Sabbatical Adventure Begins! | Blog #1

Sabbatical Adventure Begins! | Blog #1

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Sabbatical Adventure Begins…

Well, the adventure of the sabbatical begins. It’s 3:00am Budapest time and I’m up after a solid but short sleep. The glories of Easter with a full church after two years of Pandemic distance was a joy I’ll not long forget. Then a wonderful Easter lunch with Amy’s sister, Jennifer, and her son and daughter-in-law, Andrew and Sara Haag at their lovely East Nashville home with Ben and Leah both home just made the day all the more joyous. 

There’s an old (and not too apocryphal) joke about Easter Monday – that the stone that rolled away from the tomb rolled onto pastors.  It can feel that way sometime. Mercifully the church is closed, which allowed me to go into my office and clean it out and pack up all that I need to take with me for the sabbatical. For those who know my office – and especially my desk – this photo is astounding. Talk about Hercules’ task of cleaning out the Augean Stables! But with it done, and books packed, I got home ready to pack the suitcase with a feeling of accomplishment.

A word of gratitude goes to my buddy Bill Carter. It is he who encouraged me to blog the sabbatical as a way to process my experience of seeing God’s work along the way – both in me and in the world. Of course I’ve never written a blog before, but two work colleagues – Joel Rayburn and Alec Koukol – (who are tech gurus and partners in gastronomic exploration), assured me that if I sent photos and emailed reflections, they’d put it together and get it up. This feels a little like Orville and Wilber trying to get a contraption of wood and wire off the ground and call it an airplane, but I trust them. Still, if Joel inserts a photo of Sasquatch, know he’s messin’ with us!

Back to Bill Carter. Since my reflections along the way are going to be around friendship as sacrament, it might be nice to start there. I met Bill my first day at Princeton Theological Seminary in early September 1982. Looking back, it seems like the earth’s crust was just cooling! Lordy that was a long time ago. We met in the tiny elevator in Alexander Hall – the Seminary’s oldest building – rode up together and discovered our first-year dorm rooms were next to each other on 2nd floor. What is significant about “2nd Alex” is half-way down the hall was “The Oratory” – what was the first classroom in the oldest building on campus. There was, for me, always a sense of history and a palpable feel of the “great cloud of witnesses” who had gone from those room to do kingdom work in the world. Bill and I spent the first two, formative years, growing together as we tested out theology, mastered (or not!) Greek and Hebrew, learned how to do exegesis and preach, discovered what Richard Foster has called “the streams of living water” of church history and the spiritual life, and grew in our sense of calling into ministry and the vocation of becoming pastors. But most of all we became friends in Christ. Over the intervening 40 years (sounds like wandering in the desert, doesn’t it!) nothing of significance has happened in the other’s life that we weren’t part of. It has been a gift.

Bill is good at gifts. Just before my sabbatical two came in the mail. The first was a package of Welsh Cakes. Now for most of you, that means nothing. But for me, Welsh Cakes are a touchstone to something foundational and nourishing. Think “Rosebud” in Orson Wells’ classic movie, Citizen Kane. [I just read, “Rosebud is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love, which Kane never lost.”] Welsh Cakes are a small, round cookie that are made from the simplest of ingredients: a little flour, some caster sugar, mixed spice, baking powder, butter and lard, currents, an egg, and a splash of milk. Easy, right? Nothing special at all. But to have a good one takes me back to the Gymanfa Ganus (Welsh hymn singing festivals – I’ll write more about these later) of my youth that were, in a very real sense, my earliest Christian catechism and the place where faith was born, and my love of worship took hold. After singing for a couple of hours, we’d have a break for some good, hot tea at the Te Bach (literally “small tea” in Welsh) where you would be fortified by Bara brith (which, if you are a fan of The Great British Bake Off, most of the Welsh contestants make during “bread week”) and the ever-present Welsh Cakes. There are few things in this world that compare to the pleasure of dipping a Welsh Cake into a steaming cup of tea and snarfing it down. But what makes it so special is it puts me in touch with my 8- or 9-year-old self, standing with my Pop at the Te Bach. Having just had the nascent spark of faith fanned with the enthusiastic encouragement of the song leader who interpreted the words that we were singing – equal parts musical instruction and emotional, evangelistic preaching – and hearing Pop talk with old friends who knew my Taid and Nain, both of whom died before I was born. In other words, sometimes a Welsh Cake is more than a Welsh Cake. Bill knows that.

The other gift Bill sent for the sabbatical was a copy of Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God formed by the Words of God by Eugene Peterson. It is a collection of Peterson’s sermons and, simply put, it is a treasure. Bill sent it with the suggestion it be a traveling companion and conversation partner for us during my sabbatical as we covenant to read it together. It is already paying dividends. Early on there is this:

The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence – congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written…congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh. (p. xviii)

Well, that’s a fine place to start: congruence. Ours is an incarnational theology. God became human in Jesus of Nazareth and shows us how to live. And part of that great lesson is how to be a friend and embody God’s grace to another.

One of the other things I want to do in this blog is to keep track of where I saw God along the way. Over the years I’ve had the great, good, pleasure of teaching the Companions in Christ small group curriculum that has allowed for many to grow more deeply in their relationship with God and with others in their small group. Part of the reason (beyond the Spirit’s gift) is the weekly attention to the question, “Where did you see God in your week.” Over time, asking this question and sitting to hear the responses, listening to my own life and watching for God’s work, became a true gift.

Yesterday was, as you can imagine, a long day of sleepless travel. Nashville to Dulles (and a sprint to catch the flight – we were the second to last folks on the plane), then on to Vienna, change planes for a short hop to Budapest. All the connections were made, Viking representatives greeted us as we arrived, ushered us into ground transportation and we checked in on the ship complete with a COVID test. After lunch outside in the sun with the Danube flowing around us, we took time to explore on our own. The first stop was the Dohany Street Synagogue, the second largest in the world. That it survived the Holocaust and bears witness to that evil is a witness to God’s people. We were moved to be there to bear witness and remember, even as war rages and war crimes are perpetrated in Ukraine, not so far from here. Then a quick cab to the Gellert Baths a relaxing and regenerating dip in 104 degree water to soothe the sore back and tired muscles. All-in-all a terrific first day and a gift to share it with Amy.

In addition to Kingfishers I’ll be reading Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life and Friendship as Sacrament as traveling companions. This entry is longer than I’d expected and wanted. It may be too long as a blog post, but it works as a journal. God’s grace be with you this day.