Sharon’s Sabbatical Reflections August 17th, 2014
Today I was able to attend worship at First United Church. It is in downtown Kelowna and one of only two United Churches in this city of 120,000. I arrived about thirty seconds before 10 am and took my place in the second pew from the back. I will admit that my worship experience was filtered through my reading of Barbara Brown Taylor’s, Leaving Church. She had made the comment that one’s perspective in worship is turned on its ear: instead of looking at faces you suddenly find yourself gazing at a sea of the backs of people’s heads. Her preoccupation was with the state of worshiper’s hair suggesting that even people who fuss with the front of their hair will completely ignore the mess on the back of their head! I felt more than a bit guilty noting the men who had clearly removed their ball caps prior to entering church leaving that telltale ridge in their hair.
As a church that gets many visitors, they invite guests to stand and introduce themselves. When it came to my turn I said; “I’m Sharon Wilson from Winnipeg”. I could just as easily said I was Sadie Smith from North Battleford. No-one knew who I was…..and probably didn’t really care. I was just another stranger in the pew in a church that gets lots of them year round. Being annonymous in worship is different for me yet not necessarily bad. I found myself checking the place out for great ideas to steal—I mean bring back to the WPUC board to consider. Then I found myself shifting gears. I was listening, waiting, opening myself up to what was being offered. A licenced lay preacher, originally from Winnipeg and a retired health care administrator delivered an excellent sermon on Matthew 15: 21-28. She talked about how Jesus initially, along with his disciples, tried to shoo away the woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter. She was a Canaanite, a foreigner, and undeserving of the prophet’s attention but she persisted. She used her wits and her wisdom and she did not back down. Westminster UC and the Winnipeg Roller Rink came up in the sermon so I felt right at home.
This luxury to sit back and worship reminded me of a time more than twenty years ago. I was serving two rural churches, raising two small children and commuting to Minneapolis to complete a doctoral degree. It was a recipe for stress if not complete disaster. The program at school put great importance on fostering our group of students as a community both academically and spiritually. This is where I encountered a prayer list for the first time. When my home was destroyed in a fire I experienced a wave of hope and grace when told I was being prayed for. Soon after this it struck me that for more than a decade I had been presiding at communion. I lead the congregation in those great prayers of thanksgiving and trust. I offered the unlimited assurance of God’s grace in Christ and blessed the bits of bread and tiny cups of grape juice before handing them to those whom I knew and cared for….whose stories I held tight…whose trust I had earned patiently. But I realized I was hungering to listen, not to speak, to receive, not to give, to be reassured not to bless. Soon after I was with my friend, Bob the Monk, at St. John’s Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota. I asked him to give me the sacrament of communion because I was hungering for it in a way that my explanation was wholly inadequate. Our time in the tiny chapel was a spiritual blessing in which I felt the hungering fed, the emptiness filled, my flagging energy restored.
Lest anyone read this and imagine this is a complaint about the vocation of ministry, and my ministry in particular, it is not. One of the greatest opportunities that arise during a sabbatical is to “Be still and know that I am God”. I don’t get much ‘still’ time normally. My days are fairly tightly planned, often months in advance. I am at the ready with the ring of the phone or a knock on my door to answer to the needs of another. All of this is fulfilling and gratifying. But here I am, without a schedule beyond a pesky dog who would like nothing better than another walk. I am learning to be still and in the stillness to be quiet and listen. The voice of God is the voice of the soul. It is the deep yearning to see and know more completely. It is the blessing of wisdom that says that is is okay to receive for a little while.
This is what I hope those of you in the church are able to discover in the worship, studies, mission projects and all the other stuff that makes us a family of faith—and an active one indeed. I sincerely want for each of you to have your soul touched by the words spoken, a song sung, a tiny piece of bread eaten. I believe that God’s abundant grace in Christ is there to complete us and heal us and get us charged up to live our lives with confidence, no matter what we face. I believe grace gives us a clearer vision of who we are and who we are becoming. I know that faith bequeaths us a legacy of values that really do make a difference when we apply them to our everyday lives outside the church.
Stillness, listening, receiving. This is what my sabbatical is all about.