Apple & walnut granola. Well, this is it. The end of my sabbatical. This last week has been spent catching up on sleep and rest before school and work start this week. The kids are settled into home life once again. I can tell because their rooms are a mess. They are really ready for school. I have heard, “I’m bored!” one too many times. We have really laid low this week. Molly has been in bed for most of the week with a strange and painful leg malady. Hopefully, she can knock it out with some dietary changes and some homeopathic remedies. I’ve been writing, playing, and learning how to play the mandolin, while also preparing my mind for return to full-time work. I also went to see Ant-Man, which was awesome! Those are my favorite kinds of movies. I’m excited and anxious about my return, hoping to be a better priest than I was before.
The few folks I have run in to have all asked: “What did you learn?” The answer to that question is certainly multifaceted. But I have come up with 10 things that I know in my bones now that I didn’t know before:
1. How to drive on the left side of the road: I was very worried about getting to Ireland and learning to drive on the left side of the street. I remember my father driving in Northern Ireland when we were there for my sister’s wedding and scraping the side of the car as he tried to make a turn. But I have to admit, besides the first day where I couldn’t figure out how to put the car in reverse (which was a car flaw, and not necessarily a driving flaw), I got really comfortable driving in Ireland and no longer have any fear about doing that ever again. I kinda miss those roundabouts, and see that there are many being built in some rural parts of Georgia. Makes more sense than adding a light.
2. Music is so much deeper than I could ever imagine: I feel like I am a better musician because of this trip. Getting to spend hours a day playing guitar and writing music was such a gift. Learning to play the bowed psaltery and the mandolin has opened up new avenues for writing and added depth to exploring the guitar in new ways. The amount of music that I experienced was also such a gift. From hearing 8-year-olds sing Evensong in a cathedral to experiencing Damien Rice sing at the top of his lungs with no amplification during his encore to a man who had just recovered from chemotherapy singing Irish ballads, I really saw so much that made my own heart sing. I wrote 7 songs of my own and arranged two traditional songs to add to my repertoire. Perhaps the coolest thing was seeing my children embrace their own musical sensibilities. Tai was already a musician, but now Bronwyn is playing the psaltery and Liam has a flair for percussion. It’s really neat to see them enjoy playing. Indeed, there is a “new song” in my life.
3. My kids are growing fast: Today, we were driving back from Atlanta in the truck. Tai has to sit in the middle of the front seat between Molly and me. He has grown so tall that when I look over at Molly, I can no longer see her. Also, he says things that show such wisdom. I think more than anyone, the trip has had an effect on him. Bronwyn, Liam, and Grey are also getting physically and emotionally bigger every day. I see the way they interact and compare it with a year ago. These are different children, and I think much of that has to do with taking this trip. They really are growing up so fast, and I can feel it with all the pain and joy that accompanies such growth. Now if I can get them to clean their rooms.
4. Three months goes by fast: I honestly can’t believe this sabbatical is over. All the years of build-up. All the work on the Lilly grant proposal. All the planning and preparation to be gone for so long. All the detail work. The fantastic send-off seems like it happened earlier today. It’s like waking up from a dream so good you wanted it to be real, only this was real. People often say, “I couldn’t be off that long, I wouldn’t know what to do.” Not me, sir. I could easily fill another 3 months.
5. My wife is the best trip planner: Part of the reason that 3 months went by so fast was because Molly did an awesome job of planning our overseas trip. As you grow in a relationship with someone, you continually find reasons to fall in love with them again. Seeing Molly work so hard to get all the details planned, but then to see her navigate the trip like a champ was really inspirational. She says it was just our destiny and perhaps it was. But all the stars were aligned on this trip and that is completely due to her fantastic gift of planning. There are not many people I would want to travel that long with, and sure, we had our grumpy days, but once again she made it “worth it.” Not only that, but I worked on the final figures of how much we spent and we are well under-budget. In some areas, she was eerily under budget by only a couple hundred dollars. The budget was so well-planned that it was almost perfect.
6. Post-Christian culture: Experiencing life “outside the church” was interesting to me. I felt what many people feel on Sunday morning. “Do I go to church or not? If so, where?” This was very difficult the weeks we were here in Georgia, because going to church around here would undoubtedly get me into some sort of “work.” Going to church in England and Ireland was interesting because I firmly believe they are where the United States is heading, if not already there, in a post-Christian culture. What I mean by this is that Christianity is not the dominant religious culture anymore. In most places in England and Ireland, there is little religious culture. While this may sound like a bad thing, I’m not sure it really is. Christianity started small and thrived as a persecuted community of believers. The churches we visited seemed close-knit and full of joy and faith. I’m starting to wonder if the American measuring stick of “bigger is better” is not really what God wants. Perhaps God just wants more spiritual depth, more faith, and more loving communities.
7. 12 Steps as a form of Christian discipleship: I only ended up reading 2 theological books for study on the sabbatical. The first was Richard Rohr’s Breathing Underwater. Rohr has officially become my favorite modern theologian. After reading Falling Upward, I wanted to dive deeper to use the underwater metaphor. Breathing Underwater is a great next step as it uses the 12 steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous as a model for Christian discipleship. My friend and mentor Sam Buice also recommended that I read Keith Miller’s Hunger for Healing, which also uses the 12 steps in an even more practical way than Rohr. These two books were so good that I ended up reading them twice over the sabbatical. They made good companion pieces. I have never been in a 12 step program before, but am convinced that these steps are helpful, and even crucial, to spiritual growth. Both start from the premise that we are all addicts in some way, perhaps not to drugs or alcohol or sex, but to control and separation from God. If you are looking for a way to “go deeper,” or if you are interested in these books at all, please let me know. I would love to talk more about them.
8. Surrender: I read this quote today from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation email from St. Thérèse of Lisieux a 19th Century nun, “Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.” The books I read on the 12 steps begin with the concept of surrender, rather than sacrifice. We tend to think that God requires us to “give up” everything to follow. However to sacrifice connotes that you don’t want to give it up to begin with (think of Abraham’s horrific sacrifice of Isaac). Instead, God wants me to surrender, which connotes true humility and submission. God wants me to surrender my life, my opinions, my need to be right, my fear, my hatred, my anger, my attachments, my addictions, my money, my possessions, my identity, my ego, my stress, my career, my success, my family…everything that I hold in higher regard than God, which is a lot of things. The more I try to hold on to any of these things, the more I find myself in need of God’s salvation. I haven’t completely figured this one out yet, but it is a powerful truth that I will ponder daily for the rest of my life.
9. To follow Christ is to suffer (and that’s OK). I have spent my entire Christian life thinking that if I just tried to do everything right, then God would grant me a suffering-free life. Even when I saw others go through tragedies and knew that my life would not be free from such, I still kept up this lie that to be Christian is to attain some rose-colored perfection. The problem with this is that it simply can’t happen. We cannot avoid suffering. To think otherwise only creates guilt-ridden Christianity because we will fail daily. Instead, this trip (actually the whole last year) has showed me that to really be a Christian, suffering is integral. Christ more than anyone understood suffering and that’s what makes the Cross the most fascinating paradox. With suffering comes grace, so instead of resisting suffering, or manipulating life in order not to suffer (which is a form of suffering), I feel more called than ever to lean into it and learn from it. Again, this is another truth on which I’ll be meditating forever.
10. God is literally everywhere. #9 may sound depressing, but there is a freedom to it that you can only realize when you come upon such a truth. But the greatest thing about this is that God is present in all things, most especially our suffering! I saw God so clearly in the stones of the highest cathedrals, in the spot where mountains kiss the ocean, in the brushstrokes of a manic depressive artist, in the lyrics of ancient hymns and modern folksongs, in the laughter and love of my wife and children, and thousands of other places. But the place I found God most tangibly was in my own brokenness, in my exhaustion from the vocation that I love, in the pain of the death my father, in the separation from my home country and congregation, in the divisive news of racism, shootings, arguments, and injustices…God is present in them all. God’s not the cause of such things, rather God is the salve of them all. If you have ever walked away from a tragedy completely empty, you may have been in the best possible position for God to do God’s best healing. You don’t walk away the same, or even “better,” but you find God in ways you didn’t know God existed. I have learned from Celtic Christianity that God is in all things. While I knew that to be true of natural or artistic beauty, to my surprise, I found God in the least likely of places…my suffering.
So those are just a few reflections. I am so grateful for this sabbatical. For the time off, the trip of a lifetime, for the time with God. Thank you all for reading this blog and taking the journey with us. I’ll leave you with a quote from Breathing Underwater by Richard Rohr:
“God is humble and never comes if not first invited, but God will find some clever way to get invited.”