Slivers of Sabbath

I have just finished the first week of my sabbatical, which means that I have 51 more weeks left of this marvellous opportunity. This seems like a passage of time that will last forever, but I know from past experiences that this period flies by. So, I am working at being quite intentional about using it well.

I have had a number of people ask me about a sabbatical, and what it means for me in my work situation. I explain that for six years of work, one half year at full salary, or one full year at 80 % of salary is offered professors who make application. The concept of the sabbatical is biblically grounded in the notion of a day’s rest for seven days of work (Exodus 20:8-11). The word sabbatical itself comes from the Hebrew word for seven, or seventh and from there became associated with rest. But to reference the theme of rest alone is not quite adequate when it comes to describing the sabbath I am on.

The board of the institution where I work anticipates that my sabbath will be a time wherein I do some research to develop skills in service of teaching and to advance knowledge in my area of expertise. A sabbatical is not for laying on the beach for 52 weeks. I found some funding from an outside source that will support my research in considering how schools of theology might respond to the 60th call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which calls upon theological colleges – among other things – to prepare ministers of religion and practioners of spiritual care of the “need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right.” This is an important commendation that is more complicated than first appears, and so demands a careful accounting of what this might mean in the context of any given school, and the theology that shapes its mission. I will spend a good bit of my sabbatical looking at this, but that is not all I will do. Over the last six years, I have accrued a good bit of nearly completed papers etc. that warrant some editing time and such. Sabbatical will partly be a time for some catch-up.

But I also need to remind myself that the ancient practice of doing less for the sake of more is a spiritual discipline. Recharging the batteries is a necessary practice in becoming whom I need to be for students, my colleagues, our institution and my family. I need to practice rest. Of course, doing nothing is counter-cultural. We are all defined by our jobs, assessed for our productivity, and valued for our contributions. This, unfortunately, is too often parlayed into a way of being that is thoroughly dismissive of the need to take a break, to slow down, and to do nothing for the sake of those times that demand my all. This sabbatical needs to be a time for me to lean into the discipline of pausing so that I might encounter the holy anew.

My life, like most – I suspect – is shaped by chunks of time divided up into fractures of “busy” bordered by ten minutes here, and five minutes there: waiting for the program to load, or the cars to move, or the meeting to start. I hope that this sabbatical will train me to embrace these fractures of time as a gift for the intentional practice of sabbath: to use the traffic jam to think of the blessing my life has accrued; to use unexpected down time from the computer to look out the window and monitor the cardinal; to use the waiting time before a meeting to notice my colleagues around the meeting table, to give thanks to God for them, and to find a way back into that space of attending to the divine. It seems, then, that a sabbatical isn’t only about re-grouping but more about re-shaping. I do not know, then, where this will lead, but this is part of the challenge and joy of the next 51 weeks, and hopefully beyond.

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And then I breathe…

What am I to do with this
sharp this hard gift this lack
of time – edge of knife limning
me as I strain to discern
which pressing possibility
decidedly speaks
my name.

Some days, I
step back and ponder my
choices, my being chosen. I see me,
for a time, as a haggard, ragged man
– not always so aware
of my surroundings
as I wish
I were.

But then and now, robin
sings me awake his
head cocked his
fluttered wings wetting in bath and
I see my life, I see my eyes
and then I breathe…

En route and off

Last week we went to Ottawa to celebrate the convocation of my middle daughter, who has completed a degree in mechanical engineering. We were exceedingly glad to celebrate the day with her and her friends. This was most interesting in that we have heard stories about many of them, and met a few along the way. The convocation, of course, also gave us occasion to meet some of their proud parents. Afterward, my wife made the observation that the convocation ceremony was notable in that, aside from siblings and grandparents, the audience was in the range of our age. It is rare that we gather in mass with people from our generation, that is the end of the baby boomers.

I thought about that a bit on our trip home. We travelled from Ottawa via a more northernly route, camping one night at Canisbay Lake in Algonquin Park. Along the way, we stopped to grab some food for supper, and my wife suggested we buy some bread, cheese, and veggies for a picnic along the way. An hour or so later, we managed to find a pull-in station along the highway, where there were picnic tables alongside a lake. We had a leisurely lunch, enjoying the sights before we continued on our way. As we travelled, we chatted of our memories of doing this quite often as kids, and with our children when they were young. At one point, in Alberta where we lived at that time, road side camp shelters were quite common. These were not over-night camp sites, but spots where folk could stop for a bit of a rest along the way. People would often take a break, and allow kids to run. I distinctly recall their demise. A would be premier, promising more services for less taxes, promptly shut them down upon his election. It was a sad day in my then province. I do not know if they have been returned with a recent turn in government. We have been happy to find a few here in Ontario, but I do not know if the current state of affairs represents a decline, or not. I suspect , in part, that they are probably less used if even still in place. This is sad since they are a pre-eminently civilized diversion in the increased rat race of our travel habits, now complete with hands-free phones, food on the go, and road rage. I recall, as a child, travel as decidedly more leisurely. Perhaps these days can be resurrected. If so, it will take some of us with a little bit different memory of the past to call attention to a different way to be, which brings me to my first observation.

In a way, a convocation is a profoundly important inter-generational experience. It isn’t exactly a passing of batons, but there is something of that to this important event. As a new graduating class makes their way into the world, they will make and influence choices for good and for ill, just as have those who sit in the audience. It is given to both to work together, in both dreaming and recollection. The past is not pristine, but neither is it obsolescent and progress is not the purview of the future alone. Theology, amongst other disciplines, knows these treasured truths and forgets them to its peril. The path forward is sometimes behind us and the future might well be where we finally meet our past. Memories are the repository of dreams and the obverse obtains, and no place is as replete with memories as a convocation hall.

The convocation hall, in a way, is a great symbol as a meeting place of both past and future, of many generations. It is a location of being together, which is surely the condition for the possibility of true community. Perhaps this, in a way, is the most important commencement address. We are community in being together, across generations for the task of celebrating these achievements and perhaps we ought to make this being together a habit, so that we might learn from both past mistakes and successes as we dream a world whole and well.

Christus Insurrexit

“There is no rest that
can feign innocence – every
pause a cause
for alarm.”
 
And from the above,
Love looks upon
us crucifying ourselves
in this refusal to breathe; and
beckons us to recall that ours
is to ponder verbs
in the way of
peace.
 
Not so very far
from here rivers of
beauty flow, yet I often
pass them by – but yesterday
a child leapt into my arms and
we became a compass
oriented by joy and
laughter and play:
insurrection.

Pining for a Little Snow

I am hoping to change the background photograph on stillvoicing. I try to bring in a new image for each season, something I have shot recently. Often the photograph is from our neighbourhood, or an image from my walk home from work. I especially aim to reflect the season, which has been a bit vexing this year. Winter has been coming in fits and starts. There has been a bit of snow, but not enough has stuck around for long enough to get a decent photo. We have been slipping, too frequently, into that kind of weather one expects in March, my least favourite month. But during my walk to church this morning, the skies opened for a time, and down floated opulent feather like flakes. I was able to make out single snowflakes a few paces in front of me, and so in a strange sort of way, they drew attention to the space between them. For a time, I wasn’t walking down the street so much as through air punctuated with miniature clouds. It was nice to feel winter.

And even though the snow hasn’t consistently abetted my sense of the season, the sun has been of aid. We still have rather short days, although I am already able to note their gradual lengthening. All the same, it is dark enough after supper to light some candles around the house. I find this to be a ritual that reframes the evening, allowing it to proceed under that gentle illumination that speaks a particular kind of hope: soft, quiet, and calming. This, it seems to me, can be the gift of winter: an invitation to be away even while at home.

Last Friday, my wife and I went out for a movie, and upon returning our eldest and her friend popped by for coffee, wondering whether the power had been out earlier that evening in our part of town. We did not return to any flashing lights, so it seems that this was not the case. They reported that it went out where they were and it was dark long enough to break out the candles. They, too, noted something acutely beautiful about a time without power. A candled evening, rather like a snow day, unravels our overly calendared agendas; these forced sabbaticals settle our souls into the realization that we are not in charge.

In the midst of a course I co-taught with a Jewish scholar last semester, on the book of Exodus, we spoke about the Sabbath. While he referenced his regular observance of a day at rest, I relayed my utter failure. He noted that keeping Sabbath is difficult without communal support. It is hard work not to work without spiritual and cultural infrastructures. That struck me as true, and one of our students spoke of her commitment to 24 hours without home-work, etc. over the last few years, noting what I knew to be true: working less sometimes allows us to get more done. So Sabbath is something I have been working toward over the last little while. It is challenging – especially when deadlines loom and I am tempted to do just a little more – but every now and then the power’s failure shuts down computers, or the snow slows the commute, and I am reminded that I need to slow down, we all need to slow down: for the good of our bodies and souls, our planet, and simply to make some time for joy.

I am well aware that many people are quite happy with our relatively snow-free winter. Some would rather be rid of winter altogether, but I am reminded of how my parents and their generation used to speak of winter in terms that brought hibernation to mind. And while we cannot recreate their culture, which made possible something of a Sabbath season, perhaps there is another way into the best of that that mindset. It just might be that a weekly 24 hour break is a good start. Wish me luck.

Earth’s Unwinding

Friends, a poem from a year ago that seems fitting today.

This is the season of earth’s unwinding – finding
soil’s Sabbath.
You can hear terra firma
exhale
expire
exhausted, she
sleeps and with sleep
comes a dreaming –finally
ease frees earth’s form to reframe:
subliminal luminosity obtains.
The sun lays low and so
bestows on the earth – that I am –
a softer glow
a kind of light that sees shade
not as harbinger of dark dangerous design
but as foreshadows of my resolve:
I will stop. I will pray. I will stay distraction.
I will dare that dying
that is life, that is wealth, that is
repose, reward, renewal.
I will be late Autumn.
I will be November.