A Simple Word

Committing to a new practice like going to the gym or eating healthier meals can focus us on specific actions that we’ll make a point to do again and again, and I agree that goals with that level of specificity can be valuable. However, choosing a word to describe the kind of year that we envision finding or that we hope to contribute to is a slightly different thing. There are stories of ancient people going out in search of wise women and men who’d made their homes in the desert. Because these desert dwellers had exchanged their complicated urban days for simpler lives, it was assume they’d drawn closer to the divine…

– excerpted from the article “A Simple Word”
in today’s Indianapolis Star. Read more here.

Step Back a Moment

Shaking it up, changing scenes, doing a new thing – it’s energizing. It can also be draining. Stepping away from normal routines is a form of disruption, after all, and disruptions often cause extra work. I tried doing some new things this summer, and it most certainly took extra work. Vacation time gave me a precious opportunity to travel.

On the one hand, it was a gift to be able to find new experiences in new places. On the other hand, I admit, it felt like a big challenge to get all my projects to places where they could do without me (or with less of me) for a while. Stepping away from things wasn’t easy, but I found that the energy it took to step away was a good investment.

Coming from a Christian tradition, I had the concept of Sabbath on my mind. Hebrew scriptures associate the Sabbath pause with disruption, and understandably so. Local economies had to bear the burden of losing an entire day’s worth of productivity. All the same, those scriptures emphasize the Sabbath pause as important, powerful, and even life-giving.

Not at all the same as getting in some vacation time, the concept of Sabbath encourages people to take on the sometimes-energizing, sometimes-draining, always-sacred act of stepping back from the work, habits, and assumptions that have shaped their days. Why? The book of Genesis describes a creator using the seventh day to pause and look at the creation that had emerged, calling it good. With that in mind, pausing and looking at what we’re doing becomes something valuable for everyday people, too. Disruptive as it is, pausing to step away from our normal routine gives us opportunities to notice good things we might not otherwise notice.

Have you noticed anything good lately?

One thing I noticed during my own summer pause was enjoyment. It started on a rainy morning outing in Times Square that turned up tickets for a stage play starring Denzel Washington. I knew the man was a skilled and gifted actor, but I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to see him perform in person. It’s amazing to experience someone brilliantly enjoying what he does and helping the people around him enjoy it, too.

Since that day, I’ve been a little more aware of enjoyment: doing things with someone I enjoy, getting out and finding people who are enjoying what they’re doing, finding new things I enjoy. There are all sorts of variations on enjoyment. The key, and the thing I don’t always make time to do, is noticing it. That’s where pausing and stepping away came in.

Stepping away from normal routine gives us time to glimpse new experiences and perspectives. It can help us downshift into reflective mode and work through problems better. It can help us notice possibilities that we hadn’t even imagined. I found that stepping away this summer, however draining it was to make that possible, refreshed deeply me in other ways.

So I wonder: what kind of pauses will your schedule hold?

– excerpted from “Step back a moment and be aware of joy that is all around you,” originally published in the Indianapolis Star (August 12, 2018)

All Those Who Wander: the Spiritual Practice of Walking

I could have driven to the coffee shop. I’d have stayed warmer and drier. But, that wasn’t the point. The point was that it was time for a walk. So, inside heavy wool coat, hat, scarf and mittens, I set out on foot into the swirl of damp snowflakes. They stuck everywhere: on my nose, on the backs of geese in the river, on bare branches hanging over my path. There I was, in the middle of something gorgeous that I could never have planned.

For me, this habit of venturing out on a daily walk feels like anything but one more thing on the to-do list. Sometimes, it feels like an adventure as snow, wind or rain call me out to play. Sometimes, it feels like a visceral kind of letting go as car, cell phone, calendar, email and projects remain behind. Invariably, it feels like something precious to receive this time each day that is both open with nothing and open for everything. It feels like a gift.

Wandering along a city sidewalk one day, I stumbled onto the filming of a brand new television series, a mystery. A small crowd of people, paid “extras,” lingered outside storefronts and watched (so I was told) for the famous actor-turned-director who was rumored to be in the tent down the street. So, I wandered down the street, wondering why I hadn’t heard about any of this. At the far end of the shopping area, having seen no one famous along the way, I surprised myself by not veering left into a quieter, more relaxing stretch of neighborhood. Instead, I retraced my steps, letting my thoughts flow back into this mystery-in-the-making that I had found my way to.

What kind of character would I be? I wondered as I walked back past tent and vans and unloaded equipment. What if some nearby camera were capturing random street footage even now and caught me, right here? (I suspected that wasn’t likely how filming worked, but since when does likelihood limit imagination?) Sunday evening television viewers months from now would sit down to watch a new mystery series and might just see me strolling up the sidewalk, at this very moment, in the background.

Who would they see? Would they peg me for a local office worker on break? What about a college professor? A martial arts instructor? A member of the clergy? A barista or journalist or high school teacher? I’d dreamed of being all of these people at one time or another in my life, and I’d even become a few of them. As I mused over how many of these dreams might still linger in my pace and outerwear even now, I felt surprised at the memories welling up inside of me. It was as if I returned that afternoon chatting with a crowd of friends, these long-lost companions who were parts of myself that I had not paused to catch up with for a long, long time. Isn’t it amazing what we can discover inside of ourselves sometimes? It’s almost as various (and amazing) as what we can discover outside of ourselves.

I am neither Christian monastic nor Buddhist practitioner, but I read of the religious practicing meditation and mindfulness, silence and simplicity, poverty and prayer, and I suspect that this walking does something similar with me. Calling me to pay a different kind of attention to life around me, this walking habit surely becomes every bit as much a spiritual practice of vital inner work.

Far from deprivation or cruel discipline, spiritual practices can actually sensitize us, allowing time for pieces of life to mingle and steep without hurry, creating space for whatever has been whispering to us quietly, nourishing dreams inside us that have begun craving the chance to be dreamed. Especially in the rush and press of contemporary life, we human beings need “free” space. Call it prayer, call it Sabbath, call it walking or biking or even simply sitting down for dinner – we need space for that inner work which lets us relish the life within and around us, receiving the gift of an ongoing creation in which we find ourselves again, and again, and again.

Wandering a rail trail not long ago, I met a man from Egypt. He was returning from the grocery as I was returning from a walk, and we fell in step together. A young man with dark, playful eyes, he talked enthusiastically. We spoke of work and the city, of where we were from and where we were going. Since we turned out to be almost neighbors, I was not surprised when a few days later I passed him again as he cooked over a grill with other neighbors. They waved me over. The smell of spices and warmth of welcome were more than I could resist. I stopped, sitting with them under the trees and eating savory roasted potatoes, laughing and noticing yet again how it felt to receive and relish something I could never have planned.

originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Branches magazine (vol. 28, no. 6), p. 7.

Sabbatical As Renewal Is An Invitation To Imagination

People of faith across generations have persisted in spiritual practices they believed would sustain and bless life over the long haul. Like prayer, like community, like Sabbath and sabbatical, some practices spread through a person’s soul or a community’s life and, in one way or another, bless us profoundly for the long-haul.

In the case of pastoral ministry, regular renewal and sabbatical times are opportunities to receive sustenance for the long-haul. Renewal leaves help leaders with uniquely demanding schedules carve out time to renew their resources for that ministry. These leaves express a community’s commitment to faithfully structure itself in ways that will sustain life for all its members. While not all businesses and institutions in our culture prioritize sustaining and blessing structures, the church has prophetic opportunity to embrace exactly this sort of blessing process, for its leaders and for itself.

Another way to think about this is around pastoral passion: at some point in a pastor’s discernment regarding call to ministry, she was able to tap into a wellspring of joy around the calling – however inchoate at the time – that led (in most cases) to her taking on the challenges of eschewing a more financially lucrative career, obtaining theological training and ecclesial vetting, and forming herself as an emerging pastor. Sabbaticals are times to re-tap into that vein of connection with God and with God’s people so that joy in the calling might reenergize the work of the calling.

If a pastor were to walk into her office after a few months away feeling energized and refreshed for ministry, ready to step back with vigor into her pastoral duties, then what might she have been doing for those months prior? The answer, of course, varies radically among pastors, and that is a good thing. Renewal leaves should be designed so that an individual pastor in all her individuality can live into the joys of her particular avocationas, spiritual disciplines, relationships, and so on in ways that will be vitalizing beyond what any one-size-fits-all program can hope to achieve. The same holds true for congregational activities undertaken during the pastor’s leave period . . .

Sacred Habits & Me

Sabbath itself challenges many cultural contexts, ancient as well as contemporary. Whether it’s a Sabbath day after six days of labor or a Sabbath year after six years, the concept pushes us to expect, both for ourselves and for our neighbors, periods of time when we will not necessarily expect the production of tangible results. Practicing Sabbath provides a divinely-sanctioned opportunity to value the lives of entire communities based on grounds other than productivity and usefulness for work. However, somewhat paradoxically, precisely this “stepping away” from day-to-day productivity can be the catalyst for greater excellence in a congregation and a pastor’s ministry.

– excerpted from “The Practice of Sabbatical as Renewal,” a chapter co-authored with Robert Saler, in Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy (Intersections: Theology and the Church in a World Come of Age) Paperback – September 21, 2016, by Rev. Chad R Abbott (Author, Introduction), Rev. Carol Howard Merritt (Foreword). 187-203.

Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy is now available on Amazon.