text : Psalm 63: 1 - 8
theme verse : "Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you." (Psalm 63:3)
You spend three months without your usual responsibilities, you learn a few things. You see different things, and you see things differently. Sabbath, sabbatical, rest, renewal. What it means, what it does, what it teaches - what you learn. After all that time and space, it's good to regather the sabbatical wanderings, wonderings, and lessons along the way.
anthem : 'Give Me Jesus' (arr. Ijames) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director; Marla Patterson, soloist
reader : Roy Peters
preaching : Rev Courtney Richards
special music : 'So Will I' (HillsongUnited) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader; Andrea Gross, lead vocal
Psalms 63: 1 – 8
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,[a]
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
* * * * *
Six months ago, on May 27, you received a card in your worship bulletin, a reminder of what I would say from this same pulpit that morning … Something I am even more convinced of today, six months on:
After this Thanksgiving weekend, the story may involve new recipes, and old favorites; new family … and old favorites!; kitchen sing-along dance parties, oven near-mishaps, and culinary triumphs; long-standing traditions and brand-new explorations; too much time apart and just enough time together. Whatever the case, it’s still true: We all have a story to tell.
Next Sunday we begin the new church year. Advent, the season of preparation that leads us to Christmas actually begins next Sunday. (Not the day after Halloween, or earlier, as retail would lead you to believe.) On the first Sunday of Advent, we step into a new year in the Christian calendar … we start the storytelling again, telling the story that shakes rulers and breaks open the heavens and changes the world. And changes us.
We follow, and trust in, and claim to have given our hearts and lives to, a storyteller. We all have a story to tell. We learn from each person we meet, each story we share.
In that message on May 27, we remembered Paul’s plea: “… how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”
And then you prayed for me and you sent me … on sabbatical.
Many stories were told, before, during, and after. Over thirteen weeks, in nearly 20 states, just shy of a dozen national parks, almost 20,000 plane-train-and-automobile miles, at two conferences, a dance recital, a college move-in day, a couple of birthday parties, plus beloveds’ homes, fancy hotels, plain hotels, mom’s house (twice!), and my own 900-square-foot haven in between …
I learned a few things.
So with gratitude to one of our Sunday School classes for inviting me to speak last month and giving me a starting point for this list – and with the promise to them that they actually haven’t heard this all before so it’s okay if they want to pay attention again – and breaking all the rules of never using yourself as the centerpiece in preaching – a few thoughts: from the time away, from the time since, and from the scriptures that tell, and hold, and reveal our stories over and over again.
In the days before I left for sabbatical, I heard one question more than any other: “What are you going to do on your sabbatical?” Which, ironically, is exactly counter to the actual definition and intent of sabbatical.
This practice has been most common in academic circles, where a professor receives a sabbatical, usually for the period of a semester. Among professional clergy, this opportunity is increasingly given by congregations as a gift to their pastors.
But when we say ‘What are you going to do?’ we defeat the purpose of sabbatical before it begins. Sabbath is about rest … in keeping with the story told of the cycle of creation, where the 7th day was made holy in its restfulness.
I am grateful for the forward-thinking of our church leaders, and for a congregation that generously offered – with joyful encouragement – such a tremendous gift. Not a leave of absence to work on something else, but to provide your pastor a paid sabbatical in a time when they may be ready for rejuvenation, but before mind body and spirit are desperate for it … to provide space to REST FIRST, without expectation of coming back with a program, project, production, or presentation. This means that it really can be a sabbatical: a ceasing of the ordinary, the schedule, the calendar, the clock, the necessary, and a giving over to the restoration and renewal of spirit-focused time.
The psalmist seeks and thirsts and faints in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Where there is no life. Where there is no rest. Where there is a longing for God. For this church’s leaders, the question was not ‘What will you do?’ … the question was ‘What can we do for you that you are unlikely to do for yourself?’ And they realized: We can create space for you to rest.
One of the stops midway through my summer was Olympic National Park, near Seattle. It was the cap to an 8 day trip that had started in L.A., hitting six parks as we drove north. Olympic is ridiculously expansive, and diverse. This one park includes ocean, mountains, AND rainforest (which is a thing I didn’t even realize existed in the United States).
This last evening, on a slow walk around a tucked-away trail, enroute to a waterfall we could hear crashing in the distance, we came around a curve … and stopped ten feet from two deer. You could have heard a pin drop – well, maybe, because I could actually hear my heart in my ears. It was spectacular. We stood, they stood, we looked, they looked. And then, when they were ready, they bounded away (joining a few others who popped up from the direction they were going).
Now, had we been moving more quickly, or making more noise, or tried to move closer than what they had already established as our appropriate distance … this would have been lost. The psalmist says ‘I have looked upon you in your sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.’ I’m a Texas girl, and I’ve driven lots and lots of those two-lane roads, and I’ve seen what deer can do when they spring out in front of you. But this … this was the power of stillness, the glory of proximity. This is a glimpse of the wonder we’re fainting for.
After two days in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, we headed toward Yosemite. We arrived to find the sun glaring through a hazy sky. It was definitely smoky, both in sight and smell, but the park was open, and trails were accessible, so we were game for a full day’s adventuring.
The next morning, we stood at the infinitely photographed Tunnel View overlook – if you’ve been to Yosemite, you’ve been to Tunnel View. It’s famous for the fact that from this one spot, you can see all of the major features Yosemite is known for – we saw … next to nothing. Smoke from the distant Ferguson and Mendocino Fires had settled into the valley; where just the day before it had rested on the mountaintops, by this morning it had made it to the floor.
So just hours before the Park closed to visitors for a week, we remapped our route … and spent the day in the middle of a caldera – the bowl-shaped crater left by one mountain erupting, and creating new ones. We saw boiling mud pits, hiked prairie trails, and lunched on the rocks of Lake Helen; because giving up our plan for Yosemite meant we squeezed in a side trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Yes, we ate lunch in, basically, the valley of a volcano.
Crater Lake is known worldwide and has the most astonishingly blue water you ever did see, which is mysteriously perfectly pure and always the same level, even 7700 years after the volcanic eruption (yep, another volcano!) that sheared the mountain top, left the crater, and started the lake filling with snow melt and rain. Annual water into the lake always equals the amount lost to evaporation and single stream. The place is a marvel in absolutely every way.
Including the fact that you can take a boat tour of this lake. Three tour boats and a research boat are all the vehicles allowed to invade the pristine waters. You get to this boat by following a trail. For 1.1 miles. Straight downhill. Well, not straight downhill. More like zigzag switchback … long stretch … slow switchback. With a 700ft elevation change. In a mile.
Which I honestly was really not sure I could do. But I wanted to. I mean, it’s not the walking a mile. I could do that. And it’s not the going downhill part. I knew I could do that. But I also knew that didn’t want to die on the way back up. Because yeah. It’s 1.1miles, 700ft elevation change going down. AND. THEN. BACK. UP. So there’s that.
And afterwards you take it slow. And you rest in the shade. A lot. And you only feel like you’re going to maybe pass out once on the way back up. (Okay twice.) And you understand what the psalmist meant ‘I lift up my hands and call on your name.’ (And realize that may not actually be what the psalmist meant.)
I am under no illusion that my sabbatical was easy for anyone else. It left my colleagues, who already serve this congregation every day to their fullest, with even more to take care of. My mother worried every minute I was on the road. Our lay leaders had to reroute their connections for the day to day things we do together. All of that was entirely expected – and can never be entirely repaid. I remain grateful.
What you cannot prepare your brain for, 10 weeks into a 13 week leave, is driving down a side street in Santa Fe, New Mexico, glancing over to admire the wildly colorful flowers on a hotel’s balcony, and thinking ‘Huh, that looks like, and that looks like … No, that’s not … But wait, THAT is …’
And there are two of your church members standing on the sidewalk, waiting for their ride to dinner. And there you are whipping out of traffic, parking half on a curb, turning on the flashers and jumping out of the car, all while you (and your mom) scream their names like it’s going to save their lives and yours. (I am here to tell you, we have not stopped laughing about this.)
And if you think you’re not prepared to see church members in Santa Fe …
Trust me when I say …
You are definitely not prepared …
(They’re not real. But I swear to you, they had me for longer than a minute.)
In all absolute sincerity, I know this to be true:
God will never cease to amaze me.
God has never once let me down. (I can guarantee you the reverse is not true.)
Above all others, Jesus has been the one I choose to trust and follow.
Rulers, Leaders, even the Church, and people you know and love … stuff is gonna happen, and it’s not going to always be good. But the Holy Spirit that binds us together? That Spirit has always been about her divine work in the world. Always. And always will be. And I thank God for that.
We still have people being shot for no reason other than a gun is handy and fear is rampant.
We still have people who are willing to say the most vile and hateful things about someone else because of their skin color or their religion or who and how they love or identify or look, and say it to their face, and then to tell them they shouldn’t be offended. And often do more than just talk.
We still have a planet that is disintegrating at a truly alarming rate and yet an astonishing response saying that every scientist who’s saying it’s happening is actually just making it up.
We still have neighbors who can see other neighbors cold, hungry, naked, alone, sick, terrified, and still somehow NOT see the face of Christ.
All of that is still true.
And yet …
When I meditate in the watches of the night …
In the shadow of God’s wings I sing for joy.
Not that there isn’t going to be night. Not that we’re supposed to stay awake around the clock, as if our keeping the physical light on will make the spiritual darkness lessen. But in every moment, in all that struggle, when our soul continues to cling to the one who has been our help? We are doing our work. We are doing our part. We are waiting out the darkness, working through it, driving it away. Like morning sun and breeze peeling smoke away from the most astonishingly blue water you ever did see … our Help, our God upholds us.
The church’s new year begins next week. In a way then, since most of us see each other, in this configuration, just from Sunday to Sunday, that means today is our new year’s eve.
So what will we resolve … what new story will we write … for the year to come?
What better questions should we ask, and how can we listen better to what comes in response?
Where might we slow our step, and consider our path more carefully?
What plan might we set in motion, knowing that we have the strength and resource to adjust as we go.
What big thing might we imagine, climbing and panting and unsure … but knowing we can do it, and we should, and in the end will be more than worth it.
Which corner might we turn, and who or what might be a wonderful surprise?
Who isn’t here yet, who might be, who should be, who needs to know about this journey we’re on together?
Happy almost-new year, friends. Turn the page. See where the story goes next. My bet is that God shows up in there somewhere. And it might just be better than life.