Last evening, a few dozen parishioners gathered at Trinity Church for the promised ‘Sabbatical Show and Tell”. They graciously endured the rector’s flawed slideshow (yup, I’ve got MUCH more to learn about Keynote and all things presentation software!). They respectfully listened to me prattle on about my various travels over the course of the ten weeks (July 15-September 30) I was absent from my regular duties at the parish. When I finished the presentation, they expressed appreciation for the event, even if they were uncomfortable for having sat on metal folding chairs for far too long. The gift of sabbatical is now, officially, “in the books”, but the gifts I received from the experience remain.
I have resolved to hold these gifts as sacred. I am committed NOT to knowingly or unknowingly stash them away under a pile of supposedly urgent activities so they are forgotten like a superfluous Christmas present from a distant relative. The gifts I received — in experiences, renewed relationships and lessons learned (and re-learned!) — are gifts for sharing. In the end, I think what will separate this sabbatical from just an extended vacation will have much to do with the ways in which I share these gifts with others during the months ahead.
Preachers spend lots of time “telling” people stuff. It’s part of our job. And people expect us to do such telling even when they disagree with us, or can’t understand us, or ignore us altogether. After all, we live in a world flooded with “telling” — advice, reports, studies, orders, directions, commentaries, editorials, articles and surveys abound. Plenty of people — family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, experts of various sorts, government officials — are vying for our limited attention spans in order to tell us something. Preachers are just one more group of people with lots to say, hoping to find an audience willing to listen them for a few minutes once a week.
I am a preacher. The task of doing such an audacious thing (St. Paul called it “foolishness”!) is part of my job. But, preaching is only part of my job. “Preacher” is one of many subcategories underneath the heading of “priest”.
The question I pondered for the entirety of sabbatical was, “What does it mean for a priest to exercise the ‘cure/care of souls’ in a 21st century context?” There wasn’t a day during the two and a half months I was out “sabbatical-ing” that I didn’t think about that question. I thought about it sitting on the rocky shores of southeast Ireland. I thought about it walking along the beaches of Lake Superior, North Carolina and Florida. I thought about it while walking the Way of the Cross on a hillside in Los Altos, California. I thought about it mile after mile as I biked through southern Wisconsin. I thought about it as I read book after book — whether I was reading on my back porch or in airports or in the library at Duke University. I talked about it with fellow priests, seminary professors, friends and anyone else who was willing to engage in even a brief conversation about this thing called “priesthood”.
I’m getting clearer on the question now, even if I don’t have a ten-point plan for becoming a more effective priest. The alluring temptation, of course, is that such a plan exists and can be found. The further temptation is to actually believe such a plan, if implemented, would solve the fuzziness of a vocation which, in the final analysis (using secular criteria of course!), is neither practical nor necessary.
We priests are, indeed unnecessary to the extent we believe our “telling”, in and of itself, has much meaning. Telling, it seems, only has an impact when the person doing the telling actually embodies her/his message. On plenty of occasions over the past nine years, I’ve been much better at giving a message than living the message in real time. It’s often much easier (and less time consuming!) to say something than to live something. Taking the time to embody Good News will only serve to make me less useful in a culture that demands productivity, accomplishment and measurable results. But how can I espouse to care for the souls of others when I don’t invest time caring for my own? How can I talk about love and community and vulnerability and healing and wholeness and not give some sort of evidence in my daily life that such things are truly important to me?
The sabbatical is done. I’ve been back “at work” for a full month. How am I giving witness to the gifts received? How am I a different priest than I was on July 14, 2011? I can’t yet answer these questions, either. I am, however, quite convinced (“convicted” even!) that my real work as a priest involves a lot more showing and a lot less telling.