Well...it happened. I am back at work after 5 weeks of a sabbatical filled with hiking, writing, and reading. I have to say that I enjoyed it. I also learned a great deal about interacting with the natural world which, of course, was the point. I find it is good to have goals even in an ostensibly less-structured time. I like being able to look back and see what I did. Among other things, I hiked 35 of New Hampshire's 48 4,000 footers and 18 of New Hampshire's "52 With a View" mountains. I have written about many of them here. Not bad.
This is my third sabbatical. After every sabbatical at least one person will use the term "rested and refreshed" to describe my state upon returning. I don't get the "rested" part. I never really rested. I worked--and played--pretty hard actually and now I am tired around the edges. However, in one sense--perhaps that of restarting a computer, for example--I could be refreshed. Sabbatical is a reboot. It involves getting rid of old programming and updating systems. I am not done yet. There is more sabbatical to come. Still, I am in the reboot process and that is...interesting.
I had a number of goals for myself at this point in that process. One of them was simply an act of definition. I wanted to answer the question of what a "Sabbath Walk" actually is. I named this weblog after the concept, which did not originate with me. What sort of "walk" helps us to connect to the Great Whatever? How do we find ways to act in the world that will expand our horizons? In an earlier post I talked about what the implications might be for the institutional church. Here, I want to lift up some aspects of what I learned.
Now for this project my sabbath walks have been actual walks. That is what works for me. Of course they could really comprise any number of activities. Some people's sabbath walk is more of a sit or a read. There are people who explore through music or math or science. I kept it simple by making this metaphor for life somewhat literal. There are, of course, other ways to connection. Here I am talking about hiking, but there may be something in it for you even if that is not your bag.
I learned pretty quickly that not every hike fit into the category of sabbath. Some of them were too challenging. Some were too easy. There were distractions along the way. Like Goldilocks I found that there was an element of "just rightness" that I needed to get into a prayerful or meditative mood. I have hinted at this realization in a number of other posts. Just as in formal worship--where through the elements of the ritual we attempt to elevate our minds and hearts--there are conditions that help or hinder the spiritual exercise of walking in the woods.
Of course there are infinite variations to these conditions. However, for the sake of simplicity I have begun to use four broad categories that need to be present in relatively equal measure for a true sabbath walk. If they are not there the adventure can still be worthwhile, of course. It is just that the conditions make the spiritual connection--the meditative aspect--harder to find. There was much to say about ,my climb up Mount Washington and Mount Monroe, for example, but either my own state or the state of the hike itself (or both) made meaningful reflection difficult
Anyway, here they are. All four of these aspects are recognizable to most hikers as being par for the course. Which is to say that they are part of any climb or walk. When we are mindful of them, we have a better time. In fact, these are often the specific reasons we went for a walk in the first place!
1) Physical Challenge and Discipline:
It is hard to miss this one. I mark my own discipline of sabbath walking from right after my back surgery. There was rehab involved. I had to get out and get moving! Hiking was more interesting than going to the gym, where I injured myself in the first place. It was also something I was familiar with from a lifetime of getting outdoors. Most people--hikers and non-hikers alike--recognize that there is a physical challenge involved when we intentionally take a long walk. Even strolling around the neighborhood indicates that we are somehow pushing ourselves. The challenge is part of why we do it. We are "getting in shape" but we are also getting to know our bodies, their likes and dislikes. Knowing ourselves and the vessel that carries us is essential to a well-grounded life.
Now, this can often be the primary motivation for some hikers. It is a legitimate door into a sabbath discipline. Getting stronger and feeling better physically is important in and of itself. So too is the pride and joy of achieving a difficult goal. When I climbed Mount Adams and Mount Madison a couple weeks ago, I was chuffed to have done so. The trip was very much about dealing with the 5,000-plus feet of total elevation gain and staying hydrated. We were coping with the discomfort and the risk around wet trails and the slippery rocks. My brother waited at the end for us and became worried something bad had happened! We were just slow. We all high-fived each other in the parking lot at the end. That said, the physical challenges out-weighed some of the other aspects so it was hard for me to make it a "sabbath."
What I can say, though, is that one's physical presence brought about by addressing a physical challenge with intention and discipline is essential to the walk. It's just that too much physical challenge makes it hard to concentrate on other things. We must push ourselves and engage our bodies. Yet it can be--and should be--at the level of the walker. That is part of our practice of self-awareness, after all. It also needs to balance with a few other things.
2) Mental Challenge and Discipline:
Now, it may be easy to conflate this with the physical challenge. Many athletes, for example, talk about getting the right mindset for their respective competitions. I am a big basketball fan and--if this were a different kind of blog--I would tell you about the many times in the NBA and WNBA where a less-talented team beat a more talented one because their heads were in the right place.
We see this in a good walk, as well. Lets say we are climbing a physically challenging mountain and we need to find the courage and fortitude to keep going. In that moment we must push through the pain or despair to the other side. It matters that we do this. However, it also matters how we do this. For some it is a case of baring down, finding hidden reserves of power, and soldiering through. Others--and I would put myself in this category--do better through a discipline of openness. When I hike I try to cast my eyes and my heart outward into the landscape and toward other hikers, using the power of the world around me to drive me forward.
It wasn't always this way. I remember hiking Mount Moosilauke early on in this project. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have. I was still in pretty bad shape both physically and mentally. I used the "dig deep, push through" method and it got me to the top of the mountain. About halfway down, however, those reserves ran out. I "crashed" emotionally and had trouble getting myself back to the car while in full hot mess mode. This was the state of things on many hikes for a while. However, I started turning the corner while climbing the Tripyramids and by the time I hit the Osceolas--where I actually took a major fall--I at least had the sense of what I needed to do going forward. All that stuff in my posts about noticing the colors, the views, the little plants, and the people began as part of that exercise of openness. It was a very practical adaptation to help me survive.
The world/creation/the universe etc has more energy than we have on our own. It is good to find ways to use it.
3) Receptivity to the Moment:
This one logically follows from the previous ones, doesn't it? It is in some way about aesthetics. Most folks who go for walks have a view in mind. That is why we climb mountains or circle lakes. It is why we try for the most "natural" places in our lives. We are trying to be called up and out from the concerns that tie us down and reduce our humanity. An experience that points to the vastness around us helps with that.
Human constructs often demand more from us than we are able to healthily give. There are societal and economic demands on us. In order to maintain our selfhood in this environment, we naturally pull ourselves inward. We stay in our lane as much as possible. We also travel as fast as that lane allows.
Maybe we manage to live in the moment while we are drinking our first cup of coffee in the morning. After that, though, for most of us life is a series of next moments. There are things we are expected to--or want to--achieve so we going about doing those things.
This is what draws us to our sanctuaries. We are not products of our constructed world. We are products of the world before we built those things. You might want to go back and read the two previous sentences again. The solid foundation of a house of worship, or the quiet of an art museum, or the chaos of a concert, or the primal energy of the trail, are all sanctuaries for our souls where we can be present in the space we are occupying at that very moment. Our challenge is to find those places where we are receptive. There are many, many directions in which to go to seek them.
If you have read my posts here then you know that I have developed a practice of receptiveness while hiking. Particularly when I am alone, I make a point of sitting, feeling the rock beneath me, listening to the wind and the animals in the bushes. If there is a view I try to enjoy that, too. It isn't entirely necessary though. This practice has helped to save many a hike that I would otherwise deem a bust. Most recently it helped me through a soggy hike up Mount Israel.
The sabbath walk needs time to make connections to the right now, and sometimes it isn't that easy.
4) Contributing Creativity
Worship is a dialogue. Yes, in many formal settings it may not feel that way. Folks who get their information about worship life third-hand may not be aware that in pretty much every tradition there are ways that everyone participates and adds to the moment. In my church there are hymns and responsive readings. There are announcements that are sometimes longer than the sermon. There is coffee and conversation afterward that frequently lasts longer than worship, itself. A sabbath walk requires these elements as well. Our conversation--broadly conceived--creates a new thing and adds to the whole of creation.
Creativity can be intimidating. People think of painting, writing, and preaching, for example. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Do you sing along to the radio in the car? That is part of a dialogue. You are changing the original document--the song--and making it your own at least for that place and time. I sing hymns on the trail these days, particularly when things are getting rough. I picked this practice back up from my distant past on a solo hike up Tecumseh and have continued to do so when the spirit moves.
I also take pictures and, yes, I write. That is extra, though. As this project has gone on I have found it harder to post something new for each walk but I still form sentences in my heart as I go along, even though you may never read them. I also usually manage an Instagram post. Pictures don't feel as repetitive to me.
A sabbath walk doesn't just involve being in the moment and witnessing what is before us. It involves making that moment more meaningful and beautiful. This doesn't always happen. There is so much going on as we walk that we may be too distracted. There may be too much going on before and after our walk. We may not be in the right space to make something new.
However sabbath is about practice and we do get better at being creative over time. We get better at talking back to--and building--creation. We need to forgive ourselves when things don't go right. There will always be another sabbath-day.
So--once again--not all walks are reflective. That is fine and good. Sometimes we need to get something else out of an experience. That said, I do believe that there is a place for worshipful walking when we can. These four aspects in some sort of balance are--for me at least--what makes the difference between a good hike and a sabbath walk. If you are curious which ones made it for me, I have an "Actual Sabbath Walks" section which will give you a sense of what I am talking about. They can be a challenging as Mount Katahdin or as easy as Mount Norwottuck. On my list, for whatever reason, things aligned in such a way as to create an attitude of worship and of connection to something greater than myself.
I hope your walks--or your "walks"--are also satisfying. If you feel like sharing, please do! Communities--congregations in whatever form--make everything more meaningful.
We still haven't had much time for hiking since getting back from Scotland. Today--with everyone off at their various schools--I put on my day pack and walked a 7ish mile walk that I like. It starts and ends at the parsonage door. It cuts downtown. Then I loop to home through the Wellesley College campus. The college is pretty this time of year. It has this sculpted-nature look popular with Olmstead-influenced parks. The campus pretends to be wild around the edges but you can see the artifice behind it. Still, it is pretty and my body doesn't know the difference.
I probably won't be walking there for a while, though. The students are slowly returning and the place was starting to get crowded. I feel like I am in the way then. There is a certain energy and bustle at a college campus when it is in session. Everyone has a reason to be there...except me.
Walking around and thinking of the new school year I found myself reminiscing to myself about a hike I took back in March. It was a road trip with a hike in it, actually. That was when I drove my eldest son down to Georgia to begin the Appalachian Trail. I am not great at transitions, so I volunteered to drive to the trailhead and do some of the approach trail with him before he got on his way. I am glad I did. We took a couple days to get there and then we hiked for most of a day. I was with him half the time and then left him in a grove of trees chatting away with other through-hikers. They were speculating on the adventure rolling out before them.
This phase of parenting is strange. When my eldest was born it was all hellos. Slowly the goodbyes crept in and now the goodbyes are more frequent and more difficult.
I have seen the boy a couple times since. Once we got to spend a few days in Harper's Ferry at the symbolic halfway point. Once we took him and his friends out to dinner in Woodstock, New Hampshire for his birthday. They all call him "Trumpet" which is a cool trail name based on his tendency to rehearse before others get to camp.
Yesterday I helped his middle brother move into his first apartment with his girlfriend. It was quite a summer for both of them. He went to study in Oxford, England (this is the first sabbatical I will have that doesn't include his unschooling). She visited family in Michigan and got them both ready for the move. They are doing the sorts of things people do at their age. I remember a similar moment in my own life, of course. Here is the thing, though, each time is still the first time.
I was invited to visit today as well but didn't go. I regret it. Like I said, I am not good at goodbyes. They just live a couple hours away. It is a chore to drive out but doable. I think they will get lots of visits from many people. Neither his mom nor his girlfriend's mom have been able to get out there yet. I am already thinking about hitting them up next week and do some hiking in the valley. I also have a couple of nieces out there who might let me buy them lunch...
I drove the girlfriend's dad home yesterday and we were both in a thoughtful mood. We were remembering the kids we once knew and feeling proud of the adults they have become. They are great people and this new chapter is very exciting. I cannot wait to see what it brings.
I didn't go up today partly to give them some space but there is another reason. The littlest brother's first day of Junior year was on Wednesday. This is Friday. With Allison still away at grad school I thought a hello was in order for that boy, too. We will have dinner, talk about the week, plan for the weekend and probably watch TV. Then we will wait for Mom to come home. As with his brothers, I value the time I get to spend with him.
Anyway, I have gotten some practice at these goodbyes over the years. They aren't any easier and every time we reach this period, I wonder where the children are--the former children really--who I used to spend time with. The year Trumpet went away to college there were a number of other youth groupers who also went away and ceased to be youths. This morning walking through Wellesley College I remembered a letter I wrote to them all back then. Here is a part of it.
"I want to point out something that as kids you may not have noticed but that you might notice as you get older and hang around Eliot Church. What I hope you notice (because it is true) is that this congregation loves you.
Imagine Thanksgiving Sunday--the first one after graduating high school--and you go to church with your parents (actually some former youth groupers show up on their own these days). You get there at the usual time--right before we start--and the deacon at the door says your name and gives you a hug. Then when you sit down, the old woman in front of you (who you may never remember ever talking to) turns around to pat your hand and welcome you back. I may have waved to you from the chancel. Other adults come to say "hi".
Then what happens? We do church. It is just like it has always been except there are some new faces and a few people who aren't there. Maybe--now that you are a college student--you fidget a bit less. The familiar hymns sound better. Hopefully, even the sermon makes some sense. Then it all starts again at the potluck. You look around for your high school friends but it takes a while to get to them. It's those darn old people. The pastors want to talk to you and see how you are doing. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of your time.
Please be patient with us. Whether you remember us all or not, we are the people who saw you crawl down the aisle as animals in the pageant. Since that time we have witnessed your development. We saw you reach the exalted heights of "Innkeeper". We saw you sing in the choir, or play in the Ukestra, or do readings. We even saw you when you held back. We saw you at the ski trip and the baseball game. Some folks taught your classes (we hope you remember us!). Others didn't, but they still noticed you. Your parents have kept us informed of your adventures.
I could go on. We remember when high school got busy and you couldn't make it. Some of you might feel even that you "dropped out" of church. It doesn't actually work that way. We still notice--and appreciate it--when you do make it. We are always happy to see you.
The church--particularly a small church like ours--is a kind of family. We have always seen you as a part of that family. We keep a place for you. When you return to fill that place, it brings us joy. Next year, and for a number of years after, there will be a lot of you moving on. We know that is part of the drill. I hope that wherever you go, you remember us fondly. I will remember you and so will all those other people whose lives you touched and who touched yours.
Don't be strangers. You can't be, after all.
Faith and Hope,
Here is to all those adults who say their hellos and goodbyes to the young people they love and care for. Let us remember that there will be more hellos.
This is the trail to the top of Bradbury Mountain near where I grew up in Durham and Lisbon Falls, ME. My love of hiking comes from this place. There were too many picnics to count and the view from there "all the way" to the town next door (where later I went to high school) was probably one of the first expansions of my horizon.
I am taking a break from hike-posting. It will probably just be a day or two. The reason is simply that I have work to do for my job. This is the job that theoretically has nothing to do with this blog...mostly. Of course in some ways they are related. After all life is not compartmentalized into "work and home" or "spirit and mundane". This morning I have to sit down and do some studying. The new church year is almost upon us and--like most church years these days--it presents us with a slightly higher degree of difficulty that the year before.
Just a couple days ago we had our first Parish Committee meeting to plan for the fall. As is common every time, there were problems to be worked out and some victories to be celebrated. This year we have financial worries, worries about attendance and worries about how to sustain our small volunteer base. Our programming is shrinking, too. We are living in a world where people don't join things like they used to. Houses of Worship are struggling and dying not so much for theological or political reasons, but because people are turning inward. We are in trouble for the same reason the Rotary, or the VFW, or any other voluntary association is in trouble. Folks don't think they need to join with others for sustenance. They stick to their own now. Life is becoming transactional rather than connectional. This is to the world's detriment.
My Sister-In-Law Hanne pointed out to me recently that online social networks are becoming the new "third place" set between work and family. They are mere shadows of the institutions that brought us together in past but that doesn't seem to matter. It is easier to exchange pleasantries with some acquaintance across the country than it is to chat with our neighbors. We can ignore our Facebook friends, after all. That is not the case with three-dimensional people. Also, like many toxic third places (the church has certainly been a party to this over the years) they are more about making us feel bad; pointing out perceived inadequacies rather than celebrating our strengths.
Anyway, maybe I am being a curmudgeon. Whining won't alter things. Also, I do actually believe that something better is coming. We will draw back together. However, we are living in a period of transition that won't necessarily end soon. Those of us who have committed ourselves to healthy community--religious or otherwise--are in the position of envisioning what comes next and making our old groups (they may not be old institutions by the end) adaptable and flexible.
On the side of Mount Welch in NH they have put up this stick barrier to protect the sensitive "crevice ecosystems" that are struggling to survive. You walk to the right of the sticks to do your part for this fragile part of the natural world. I wonder what adaptations we can make to protect and nurture the places where we gather.
So this is why I am doing this project: I am hiking and gardening, playing music and writing because the old way is falling away but the spiritual life is still part of a full life. Membership or even affiliation with a specific religion has fallen below 50% in this country. That alone is not something I worry about. What I worry about is where we can still find connection in this changing world. For me, I find it in the ways that I describe in the Walks Blog. In my mind this is more than "what I did on my summer vacation." It is a spiritual exercise. I am trying to find meaning. I hope that you can find meaning, too.
The purpose of these essays--and I have few illusions concerning how many people will read them--is about exploration. I joined the church in high school and it has been a part my life since, but reaching outside its doors for meaning has always been part of my life. Now I am entering another year as pastor of a small, loving, non-creedal, progressive congregation. That said, I am drawn to see what there is outside our doors even more. I want to report to everyone what I find. We actually may not be a church so much as a group, anyway. This is about serving as the scout for that group to whatever comes next.
Of course, what actually becomes of this group--this congregation--I serve is not for me to decide. Our future is being made by thousands of tiny personal decisions. That is how groups work--the healthiest ones anyway--and the process of discernment belongs to everyone. Here is what I wrote in my report for the Parish Committee concerning my upcoming sabbatical:
As you know, I believe that the modern church is in the process of fundamental changes that will ultimately leave it unrecognizable. Pessimists would say it is dying. I prefer to think of it as transforming. However, it does mean that some churches will die and others will shrink as we adapt to the new world we live in. Again, I have talked about this pretty consistently for years so I won’t get bogged down here.
The question for us is how we adapt to lower budgets, lower attendance, and lower commitment in general. I will be (as I have been) doing some reading and reflecting on this subject while I am away and you will hear about those reflections upon my various returns. I hope you will see me as a resource during this time of transition.
Here is the thing: What Eliot Church becomes is mostly dependent on what you make of it. As staff we have led, advised, and imagined this congregation toward a future. Ultimately, though, it is you who marks the path and walks it. As always I will be encouraging you to think about what is most important to us as a congregation and what we can do to maintain excellence in those areas while understanding that we may become leaner than we have been before. Our congregational polity puts the responsibility for direction on the congregation, itself.
Anyway, Thanks for listening. I have a warm pot of coffee and a lot of reading and planning to do. My sabbatical is indeed coming up and these explorations are a big part of it. I do not plan on sprinkling much about the church into my posts. I certainly haven't yet! I do hope, though, that you find something useful either here or elsewhere on your journey. In any case I will be reporting in when I can...
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.