As you may have noticed in the bulletin, the flowers this morning are a small token to say thank you to the congregation and staff of Central Presbyterian Church for the one month sabbatical so generously given to me this summer. I combined it with study leave and some vacation time and have been out of the office and the pulpit for the past eight weeks.
I thought that in keeping with the amazing adult summer Sunday School series going on in which various church members have shared some of their stories, I would tell the story of my time away this morning. There are a number of different aspects to be told, some of which I expected but many of which I did not, some related to what I did and some related to what I learned.
Next week I plan to talk about the things that have happened in the world since we were together last and what the Gospel calls us to say and do in response to those things. One of the things which overlaps these two Sundays is the fact that I returned to work at the same time news was breaking about developments at NewSpring Church. Clearly our call is to pray for Perry and his family and for the NewSpring congregation as they go through this trial.
My first personal response, though, was an old one: “there but for the grace of God go I.” We had a Session meeting on May 15, the last night before my sabbatical began, and I tried to explain to them how difficult it is in the ministry to step away, to let go, to not feel the need to be handling everything and helping everybody that needs it. It really takes a couple of weeks to be able to turn it off. If that is so in my relatively small ministry context, I can’t imagine what it would be like with an enormous operation such as NewSpring.
So my first important learning, or reminder, was that this church can get along just fine without me. That is not a threatening learning, but a liberating one. I was here for worship three times and there were lots of people in the pews, choir in the loft, staff doing their things, excellent worship and preaching. Pastoral needs were met, giving continued, committees did what they were supposed to do. I hope that was as good for you to experience as it was for me. I won’t always remember it, but it is good to be reminded that God is the “responsible party” here.
The first day of my sabbatical I went to Atlanta for a week-long conference for preachers called the “Festival of Homiletics,” homiletics being a fancy word for preaching. The first night was opening worship at the Peachtree United Methodist Church, and what an experience it was! A huge, beautiful, full sanctuary, enormous choir, wonderful organist and brass ensemble, and everybody there singing hymns like they meant it. It truly felt like a foretaste of heaven to me. I’ve told you before that I frequently feel like a dinosaur with my love for classical church worship and hymns. I was in a sanctuary filled with them that night and it was glorious!
It has made me thing about the Old Testament story for today about Elijah. Elijah won that big contest on Mount Carmel against the prophets of Baal and he celebrated by putting them all to death. Jezebel quickly brought him down from that high by sending word that she intended to have him equally dead by the end of the day tomorrow.
So Elijah decided to take a sabbatical and he fled the situation, going all the way from northern Israel to the southern tip. God asked him what he was doing and he whined about feeling like he was all by himself in this God business and he didn’t think he had it in him any more. God told him there were still thousands of faithful people who were not worshiping Baal and to get up and go back because he had work for him to do. In some kind of way that is hard to explain, that service in Atlanta played the same kind of role for me, which was a great start to the time away. It helped me see from the very beginning that the destination was home, that God is in control, that I’m not the only person interested in doing church this way, that there is work to be done and joy to be experienced. There was more good preaching and good worship that week, but in essence that first night was what I needed.
Toward the end of the sabbatical, the bookend event was attending the Music and Worship Conference at Montreat. It was my first time at that conference, and it was great to be able to watch all of those passionate church musicians letting their creative juices flow, sharpening skills and learning new tricks and being rejuvenated to come back to their congregations and continue leading their churches in worship and song. The number of children and youth participating enthusiastically in the conference was another joyous and hopeful aspect to see. It was another “wake up and smell the coffee, Elijah” moment. The constant message of the decline of the Presbyterian Church and the aging of the Presbyterian Church is not the only truth that exists, though it is certainly part of it. Our church and obviously many other Presbyterian churches are finding a way to swim against that current – to grow younger, to have well rounded congregations of all ages, to find ways to incorporate old and new in worship in faithful and engaging ways. So the two conferences I participated in were both hopeful, inspiring, and energizing.
I was in Anderson several Sundays. One of those Sundays, when Claire was out of town, I went to a church in Greenville in order to experience their hearing aid loop system, in which the sound system feeds directly into your hearing aid if you have a t-coil switch. It was amazing, and is a technology which will be life changing for hearing impaired folks like myself as it becomes commonly used in public places. Montreat also has it in their main auditorium.
The other Sundays we came to worship here. There wasn’t really any question about it. This is our church family. I found that people were surprised to see me here – I guess people thought being on sabbatical meant wanting to get as far away from this church and its people as possible. Not so. I enjoyed sitting with Claire and being a different part of the church at worship for a few Sundays. I have wonderful examples in the Harkeys and the Rosenbergers and the Nickles and the Blakeleys of continuing to be part of the church family even when it is not your job.
Much of the rest of my time was spent in a variety of family settings. Our second grandson was born during this time in Charleston, so we were able to enjoy an extended time there celebrating and helping out with the two year old. Obviously that was a great opportunity. I made a trip to Pensacola to visit our son who is in the Navy there in aviator training. I happened to be there on the day when he and five of his buddies all flew solo for the first time, which was a thrilling experience. They included me fully in their celebration and throughout the weekend, and it was so much fun to be with John and get to know some of the other men and women who are dedicating their lives to serving their country. I have also made four trips to be with my mother during this time. She has had a difficult stretch, with several falls and trips to the doctor and emergency room. This was not on my radar as to how I would spend my sabbatical time, but it was providential that I had the freedom to just pick up and go when needed. It has turned into a real roller coaster ride, which I have watched many of you go through. I went on Friday expecting to help her move to a skilled nursing bed. I arrived to find her doing so poorly that moving her was out of the question. Hospice came out to evaluate her and said she could die as early as the next day. But the next day she turned around pretty drastically, so we really are going day to day right now. Working closely with my two brothers has reminded me how much I have to be thankful for in our close relationship. So in the midst of a difficult experience, as so often happens, gratitude has been called for in response to clear blessings.
Another of my learnings came from the unexpected way things played out. What I mean by that is that I knew I would be away from home the two weeks of conferences. I expected to be in Charleston with Claire and travel to Pensacola with Claire, but false labor pains and signs pointing toward an early delivery led her to go to Charleston early, so I made the trip to Pensacola by myself, and we were in Charleston in shifts after that, then I was gone several days with my mother. My learning was that I really did not enjoy being separated that much. Life is a lot more fun together, so I don’t want to do that any more. There was an old country song called “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Ever Go Away?” Well, been there and done that now. Don’t need to do it again.
And last, but certainly not least, you may have noticed that there have been a steady string of tragic, heartbreaking events dominating the news, and a number of people in our congregation dealing with very difficult situations. God said to Elijah, “What are you doing here? You need to get up and get back to work. There are kings to be anointed and prophets to be trained and ministry to be done.” In the classic movie, “Ernest Saves Christmas,” two guys in the airport cargo office are unloading big crates that hold reindeer and arguing over whether the writing on the box says, “Hold for helper elves” or “Hold for helper elms.” One is big and burly, the other skinny and scrawny. The scrawny one, Bob, is trying to ease one of the crates off the conveyer belt but it just lands on top of him. The big guy lifts the crate and says, “Yo, Bob, break’s over,” and drops the box back on him.
Break’s over. It’s been good, I’ve learned a lot, had a lot of important experiences, but it’s time to get back to work. Please know how grateful I am for your care, for your partnership in the Gospel, and for the common life of prayer, praise, and service we continue to share.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 17, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church