Sunday, April 8, 2018

Gospel as Stand-Up Comedy

April 8, 2018
Easter 2
John 20:19-31

Today in the church world is often called Low Sunday because of the generally low attendance.  After all, everyone came last week and heard the biggest story of all! So church can be crossed off the to-do list for a while.

Have you heard the joke about the man who came out of church on Easter and the minister pulled him aside and said, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!" The man replied, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord."  The minister questioned, “Then how come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?" The man whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."  

I recently heard a name for today that I much prefer to Low Sunday - Holy Humor Sunday.  Apparently, the early church had a tradition of observing the week following Easter Sunday as "days of joy and laughter" with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus' resurrection.  And so there is a (small but growing) groundswell calling for a return to this fun tradition. 
What a great idea!  (Especially since John isn’t here so I didn't have to sell it to anyone!)
Easter Sunday always feels magical - the room is full, triumphant hymns are sung loudly, everyone is hyped up on sugar — you can feel the joy.  But Easter season lasts 50 days.  So how can we get that joy to last?  A little humor cant hurt!

How do you like John Stewart’s take on Easter:  A guy comes down to earth, takes your sins, dies, and comes back three days later. If you believe in him you go to heaven forever. How do you get from that to Hide-The-Eggs? Did Jesus have a problem with eggs? Did he go, “When I come back, if I see any eggs, the whole salvation thing is off.”  

It seems especially appropriate this year to bring some humor to church.  After all, Lent began with Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day and ended with Easter on April Fool’s Day.  A ridiculous and rare occurrence that hasn't happened since 1956.
So this year you could make Ash Wednesday a date night, and the choir could trick everyone on Easter by starting with a Christmas hymn.  (That happened last week at the 10:30 service, if you haven't heard.  They definitely fooled me.)
But the truth is, Easter probably belongs on April Fool’s Day.  Easter’s resurrection stories are like crazy jokes and we barely understand the punchline.  

So - a girl and her mother ran into their priest at the store.  The girl told the priest they were getting ready for Easter.  Seeing a teaching opportunity, the priest replied ,“Oh really? Do you know what Easter’s all about?” The girl looked a little offended. “Of course I do. It’s when Jesus went to Jerusalem on a donkey and he got in trouble and they nailed him on a cross and then he died.  They put him in a tomb with a big rock in front of it.  But three days later the rock was rolled away.” “That’s great!” said the priest, pleased to know the Sunday School program worked so well. “But that’s not all,” said the girl.“When the rock gets rolled back, Jesus steps out and looks around, and so on Easter if he sees his shadow there’s six more weeks of winter.”  

Early church theologians described Easter as a practical joke that God played on the devil.  They saw the resurrection as mocking the powers that killed Jesus.

Some of those church fathers were jokesters themselves.  Like St. Augustine of Hippo, who in the 4th century prayed, “Lord, give me chastity ... but not yet.”  

The disciples were sure thankful to be let in on the joke in our story today.  Jesus shows up in the room - a room locked with fearful people whose leader has just been executed - and fills them with joy. 

Have you seen the cartoon that shows Jesus looking at his Twitter account:  ”Hey, look!  I’ve got 12 followers!” 
Unfortunately, one of the 12, Thomas, was missing from the locked room that night.  And so he thought the whole “Jesus is risen” thing was a practical joke.  He didn't believe it for a minute.  We get this same reading every year this first Sunday after Easter.  Every year we feel sorry for poor doubting Thomas, whose name lives on in infamy.  Thomas was missing from that locked room that fateful day.  He completely missed the punchline.  And so poor Thomas became the butt of the joke.

A disciple excitedly runs up to Thomas to share the good news: “He is risen!” the disciple cries. “I don’t know,” Thomas says. “Sounds like fake news to me.”  
Thankfully, Thomas was there the next week, and this time he got the joke. 
So all is well that ends well.  He never loses the unfortunate nickname, but Doubting Thomas goes on to a distinguished career of spreading the Gospel to India.  
One version of his story even has him as the only witness to the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven, where she apparently dropped her girdle for him to show the other disciples as evidence.  
(Believe it or not, that girdle part isn't even a joke, though it was denounced as heresy by some ancient church council.)
Sometimes proper religious people can be awfully serious.  We assume that God can’t have a sense of humor, that the Bible is a respectable document, that Christians are supposed to be somber.  But look closer!
All kinds ridiculous situations take place in the Bible.  Ancient women have babies constantly.  People turn into salt and get swallowed by giant fish.  And did you know that in the first book of Samuel God afflicts the Philistines with hemorrhoids when they steal the Ark of the Covenant?  And in 1 Kings Elijah suggests that the reason the pagan gods aren't showing up to take care of the people is because the pagan gods are defecating?  
And then there are all those camels!

Three camels try to board Noah´s Ark.  Noah stops them: “Hey, only two of each animal allowed.  One of you will have to stay ashore.”  The 1st camel says: “Not me. I’m the camel so many people swallow while straining the gnat from their soup.”  The 2nd camel says: “And I´m the camel whose back is broken by the last straw.”  The 3rd camel says: “And I´m the camel who shall pass through the eye of a needle sooner than the rich man shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  So Noah, deciding the Bible wouldn’t make any sense without them, lets them all come aboard.  

God’s gotta have a great sense of humor to put up with us.  

As Anne Lamott jokes, If you want to make God laugh, just tell her your plans. 

But God doesn't just put up with us, God delights in us!  And laughter is front and center of some of God’s most beautiful promises for us.  In Isaiah the people are promised “a place full of exuberance and laughter.”  And Jeremiah promises a time when “laughter will spill through the doors” and God will “turn their weeping into laughter.”

Joe asked God, "How much is a penny worth in heaven?"
God replied, "$1 million dollars."
Joe asked, "How long is a minute in heaven?"
God said, "One million years."
Joe asked for a penny.
God said, “Oh, sure.  Just give me a minute.”  

Stephen Colbert says he sees getting people to laugh as his ministry because if you are laughing, you can’t be fearful. Fear can make our options seem more limited than they really are.  If you are laughing, you can rise above whatever overwhelming, frightening, painful thing confronts you.  
A good joke can help us to see the difference between the world as it is and as it could be.  It can help us see the gap between who we are and who we want to be.  And maybe laughter can help us to bridge the distance.

So you’ve seen those bracelets with the letters “WWJD” inscribed on them - meaning: What would Jesus do?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to have a bracelets inscribed “JWPNHGHITSITFP” -  meaning: Jesus would probably not have gotten himself into this situation in the first place.  

Thankfully, we can laugh and be filled with joy not because life is without struggle, but because Easter assures us that God has the final say.
As Frederick Beuchner says, ”Blessed are those that get the joke."  

May we all get the joke, this Easter and beyond.  Amen.  

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Written on our Heart

March 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Recently my family read the book Wonder together.  We watched the movie version too, which of course was not as good, but was beautifully done.  It is one of those rare stories that is appropriate and important for all ages.  And it made me rethink how I consciously and unconsciously treat the people around me that are different in some way.  I found myself wishing this book were required reading for everyone everywhere.
Wonder is about a year in the life of Auggie Pullman, a boy who was born with a rare genetic defect that left his face severely disfigured.  After dozens of surgeries and a very sheltered existence, Auggie begins school for the first time at a private middle school in New York City.  Middle school! The locus of all of my worst growing-up memories!  It is hard to imagine a more difficult entrance to society for a kid like Auggie.  We all know, or we think we do, what fate awaits him, and it isn't pretty.  And there is a lot to cringe about in this book.  So many moments when I just had to stop reading and check in with my kids to ask what they would do that situation.
But there are so many things to love about this story.  Since it is told from the perspective of different characters, we can imagine ourselves into their shoes.  We feel their pain and understand, rather than judge, their actions.  And because it takes place over the entire school year, we see growth and change in the characters.  We live with them as they move from being horrified by Auggie’s face and either ignoring him or terribly mistreating him, to understanding and friendship (at least from many of them).  In our fairly safe front row seat to society’s treatment of someone who is different, we are both convicted of our own short-comings and invited to grow in empathy and love along with the characters.  
I especially enjoyed learning how intentional all of that was by the author, R.J. Palacio.  In an interview she told about the experience that led her to write this book, one that will sound familiar if you’ve read it.  She was with her own children in front of an ice cream store when her three-year old son started to cry after seeing a little girl with a disfigured face.  Palacio was so fearful that her son’s reaction would hurt the little girl’s feelings that she rushed away as quickly as possible.  It was that situation that prompted Palacio to imagine what it would be like to be that child.  What it would be like to be that child’s mother.  Palacio started writing Wonder that night, almost as a meditation, she says.  And as she wrote, she knew that she wanted a book not just about avoiding unkind behavior — about not being a bully — but about being kind and empathetic and compassionate.
Along those encouraging lines, in Wonder one of Auggie’s teachers, Mr. Browne, begins each month with a new precept for the class to consider.  He explains that precepts are rules about really important things; they are understandings that inspire you to live life differently.  And the ones Mr. Browne offers are wonderful:
In September:  “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” 
In October:  “Your deeds are your monuments.”  
In February:  ”It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers."  
And in May: One from an old-time Anglican, John Wesley: “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 you ever can."
Mr. Browne invites his students to consider what words might serve as their own personal life precept.  They can come from anywhere, he says.  They might be completely original, or quotes from famous thinkers, or something you’ve heard someone say, or even company slogans.  But they aren't meant to be just words that sound wise, or words that that we read once and forget about.  They are meant to represent a way of being and living that we strive to undertake in all of what we do, and say, and are. 
And although the students come up with individual precepts, it is clear from the story how influential the entire community is to the choice each kid makes.  By the end of the school year, they are in this thing together.
I think our Jeremiah reading urges something similar when it talks about God’s law being written on our hearts.  Rather than laws being engraved in stone and displayed for all to see but none to follow, an embodied faith will be engraved in people’s hearts and displayed in their lives.  We will know that we belong to God.  We will hear God speaking to our hearts and be transformed.
Having God’s covenant written on our heart isn't about following rules or steering clear of sin.  It isn't about avoiding causing offense.  We wouldn't have a story like Wonder — we wouldn't have any of the beautiful and important stories in our lives — just by minding our own business and not being mean.  The promise God holds out to us in Jeremiah is about living whole-heartedly.  It is about living in love of God and neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul.  It is about our active care and concern and love for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable, hurting, and alone.  It is about being transformed.
And for Jeremiah, the community context is just as important as it was for the students in Auggie’s school.  About this new covenant, God proclaims: ”I will write it on their heart."  In the original Hebrew, this passage refers to a single heart for the entire community, not the hearts of lots of individuals.  The heart of the entire people will bear the covenant. We aren't talking about the private reformation of individual lives here, but about a new way of being in community.
Now when the students at Auggie’s school first encounter Mr. Browne’s precepts, they don't really mean much.  At the start, I doubt any of the kids would have been able to imagine which precept might be formative for them.  But as the weeks pass, they begin to see the relevance of the precepts Mr. Browne writes up on the chalkboard each month.  They began to evaluate how well, or how badly, their own behavior and thoughts might fit within the precepts.  And they begin to imagine for themselves their own guiding principles for living life whole-heartedly.
I wonder what your precept might be?  What is so important that you want it to underlie your very being, to be written on your heart?  How do you want to live?  Who do you want to be? 
This isn't meant to be a pressure-filled assignment.  Your precept today might be just a starter precept - one to get your mind musing.  It might be very much a work in progress, rather than something you are already living well.  
Let’s take a minute to imagine what your precept might be.
And then, if you are willing, in a few minutes when we share the peace, consider sharing your precept too. 
I cant wait to hear what God has written on this community’s heart!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Blowin' in the Wind


February 25
2 Lent
Mark 8:31-38

Most years, I have trouble with this season of Lent — with its often too-heavy (for my taste) emphasis on sin and penitence, and its negative take on our mortality, and its penchant for minor key dirge-y hymns, and its stories about humanity at its violent and hateful worst, and its focus on Jesus going to his death instead of his incarnation or resurrection.  I often find myself longing to edit these things out.  To take out some of the darkness and emphasize the light.
But this year, Lent actually did feel lighter to me at the start.
For Lent this year, I signed up for a six-week Ignatian retreat through a church in Georgetown.  The retreat started the Sunday before Lent began with a beautiful candlelit gathering of all the people making the retreat.  We shared where we were and what we were hoping for and were led on a beautiful scripture meditation before being sent back into the world.  From then on, every week I would meet with a spiritual director named Bill who assigns me scripture passages to pray with each day.  Each week has a theme of some sort.  And Week 1 was great - it was all about God’s love.  I had no trouble reading my assigned passages and spending time imagining myself into them and envisioning myself surrounded by God’s love.  That time of rest and assurance was just what I needed after what had been a frustrating time of recovering from my broken arm.
And I guess because I’d been basking in that loving presence of God, Ash Wednesday felt different to me this year.  Rather than feeling weighted down by the call to a holy Lent, I heard a gracious invitation.  As I sat in my chair listening to John preach that night, a vision formed in my head.  I saw all of us as mounds of ash dust.  And the breath of God was gently blowing the layers of dust away.  I couldn't see it yet, but I knew that that breath would eventually reveal our gleaming true cores under the ash.  We were all in the process of transformation.
It was a great start to Lent.  
But it only took a week to realize that even though that vision had felt like a welcoming invitation, the process of ash removal itself could be very uncomfortable.
When I met with Bill the second time, we talked about how everything had gone and he asked if I was ready to move on to the next theme or would I rather remain in God’s love another week.  I am very much a person who likes to make progress, plus clearly I had this whole love of God thing down, so I said I was ready to move on.  So onto Week 2 we went.
Now the theme was indifference.  Bill described it as spiritual freedom - not being attached to our desires  I didn't like the theme from the start, and none of the assigned readings sat well with me.  They focused on not worrying and being content no matter the circumstances.  Things that are definitely not always my forte and, in fact, felt like a rebuke after all the angst I’ve experienced this past month.  I was confronted by all the pieces of life I grasp too tightly to - like my expectation of physical health and strength, and my ability to be in control of my body, and my desire to accomplish things.  And I could see the weight of all my worries that kept me from finding joy and peace in the present moment.
Then this week’s theme has been sin.  And I keep coming face-to-face with both my personal failings and my role in the systems of power and inequality in the world of which I am very much a part.
After all the discomfort and wrestling, I told Bill I was sorry I hadn't just stuck with the love theme because this indifference and sin stuff was kicking my butt.  Bill laughed and said that sometimes God works that way too.
Sometimes God gently blows away a layer of ash to get us closer to that gleaming core.  And sometimes it takes a windstorm for that ash to sift through our clenched fists.
I think Peter encounters the windstorm version in our Gospel story for today.
The disciples have been with Jesus now for several years.  They’ve known Jesus to be a caring and wise teacher, a healer, an opener of possibilities, a doer of miracles, a drawer of crowds.  But now Jesus is talking about suffering and rejection; now he’s predicting his death.  This isn't what Peter left everything to follow.  He was expecting kingship and victory!  A delivery from Roman oppression!  A suffering messiah?! Unthinkable.  Peter (being Peter) wastes no time in telling Jesus exactly what he thinks.  We aren't told, but I imagine it went something like this: “Jesus, enough already with all the negativity and death stuff!  Show us how we’re going to win!”
I’m guessing most of us aren't big fans of the crucified Christ piece either.  We prefer comfort to suffering, glory to the cross, acclaim to rejection, Easter to Good Friday.  We want a God who shields us from vulnerability and promises us prosperity and good health and security.  We’d really prefer a painless shortcut to the Kingdom, thank you very much.
But that’s not what Jesus offers. In Jesus, God shows up where we least expect — as a homeless baby, as an exile and an immigrant, as an outcast and a criminal.  Jesus points to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, loss, and even death.  His ways are not our ways, but he invites us to follow him anyway.  
Jesus is constantly inviting people to follow him.  And just like the ash is sometimes blown gently and sometimes it takes a windstorm, at times the call to follow Jesus sounds like a gentle invitation and at times it feels like a dismal warning.  
I’d say our reading today falls very much in the second category.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Not much by way of a marketing slogan.  I much prefer: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” and “Come all you who are heavy burdened and I will give you rest!”
The words we hear today from Jesus are unsettling.  Carry your cross. Lose your life in order to find it.  These words feel like a violent wind blowing against our desire to cling tightly to whatever the ash is that obscures the gleaming core of the person God has called us to be.
In this world where the shiny marketing slogans ignore reality and tempt us to be a lesser version of ourselves, Jesus’ call to transformation is just the opposite.  The world calls us to be more powerful, better looking, skinnier, stronger, richer, more successful.  Today Jesus calls us to hold all that lightly — to be willing to lose it all on the path to transformation.  The path we are invited to walk may be rocky and painful and demanding.  It may call us in directions we would never choose for ourselves.  It may require us to let go of our certainties about God, or our expectations of how life is supposed to go, or our hardness of heart in our relationships, or our worries about the future, or our guilt about the past.  But the path Jesus asks us to follow transforms us slowly but surely into our true, gleaming, God-created and God-beloved core.  This path leads to Easter.  And it definitely leads us home.  Amen.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Coming Down the Mountain, On a (Chicken) Wing and a Prayer

Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-9

Have you been to the mountaintop?  

In our gospel story, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and is transfigured before them — “his clothes became dazzlingly bright, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  And suddenly the religious biggies appear with Jesus - Moses and Elijah.  They look in awe and wonder at their teacher, leader, and friend.  This experience gives the disciples a new understanding of how Jesus fits into the story of God, and maybe even a new understanding of how they fit into that story too.  They are forever changed by having been invited into this moment.

But there are lots of ways of getting to the mountaintop, and there are lots of different experiences up there.

I think of the speech Martin Luther King gave about his mountaintop experience.  In the midst of all the trouble and confusion broiling around him, in the midst of death threats and uncertainty, he spoke of having been to the mountaintop, of looking over the edge and seeing the Promised Land.  What he saw on that mountaintop was the cumulation of all of the strikes and sit-ins and voter registrations, all the prayers and marches and imprisonments and deaths, all the blood and sweat and tears.  A vision of hope for the future that sustained him through it all.

But mountaintop experiences don't always involve visions of dazzling light; they aren't always remembered and replayed 50 years later.  Often they are just times when you feel close to God, or are caught off guard by unselfish love, or catch a glimpse of meaning that changes how you see the world.  It might be as simple as a quiet walk in the woods that puts things in perspective, or a poem that makes new meaning, or watching a child discover some fascinating piece of their world, or discovering some new passion.  We've all been to the mountain top in some way or another

I’ve had mountaintop moments along the way but none as prolonged as during my sabbatical.  It was a time of discovery and learning and prayer.  A time when scripture came alive and God was with me all over the place.

And I was feeling great coming back.  I was fed and renewed by those months of prayer and sabbath.  And confident that I would be able to keep all that going as I moved back into work, and the regular business of juggling that is ordinary life.  I was going to keep that fulfilling prayer life, keep my sabbath time, keep my relative peace and patience in parenting.  

I was planning to stay up there on my mountain, thank you very much.  Just like Peter and the other disciples in our story this morning, I was going to hold onto that special transfigurative time with Jesus in the clouds.  Like Peter, I was out there with my measuring tape, ready to build a permanent dwelling to mark the experience.  A place where I could plunk down and enjoy the view whenever I wanted.

But just like I think we’ve all had some kind of mountaintop experience, I think we also all know how fleeting they can be.

As you can see, I fell down my mountaintop.  Literally.  5 days after starting back at work I fell while hiking down a hill and broke two bones in my arm.  It was painful right from the start, but the worst part came a few days later when that continued pain combined with lack of sleep, inability to exercise, frustration of not being able to do anything useful, and the prospect of Holden going out of town for a month for a work training.
All the beautiful spiritual practices that had been sustaining me so well during sabbatical failed me.  I couldn’t walk, which had become one of my primary prayer times.  I couldn't draw, or write in my journal, or even read very well with just my left hand.  I couldn't sit in silence without focusing on the pain.  I was horrified by how easily I could lose my grounding, even after shoring it up over the last four months.

And it was all made worse by my knowing how silly it was, in the long run.  It was broken bones, not the death of a loved one or a sick child or a chronic disease or a spouse deployed to a war zone.  Nothing that time won’t heal. 

But sometimes it isn't about rationality - you just feel how you feel.  And I felt overwhelmed. Finally one day I found myself breaking down and sobbing in front of pretty much everyone that asked me how I was.  My family, John and Eileen, Peggy Trumbo, Lisa Richard, my next door neighbor, and friends at school pick up.  

You all know this, and I can definitely attest — it’s no fun coming down the mountain.  At best, it’s a let-down returning to normalcy.  At worst, it’s a time of real struggle and test.

It was the same for the disciples.  In Mark’s Gospel, this story is the turning point for Jesus as he gets closer and closer to crucifixion.  Jesus is going to die and he knows it.  He's been predicting his death to disciples who have been fighting that news with all their strength.  Hard times - impossible times - are waiting for all of them at the bottom of the mountain.  Sure enough, when the disciples hike back down they go back to arguing, and failure, and misunderstanding. In fact, right after this story, they are confronted with a boy convulsing that they are unable to heal.  And it only gets worse before it gets better as they see their beloved Jesus arrested and tortured and killed.  

And of course it was the same for Dr. King, assassinated the day after his mountaintop speech.

And yet, down the mountain they all came.  

But they didn't come down alone.

It took me a while to catch on to that part.  It took about a week of exhaustion and self-pity and teariness.  But then, with a little distance, and a little less pain, and a little more sleep, I could begin to make out the edges of the dazzling brightness still surrounding me even at the bottom of the mountain.

I could begin to appreciate the grace even in the unexpected — and certainly unwanted — chaos around me.  After a while, I was able to see that Jesus had indeed come down the mountain with me.  The light was dimmer down here, sure, more diffused.  But still, signs of God’s love were everywhere.
In the sympathy and helpfulness of my children
In strangers rushing to open doors and pick up things I drop
In the meals you all have brought for us with such care
In the outstretched arms of needed hugs
In kindness from people I wouldn't have expected
In the help I was too embarrassed to admit I needed
Even in the vulnerability, the honest to God powerlessness and humility
Jesus was in all those places — shining in the dark and fearful places in my life just as surely as in those moments where everything was going along swimmingly.  The Kingdom of God was unfolding all around me.  It just took me a while to see it.

The truth is, most of life is lived in the valleys, not in the peaks.  But we aren't ever down here alone.  Our God isn’t limited to mountaintop experiences, or to particular places or times or people. We have a God who came down from the mountaintop of heaven and became human out of love for us.  A God who shared our experience of pain and frustration, and walks next to us as we hike — or sometimes careen madly out of control — down the mountain.  That’s what Jesus does.  That’s who he is.
And maybe that’s who we can be to each other too. 

As much as we might like to stay safe above it all, those mountaintops are just resting places, giving us strength for the journey down below.  We are needed "down here.”  We take what we’ve found in the mountaintops and we bring it down into the trenches of every day life.  Into the messiness and pain and imperfection of this often overwhelming world.  We learn to recognize the bright light of God shining through all the other broken, hurting people around us.  And hopefully, slowly but surely, we even begin to believe the truth that we too are the filters through which God’s light shines.  Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sabbatical Glimpses

January 28, 2018
(With screen shots from slideshow)

     Our Psalm this morning tells us to:  “Praise the Lord!  I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”  Today, I want to give thanks, with my whole heart, in the company of this (very upright) congregation.

     If you were here just before I left, you might remember that I preached about my hopes and plans for my sabbatical, but that it had just occurred to me that the origin of the word “sabbatical” came from the word “sabbath”.  Sabbath, meaning, most importantly for my purposes, a time of rest.  And true sabbath rest-taking, as I confessed in September, is not really my strong suit.  So when people ask me what I did on my sabbatical, part of me would really love to be able to answer with impressive accomplishments.  Like writing a book, maybe, or walking the Camino, or running a marathon, or something equally impressive.  But the truth is, I didn’t really accomplish much.  But I do feel like I’ve had a sabbath - a good, long, beautiful, healing, prayer-filled time of rest.

And that, at the end, is what I most needed, and in my heart of hearts, what I was most hoping for.  Since this wonderful parish so graciously encouraged me and supported me on my way these past few months, I wanted to give you a glimpse of this time of rest.
  
    Probably the oddest part for my whole family was not being here on Sunday mornings.  We were like church shoppers who weren’t actually looking for a church.  I’m always curious about what the other folks are up to, so we went to a fair amount of Episcopal churches.  And what I learned is that while they are all fine places in which, I’m sure, their people are very happy, none of them carries a candle (in my opinion) to this place.  I come back feeling incredibly blessed to be doing my ministry here in this place, with all of you.  You are so welcoming and so full of fun; our building is so most radiant in its simple, natural beauty; John is such an open and supportive mentor and colleague, children are honestly cherished.  So thank you all for making St. Aidan’s the warm, comfortable, enjoyable, unfussy, spirit-filled place it is.

We also went to a fair amount of non-Episcopal worship in my time away.  I loved worshipping with other local communities that I’d heard about but not spent time with.  I loved the patient silence and openness of the Quakers.  (Although - man - an hour of total silence on a wooden-backed pew is a long time!)  I was glad to share a meal and be in conversation with our Jewish brothers and sisters at the synagogue across from the seminary.  I was challenged by the diversity and sheer numbers at the movie theater church.  But I came away from all of it so glad to be an Episcopalian, with our openness to questioning, and our middle way of finding a path through conflict, and our 3-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason.  (My bishops will, I’m sure, be pleased to hear that.)

This next part I hate to talk about because I certainly don’t want to be an advertisement for skipping church and staying home.  But our most meaningful church experience over the last four months was definitely our Rees-Hoofnagle Home Church services.  We lit candles and talked about scripture and shared our highs, lows, and God-moments, and sat in silence, and gave each other blessings.  In this holy time together, I knew that the kids’ enthusiasm for church participation and their confidence in leadership came in large part from their life here at St. Aidan’s.

I did a lot of reading over my time away.  I will be super-prepared for the next time Peggy Trumbo asks me for book suggestions for the St. Aidan’s book group.  I read books about theology, and books about prayer, and books about living faithfully.  

And I read lots and lots of non-church-related books.  What a luxury!  I read fiction.  I read books out loud to the kids.  I read parenting books.  And with pretty much every book I read, I jotted down ideas for future sermons.  Which just goes to show that nothing is really secular.

During my sabbatical I continued my monthly meetings with my spiritual director, who asks great questions, keeps me honest, and lowers my self-expectations.  She helped me to see the holiness in all of the diverse experiences of these last four months and to keep recommitting to sabbath and letting go of accomplishment. 

My most important spiritual times over my sabbatical were definitely my retreats.  I come away realizing that periodic spiritual retreats are absolutely critical to my growth in faith.  

    Best, and most life-changing, was my first retreat, that I thankfully had the forethought to schedule for my first week of sabbatical.  I spent 8 days in silence at Eastern Point Retreat House, an incredibly beautiful and soul-quenching place on the coast of Massachusetts.  Every day I met with a spiritual director, walked for miles in the woods, and spent hours sitting on my favorite rock perch over the crashing waves with my journal and my colored pencils.  Scripture came alive to me during that week.  God walked closely with me.  My joy in Jesus overflowed.  It will be a touchstone for a long time.

The following months, I took short retreats — times of walking and prayer and reimagination.  I went to Shrine Mont and Roslyn (our two Diocesan retreat centers) and to a tiny one-person hermitage set in the woods behind the Franciscan Monastery in D.C.  Being short and self-directed, these didn’t have quite the richness and life-changing feel of my first retreat, but they were each holy and strengthening.



    One thing that physically remains with me after my sabbatical is my new prayer space.  I took a little unused office nook in our house and cleaned it up to use as a place for prayer.  I filled it with photos and icons and favorite books and art supplies.  It’s a place I look forward to going with a mug of tea when I have some quiet minutes alone.  I sit in silence, or imagine myself into scripture, often along with an Ignatian book of meditations that provided fodder for most of my sabbatical.

    During sabbatical I finished a journal.  It’s full not just of thoughts and feelings and prayer, but also art and poetry that I worked on over the months.  It’s been a very creative time. In addition to spending quiet time in my new space, when the weather was good I took walks along the river or in Fort Hunt Park, often listening to the daily scripture meditation on the Pray-as-you-go App

Something that felt very Sabbath-y to me was time I got to spend in museums.  I wandered around the National Galleries, the Hirshhorn, Freer, Sackler and African Art Museums and the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond.  It was such a treat to have that unhurried time to wonder and gaze. 

I was also able to be part of a few of the free writing and art salons at the National Gallery - amazing opportunities to spend a few hours in creative making in the midst of the art. 

On the arts front, something I’ve always loved but haven’t gotten to do much of in the last decade or so is theatre.  Thanks to the Lattus, Maya and I went to see The Nutcracker at the gorgeous Warner Theatre.  And Holden isn’t a big fan, so I took Sophie to see Mean Girls and Les Miserables at the National Theatre.  It was my 4th time seeing Les Mis, and, as in the past, it felt like a spiritual experience.  Once again, I got chills at the line that has stuck with me from my first viewing 30 years ago: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”   As theology, that is just about as good as it gets.
  
Things were much simpler during my sabbatical months.  I announced to my kids that we wouldn’t be signing up for any sports in the fall.  And so, for several months, rather than schlepping kids to different practices and games 5 days a week, we had dinners together and read books together and sat by the fire.  Holden and I even had a few date nights!  One of our favorite new family activities was a take on the “Chopped” cooking show, if you’ve seen that.  We’d pick a few ingredients and break up into teams to create interesting food for each other.  Basketball has started for all the kids now and I really miss the spaciousness of those unstructured months.

    Since we didn’t have the usual sports or church responsibilities, it was easier to go away.  We had a great family trip full of adventures the week before Christmas - a time that is usually too busy for me at work to do much.  We did some hiking in the Shenandoah mountains and tried skiing (the first time for the kids and Holden), among other things.

    I also had some great weekend trips and chances to reconnect with friends.  I went to my seminary class reunion and had a weekend with the hallmates from my freshman dorm.  We went to visit Dylan’s godmother in Richmond and my niece at Duke, and we cheered Holden and some other friends on during their marathon in Philadelphia.   Having time to enjoy and deepen these relationships was wonderful.

    Sabbatical is an incredible luxury for which I am, again, so very thankful.
Beyond just the wonderful adventures I was able to have, this time apart reset my prayer life and deepened my relationships.  I come back to you all here at St. Aidan’s with so much love and energy for this wonderful place and you amazing people.  

“Praise the Lord!  I give thanks to the Lord, with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”  Amen.