Sabbatical Reflections

January 1, 2017

Bible Text: Numbers 6:22-27 |

As of midnight last night, my sabbatical was officially over.

Which means, of course, that there won’t be a normal sermon today, because that would have required me spending the last few days of my sabbatical working – something I was violently opposed to! In fact, Laura asked me last Sunday, “Can we get together sometime this week so we can go catch up and go over everything while you were on sabbatical?” And I paused to consider it, then said, “No! I’ve been in blissful ignorance for four months; another week won’t hurt me!”

So, instead, I’ll share stories from my sabbatical. After all, you were gracious enough to support me during my sabbatical. It’s reasonable for you to want to know whether or not it worked. Has the rector returned a better Christian than when he left?!

Well, I don’t know about that. But I can tell you this:

  • It was thoroughly enjoyable
  • It was totally restful
  • And that I am more convinced than ever of the vastness and intimacy of God and God’s love

First story.

I used to be one of those people who was terribly boastful about never suffering from jetlag – like I was some superior species of human. Well, I don’t know if it’s middle-age or what – but let me tell you – those days are over. I left for the UK immediately after my sabbatical began, and my jet-lag quickly blossomed into outright insomnia. For about the first three weeks I hardly slept at all. At first I fought it. But after a week I decided simply to give into it: If God was going to have me be awake at night, then I would be awake to God.

The pilgrimage began on Holy Island – a tiny little island off the northeast coast of England. At the southern tip is the tiny village of Lindisfarne, which – after Iona – is the oldest Celtic Christian community in Britain. It’s where St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert lived and ministered. During the day (as much as I was supposed to be a pilgrim) there was always something of the tourist in me: rushing around seeing everything I could see. But at night, it was totally different. Everything slowed down and I was in a different frame of mind. So I made the decision to go for walks in the night. I took no flashlight; I just walked by the light of the moon and the stars.

And during these walks I chose to give myself over to this Celtic idea of the kinship of all creation – their perception that everything wasn’t merely made from God out of nothing, but that everything was birthed by God, like parents begetting children – such that everything not only gives witness to the God who made it, but – somehow – actually is inhabited by God. And I tell you – it sounds all hippy – but it was extraordinary. We all know that God is everywhere. But when I perceived God particularly in the rock, in the moon, the grass – it suddenly made God particularly close. And it also changed the way I perceived all these things around me. We were suddenly all bound together, in intimacy and peace.

And I would talk to them. “Hello, Sister Moon. Hello Brother Grass.” And the words that came out of my mouth were of peace and blessing.

Was I talking to the moon or was I talking to God? I could hardly tell the difference. And in that ambiguity I found myself entering into the eternal mystery of all being.

One night, as I was walking through the tall dune grasses, there was suddenly this loud raucous… and it freaked me out! After all – I was walking in the dark in an unknown place. The sound turned out to be some birds roosting in the grass right beside me. We’re not talking little wrens. They were some kind of big bird. And the hair on the back neck stood up (since there’s no hair left to stand up on the top of my head). But then immediately, the words that came forth from my mouth were the same spirit I’d been sharing throughout my walk:

I’m sorry Sister Birds. I didn’t mean to scare you. Forgive me. I come in peace.

And then – all of a sudden – this huge barn owl came flying up over the dune and began hovering over my head. The winds were strong, and they would buffet the owl away, and he’d come straight back – right above me, his wings flapping. And I tell you, I felt like Jesus in the Jordan with the Holy Spirit descending on me in the form of the bird. Here I’d just been speaking to the birds, words of blessing and peace, and this huge owl comes upon me, sharing the same message.

It was extraordinary.

I can tell you, I’ve never understood “the fear of the Lord” the way I did in that moment. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. I was completely alive to the presence and the love of God. And isn’t that what we all want to know: That God is real, and God is present, and that God loves us. And there on the dune I knew it was all true.

I had a similar experience a couple weeks later, after the pilgrimage had ended. I spent a week alone in the Scottish highlands. One day I was out hiking – in the rain – and during that hike I felt like I was discovering God in every turn. The details of the day are too intimate and personal to share, but the result was an exuberance in worship unlike anything I’ve ever known. For those of you who know me well, when I am having my most sublime worship experience, this is what I look like. [Eric demonstrating absolute stillness and calm]. I’ve belonged to black churches and I’ve worshiped with charismatics speaking in tongues and prophesying and I believe it’s all true. But it’s just not how I worship. But I tell you what, there alone on that Scottish mountain I was overcome with emotion. Everywhere I turned I was seeing a fresh expression of God and it astounded me. I was whooping and laughing – thrilled over and over again by God. And it went on for hours. I don’t know if anything like that will ever happen again. But on that hike the veil was pulled back and I saw God.

Now, I can’t say that all my experiments in worship worked out so well. Take St. Cuthbert for example. During the pilgrimage we’d been learning all about Cuthbert, and I was awfully attracted to him. During his lifetime – and even for centuries after he’d died – people would flock to Cuthbert and his grave to be healed. And, you know, there must have been something real and miraculous happening for such a cult to develop around him. But I was raised an evangelical protestant. We don’t do saints. And we certainly don’t pray to them. We’ve got Jesus and that’s enough for us.

But we visited Durham Cathedral where his remains are buried. And we got to his tomb and I thought to myself, “I’m going to ask for healing.” I’d had an injured foot for a couple weeks, and so I knelt at his tomb and said, “Cuthbert! I’ve got this injured foot. Will you heal it?”

And nothing happened.

But you know what, just asking the dead saint for a miracle was enlivening. I don’t have God all figured out. I don’t know everything about faith. Our lives are so mundane. We have these narrow little constructs about everything, including God. As if the truth of God can all be contained in my little perception! So simply choosing to step outside of the box with the hope of experiencing something bigger about God was wonderful.

In all, I spent five weeks in the UK, and I loved it all. But by the final week I was ready to come home. I missed Cynthia and Henry and Kathryn, and I wanted to be home with them. Going into the sabbatical I had all sorts of ideas of things I would do, and friends I would visit, and things I would learn. But I didn’t do most of them. I fell into a much simpler rhythm.

Each morning I would wake up, read a little, pray a little, then make breakfast for the family. Then I’d send them off to school and work and spend the rest of the day working alone. I’d stop work in the midafternoon, and spend the rest of the evening with my family.

I had two main projects. I built a garden house for Kathryn (which we call the pioneer house). And then I gutted Henry’s bathroom and completely redid it.

And I tell you, it was wonderful. I loved the solitude and the simplicity of working with my hands. The only problems I dealt with were what I needed to figure out that day. How am I going to frame in that window? There was one day – I was up on the roof of the pioneer house, shingling. It was a beautiful autumn day and I stopped and realized, “I am completely happy, simply shingling.”

I talked to my spiritual director about all this. I felt a little sheepish that I wasn’t praying more. And she told me, “Eric, I’ve been listening to you talk about building the house and how alive it makes you.  I think it is a form of prayer unto itself. Just keep building the house.” And as I thought about that – especially in light of this whole Celtic notion of the holiness of creation and our participation with it – I relaxed and just built the house. And you know? it was holy.

But throughout the fall, I was also having a parallel experience– the same experience that was happening for all of you: the presidential election. And I’ve got to say, it was awful. Democratic or Republic, as the weeks went by it was all dreadful. There was absolutely nothing to make me hopeful or proud. And my gloom surrounding it just kept deepening. A couple of weeks after the election I got up one morning. Instead of praying or reading spiritual writing, I made the mistake of opening the laptop and reading the headlines. Each one was worse than the previous. Finally – in despair, without reading any of the articles – I just shut the laptop and finally picked up a spiritual book.

And I read this story.

The author wrote about his dad. He’d been an active Christian his whole life. During the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia he helped refugees flee and get settled in Canada. But by this point in the story his father was an old man, whose mind was giving way to dementia. The author wrote that they needed to sell his dad’s car, which he was still driving illegally. So he called the car salesman and told him that he’d be coming with his dad the next day to sell his car – that his dad had dementia, “But please, treat my dad with dignity and address him.” And the salesman totally got it. It’s a funny story of the interaction between the two of them. But at the end of their interaction, the father lifted up his hand and began to bestow a blessing on the car salesman,

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.

The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.

The author says that he looked up at the salesman and saw tears streaming down his face.

And at the moment, the tears began streaming down my face as well. Something in me broke. All my despair – this spirit of nastiness and coarseness and selfishness and fear being fostered in our country – gave way to deep gut-wrenching sobbing. And what broke me was the witness of this old man, who was losing his mind, but retained what was truest of him, because it is truest of God: his desire to bless.

The author concluded his story with the question, “Do we know that we carry within us for one another the blessing of God?”[1]

And as I cried I knew that this was the eternal truth. This is what I want for myself, for my church, for my country – that we would be a blessing to one another. On this day when we remember the naming of Jesus, we must remember that as followers of Jesus we too bear his name – that if we will follow him we must live as he lives, pouring out our lives in blessing one other.

As I return from sabbatical, this is what I know:

  • That God is vast
  • That God is present everywhere
  • And that God loves us.
  • And as followers of Christ, we must bless one another – always and everywhere.

Amen.

[1] J. P. Newell, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, p. 23.

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