Note: This post is taken from the letter I wrote to the parish upon my return from sabbatical.
“We shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise, in the end which is no end.” St. Augustine, The City of God.
On July 29th I returned from my most recent sabbatical. It is really good to be back at St. Peter’s. I have been away for a while. During my time away Meta and I had many adventures but I want you to know that I missed taking part in the life of this community and even when away from you there were numerous times when I wished I were back in your midst. Now that this time of sabbatical rest has come to an end, there are a few things I would like to say to you.
First, I would like to thank the staff of St. Peter’s for keeping things going smoothly and efficiently while I have been away. Many thanks to The Rev. Ann Martens for her leadership during my absence. I never worried about St. Peter’s while I was away because I trusted her and knew that she would do an excellent job during this time. I also would like to extend my thanks to The Rev. Jackie Thomson who served as a part-time interim assistant during my time away. Thanks to Don Witman and Jim Selway for keeping our music program humming during this time as well. Thanks to Nikol Destatte and Christopher Neumann for all the things they do to support and further our ministry together at St. Peter’s. Thanks also to Daniel Reeves, our Virginia Theological Seminary seminarian this past year. I would also like to thank our wardens, vestry, and you the people of St. Peter’s for continuing to work to the glory of God in this place.
Second, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to take this most recent sabbatical and your support, love, and prayers during this time away, this time of rest, study, and renewal. I will be telling you more about the sabbatical at an adult forum on Sunday, September 20th and perhaps at another time yet to be decided. No doubt I will make reference to it on other occasions when relevant. I will be happy of course to answer any questions you might have about it when the chance arises.
Third, I would like you to know that having rested for a time, I now am ready to embrace the work that lies before us trusting and hoping that our work together in this place will always be done to the glory of God Almighty.
Now that my sabbatical is over a number of people have asked me what I learned during my time away from St. Peter’s and how can I convey that to others who have not had the opportunity for sabbatical time. It is not a question about what I learned from the research I undertook during the sabbatical but more about what I learned about our human need for rest and recreation. It is a difficult question to answer but I will try to address it briefly here.
We read in the Bible that God created us both to work and to rest. In Exodus 34:21 we read: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.” I am struck by this verse because most of us tell ourselves that in the busiest of times we should work as hard as we can and that we will take time off at a later time when it is convenient for us. In ancient Israel the times of plowing, planting, and harvest were the most important times of the year. Taking a full 24 hours off from all work during these seasons can be compared today to a busy accountant, with more than enough work to do, taking a full day off in the midst of the tax season right before the tax filing deadline of April 15th. How many accountants feel that they can do that and still keep their jobs? (This applies to most all of us no matter what our occupation.) Bur somehow God requires God’s own covenant people to set apart 24 hours each week in which they will do no work.
The Sabbath is a way of marking and commemorating the holiness of time.
Most of us spend too much time working and not enough time resting. A time of rest helps us to reconnect with God and with the joys of God’s creation. Rabbi Abraham Heschel once observed that, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
A sabbatical from work of course lasts longer than a day. When my sabbatical began I found it difficult at first to disconnect from work. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. One thing I did right away was to wake up in the morning when I woke up and not with an alarm. That meant after a while that I went to bed earlier and got up earlier than I did when I would get home late from a meeting and then stay up until I felt that I had relaxed enough to finally get to sleep. I also learned what it was like to live in the moment and not according to a calendar and a schedule. Sure there were things I needed to do and places I needed to be at specific times, but overall there were many days when I thought to myself, what shall I do today.
Meta joined me in May for ten days in Rome. This was the second time we had been to Rome together. As a result, we were not in a rush to see all the sights the way we might have been had we not been there before. We did what we did each day never worrying much about what we were going to do tomorrow. We took each day as it came. There is a wonderful grace in that.
In the sabbatical, I did not refrain from work. It was different work, however, than what I do as a priest at St. Peter’s. In Rome I worked on three academic papers. One I presented at a Critical Theory Conference in Rome, the second I readied for publication, and the third I presented at an ecumenical conference at Georgetown University on my return to the United States. I found that working on the papers for a few hours most days (but not every day) supplied me with some sort of structure to my days. Because I did not put too much pressure on myself I enjoyed these times of reading, studying, and writing. I also was free to do pretty much what I wanted to do each day. That was a wonderful gift to me because
(1) I had a wonderful time; (2) Meta and I had time to reconnect with family and friends (3) it refreshed my sense of gratitude for God’s gracious gift of time; and (4) it has allowed me to return to St. Peter’s refreshed for the mission and ministries we offer to the glory of God.
Thank you again very much for your support during my sabbatical. I look forward to serving our Lord Jesus Christ with all of you again as we begin another year at St. Peter’s.