The Autumn Life
Marie West Johnson
As a young girl growing up in Olympia, it wasn't unusual to experience Indian Summers, those warm days that would linger into September and October. The autumns of my childhood hold precious memories—hot cocoa with marshmallows, harvest moons, migrating birds in the yard, my dad building a fire in the fireplace, hayrides at the Mima Mounds with the church youth group. Life was fairly simple then, at least that is how it seemed for this tomboy who much preferred a baseball mitt to a Barbie doll. And now Craig has taught me that Fall means FOOTBALL!
During those extended times of seasonal warm temperatures, you could usually find me perched high in the top of the large cherry tree that was in our backyard. My mom always complained that the cherries were "wormy", but I thought they were delicious as I sat high in the tree and ate till my stomach ached.
Memory Lane, Summer 2019 edition
I took a little trip with my mom and a friend recently. I was taking them for a visit they had arranged which didn’t quite turn out the way we had planned it. The visit didn’t happen. A sick day for the host. But what emerged was extraordinary. A trip up another mountain and down memory lane. A visit to old homes and haunts for my mom that I had heard about, but never seen. A homestead now flooded, not just with memories, but with the water of Riffe Lake. Locations and images to tether stories I’d long heard that existed only in the ether of my imagination. It was a truly rich, and unexpected day I will treasure.
It got me thinking that this is the way of this journey of ours anyway. Despite our plans—good ones, flawed ones (usually a bit of both)—the Spirit of life comes to us where we least expect it and summons us (thank you John Bell, GTG 726) to destinations we “don’t know” finding we will “never be the same.” Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai, Sarah, the parents of a sky-full of promise because they sat out on a journey with no assurances, no visible end. Let’s face it, in wilderness and in promised territory alike, Israel wanders. In Luke, Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, but then travels this circuitous journey that is anything but a straight line geographically, or existentially, most surprising of all through death to new life. I don’t know if we’ll ever get comfortable with this one.
June 27, 2013
What a gift you have given in this upcoming sabbatical! First of all, let me say thank you. Thanks to all of you for the endless ways that you have supported this opportunity for study, rest, and renewal for me, and for clarity of mission and strength for the future for the St. Andrew community. As you know, I’ll be away on sabbatical Monday, July 8th through Sunday, October 6th. I’ll use this time in a few interrelated ways. Near the beginning, we are taking the opportunity to travel in Europe. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our family as Claire makes her transition to college, and Peter to high school (Barb and I also celebrate our 25th anniversary in September!). The travel will support my research by getting me to the birthplace of Reformed theology in Scotland and Switzerland. The remainder of my sabbatical will be spent reading and writing in fulfillment of the Doctor of Ministry degree through San Francisco Theological Seminary, which I began in 2009.
I can imagine many of you have questions. When Session first discussed the possibility of a sabbatical in 2010, we produced a policy that includes a wonderful rationale that gets to its purpose. (You can find the full document on “Sabbatical Policy” – along with all our other policies and procedures – on the St. Andrew website in the “File Cabinet”. You can also find a link to the document here (– call the church office if you don’t have the password yet.). It reads in part like this:
Sabbatical Leave for pastors is a planned time of intensive enhancement for ministry and mission. Sabbatical Leave follows precedents in the academic community and among a growing number of private sector groups. This “extended time” is qualitatively different from “vacation’ or “days off.” It is an opportunity for the individual to strategically disengage from regular and normal tasks so that ministry and mission may be viewed from a new perspective because of a planned time of focus.
Sabbatical Leave is an extension of the Biblical concept of a Sabbath day and a Sabbath year for renewal. It is both an act of faith that God will sustain us through a period of reflection and changed activity and an occasion for recovery and renewal of vital energies.
I love what I get to do with you, but there is no doubt that the work, by its nature, tends to be all-consuming. One of the great gifts of a sabbatical is the ability to rest for a time from the constant reflection and discernment involved in the ongoing, daily work of ministry. While Maggie and Julie Kae remain with you in a pastoral capacity for the three months I’m gone, I will be able to give myself more fully to the work of the dissertation/project. I do not expect to have it completed by the time I return in October, but I hope to have made some significant progress.
In order to successfully give myself to this work, it is necessary for me to “disengage from regular and normal tasks.” That means that although you may see Barb and the kids—as much as it is a loss for me!—you will not see me at church during this time period. That’s where Julie Kae and Maggie come in. They will work with Session and the Deacons. They will guide the work from day-to-day, along with Rosemary and the rest of the staff and leadership.
Now, you may see me around town. If you do, let me ask you a big favor. Please say “hi.” Please feel free to tell me how you are and what’s new. But as much as you may want to talk with me about particularities of the church’s mission and ministry, do your best to resist. The problem is I care a great deal about these things, and once I get thinking about them, it takes away energy from my more specific sabbatical work. Helping me to “disengage” from these day-to-day issues serves the larger goal of the sabbatical. Maggie & Julie Kae will be responsible for keeping me apprised of anything I may need to know.
We are fortunate in having in Julie Kae and Maggie, profoundly gifted ministers who will continue to be your pastoral presence in my absence. As I think you know, Maggie, Julie Kae and I work as a pastoral team in all we do. Even though I am absent, you have two-thirds of that team that remains, fully capable to continue to serve and guide St. Andrew’s worship and work and to be present with you individually. You have heard about the additional fundraising for my sabbatical. That money will be divided equally between Maggie and Julie Kae to pay them each for roughly 12 additional hours per week while I’m gone. In my absence, they will oversee the most essential aspects of my work with you: worship, preaching, pastoral care, spiritual life, leadership, administration, and the Session and Deacons. Let me encourage you to contact them with any pastoral concerns you have, just as you would me. They are both equally available to you.
Finally I want to give thanks to your leadership, and particularly that of the Session. Much of the credit for our process goes to your Session who has crafted a sabbatical design and a manageable and creative funding structure to allow it to happen for a church such as ours with limited resources. And our ability to see it through has much to do with all of you and your roles individually and together in creating a community of generosity, self-giving, truth and love.
See you soon!
Grace & Peace,
You are sensational
There’s this thing that started happening when I was younger. I associate it most clearly with my early teens. This thing happened after I had learned the meaning of a new word especially, it seemed, with words that were fun to say like serendipitous or nuance or naiveté. It would happen when I was absolutely sure that I had never heard the new word before. You see, after I had been introduced to the word it would suddenly start popping up all over the place, and I mean all over the place. I would hear it in conversation, on TV, in stories, on the radio. People whom I was absolutely sure had never used the word before would casually drop it into their speech. The word would appear in ordinary places, places that it had just never been before. Then after it had appeared in about six or seven different locations it would seem to disappear as quickly and wonderfully as it had come, but ready for me to pull it out should I need it in the future. I remember this satisfying sense that there was some kind of cosmic language arts teacher just making sure I really understood what this new word meant before we moved on. It thrilled me as a child. It was this secret thing, just for me I believed. It made me smile and let me think that I was being taken care of by the universe.
The Shy Soul
There are many places where the intellect is given room to grow - schools and universities are a good example. The same is true with the emotions. Therapy groups, 12 step groups, small church groups all provide space for injury to be explored, anger and joy expressed. Task forces and committees provide room for the will to be exercised, organized, formed and shared. And the ego? Well, pretty much anywhere we go there seems ample space for our egos to bump against each other!
I am reassured by the fact that the church provides hospitable (but sometimes indulgent!) space for all of these parts of us - intellect, emotions, will and ego. But there is another part of us that Parker Palmer thinks about in depth in his book A Hidden Wholeness (particularly chapter four). There is another part that he worries we make dangerously little room for. He calls it the soul. I think of it as the deep center of our being, the place where the unique voice of God resides in each of us, the inner compass that resists being deformed by the pressures and messages of everyday life and sickened by the toxicity of the busyness of our age. Spaces designed to welcome the soul and support the innery journey are rare. Palmer says, "Apart from the natural world, such spaces [for the soul] are hard to find - and we seem to place little value on preserving the soul space in nature."
Yet, it seems to me that making space for the soul is the primary mission of the church from which all others flow. How would our life together look differently if we were to better make way for the soul within each of us to find room to roam?
Palmer imagines the soul as a wild animal: "Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places." Yet it is also shy. If we want to see a wild animal the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. It takes patience, quietness.
In Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis offers a story that hints at the harm that our "crashing" can do, no matter the good-will with which we do it:
One morning...I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as the butterfly was
making a hole in the case preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long
appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it
as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life.
The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my
horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly
tried with its whole body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my
breath. In vain.
It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a
gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to
appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later,
died in the palm of my hand.
That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I
realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not
hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.
Healthy relationships, circles where there is trust, are neither invasive or evasive. In places where the soul might come out, we neither invade the mystery of another's true self, nor do we evade another's struggles. We stay present to one another while stifling any impulse to fix each other.
Palmer identifies four affirmations that get at what soul-safe space looks like:
So, there is much here. And if you have made it with me thus far, you have shown patience and endurance. May the Spirit add to that wisdom as we continually seek to be a community that listens to the wild voice of God that dwells within each of us.