When I set out to take a sabbatical there were two reasons. The first was a lot of what Walker Percy wrote about: there was a moment where I fell through the ventilation shaft and landed in green house with a mentally ill woman who helped me get my strength back. Except it wasn’t a woman it was a elderly physician with a peculiar need to laugh out loud who took me to Africa and enjoyed watching my world get turned upside down. Having slept with Fred Stone for three weeks, beginning each day by seeing him and wondering if he was still breathing I think I might have preferred . . . well, let’s leave that one alone. But the effect was the same.
My world was shaken, the fantasies I nurtured where contradicted; the life I had crafted was being stripped by one village full of suffering people after another. Having returned to this again and again my ability to use the old definitions were slipping away, what Eliot called the old dispensations were no longer satisfying. Mostly though I was being grounded. When I shared that with Kathy it became transparent that if such change were to happen, we would need to see it together. The life I had crafted had a few aspects were she was shall we say a part. So the sabbatical is intended to be a moment where we try to make sense of the world where there are giants afoot.
Yet, the bigger theme, and bigger question is one of abiding. As I shared with you before I had come to believe that abiding meant staying put, digging in, remaining in a place for the long haul. The quiet intent was to use the sabbatical to explore a theme that would let me stay in a church more than five years- or to simply stay anywhere more than five years. My intent was to reflect upon the charge of Jesus to abide as a means of finding the secrets of staying put. Much to my chagrin all the exegesis I have done suggests that abiding has nothing to do with digging in or staying put, but everything to do with being faithful in the midst of change, being true, finding peace in a fluid world.
Don Klug spoke the truth to me the other day and I didn’t want to hear it. A good elder does this for pastors. They do other things as well, but what he said was: this is a different church from when you came. What I didn’t want to hear is that I had changed it. I am still a bit nervous about that. I want to say that the church changes and grows, is pruned or made other by the power of God, not me. But that is a lot of the fear of the promise land. What if the fears of the Israelites was not that it was going to be hard, but that they would be the ones to mess it up, make the promise land less than promising?
This is the great thing about living a life in your head, letting your ideals percolate and rumble about for decades. They are free and safe from reality, from, well, real life. Abiding it seems has a lot to say to this when we realize that Jesus is calling his disciples to abide in him the day before he is crucified, the day before he dies, he tells his disciples to live in him. Abiding is not so much a safe zone. Jesus says abide in me and then twenty four hours later he is being crucified; that’s a hard thing to abide.
Deep within the notion of abiding there seems to be a kind of grounding that is more than simply sticking around or staying put. I am growing to believe that what Kierkegaard called being transparently grounded in God is what it means to abide. But what do we do with a God who is so terribly earthy, so broken, so fragile? It’s great to abide in Jesus if he is some kind of transcendent ideal that doesn’t change and holds the key to all the promises of life. He makes all the promises as he is being crucified.
My hope is that 10 weeks in Africa with my family will shed some light on this. People in Malawi are quite often abiding in as much joy as they are suffering. I am still not sure how that can be.
Today marks the culmination of more than a year of preparation to see and ask these questions. I know I go with your blessings and your prayers. And for this I thank you.
Two weeks ago we took all our children and their special friends out to lunch. After the food had come and gone and the check arrived and was satisfied, our youngest, Dave, turned to me and slapped his legs and said, “so, are we good to go here?” I smiled and looked at him and said, “yes, we are good to go.” Amen.