Many thanks for the opportunity to take this month as part of my sabbatical. I am looking forward to spending three weeks in San Anselmo at San Francisco Theological Seminary with a cohort of other students working on a Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction. This on-site experience will be repeated the next two Januarys, so I am spreading my sabbatical out rather than taking three months in a row. I believe this will be beneficial for our congregation as well as for me as your pastor. It is good to be able to leave our congregation in the capable hands of Pastor Tripp, Oleta, Jan, Carolyn and the Council while I am gone. We are blessed with capable leadership across the board.
Though I will not generally be available during the month, I will not be so far away that I cannot respond to an emergency. It is my hope that in learning the art of spiritual direction, I will not only deepen my own spiritual life but also discover ways of deepening the spiritual life of our congregation and in the wider community around us. We hear over and over these days the claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For some I know they have turned their backs on organized religion, including the church, because they have been ignored, wounded, abused in those traditional settings. Others have found nothing relevant to their lives in hide-bound, musty tradition. Still others have experienced the church as a place where their wonderment has been extinguished and their questions not welcomed. Especially on the West Coast, in communities like ours, the competition for time and energy among vast opportunities for both work and play has left the church far behind, struggling just to “tread water.”
It seems the very existence of the institutional church as we know it is threatened. The peak days of church life from the 1950s and 60s, which shaped for most of us who hang on what we understand to be church life, are long gone and are unlikely to return. We are faced with the dilemma of trying to hold on to the church we love while wondering why younger folk (who do not share our experiences) don’t want to help us keep our enterprise going. Everybody has ideas about defining the problem and what to do about it but nobody has a patented solution. There are, of course, churches that use the slickest tools of modern culture to lure people in and keep them entertained, hopefully long enough to capture their commitment to keeping the organization going. But in a time of sound bites and information overload, it’s much easier to move on to the next fascinating thing than to commit to something for the long run.
From all the material that I have read and studied over the last several years, it seems to me that the pattern that has the most value in church life is among those congregations and communities who have focused on their growth in the Spirit. I am not sure that everyone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious” is really interested in the Spirit’s movement in this world. That movement can be as challenging as it is comforting. It can invoke awe as well as make us feel good and warm inside. I am concerned that much of what passes for spirituality is “spirituality lite” not the Spirit that transforms life and threatens to turn the world right side up. And as Pastor Tripp and others have pointed out, there is no reason to assume that those who list themselves as “nones” (having no church or religious affiliation in their lives) have any interest in being lured into any church, regardless of how hip its programming might be.
Still, a witness to the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in the life of our congregation might make a difference for those in our communities, in our families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances who are hungry for something spiritually relevant and deep. I don’t know exactly what that witness will look like for me and for us, but I am hopeful that in this time of Sabbath study I might find some insight and tools that will be beneficial to all of us in our witness to the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our service of the reign of God on earth.
I believe with all my heart that our Christian faith has good news to bring to a world desperately in need of this very good news. This is the struggle that I feel daily as a minister of the gospel – how do we share this good news in ways that can be heard, understood, embraced? Though many of us love the church as we have known it, sharing the good news is not, cannot be, dependent on any particular institution or skill set. Finding ways to share what we have found in our faith, what we have encountered in the living Christ, what we know of God, what we experience in the movement of the
Spirit is still a high calling. I look forward to sharing with you as we respond to this call.
Blessings on us all,