Sabbatical time

My congregation and I are about to embark on the very special experience of “sabbatical.” What is sabbatical, you may ask?

            A sabbatical is a time to step back and experience something new. The tradition of sabbatical is grounded in the Bible when God gives these instructions, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 25).

            God was telling Moses that the Promised Land would need a time of rest and renewal – a sabbatical – to ensure its health and productivity. The word “sabbatical” has the same root as “Sabbath.” We are commanded to take a weekly Sabbath; this time of rest and renewal is a gift from God. (This commandment is probably the one that gets broken most often). We live in a society that values staying busy and multi-tasking and being productive. But God knows that we all need time to rest, breathe, take a step back, and get a different perspective. We all need Sabbath time.

A sabbatical is an extended Sabbath. In our congregation, after six years of ministry, the congregation and minister engage in sabbatical time. We will spend time apart from one another; when we come back together we will have new experiences, insights, and learnings to share with each other.

When I look at my calendar for the coming months, much of it is blank. It offers intentionally unplanned and unstructured time to renew my spirit. I imagine days of reading, biking, kayaking, knitting, and simply sitting outside enjoying God’s creation. During my sabbatical I will also have the chance to visit family and friends – something that is especially sweet after our pandemic isolation. Roger and I will also be traveling to Anchorage Alaska where we will spend some weeks volunteering part-time at a homeless shelter.

            It is also sabbatical time for our congregation. They will have the opportunity to learn and grow under the leadership of Danielle Arnett Keller, our substitute minister. Her experience, enthusiasm, and abundant good ideas will provide our congregation new ideas and perspectives.

            Sabbatical – like Sabbath – does not last forever. It is meant to be a transformative experience that helps us return to our schedules and responsibilities with renewed energy, fresh enthusiasm and increased knowledge.

            I won’t be posting in my blog during my sabbatical – taking a break! – but I’ll let you know what I experienced when I return.  

Holy Week: Silent Saturday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

There is no Scripture for today because no events are recorded. The cataclysm of the crucifixion had taken place. Judas had betrayed. Peter had denied. The disciples ran away. On Saturday, there was simply the empty, hollow reality of pain. Jesus’ followers were left with the sad, miserable, terrifying aftermath.

            It is Silent Saturday.

We modern-day believers know that we simply have to wait until tomorrow – or until just after midnight if we attend an Easter vigil – and we will hear the triumphant, miraculous announcement of new life and resurrection.

But for the first believers, it was a day of sorrow and loss. A day without hope and a bleak future looming in front of them.

            Maybe you know someone who is experiencing that profound silence and loss. Maybe you are yourself. This seemingly endless experience, unbroken by any word of hope or comfort, is also part of our human story. There are times when there are no easy answers, no slick solutions, no rescue from our pain.

            In those times, we can simply acknowledge the reality. If we go to someone who is suffering, we will not help them by ignoring their agony or trying to convince them otherwise. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is to recognize their pain. We can validate their experience not by trying to alter it but by saying, “I hear you, I see you, I am with you.”

            Those early believers were not God-forsaken. God had not abandoned them. They simply could not see or believe or imagine that God could be in that excruciating place with them.

            It is a day of waiting, a day simply of existing. It is a day to cling onto the hope that God’s steadfast love will eventually break through our darkness.

Holy Week: Good Friday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.   (Luke 23: 44-46)

     Death comes in many ways; it can be tragic, gruesome, or unjust as Jesus’ was. It can also be a relief, a release, and a blessing. Death is a holy mystery that we cannot explain. A person embodies a physical presence and then – in a moment or after a lingering illness or tragically, unexpectedly – that person is no longer on this earth. They have gone to place we cannot follow. And though our love or relationship may still endure, we are separated from them in a way we cannot explain.

    Jesus was the Son of God. He did not have to suffer a human demise. Yet his willingness to endure death assures that I will not be alone when my own path inevitably leads me to the end of my days. He has gone before me. I visualize a trailblazer who will continue to guide me into the unknown beyond just as surely as he does right now.

     The death of another can leave us brokenhearted. Thoughts of our own death can paralyze us with fear. What can we learn from Jesus’ final act of courage? What does Jesus’ faith and trust tell us about the final moments of life? Can we turn ourselves and our loved ones over to God’s care with those same words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”? Can we trust that our loved ones are safe in God’s care?

     Good Friday tells a sad story that nonetheless offers comfort and hope. God’s steadfast love endures forever – in life, in death, and beyond the life we know into life eternal.

Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.” This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.  (Matthew 26: 26-30)

It had all the elements of a wonderful supper – a leisurely gathering with close friends, an abundance of food and drink, singing, relaxing, and storytelling.  This pandemic year robbed us of this kind of evening – the profound gift of breaking bread together with loved ones.

So let’s start there – remembering what we have lost in the past year, the meals we didn’t share, the holidays we missed, the hugs that weren’t given, the postponed visits. If you could make up for lost time, what would be your ideal gathering? Who would be there? What would be on the menu?  What stories would you tell (again – because all the best stories deserve to be repeated). What memories would you share? What is the soundtrack? The next time we share a meal with family or friends, those moments when we look across the table at ones we love, let’s not take it for granted. Let us be aware that we are sharing a holy moment.

And what about this holy moment – this meal that Jesus knew would be his last. It is a meal of love and forgiveness, new life and promise. Everyone sitting at that table would let Jesus down. Every single one would fail the test of loyalty and friendship.  But Jesus shared his bread, his meal, and his life with them.

Maybe this meal will make us wonder – how is God feeding our spirits today? What gifts are we being offered today? Have we taken time to give God thanks and praise? Are we aware that there is always room at God’s table for each one of us? Can we be inspired by Jesus’ generosity and graciousness and love?

Holy Week: Wednesday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.  And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.  They were delighted and agreed to give him money.  He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.  (Luke 22: 3-6)

Yesterday’s story was filled with love and devotion and compassion as Mary anointed Jesus. In contrast, today’s reading is defined by betrayal and disappointment and hurt. Tradition calls today “Spy Wednesday,” the day that Judas agreed to betray Jesus.

            Life is filled with painful moments. A friend lets us down or isn’t there when we need them most. A loved one doesn’t seem to be listening or doesn’t appear to care about what is affecting us. We can feel alone, forgotten, pushed aside, even betrayed.

There is no explanation for Judas’ actions. This Holy Week story reminds us of the hard truth that we fallible, flawed human beings hurt one another regularly.

Judas’ story reminds us of times we have failed, of promises we have not kept, of moments when we have been self-absorbed and not available to listen or care or help. There have been times when we have turned our backs and when we have not done enough for someone in need.

There have also been times when we have been hurt by others. We have been on the receiving end of undeserved taunts and meanspirited gossip. Sometimes people don’t have our best interests at heart or may even try to actively do us harm.

Holy Week includes Judas’ story as well as other examples of our human failings. Maybe the story of Judas’ betrayal offers us a greater appreciation of God’s faithfulness. Unlike Judas, God will never leave or forsake us.

What can we learn from these stories? Can we ask for God’s forgiveness where it is needed – for ourselves and for others? Can we be inspired by Jesus who did not call for revenge?  Can we recognize our need for God’s help to face challenging, painful situations like these?  

Holy Week: Tuesday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him, and Lazarus was one of those at table. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. – John 12:1-3 (NRSV)

        Actions really do speak louder than words. Mary never says a thing but Jesus recognizes her love and acknowledges the beauty of her tribute even while others criticize. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says, “She bought [the oil] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Mary demonstrates her devotion and sorrow as she anoints Jesus.

        Anointing was a common display of hospitality in that time. Under normal circumstances, it might seem to be an ordinary, small, insignificant act. Just days before Jesus’ arrest, it took on new significance as Mary shared her concern for her holy guest.

We may never know the impact of a caring act; we may not be aware of the difference we are making. What seems ordinary to us may have a profound effect on someone else. How often do we hesitate to act? How often do we talk ourselves out of reaching out?

Mary might be surprised to know that her gesture has been remembered for over 2000 years. It stands as a testament to the power of compassion and caring. Let us be inspired to (in John Wesley’s words) “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”

Who do you know that needs some love or thoughtfulness or encouragement today? Who might feel overwhelmed or scared or alone right now? What can we do to share the love that is given to us every day by God?

Holy Week: Monday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

        On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

      The money changers and merchants weren’t actually the problem; they always set up shop within the temple walls.  But over time their business had expanded and took up increasingly more space until there literally wasn’t room for anyone else. Instead of offering a “house of prayer for all nations,” worshipers were squeezed out and had no place to pray.

       Without diving into a well of guilt and remorse and self-recrimination, let’s dare to ask the question – What might be taking up too much room in our lives?  What tables might Jesus want to tip over today? What would he like to throw out? What is demanding too much space and attention?

      If Jesus could enter into our “temple gates” or our homes or our lives, what would he see?  If he gazed into our eyes (or maybe into our souls), what would he point out as if to say– this just isn’t good for you. This is separating you from God.  This is distracting you from what is really important.

      What do we need to get rid of in order to make more room for Jesus?

Unrecognizable

When Jesus emerged from the tomb, no one recognized him. Mary mistook him for the gardener. The disciples drew back in fear thinking he was a ghost. The believers fleeing Jerusalem spent a long, dusty day with Jesus walking toward Emmaus but it never occurred to them that they were speaking with their Savior.

            Resurrection will do that. New beginnings can be like that. Sometimes that fresh start is so new, so different that there is little resemblance to what was.

            Jesus made several resurrection appearances – outside the tomb, on the road, in the disciples’ locked room, by the lake. He spoke to believers and people who knew him best. And yet every single time people wondered, “Is this the Lord?” Understandable, you may say, because they all witnessed his gruesome death on the Cross. And yet it was more than simply questioning the facts. They were not prepared for this turn of events. This new reality – a living, breathing, resurrected Christ – would challenge their assumptions and overturn their expectations. This post-Easter Jesus was inviting them on a new path of discovery and revelation.

            It makes me wonder about our post-pandemic experience. What will be new and different? What old patterns have been upset? What will we need to leave behind? What has been taken away and what have we gained?

            Just like the disciples, our lives have been disrupted by a life-changing event. Just like the disciples, we were sad, we were scared, we were uncertain. And just like the disciples, we did not always behave in honorable or rational ways. A crisis rarely brings out the best in everyone.

As we emerge from the pandemic we recognize that our lives are different. We are different.

While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it does demand that we open our eyes and spirits so we don’t miss what is new. We don’t want to overlook those resurrection appearances and the invitations to new life and hope.

Our pre-pandemic lives and our “business as usual” lifestyles are in the past. Now might be a good time to wonder and ask questions.

What new things is God doing?

What new direction might God be leading us?

How will we be surprised by where God is appearing?

Will we recognize God?

  God was not on “hold” while we endured the pandemic. Instead, the God of resurrection journeyed with us to make all things new – including us.

Our new circumstances and new attitudes and new experiences may be initially unrecognizable.  But we can be certain – God is in that place.

A Psalm for Every Season

We are listening to to the beautiful book of Psalms in worship during the season of Lent. The psalms are a collection of songs used by the people of Israel as they worshiped in the Temple and in their homes. The psalms encouraged them to – as Paul would say centuries later – pray without ceasing. They were encouraged to speak to God no matter what was going on. And since their lives – like our lives – had ups and downs and joys and challenges, it meant that there needed to be a wide variety of psalms.

Life can get messy sometimes. Too often when people hear the word “prayer,” they think that our words need to be sweet and joyful and filled with prayer.  The psalms offer us words for those other times in life. It turns out that there truly is a psalm for every season of our lives.

The psalms can offer us words when we don’t know what to say to God. The psalms encourage us to pray honest, heartfelt prayers.

  • Feeling exhausted? Read Psalm 38 which complains, “My strength has failed me.”
  • Filled with anxiety? Rest a moment with Psalm 131 as you pray, “Help me quiet and calm my soul,” and be comforted by the images of God as a loving mother.
  • Guilt-ridden?  Psalm 51 is for you. We can offer our confession knowing that God is filled with “abundant kindness” and “steadfast love.” God can create in us a clean heart.
  • Sad? Brokenhearted? Don’t hide those emotions away. Pour out your feelings with the psalmist, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” Pray that as long as you need to until you encounter what the psalmist finally found – God’s “unfailing love.”
  • Need a place to rest and hide away? Turn to Psalm 23 and be reminded of God’s quiet pastures and guidance through the dark valleys. Open your heart to God so that God may “restore your soul.”

And that’s just a tiny glimpse of the richness of the Psalms! Whatever we are feeling or experiencing, there is a Psalm for that.

What an amazing gift – God wants our honest prayers. If we only pray “pretty prayers,” that sound good but ignore what is on our hearts, we miss the healing and help that God offers. The Psalms can help us make our way through the joy, confusion, celebration, trials, and beauty of our lives and offer us the reminder that our Good Shepherd (Psalm 23) is with us every step of the way.

My Covid Experience

            As Christmas approached, I realized it had been 9 long months since I had been wearing a mask. I hadn’t eaten inside a restaurant, our adult children braved the grocery store, we stopped visiting friends. We sacrificed family holiday gatherings for safety. We were toeing the “stay home, stay safe” line.

            And yet – I still got Covid-19.  My first reaction was guilt – what did I do wrong? But this is the nature of an airborne virus that doctors describe as “efficient,” meaning that it is easily transmitted.  It is virtually everywhere in our everyday environment and now it had entered my home and my family. 

            Each of us had a different experience with the disease. Our 24-year old son got a sore throat and felt a bit tired. My husband experienced three days of fever, achiness, and a lingering cough. I grew increasingly exhausted and napped for hours every day.  My doctor advised me to measure my oxygen level; when our drug store oximeter measured a concerningly low level, she directed me to the emergency room.

            The sun was just rising as we drove to UMass. I looked forward to relief from the tiredness and the constant pressure in my chest. I envisioned a warm welcome by worried caregivers who would tuck me into bed for evaluation and treatment.

            The reality of an over-busy emergency department was much different. The harried receptionist barely took my name before directing me to the “dirty room.” That description did nothing to raise my spirits. This waiting room looked like something out of a horror film with visibly ill patients slouching in a sea of uncomfortable chairs.

            Hours went by. My vital signs were checked and I was sent back to the waiting room. Having a chest x-ray raised my hopes that I might soon be seen by a doctor but again, back to the waiting room.  By 5:00 pm I was ready to give up.  My husband, who sat outside in the car all day, texted with me about the advisability of returning the following day to try again.

            Just as I stood up to go home, my name was called. That long-awaited bed was provided as they determined I needed treatment. I was transferred to the field hospital at the DCU center which was a marvel of engineering; that vast space had been converted into rows of patient rooms divided by curtains and surrounded by temporary nurses’ stations filled with computers and diagnostic equipment. It was surprisingly quiet and felt like a place of healing.

            I received extraordinary care there. Nurses, aides, therapists, and doctors checked on me constantly. Mostly what I needed were steroids to strengthen my tired lungs and time – time to rest, sleep, and recover.

            When they sent me home after five days, they offered this daunting prediction – “you will feel crummy for two more weeks.” Bedrest was recommended.

            Medicine healed my body. But prayer, compassion, love, and thoughtfulness healed my spirit. Kindness poured into my home as people prayed, sent cards, provided meals, emailed soothing music, ran errands, and delivered flowers. I heard from friends and relatives across the country who were wishing me well.

My congregation embodied graciousness and compassion by giving me the necessary, invaluable gift of time. They assured me that they would carry on the work of the church.  And they did. They continued to care for one another and for the people in our community.  They organized worship and even completed onerous tasks like annual reports and a balanced church budget.

          I am filled with gratitude – both for my healing and for the generous help that made it possible. Never underestimate the power of that prayer, card, text, or email. The caring and compassion of family and friends were powerful agents in my recuperation.

         With renewed appreciation for my health and for the power of the people of God, I belatedly enter into this new year confident that God will see us through and provide us the necessary strength and courage. May God bless us as we endeavor to share God’s hope, peace, and healing love.