After many days like this, I finally started to embrace the silence and I was meditating more every day.
Sure enough one day, I was walking down a fence line, quite a few miles from the farm house and the quiet and the silence just became defining, like I could feel it. Suddenly I felt so far from Kate and my wee family. And it was like the lens just widened and I felt so far away from most everyone I know and my life here. And the lens widened some more and I was taken with the brevity of the span of my life and I almost had a bit of vertigo sensing the how tiny the significance of our lives is in the wider drama of the world. It just struck me how even great accomplishments really just don’t have so much impact beyond your own generation.
It was a moment filled with anxiety and fear because death was hovering near and without reflecting on it, I was reflecting on it. Part of me wanted to run all the way home, like I was a kid again, and get under the covers.
And with it at the same time, a deep gratitude about life, gratitude about the life that I have made with Kate… It was a deep emotional moment. And I was just feeling the profundity of love in the world and in my life and how wonderful this life is, even in the really ordinary dimensions of things and how good the world really is.
I should suppose that it wasn’t so much that I was changed, but just that I was experiencing existentially that the spiritual life begins in gratitude and appreciation and it circles back to gratitude and appreciation and wonder. And love, what a great thing.
Part of it is just has to be sad because unconsciously, you are reflecting on your own mortality. But I found myself getting more comfortable with silence and meditation and I realized that this piece is supposed to grow in us more as we mature. It is important that you understand and live the spiritual dimension of life through our life cycle, more so in my role as Minister in our church and community.
So, I get back home, finish our new building, more imaginative and creative, sure. But life gets back to normal pretty much. It is hard to know how a sabbatical will change you.
Couple years go by and we had a chance to buy a place we could retire to. But now I’m thinking a little differently and so is Kate. And Kate thinks that we need to give a gift of silence and contemplation to the next generation, suspecting that they will need it even more than we did because of the busy lives that they seem destined to live. Way led to way, after a long search, we bought a place from family friends right off the Appalachian Trail, that is about as quiet as it gets in Greater Gotham.
Only you don’t have to take a plane and a passport to get there. 50 minutes, so we could build it into our routine lives as well. And starting that next summer, I changed my life some. We live out there mostly in the summer, Kate all the time. I get up before dawn. I have an Adirondack chair next to the pond and another couple chairs in the overgrown pastures that are full of overgrown trees. I take a couple mugs of coffee and I sit still and watch the forest at dawn. Just about every day, I watched the sun come up, sitting perfectly still, for about half an hour. It is amazing what you sometimes see because animals in the forest generally don’t see you if you don’t move. So I’ve seen fox bounding much nearer than they ever would normally. And of course, the morning choir of birds.
Some mornings I’ll fly fish at the dawn, other days at the dusk. I like the sound of the water, and the four stroke rhythm… The sound and the rhythm have a way of just keeping you in the immediate moment, and that is the point.
Some days I come to the office obviously, some other days I read and write. Almost every day, I do physical labor, sometimes all day. All of the time, I’m learning how to use new tools: how tractors work, how you fix a chainsaw, how to build a shed. What I am trying to do is actually live a more balanced life, a more reflective life because I believe that the spiritual way in is this way.
I’m slowly learning all the species of trees and how stuff grows. Who knows where it goes. I’m not worried about running out of ideas. Last year, I realized that for me, and probably my whole generation, books are a good thing. It is a longer, sustained involvement than the internet, facebook, twitter.
And I read a wonderful article on being 50 that said that this decade our brains have better powers of synthesis and putting the big picture together. That is what we need to do in that long chapter before and just after retirement. I engage in more of that, more out of the year.
As Verlyn Klingenborg at the New York Times has discovered in the little article that he writes on “The Rural Life” for the op-ed page, this way of being is an antidote to sarcasm, cynicism and manic stress that are the leitmotif of our life in the World’s Capital. We have to introduce a bit of balance like that.
Step back, zoom out, and reflect on what you see. Understand your place in the bigger picture and look for the mystery. Name the things you appreciate and are grateful for. Fill it with love. And may the positive zone you find become something you can come back to for strength. Amen.