Last night my wife and I slept on cots in the living room as our bedroom ceiling is being repaired and the walls painted. In fact, this is going on in every room in the parsonage, in order. Each time the contractors move on to another room, we engage in a deep cleaning and a culling of stuff. Then we shove what is left into the middle in anticipation of the tarp that will protect our possessions. Then we do it again...and again. Of course each effort reveals a new problem that needs to be addressed. There is some ancient wiring that must be removed at some point before it catches fire. There are leaks in the plumbing that have developed over the last 15 years. There is also the usual sort of wear and tear that can be expected in an old building occupied by clumsy humans.
In a weird sense, it fits right into my experience of sabbatical. In my mind I expected it to be peaceful, with an abundance of time for reflection and study. Instead it has reveled in impracticality and inconvenience. It underlines disorder. It shines a light on places in life where the workmanship has been haphazard.
In my last post I described the church as being a place that sometimes gets wrapped up in measurable tasks at the expense of the spirit. It turns out that pastors get wrapped up too. We are as guilty as anyone of losing track of that path of faith and exploration. As much as anyone, clergy folks like to point to what we have built and--if it is good--say "I did this". At least we say it to ourselves. We also stress out about those times when we have failed. When we do, many of us are still capable of seeing our hands and voices in those moments.
My sabbatical is full of tasks and goals. It is full of things that I can point to--good, bad, or indifferent--and account for time spent. However, I have lately felt the absence of that Transcendence which makes all the activity worthwhile.
Or maybe I have just gotten around to noticing the absence. Maybe it drifted away a while ago and now as I search around for that connection I depend on, it is finally missed There are plenty of reasons why the feeling would recede, just as there are reasons I need it. Not only are all our possessions being shifted around the parsonage. There is plenty of motion and chaos elsewhere. One son is in college now. The car that has been a constant since before our youngest was born finally kicked the bucket while cruising down Rt. 128. Sabbatical, itself, has its own rhythm and requirements that open and close doors for me every day. I am getting stretched.
Also, there are the more global issues. Black Lives Matter continues to underscore the existence of a system of racism that I--like the rest of you--participate in. The presidential election has made us all think about the pool of sexism we cannot seem to get out of. In fact, any member of the male species who hasn't been challenged by the antics of Donald Trump must be spiritually dead. It is a time for self examination. We cannot say we don't recognize him, even if we have never been like him. What are we men to become in this exciting new world? I know what I don't want to be. I don't want to be a burden, an impediment to progress, or a creep.
What I am trying to say is that, like most people, I want to walk through the garbage dump of life equipped to be the best human being I can be. That is a hard thing to do. There is no way I am not getting some garbage on me. My spiritual life is what I rely on to get me through.
I am (we are) reminded of various inequalities and oppression. We all push through times of personal; transition. We should be. What is the faithful response? What is my faithful response? The question today isn't about my work as a progressive and liberal minister of a progressive and liberal church. We all have jobs and I am blessed to have one that enables me to work toward solutions. The question is more existential and fundamental. How should I act? What should I do as a human being?
More basic: Who. Am. I?
One change for sabbatical is that I have made time for study and--consciously or unconsciously--also ended up with a system of accountability. I have written elsewhere about how Dungeons and Dragons encourages the imagination. That curriculum for the RE program requires not just facts and figures but a a level of religious intention. Those courses I am teaching force me to explain and examine some fundamental elements of my own belief system. Hanging out with teens can change your perspective as well. However, maybe the best articulation of the spiritual problem I found was thanks to good ol' Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If you read this blog you are aware of the fact that one of the courses I am teaching is entitled "Nature and Spirituality". Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the readings--in fact the key one--is Emerson's "Nature". It turns out that it is a bit of a challenge to explain to kids, particularly because I and they get hung up at the same place Emerson did when he wrote it. That place is the philosophical concept of "Idealism". For Emerson this material world (or "nature") is infused with the Divine. Ultimately what is real is the soul, It is God, It is the spirit that has ultimate and permanent substance, not the matter that it inhabits. I could go on about his take, but instead you should read the book.
The problem is that for those of us who try to live a life of the spirit face an enormous hill to climb. The problems that we are all wrestling with and that cast a pall over our regular lives need material ("real-world") solutions as much as spiritual ones. In fact, our basic needs in a world in crisis obscure the spiritual ones to a large degree. How, for example, do you explain to someone who cannot get enough food to eat, or who fears the reality of daily violence that they should contemplate the divine spirit that flows through all things?
Of course, there is another question that should hit closer to home for most readers of Burbania Posts. How do we connect with the spirit in people who put their own ambitions and desires over the basic needs of others? What do we do to make them (us) see that spirit in such a way that there is a change of heart? We aren't starving. In fact, most of the people I know are not lacking in material wealth. We are the ones who can make the changes to create abundance for the rest of the world. In giving up our own material ways we can free ourselves, too. Such potential! Such inertia! Dang!
If you asked me what my bedrock beliefs are I, like Emerson, would claim to be an idealist, but we are living (to quote a certain 20th century bard and philosopher) in a material world or, at least, in a material culture. There lies my own tension (again, in the philosophical sense). I expect it does for others.
To be a person on a faith journey is to be a person who at some level accepts that there is more. There is something greater (maybe "God", maybe not). There is something behind what we see and interact with that is worth knowing better. We expect it to sustain us, after all. We may even hope, like Emerson, that we can experience a holy and absolute connection to that "Oneness" that will give us the strength to let go of all the crap--material, emotional, spiritual--that we cling to. As we let go we may fall, but where we land will be a better land than the one we left.
That said, the journey is long. When we feel the absence of meaning it is important to fill the space with the right thing. I do believe that there is more to the world than what we see. However, it takes patience, insight, and effort to connect to what lie behind our mundane existence. Over the last few months I have gained a new appreciation for this dynamic in life. I have also gained an appreciation for the institution of Sabbath. A question, I think, for all of us as a community and as individuals is how to bring the sabbath back. It is more than "time off" after all. How do we find the structured time to return the sacred to our hasty lives?
Thank God I go to a house of worship. Thank the Divine presence that I can take part in a community to support my own journey even as I support them. I give thanks that sometimes--during my better moments--I can get a glimpse of the spirit that flows through us all. Thanks for the strength to move through the darkness and the struggle. Thanks for the power to grow and change.