Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sabbatical Musings #4: Am I Sabbatical-ing Very Well?

     So it’s Day 19.  I have never been away from work for 19 days before – and I have a ways to go.  Well-wishers seem to have high expectations, and I fear I will disappoint them all.  “I hope you are resting” or “I am sure you’re getting re-energized” – but I’m not sure I was really tired, and the mix of travel, hiking, and activity I’ve been engaged in isn’t exactly restful.  I have taken 2 or 3 naps over 19 days:  not my norm…

     I should be having lots of profound thoughts – and maybe those will come next week.  This morning I saw a deer outside my window, as we find ourselves in a cabin with some friends up in Ashe County.  You can hear… the river flowing, the breeze in the trees, and really nothing else but a stunning, wonderful silence.  I’m tempted to ratchet up my reflective self and think of something shrewd to say about this – but then I decided just to watch the deer, and listen to… nothing, which I never, ever get to do in my normal life, and I’d imagine you don’t either. 

     Someone sent me a note today saying “I bet your sermons will be quite profound once you return."  I'm not a profound guy, and am not sure I can go much deeper than previously.  We did have something happen the other day that reminded me of how I feel about preaching, at least sometimes.  We were in a hotel, and a loud alarm began blaring, the type at which you exit the building because there’s a fire or some real trouble.  We opened the door, and the staff was in the hall laughing, saying “Oh, ignore that.”

     I recall being in college, and sophomoric and drunk guys would pull the fire alarm, setting it off at all hours of the night.  Generally when the alarm sounded, we just stayed in bed.  One night the alarm kept on, far longer than usual.  My roommate said, “Oh, look out the window and see if anybody else has gone outside.”  I looked out, and there was a crowd of guys 6 floors down, and a fire truck, spraying water our way.  We opened the door, the hall was thick with smoke, so we made a dash for the stairwell, and exited coughing and wheezing.

     Sermons are like fire alarms, or at least we intend them to be.  “The seemingly safe place you have constructed for yourself is not so solid, not so safe, and you need to run to a new life!”  Or, “Stop ignoring all the signs and take God seriously!”  But like the people in our hotel, and like my college roommate and myself, we hear the sermon and just say “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll stay in bed, I’ll cling to my old life.”

     I’m trying for this time to shed my old life and maybe just be.  It’s a Saturday, and I’m not anxious about tomorrow’s sermon, although I’ll miss the preaching – maybe.  It’s a Saturday, and Lisa and I can be out of town with friends; this has been a rarity in our married life, and I kind of like what most people get to enjoy when they happen to feel like it.  It’s quiet.  I don’t know if that’s good for me or not, but I think I like it, and will miss the quiet when I’m back to the work and noisy life I do miss.

     Mostly I want to avoid fretting about how I’m doing on sabbatical…  I’m just trying not to watch the clock, and not feel the pressure to produce, even profound thoughts about being on sabbatical.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sabbatical musings #3 - A Hopefully Holy Ambivalence

     As the time for my sabbatical drew near, quite a few people asked me if I were excited.  How to answer?  I felt an urge to apologize, for the people asking me I’m sure never had such a nearly elitist privilege as being able to take 3 months away from work – and not just able, but cheerfully encouraged to do so.  I have friends with no job at all; I have a job where I can not work one fourth of the year and my employers seem pleased.  It’s a little awkward to explain.

     Now that I’m off, and gone, I’m studying some other ambivalences that are revealing themselves to me.  Well-wishers have said, I hope your time away is restful.  I haven’t known how to respond to that either.  I’m not tired – or maybe by stopping I’ll realize how tired I might really be.  But my family and close friends can attest that time away with me is far from “restful.”  I’m in some place, any place, and I Google places to see and things to do.  I’m at the ruins of a medieval abbey – and the fact that I revel in strolling through these old stones and imagining monks chanting by candlelight seven centuries before I got there does not prevent me from picking up the pace, checking my watch, and dashing off to the next abbey, or Roman fort, or museum, or seashore vista.  The sunset isn’t a thing of beauty so much as a mandate that we must now stop the dizzying round of touring until morning.

     Should I reprimand myself?  I envy, and simultaneously pity people who go someplace and just sit, or relax.  My faith tradition tells me it is good to be still, to rest (which is what the word “sabbatical” means!).  Yet sloth is a deadly sin; and God did strew this world full of so many wonders that it seems disrespectful not to get out and notice, and marvel.  How to strike any semblance of balance between being still, resting (even if you aren’t weary), letting time pass, taking the opportunity simply to be – and a healthy activity, a robust sense of adventure, soaking in all the world has to offer?  I am driven – and yet as I drive to the next place I discover a joy in the drivenness of which I pray God would cure me.  Ambivalence.

     I find precisely the same ambivalence when I think about working and not working, and being connected and not being connected.  I love work.  I think I’d love work if I’d become a chemist or a lawyer or whatever else I might have become had God not interrupted my meanderings in college.  But doing what I do for a living:  I often say I’d do it for free, but I happily accept a paycheck.  But my work is invigorating, and meaningful.  How lucky:  I get to do something that really matters, or at least I hope it does. 

     So I never find myself itching for a few days or weeks away from work.  I miss it when I’m away.  I’ve never settled on varied hobbies – although I wish could garden or sew or build furniture or hit a golfball straight.  I might confess to being addicted to work.  Is it addiction? Or a deep tender attachment?  I cannot tell, and I suspect God doesn’t mind my confusion.  I’m not ambivalent about work, but my ambivalence about whether I should feel guilty for digging work so enthusiastically rattles me once in a while – like when I go on sabbatical and find myself not working.  I miss the work, but I realize the life of God’s church goes on wonderfully without me, and perhaps even better:  the church I think needs me so much probably grows strong when I can’t be needed.  Maybe I’m not as needed as I’d thought.  I think this is a holy ambivalence, and to resolve the tension would be curiously sinful I think.

     And finally the whole issue of being connected.  Today one can be connected always:  in another country, even on an airplane, I am reachable.  My phone can ring almost anywhere on God’s good earth.  I can text for a nickel, I can see and post Facebook pictures from Europe, I can answer emails in a hotel or on a city bus.  Pundits bemoan this new reality – and I have echoed their sentiments in several blogs (including “Hamlet’s Blackberry”); I do suspect that unhealthy, addictive patterns of thought, self-perceptions, and habits are inevitable.  How many have “liked” my sabbatical photos?  Why hasn’t anybody texted me?  And theologically:  if I am always reachable, if I’m always connected to semi-friends on Facebook or anybody who happens to get my cell number, then I wonder if I am ever reachable by God?

     And yet being connected is the deepest human dream.  God made us not to be alone but to love, to tell stories, to point and share moments, to converse.  I envy people in olden times who travelled, and mailed postcards, which took days to be delivered; a loved one back then was simply incommunicado, and perhaps the heart grew fonder as a result.  And yet that I can respond now to my wife or daughter, that I can tell my son on another continent that I saw something he’d dig:  these must somehow be good things.
     I’m ambivalent, and hope to stay that way.  If I blithely stayed connected and never peeked at the perils, if I never went into any sort of solitude, if I forgot how to be with the person I’m actually with instead of being perpetually distracted by the people I am not with, this would be tragic.  And yet if I dispensed with the smart phone entirely, if I never took advantage of the technological miracles that enable me to speak with loved ones over great distances, if I had no desire to share with you what I see that you cannot see, this too would be sad.  So I live with the awkwardness, the paradoxical confusion.  Maybe I take mini-sabbaticals within the larger sabbatical to be out of touch, and then seize other chances to be back in touch.

     Holy ambivalence.  I think, and hope God is pleased, and that I can grow by being thrown off balance by these ambivalences.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sabbatical Musings #2 - I "miss" you

     What a fascinating framing of an inexplicable emotion:  “I miss you.”  Whom do I miss when I travel?  Depends on who’s not there.  Pretty much I miss my wife, and my children.  Once in a while I miss somebody else.  Out of three possible ways to drive to Kilcreggan, we chose the route through Inveraray. 
     I couldn’t recall why this place was fresh in my mind – until we elected to stop and visit the 18th century castle.  I saw a peculiar number of people snapping photos literally through the wired fence – and then I nabbed the little brochure which featured the cast of Downton Abbey, the PBS television series, on the cover.  Inveraray!  That’s where the Granthams went to visit their “highland relatives.”  We posed for photos, and luckily met Joan, the manager of the castle, who was on her way home from work when I asked her where the front of the castle was in the TV series.  She explained it all – and I asked what she thought of the cast and crew.  She reported they were lovely, gracious, great fun. 

     Whom did I miss?  Oddly, I found myself missing the little conclave of people I know love watching Downton Abbey, and especially one of our staff people at work:  Claire.  Not only does she dig the show, but when I see her in the hallway at work, I realized that when I say “Hi, Claire,” it sounds precisely like “Highclere,” the name of the castle where the show usually is filmed.  So when I found myself at Inveraray, I snapped a photo and couldn’t wait to download it, email it to Claire, and see if she recognized the place without me tipping her off.

     Missing works this way.  We associate someone with some place, or some song, or something.  In
Edinburgh we waltzed into “The Scotch experience,” and I spied an absurdly rare bottle of scotch priced at 10,000 pounds.  I pulled out my camera, photographed the bottle (and the pricetag), and emailed it to my pal Stewart, who introduced me to fine scotch.  I missed him just then, and wished he’d been there.

     Did I miss my wife when I saw the bottle of Scotch?  No.  But I missed her terribly during most of the junket when she wasn’t there.  Walking to the north end of Iona, where there were no other human beings, just a handful of sheep and gulls, I wished she were there, knew she would treasure the moment, and knew my telling would both thrill her and stir some envy – as it should.  I try to type messages to her later, or show her the photo gallery once I’m home – but this leaves me hollow, as it’s just not as precious as it would be had she been by my side.

     I miss my children during such days.  When they were little, we all travelled together.  But now we do not.  But I think of each one, and not all together I find.  When we worshipped at the abbey in Iona, I heard the lead singer, who was all right, but not as good as my Sarah would have been, and I wished she were with me – or even leading the singing. 
     When we hiked the daunting climb to the top of Dun I, the highest point on Iona, I wanted to phone my son Noah right then; and later I did shoot him a message reporting that we had an “arduous” hike – and knew he would laugh out loud over the word “arduous,” which I used repeatedly the previous summer when we hiked in Switzerland.  Indeed, he responded with a “hahahahaha.”  I really missed him right then.

     And any time I take a photograph, I wish Grace were there.  She became my official family and personal photographer during her high school years.  What an eye, what an ability to capture just the right moment, angle, framing.  Every photo I ever take, I wish she were there taking it instead of me.  I miss her every time I lift a camera to my eye.

     What does it mean to “miss” someone?  You are somewhere, in some situation, and the living, vital presence of someone – who may even have died twenty years ago! – lingers, because the moment reminds you of that loved one, because you know he would dig this moment, because you know she of all people would grasp the grandeur of the moment.  And that bond enlivens you, and yet grieves you at the same time.  Could God rework the universe so those I love might be hovering about on standby, reading to stand with me here, or there, or at a castle on Inveraray, or in a stone church on Iona, and relish the moment with me? 

     Years ago I found myself in Paris, alone.  I saw the grand buildings, the beautiful landscape, the stunning stained glass and architectural wonders – and was miserable.  Every scene was one I wanted to share with Lisa, or a friend whom I know is keen on architecture, or Chopin, or pate.  God declared this at creation:  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  I know it is not good for me to be alone, or at least I am dead certain I do not wish to experience this world alone.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sabbatical musings 1: Aristotle and friendship

     I’m enjoying the rare privilege of travelling in Scotland with my two closest lifelong friends – as part of a sabbatical kindly granted me by my church.  I think if I have time I’ll jot down a few musings here and there – like this one.

     Randy recalled times I’ve spoken of Aristotle’s views on friendship – things like “The opposite of a friend is a flatterer,” or “Friends help each other to become wise.”  He asked if, over 40 years now, we have fulfilled this for one another.  Probably each one of us privately mused something like I did:  yes, in some measure, and for all I’ve received I’m immensely grateful; but yet how I wish I had served in this capacity in better, more intentional ways for the other two.

     I did share that what I value most about their love and resulting friendship is that they are maybe the only friends I have who don’t think of me as the senior pastor of a large church, as a published author, as a community activist, as a person of achievement.  They are interested in these things, because they are interested in me.  But they are unimpressed, even if appreciative.  They are the ones who love me quite apart from those accomplishments, and they are the ones who would love me if I lost it all, if I lost my job or were somehow discredited or jeopardized professionally.  I like that.  There’s an ease, a sense of belonging, no need to keep up appearances.  I think we call that “grace.”

     Interestingly, on the same long drive north toward the sacred isle of Iona, we discussed the contemporary issue of gay marriage.  Randy insisted that we need to define marriage.  We spoke of things like “two people committed to one another” – and without getting into what else we explored on that topic, we did reflect on the curious fact that, as lifelong friends, we are irrevocably committed to one another.  We never took vows.  We have never even brought up the subject to one another.  How lovely to realize the commitment was surely made, and was as enduring (or even more durable) than even a marriage – yet with no formality, no legal documentation, not even the simple act of saying to each other “Hey, we’re in this forever.”