Sabbath. My three months of intense sabbath has come and gone, and while I have let go of the travel and am physically present in Cincinnati, my hope is that I don’t forget my sacred gift of time, space, and leisurely strolling any time soon.
I left my home in Cincinnati, Ohio in late July and arrived back home permanently from this sabbath solitude to resume priestly ministry in early November. I had a beautiful first Sunday back home leading the people I minister alongside. It felt “meet and right” (to throw in a little Rite I language for my Episcopalian friends who love Rite I vernacular) to step into the pulpit again. The pulpit’s wooden railing where I often rest my hands was familiar, and my alb-clad self sensed that space still as sacred, a place from which I can hopefully share God’s liberating love with people seeking Good News in a time of much national turmoil. I looked into the nave, the primary sitting section in our church, and I saw familiar faces, along with some new ones, and I thought, “Yes, yes, this is where I belong, where I am needed now to inspire and to witness to the life and example of Jesus, the God of my understanding.
I preached about Jesus and Lazarus, along with Martha and Mary, as Jesus called Lazarus forth from that cool stone tomb from death and darkness into light and life. I preached of Jesus’ vulnerability, his empathic words and actions with Lazarus’ family and friends. In order to be a faithful Christian community we need to avail ourselves to vulnerability with each other and the world; easier said than done, I know. I spoke of the need for community; even the most introverted among us needs community to share and receive love, to share experiences and listen and learn from others’ experiences. After all, even Lazarus needed help in the unbinding process and being set free, letting go.
The congregation had a lovely coffee hour after 10:00 worship. We gathered in the parish hall, a large but intimate space with beautiful hard wood floors that are regularly trod upon by paws and their handlers for Canines 4 Christ, barefooted martial artists and yoga students (meeting at different times, of course) practicing their spiritual principles, sneakers belonging to precious pre-schoolers burning energy on cold, rainy days, English country dancers sharing their love of dance and culture, and on Sunday mornings after church, the feet of a mix of adults on one end of the hall with little children running around and playing together at the other end (and, maybe one day will see the children the adults playing together—that would be a beautiful sight!).
For my first Sunday home the coffee hour hosts had a huge “Welcome Home, Eric!” sheet cake. There was coffee and tea and water available. Folks milled about and shared how good it was to have me back, while I responded how good it was to be back with them. One beloved church member exclaimed, “You don’t look any different!” This member, her husband, and I joked a bit about her statement for a few minutes. My clothes still fit. I didn’t get any tattoos or piercings (not that I’m adverse to either, just not my style) while on sabbatical. I donned my clergy collar, per usual Sunday morning attire, along with a favorite suit. My hair style was trimmed up nicely, regardless of how much a seminary friend likes to tease me about getting a real haircut.
This parishioner was correct. I don’t particularly look any different. What is different is my heart, my spiritual and emotional posture and makeup. I regularly practice life-giving spiritual principles in many areas of my life; however, over the last few years of parish ministry I have not often practiced the same spiritual practices with my church leadership. Why? I’m not certain except to note that before sabbatical I became overly invested in all things “church.” I preached one thing, but I lived from a place of fear.
I served in my previous ministry setting for five and a half years, and while it was my decision to resign and to move to Cincinnati to be with my current parish, I made that decision knowing that my former parish and I simply were not a good fit. And, I do not write this with ill feelings toward the beautiful souls from my previous church. We had theological and leadership differences. I attended the General Convention of the Episcopal Church when the first openly gay bishop was affirmed and ratified as bishop. I voted in support of this bishop, and I would vote in support of him all over again today. Upon my return home to southern West Virginia from General Convention, it became quite clear that due to my vote I had lost the trust and the respect of several of the key leaders in that congregation. That period was a time of great pain and great growth for me. As I pulled out of that rectory driveway, though, my wife and children in my wife’s car and the dog in my car, I experienced a feeling of joy and wonder for my new beginning, but I also felt grief that life with my previous parish hadn’t turned out differently for me and for the parishioners.
I started in my current church, and I vowed to myself that it wouldn’t end up like life in West Virginia. I carried feelings of grief and sadness and a bit of shame into my ministry setting. As a result of all of those crazy (and human) emotions I carried too much responsibility as rector. I watched the life of the congregation very closely. I have been very cautious around any “hot button” topics, and all of that caution and worry left me emotionally tied up like a pretzel before sabbatical. During my sabbath I was given the space to remember that I am God’s beloved, that I did my best at the time for each place I’ve been, just as each parishioner has done the best they could do, too. I have embraced my imperfection, and I have chosen to let go of shame and worry. I no longer need to prove myself to anyone in any ministry setting.
And so, yes, I look about the same as before I departed for my sabbatical adventure, but my insides are different. I am trusting that God will provide whatever my church needs. I am leaving people-pleasing at the door. I am willing to refuse getting into any parish drama. All churches have some sort of drama, and mine isn’t immune, but rather than allowing myself to get into the middle of any of it, I am opting out, and it feels good. I know that my needs and my church’s needs are taken care of for today. I don’t know what tomorrow might bring because “tomorrow” isn’t here yet. I doubt that I will ever be a crusader for a movement, though, I’ll leave room for the possibility. Regardless, I can be clear today that God loves us all, including all LGBTQ. I can be clear that common sense gun reform needs to happen in this country immediately, or I might be shot in my church office before getting to hit “publish.” We need immigration reform, too. I don’t have the answers, but I know the scare tactics of our current administration aren’t the same Godly values I hold. What else? Ah yes, the #metoo movement and black lives matter. I’m against rape and any form of men in authority subjecting women to ungodly acts, and yes, all lives do matter, but until we all know and understand and treat one another with love and compassion, then black lives matters because of so much overt racism. Some who read this blog will think I’ve lost my mind, and that’s fine. Some will have lost respect for me, and that’s fine, too. Some will think I haven’t gone far enough. Yes, that’s fine with me, as well. Outsides and insides don’t always match up, but today the smile on my face reflects the smile on my heart and my heart’s contentment with who and how I am as a husband, father, and priest, so so much more.