I think this will be the last one I’m going to write. As such, I may have to squeeze a skunk story in here because I don’t really know where else to put it. Oh, and if you’ve just stumbled onto this one, you don’t need to read the previous posts before looking at this one. The whole idea is just giving curious people a look behind the curtain of the kinds of things that I got up to on a 10 week sabbatical. While I did all of these things pretty much concurrently, I’ve teased them out into these 5 categories just for ease of communication.
I’ve detailed how I needed a break and then a different kind of work to give my mind some relief. Part 4 was about taking care of my physical self, which is really easy to ignore in my line of work. This one is about tending to my soul. Which… OK so I’m a minister, right? And I’m assuming that folks imagine that a minister’s soul is great all the time. It’s the best looking lawn in the neighborhood. Gotta be.
Except the guy who handles yardwork in my neighborhood usually hasn’t mulched his own flowerbeds. And the dog trainer’s dog could stand with a bit more training. I’m not saying that my soul was wrecked or anything, but I have to work at it like everybody else. There are no shortcuts in maintaining our physical health and the same is true of our spiritual health. We have to work at it, minister or not. We’re not different in that way.
The way in which I am different as a minister is that I’m called upon to lead others in tending to their souls. I’m asked hard existential questions in Kroger, I’m invited to hospital rooms with dying family members, I’m asked to counsel young couples, and each of those situations requires me to tap my spiritual reserves. I’m not complaining, just explaining. I love my work! But it has a cost and pretending like it doesn’t is foolish.
I knew I would need to use the sabbatical time to refill intentionally, so I planned it out in my proposal to the powers that be that approve sabbaticals here in our church. Here’s what I did:
Read the Bible
So, I’ve actually been doing this since January, but I continued it during sabbatical. I have a PDF on my phone of a reading plan that has you complete the entire Bible in a calendar year. Today’s readings, for instance, are Jeremiah 31:27-32:44, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Psalm 88:1-18, and Proverbs 25:20-22. Whoever came up with this thing has you reading part of the psalms and proverbs every day, which I kind of get. I wouldn’t want to read like 3 chapters of unrelated proverbs because I probably wouldn’t consider any of them. But, they also have you reading through the entire book of Psalms twice in the year. So I’m not doing that again. I completed the Psalms somewhere in July and I just skip that part now.
What’s been super helpful for me about this is that I’m not doing this for anyone except me. I study a lot of Scripture. I do a deep dive for any sort of Bible Study that we do as well as Sunday sermons. A lot of that is just making sure I’m not doing a heresy! Still, that kind of reading is meant to be expended and I’m usually reading and studying with my congregation in my mind.
I’m not doing that here. When I drop the list of references for the day into my Bible browser of choice, it’s not for anyone else. It’s just me. Just my soul. And of course I’ll find reasons to talk about something I read recently, but that’s just because I’ve got it kicking around. It’s been really nice to have stuff kicking around rather than immediately scooping out what drops in there.
The girls were all getting ready for school and I was getting myself ready, too. They all have to be in their buildings early and everyone in my family insists on showers in the morning so we’re all up before the sun on school days. I’m last because I don’t have to leave the house until like an hour after they do, which also means I’m the last one to roll the dice on the hot water heater. By the time I’m getting ready for the day, everyone is usually downstairs including the dippy 95 lb
I’m not even out of the bathroom when one of my kids comes upstairs to tell me that the dog came in from outside and smells awful. “Is it skunk?” I ask through the closed door. She doesn’t know. It didn’t smell like that. As I’m throwing on clothes, I think to myself, “Skunk. Gotta be skunk. What else could it be?”
When I get downstairs, the smell is… I see why they didn’t commit to it being skunk. I’ve smelled skunks on the road or wandering around our neighborhood. It’s a low, earthy, musky kind of scent. This was completely different. It was assertive, sharp, an almost high-pitched kind of smell.
And it was everywhere! There was no escape…
The dog obviously got sprayed by a skunk. I’m not going to devolve into play by play because it’s not that interesting. I spent the morning sitting outside with the dog, who I washed as best as I could with the supplies we had at the time. They were insufficient. After lunch, I sat in the kitchen doing my research at the table with the screen door open and the dog still outside. I had Gigi pick up supplies we needed for The Recipe on her way home. Then I gave the dog a proper skunk wash and I showered and changed clothes and all of that. It was a whole day.
My whole day was skunk.
OK, so I’m going to help you out. I did a bunch of research. The American Kennel Club, my vet, and a half a billion other people’s vets all have the same recipe, The Recipe. So get your screenshot ready. Write it down. Paint it on your doorposts. This is it and I don’t even have to look it up because it’s been seared onto my memory:
- 1 quart of Hydrogen Peroxide (yes a quart! This is the one I was missing, because who has an entire quart of this stuff on hand. What am I, John Wick?)
- 1/4 cup of Baking Soda
- 1-2 tbsp. of Dish Soap (I use Dawn because it has cute ducks on the bottle)
You know I’m keeping a gallon of Hydrogen Peroxide under my sink! You know this. You should, too. The skunks hit like 3 people I know this year and I threw The Recipe at them immediately. I warned people with The Recipe. Keep it and pray you never need it.
I did learn a lesson from the skunk incident, a real one. But if you want to hear it, you’ll have to listen to my sermon this Sunday. SERMON PLUG, BABYYYY!!
In addition to all the other books I read for research on the parables (that’s in Part… 3? Maybe? Probably.), and in addition to reading the Bible every day, I would go to the coffee shop, sit down with my mug and the first (of many) books I would remove from my satchel was this one: Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton. Merton’s a monk, like an honest to goodness monk. This book is considered a spiritual classic, so I’ve been meaning to read it for some time.
Contemplative prayer is a discipline that I’ve known about for some time. I think we tend to default to a kind of prayer that is very word-based. Our prayers are letters that we say in our minds, lists of names that recite, or little snippets of borrowed phrases. All words. Dear, Lord. Thank you for this day. Bless Ma and Pa and Sissy and… words. There are other ways to pray and contemplative prayer is almost the polar opposite of our traditional mode of word prayers. The idea behind contemplative prayer is to get down to just being.
I didn’t leave a word off the end of that sentence. It’s about just being. Existing in the presence of God. Being fully present and honest as we are in the light of God with no words to act as a buffer. If you’re finding this difficult to grasp, do not feel bad. It’s difficult. It was something that was very foreign for me when I encountered it and it is still a very difficult practice for me.
What I read in Merton’s book was very encouraging because he asserts that this discipline just isn’t for everybody. It’s definitely for those who live a monastic life. But otherwise, it’s so difficult and demanding that you shouldn’t really expect people outside of the lifestyle to have to live up to this task. I can’t tell you what a relief that was. Previously, I just thought that I was bad at this kind of thing and I should be better at it. I’ve heard people talk about contemplative prayer and how life-changing and soul-nourishing it is for them and I got the impression that it should be like that for me. And maybe it could be. But reading Merton directly gave me permission to admit to myself that perhaps this particular discipline isn’t going to be my bread and butter.
I finished the book after maybe 6 weeks of reading a snippet every weekday morning. I didn’t use it, and I felt really good about it. Great, actually. I didn’t feel like I was slacking or not a pro-tier enough Christian to do this thing. Instead, I feel like my spiritual life doesn’t need to be like someone who wrote a book or a blog or gives seminars or lectures. My spiritual life needs to be like mine. More accurately, I need to follow the streams where I am finding my soul being quenched by God’s grace and not where someone else does. That permission, that admission to myself, was well worth the time of reading Merton.
The last thing I committed to doing was to go to church. Now, the whole point of sabbatical is for me to NOT be at church for a sizeable chunk of time. But really, that’s about my responsibilities, many of which are intangible. I couldn’t come on Sunday mornings or even watch the livestream because if I did, I’d carry you around in my mind and my heart again. I wouldn’t be able to help it. Matter of fact, I wasn’t able to help it sometimes because you all would pop into my mind sometimes. But in order to really rest, I had to try to get some distance.
But I still needed church.
During the 10 weeks of sabbatical, my family visited 8 other churches. Gigi and I decided to intentionally take our girls to a bunch of different kinds of churches. We did a mega-church here in the region, we did a Catholic mass, we did online services, evening services, traditional, non-denominational, and very denominational. We even went to church in Hawai’i the Sunday that we were there!
I explained this to a few people, but I wanted my kids to experience church that doesn’t have anything to do with me. Because for as long as they can remember, church has to do with their dad. I give sermons and say prayers and go over announcements and shake hands and talk to folks before and after. For the first time in their memory, we went to churches and no one really knew who they were.
So we’d go to these churches and then we’d go to lunch and we’d talk. What did you see that was different from our church? What did you like? What did you not like? What did you hear that was new to you?
I’ll tell you one of the things I realized when I was visiting other places. I’m keenly interested in the sermon. I guess I’ll be honest here. I didn’t hear enough that met muster and that worries me. I have come to believe in the importance of the proclaimed word and if what I heard in half of the churches we visited is typical for their preaching, I’m worried that the Church (universal Church, I mean) is deficient in spiritual nutrition. Are the preachers not giving their churches enough? Did the churches that developed these preachers not give them enough when they were growing up?
I came away from those experiences renewed in my calling specifically to preach. Preaching has always been dear to me, but I now see it as an urgent need in our world. I want my own preaching to improve, but we need more good preachers out there. And no one gets better at anything without doing it. Practice.
So, my first week back at church, I sat down in my office to write my sermon and do you know what happened? It burst out of me like a broken fire hydrant. I had to try to stop the words from coming. That Sunday morning when I preached it, I had to hold things back because there was so much more I had to say (I still ran long that day). On my way to lunch, I thought about making a whole sermon series later out of the ideas raised in that first sermon – because I just wanted to keep going.
It’s funny what happens when we rest. When we stop ourselves from our normal routines, from the constant pull and drain that we grow accustomed to living with from day to day. I didn’t do a lot of the contemplative prayer that Merton was talking about, but I did end up just being a lot. I just sat with the Scriptures without trying to figure out how to use them this Sunday. I just attended worship services without worrying about my wireless mic’s battery level or if I need to cut something out of my sermon for time. I just existed in these spiritual moments without agenda or goal.
When we can manage to do that… it brings to mind a praise song we used to sing when I was young. The lyrics say:
I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.
It makes the lame to walk and the blind to see.
It opens prison doors, sets the captives free.
I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.
Spring up, O well, within my soul!
Spring up, O well, and make me whole!
Spring up, O well, and give to me
That life abundantly!