Sabbatical: Time Out / Plug In
Today I begin a three month sabbatical leave. I plan to have tea with my aunt, lunch with a good friend, and see a Jays’ game this evening with my husband. My church makes provision for its clergy to take a sabbatical once every seven years. The leave includes one month of vacation alongside two months for a project of your choosing.
I love parish ministry, and my greatest wish professionally is to keep the flames of love burning throughout my working life. The clergy colleagues who I most respect, who I look to as mentors, share a common denominator. They have continued to learn; they have been intentional about taking the time out from what they love to do in order to allow that learning to happen; they report that in learning, they find rest and renewal. “Come away to a quiet place by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus invites his disciples (literally his students) shortly after their healing and preaching ministry has blossomed.
I just celebrated my fourteenth anniversary of ordination, and this is the first leave of this kind that I am taking. The reasons why I haven’t acted upon this opportunity available to me are simple and complex. The simple reasons are easy to understand: babies, moves, family illnesses, life, life and more life. The more complex reasons are pretty easy to understand too: it feels like a lot to ask others to accommodate in order for me to have this time and it can feel nothing short of impossible to extract myself from ministries in which I am so deeply and personally invested. The devil lurks within these reasons, understandable as they might be. My good intentions and sincerest feelings (love of my church, love of the work to which I am called) lead me to want to be healthy in what I am doing (taking occasional Sabbath rest for renewal) and also become the excuse for not doing so (I am too wrapped up in my work).
As is usually the case, there is actually something deeper and more basic going on. As luck (or grace) would have it, my spiritual director chose in our last session to talk about pride. “Pride,” he noted for me, “is the number one sin. All other sins are small in comparison, or maybe all other sins stems from this first one.“ He based his comments on having read the great author and theologian C.S. Lewis. Lewis defines pride as a problem, not because it leads me to having a high opinion of myself, but rather because my opinion of myself is based on having to be better than others. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest,” he writes. The reason why this is a sin, why it leads to separation from God, is a proud person “is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.”
Luck and grace coincided again shortly after this conversation. On my last Sunday before beginning this leave, the Gospel reading that appeared in our set cycle of readings took us into an early disagreement in the Gospel of Mark between Jesus and the religious leaders (Pharisees) around the Sabbath. They seem to be criticizing the fact that Jesus and his disciples are travelling, gathering grain for food, and healing on the Sabbath. We are told at the end of this showdown, which happens in just the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel, that this disagreement is already spurring them into seeking an avenue for killing Jesus. This strange Galilean comes among them, and in his wake, life and limbs are restored in dramatic and miraculous fashion, the kingdom of God is visibly and viscerally coming near, exactly as he claimed. And yet these good, well-intentioned religious people, who have devoted themselves to God’s service, react to the presence and power of God by plotting murder.
In fact, the disagreement has nothing to do with the Sabbath at all. These leaders, studied in Jewish law, know the Sabbath is a gift from God for renewing and restoring us; they know that it is permitted to do good on the Sabbath. They just can’t accept that Jesus’ acts of renewal and restoration come from God. And the reason they can’t accept this is nothing other than that cardinal sin noted by C. S. Lewis. It is pride. Jesus is not one of them. Jesus is not raised up by them. Jesus does not operate within their system or according to their rules and permission and commissioning. They feel threatened by his power. And although his power comes directly from the very One they seek to serve, they cannot see or accept it because they have tripped over that classic stumbling block of pride. We scapegoat the Pharisees as the bad guys in the story of Jesus, and yet religious people of all stripes should take heed of the warning embodied by this group who, more than anything, should remind us of ourselves.
Of course that stumbling block is right in the middle of my life in parish ministry too, and I trip over it so often that I sometimes don’t even realize I’ve fallen down again. I love the work that I do, it is true. And it is also true that I become convinced more often than I might want to acknowledge that it is about me, that it rests on me, it is up to me, the glory goes to me when it all goes right, and the guilt and worry and heartbreak goes to me too when it all seems to be falling apart. This, more than over-work or long hours or emotional pastoral encounters, is what makes burn-out in parish ministry a constant possibility. This is what prevents the Pharisees, and me, from being able to see and participate in the activity and power of God.
Interestingly, although I can identify this problem, I can’t solve it. The mistake at the heart of pride is thinking that I can, by an individual act of will, make things right and good. That I’m in this alone. How ironic that Jesus and the Pharisees had this dispute over the Sabbath; how appropriate that I would be invited to consider this particular problem of pride just as I begin my sabbatical. Because at the heart of God’s top rules for living is a dictum to keep the Sabbath, to build into our lives of work and service this time for rest. And the reason why God must do this for us is essentially as an antidote to pride. One day out of seven, at least, I must lay down my armour of self-sufficiency and admit that, although I can do a lot of things, I cannot regenerate and renew myself. I must plug in to an external energy source and recharge.
One year out of seven, I have the opportunity to time-out and plug in for a blocked-off period of several months. A lot of people are connected to making this sabbatical possible for me, particularly the unfailingly supportive leadership of my church, and I am grateful. I have great and interesting plans for the coming months: travel, writing, seeing friends, reading, and baking at least one cake. My children have a new StarWars monopoly game for us to play, and a stack of books they can’t wait for us to enjoy together. Each of these pieces in this plan is a gift from God, and I will be a disciple re-made in the school of grace as I receive them as such. I will miss my church community, and I know that they are — and have always been — in Good hands.
I am in those Good hands too.