Yesterday was my final day of sabbatical time: twelve long weeks set apart from (at least some of) my normal rhythms. I spent a good chunk of it in my basement. The parts I didn’t spend in my basement I spent in Alabama, North Carolina, and Israel-Palestine. I also visited my spiritual director three times, and her insights were (as always) helpful, inspired, compassionate, and kind.
I went into this sabbatical time with four written goals and one unwritten goal. The unwritten one was not to be so bound to my four written goals that I didn’t move where the Holy Spirit was leading me. The four written goals were:
- Integrate through personal writing much of the reading I’ve done about racism and white supremacy.
- Prepare myself for pilgrimage to the Holy Land and make the most out of that opportunity.
- Rest, rejuvenate, and step back to see the proverbial forest instead of the trees.
- Begin habituating a spiritual practice of silence and Christian meditation into my daily life.
Because of the unwritten goal, I am striving not to quantify “how well” I achieved the four written ones. Rather, here are a few observations about each one.
Personal Writing About Racism and White Supremacy
This was the most ambitious goal on my list because I had another list of about thirty topics that came up as I was reading book after book about these urgent issues. If I could write four essays a week during the weeks I wasn’t traveling I could write about all thirty!
Turns out writing about racism and white supremacy and how my own life contributes to the systemic nature of both is really, really hard. Systemic racism is systemic in that it affects our entire society in countless ways. But systems are made of people and the only way to change the system is to change the hearts and minds of the people in it. Policy fixes are great and totally necessary AND they must come hand in hand with personal/communal confrontations with these great sins in the lives of individuals and groups.
After writing my first two essays on these issues, I revised my estimate. If I could write one to two thoughtful and personally revealing essays during my writing weeks, that would be plenty because each one took a lot more time than, say, a standard sermon.
I am glad I wrote what I have written. I’m not sure the best venue to share the essays with you, but I will in some form some day. For now, I wrote the essays for me so I could begin the process of rooting out the infection of white supremacy within myself, uncover some of my internalized biases, and become a more willing participant in the struggle for justice and dignity for all people.
The trip to Alabama with local clergy was so very valuable to me because it gave me new language and new images to use in my personal examination and in my public witness. Thank you to all my clergy friends, new and old, whom I accompanied on the trip (and especially Claudia for organizing it).
The Holy Land Pilgrimage
At my last spiritual direction meeting, I spoke at length with my director about my time in Israel-Palestine. I can speak one-on-one about the experience, but I’m still not ready to put it down in written form here. For now, I’ll say the trip was a bundle of contradictions, and the overriding image that keeps entering my prayer is of Jesus in the modern day trying to travel from Bethany to Jerusalem and not being able to because of an ugly, twenty foot high, razor-wire topped wall.
Above all, the pilgrimage opened and expanded my perspective on many things – current political issues, as well as biblical/historical realities. I am planning a series of forums for the fall at St. Mark’s, and I will figure out how best to share them on this website.
When all was said and done, the best part of the pilgrimage was not the places I visited, but the people I visited them with. I count myself especially blessed to have formed a new friendship with my friend Erin.
Rest, Rejuvenation, and Renewed Perspective
I spent the first week of the sabbatical moving into my new rhythm by building the largest LEGO set of all time, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. I had so much fun doing that, I can’t even…
A bunch of people asked me how I could spend so much money on what is essentially a toy. Two reasons: first, Leah and I budget our income every single month, and part of that budget is some “fun” no-strings-attached money for each of us. I saved mine for eight months to buy the LEGO set. The funny thing is that if we weren’t budgeting there’s no way I would have ever “splurged” on something like the most expensive LEGO set ever. But because it wasn’t a splurge, but a long-term plan, it worked out well. Second, if the LEGO set came pre-assembled, I would not have purchased it. The act of building it over the course of the week allowed me the space to slow down, concentrate on something entirely different than normal, and physically build my way into a new rhythm. Come to my office in August, and the Falcon will be heavily featured among my other office decorations.
My parents invited me to their house for a week in May, and I’m so glad I went. They just retired and moved to a brand new house in North Carolina. The room above the garage is so peaceful, I could have stayed there forever. I actually wrote three long essays while I was there…and I watched a LOT of YouTube and Fresh Off the Boat.
This time of a different rhythm has also led me to some deep thinking and praying about how best to respond to God’s call on my life as both a pastor and a writer. I have no clarity around this right now, but the sabbatical time has bubbled it to the surface.
One thing that came out of this section of the sabbatical that I am excited to explore is a possible collaboration with a friend of mine on a podcast project that lives at the intersection of my nerdiness and my Christianity. I don’t have much more to say yet, but I look forward to exploring some ways to bring my faith and nerd culture together. That’s the reason I subjected myself to a binge watch of the entire run of Game of Thrones while Leah was in Texas with the kids. (I have many, many thoughts on GOT, and only about 35% of them are positive.)
Silence and Christian Meditation
A late addition to my sabbatical goals, the idea of building a silence practice came at the behest of a parishioner at St. Mark’s. I am so glad she pushed me to this because I am thinking that, out of everything that happened in these last 12 weeks, a practice of silence and Christian meditation will be the longest lasting effect (and also the one that is able to hold all the others together). I wrote at length about it last week. In fact, I meditated this morning right before I started writing this retrospective.
The goal now when I return to my “old” rhythm is to not fall back into all my old patterns, but to renew the rhythm with new practices and adaptations. The practice of silence will be one of them.
A Few Extra Items
Here are few other things that did not fit comfortably in the categories above.
When I take control of my church email back from Stacey, I will be separating my personal email from my church email. I have never done that before, but this time set apart has taught me how necessary it is.
Because I wasn’t working on Sunday mornings during my sabbatical, I took the opportunity to visit the worshiping communities of some of my friends in ministry, specifically All Souls UU in New London, Mystic Congregational Church in Mystic, and St. James Episcopal Church in New London. Thanks to Carolyn, Christa, and Ranjit for the warm welcomes. I also went to the Church of the Holy Comforter a few times. (That’s a joke I’ll let you figure out on your own.)
My grandmother Dorothy died a few days after I returned from Israel. She was “full of years” as the Bible says and died in the holy embrace of God and family. I thank God for her life and for her never-failing enthusiasm for my work and my writing. Thank you to everyone who offered your condolences. I feel so much love form many corners.
I worked with my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, to brainstorm, design, and launch his new website and business, WCT.coach. The website is still under development, but you can see a chunk of my design work on it now.
At the very end of my sabbatical time, I completed the edits for the third book in my series Shields of Sularil, which is basically a novelization of the long-running Dungeons and Dragons campaign I have been dungeon-mastering since 2015. Book Three is called True Sight, and you can find it on Amazon here (though I wouldn’t read it without reading books one and two: Torniel and The Jeweled City). Also on Amazon are my first two stand alone fantasy novels, The Storm Curtain and The Halfling Contagion. You can find information about all these books on the fantasy novels page here on the website.
People have asked me if the sabbatical time flew by. I can honestly say it didn’t. It took the amount of time it needed to, and now I am ready to return following my vacation. I thank the people of St. Mark’s for supporting me during my time set apart through their prayer and comments on my sabbatical notes. I thank Pastor Stacey Kohl for being an amazing curate who has spent the last three months “in charge” at St. Mark’s. I thank my family for their flexibility when I was traveling, and I am sorry I was gone so much. I thank God for all the blessings poured out during my travels, especially for keeping me from throwing up on the flight to Tel Aviv. And I thank Jesus for the example of a time set apart.
For easy access to all of my sabbatical notes, here are links to each of the first eleven weeks: