Sabbatical Reflections: The Questions and the Bread
Two weeks ago, I got to hear some of what sabbatical was for you. Today I want to share with you some of what sabbatical was for me.
Sabbath and sabbatical, is time stepping outside of working for the “food that perishes,” and instead deliberately seeking the “food that endures for eternal life.” - which is tricky since this food you can’t work for; this food can only be received.
Receiving this eternal food, this life-giving, thirst-quenching, hunger-satisfying food is not something we can work at; it’s not something we can do. The most we can do is pay attention. And maybe stop long enough to notice that the God who came down from heaven and gives life to the world is right here in life alongside us.
I am the bread of life, Jesus said.
How can we receive you, Jesus?
You all lived in questions this season. Questions that guided your reflection and gave you a lens to watch your life for signs of God’s presence.
As it so happens, two questions turned out to be significant for me over this sabbatical. They had been important for my children, first.
Last year, when Maisy started kindergarten she was understandably nervous and afraid. I told her before she went to school the first day that God would have a surprise for her, and she needed to watch for it. At the end of the day I would ask her what that surprise was. And then I prayed, Please God, give her a surprise today. (Don’t leave me hanging here!)
That first day she came home with a paper frog on her head and a huge smile on her face and she said, Mommy you were right! I did have a surprise! And she proceeded to regale me with tales of some new friend, a special art project, a moment of bravery, an unexpected treat.
Each day after that, as she came home with an answer to the question, How did God surprise you today? I began to grow more confident asking the question, and she never doubted she’d have an answer.
God really would meet her each day.
Could she and I practice noticing it?
The question became a staple for Maisy, and she began bringing it up unprompted, so that by the middle of the schoolyear it was her practice to bounce up to me after school with her backpack on and say, Mommy, guess what my surprise was today?
So this year, when school started a third of the way into my sabbatical, we revived the question for both kids.
And it was not always easy. Some days we’d really have to search for the surprise, hearing events of the day laid out in excruciating detail before one of us would eventually say, Aha! There it is!, Other days there were so many moments of unexpected grace it was not possible to name just one or two.
After a few days, adjusting to new classrooms, missing friends, remembering times when we saw someone lonely or teased, feeling lonely or worried ourselves, another question joined the first, and it was, “Who did God bring across your path that needed kindness today?”
And so every school day ended with, How did God surprise you today? And who did God show you needed kindness today?
Asking these two questions assumes that God is living and active in our lives already, and our job is to pay attention. It also assumes that God is inviting us to be part of what God is doing in the world, and our job is to pay attention.
This second question, we found, is a little harder to answer. Who today needed kindness and love? This kind of paying attention means looking beyond yourself, and it’s sometimes uncomfortable.
Sometimes we’d look back and we did in fact show kindness – we recognized the person in the moment and we responded – listened to God’s prompting and in courage, reached out somehow beyond ourselves to meet them right then.
Other times, more often, perhaps, we’d see them after the fact and realize we didn’t notice them at the time, or didn’t let it sink in, or held back from responding for whatever reason.
Sometimes we’d realize later that someone we had already shared a conversation with, laughed with, sat with, or walked home next to may have been that person, and without even trying to, we had shared kindness or love and been part of what God was doing.
And once or twice, we saw ways that one of us was that person and someone saw us and shared our place, and showed us kindness and love.
I was sharing these experiences with my spiritual director- whom I saw every other week throughout my sabbatical. I told her how meaningful it was to help my kids think through their days, to watch them pay attention. To see them see Jesus.
I had also just spent a half hour joyfully sharing experiences of spontaneous conversations, moments of giving, how available I felt to people and how open I felt to my life’s bumping up against others.
She smiled at me and said, “I wonder what it would be like for you if you asked yourself the same questions you ask your children each day?”
When she said that my mind was flooded with images of how those two questions had lived in me over the past several weeks, and nearly every day – even without deliberately asking them – I had standout experiences of being surprised by God in little ways, and coming face to face with people to whom I could show kindness and love, (which were often the same moments).
Rejoice, again I say rejoice!
The Lord is near.
You are the bread of life, Jesus.
You are there, feeding us in all times and places.
Do we notice?
Here’s the thing about Sabbath and sabbatical – it’s not a long term plan, a permanent state. It’s a step outside the regular pattern on purpose. What I mean is, we don’t live in Sabbath time in order to always live in Sabbath time. We live in Sabbath time so that we might notice. So that we have had some practice tasting, hearing, seeing, noticing, undistracted by work and all the things we do that give us value and make us feel good about ourselves and fill our minutes with stuff and our space with busyness and our minds with worry.
We try it out in stripped-down mode, a low tech, acoustic version of life for a short time so that we can get familiar with the tune, familiar enough that in the long haul we can pick it up and hear it still, underneath the layers of relentless noise and constant feedback.
Sabbath and sabbatical remind us that God is with us. They remind us that life is a gift. By saying a great big strong NO to lots of things for one day, or three months, or two intentional hours, we begin to see that we can say no to more things and still be ok, maybe be more ok.
Sabbath and sabbatical teach us to rejoice because they help us recognize how much there is to rejoice about when we’re not rushing past it all. They teach us to bring everything, in both pleading and gratitude, to God, because they show us that God is already there in it with us. The bread of life, giving life to the world.
How did God surprise you today? Who today needs kindness and love?
So here are some of my answers. On my sabbatical, here are just a few of the times I felt God surprise me – which is to say, times I noticed:
- - Sitting across from third graders, one at a time, once a week, on a short chair with my knees in the air, in the school library, listening to them tell me in their own words all about a book they’d just finished reading.
- - Walking home from dropping my kids off at school and chatting with a mom I know a little bit, in a conversation that turned real and bumped up against grief and loss, and being able to say, Do you want to get a cup of coffee? and spending the next two hours listening and sharing and crying and talking without anywhere else to be but completely and fully there.
- - Moving clay beneath my hands silently, my body focused and mind relaxed, listening to others talk around me like water washing over me, feeling hidden and incognito and lost in the rhythm of the work with no agenda for mastery or completion.
- - Inviting some tired and busy moms over for lunch, setting a beautiful table in the sunshine with nice dishes and a tea and cookie pairing for dessert, and watching them settle in and laugh till their sides ached and stay two and a half hours longer than they had meant to.
- - Walking out on sand flats where the tide receded from the rocky shores of an island in the Puget sound, hunting for shells with a plastic bucket in one hand and my daughter’s hand in the other, sprayed by clams and smelling saltwater and eventually being nudged back to shore by the returning water creeping up around us and filling in our footprints
- - coming home from a day of site seeing to a night of good food and good wine with friends who normally live a continent away but for this one week are right here under our own roof
- - holding my baby nephew and watching his eyes droop closed and his body relax as he falls asleep in my arms
- - Starting a time warp of a day wandering the house with a cup of coffee and pulling out our old, falling apart wedding album from its box onto the floor next to the replacement album never filled, and hours later standing, stiff and achy, and throwing on a sweatshirt and hat for a joy-filled dog walk that came upon the children leaving school, and ended with all of us strolling home together to sit down and see the story of mom and dad’s wedding day – maybe for the first time – all without ever really officially changing out of my pajamas
- - Creeping up on a napping buffalo on a hillside in Yellowstone Park
- - Peering down from a snowy mountain peak off the Beartooth highway at a shimmering winding river far below,
- - Looking over at my husband’s face as he sings along with the radio and we’ve got nothing but road ahead and road behind and vast emptiness all around.
- - reading with my son
- - drawing with my daughter
- - crying with my sister
- - laughing with my mother
- - Listening to music – on purpose, not just in the background.
- - Falling asleep with a soft, snoring puppy nuzzled against me.
It’s not that these things are out of the ordinary, though I suppose in one way many of them become out of the ordinary for many of us, because these kinds of things require surrendering to time, instead of fighting with it. They are sabbatical/Sabbath gifts – received when we’re willing to slow down and accept them.
But it’s not that the surprises from God in my sabbatical days were anything extraordinary. It’s simply that I noticed them.
I looked at them and gratitude caught in my throat. I felt the grace of them.
One of my favorite things Frederick Buechner ever said is, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."
(From Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)
He’s talking about filling up on the bread of life.
Sitting down to the banquet of it all and unabashedly eating, unselfconscious and unconcerned with whether you belong there, or where else you need to be at the moment, or if it’s ok to ask for seconds. Just enjoying. Tasting each bite. Feeling the thank you well up in your eyes. Bumping shoulders with the person next to you and sensing yourself a part of it all.
Thank you for my sabbatical.
Thank you for the chance to practice living in the questions.
Thank you for the extended time to tune back in to the grace so I can better listen for it every day.
Thank you for sharing Sabbath and sabbatical with each other, so that together we can continue to ask,
When this week did you taste the bread of life?
Where did you see Jesus?
How will God surprise you today?
And who today needs kindness and love?
May we pay attention. May we notice and receive.