by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us. – Abba Anthony, B. Ward, Sayings… 1984, 6.
Last month I entered sabbatical in a good place – not burned out, not frustrated, or angry. I decided it was time to clean out my hoarder-office at home after 23 years of just piling more junk upon crapola. Doctoral studies added about 150 more books, which laid in jumbled rows on the carpet because the bookshelves were full. So I moved everything out, tore out the original builder’s carpet, and tiled the floor; drywalled, electrical, repainted and embarked on making additional bookcases – yep, real live cabinetry-craftsmanship-cussing-Jesus-was-a-carpenter-there-goes-my-finger endeavor.
Then the madness set in. The few news feeds I pay attention to rolled through my head as I spread thin-set mortar, while the drops of sweat dripped and my flesh was eaten off my knees and hands. I thought about Anthony’s words above, that each political faction calls their fellow human “fool” (“raca” according to Jesus, and liable to the fires of hell, Mt 5;22). I thought about how many recent times I’ve heard a sentence begin with “I can’t believe you’d…” and I pondered exactly what that literally means. I still cannot figure out how those words make for an effective argument. (At least it’s an “I-statement!”) But it sounds shrill, and “shrill” is what the Liberal voices sound like to me – like a flock of starlings. The Conservative voices just sound bombastic and arrogant – like croaking frogs around a swamp. I pondered what my long-gone WWII mother and father would have to say today about the country. I finally guessed they’d say we are a bunch of whiner-babies. My old Baptist-salesman-sailor-filterless-Camels Dad would probably say, “Shut the hell up, and get off your butt and get to work!” Makes sense to me… set the tiles. Grout.
While tiling, drywalling, painting, and sawing I found myself arguing with people who are not there. As Henri Nouwen stated, “I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies…” and I always win in which I finally say to them ‘I can’t believe you don’t see the obvious! Raca!’ (Nouwen, The Way…1991, 18). I indulged my anger and took my arguments to bed and lost sleep. Meanwhile, my hands and arms have become numb and on fire, especially at night. I have something wrong with me. It’s called ‘getting old.’
Jesus was a carpenter’s son, and scholars assume Jesus was a carpenter. If so, then he sure had a lot of time to ponder his soul and the condition of the world around him. Carpentry forms the soul as long as you do it in pure silence without Lynyrd Skynrd’s Freebird playing ad nauseam in the background. Also, cabinetmaking is full of mistakes. It requires grace for one’s self. And it requires one to say to one’s self, “That’ll have to do” and “That doesn’t show, no one will see it.” If we don’t have grace for ourselves then we fall into self-loathing, and that comes out as judgmentalism. I took my son to get him started on contacts. He has had a difficult time getting the contacts on his eyeballs. I said something like, “Huh, I never thought it was hard to do. I did it the first time.” To which he snarked back, “Yeah right Dad, you’re perfect.” My son and cabinet-making tell me I am not perfect. Just judgmental. Cabinetmaking is full of self-evaluation, self-judgment, and a fair amount of nice satisfaction. But mostly cabinetmaking is a time of recognizing and challenging the voices of the false-self.
Our world offers hardly any time and space for self-reflection. There is no place for sabbath, sabbatical, or silence. The results are all around us. Now we all stare at small glowing glass screens of blue, and it causes our brains to ache and be irritated and frustrated. Current technology habit is poison for the soul. (See Feb 17, 2017 blog post for research refs).
Sabbatical is a time of self-reflection. My paradigm for sabbatical is the same for all my teaching on contemplative spirituality: first you REST, then you RE-CREATE, then you “RASSLE.” First, check out and get away from church and work – I failed. I should have got out of town and and done something fun and distracting so I could wash my brain clean of ministry. Instead I did exactly what I tell others NOT to do: paint the house. This “wax-on, wax-off” rhythm of home repairs and improvements provides too much soul-rummaging too soon. Doing home repairs during sabbatical is an “ought-to” and a “should,” and those are voices from outside of ourselves – those are others’ voices. Expectations usually make us feel trapped. Trapped makes us feel anger.
Next, RE-CREATE does not mean recreation. like ‘go have fun.’ RE-CREATE means something more intentional, like learn how to make pottery, or go for a mountain hike. I haven’t gotten there yet. But Laurie and I are going to Italy and I think I may drive out to Phoenix. And I have signed up for a doctoral course at my old alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, which I love so much.
Lastly, RASSLE means wrestle with God or rather “g-d,” the unknown, un-namable GOD. Jacob wrestles with the LORD all night. Jacob asks the LORD for his name and gets no answer. Instead, Jacob gets a new name: Israel, which means ‘one who wrestles with g-d’ (Gen 32 and 35). The third movement of the spiritual life is wrestling with God and receiving a new identity, a new name like Jesus renaming Simon as Peter the Rock, who was once just plain ol’ Simon the fisherman. Oh, and don’t forget that in addition to receiving a new name, you also get your hip permanently put out of socket. (Begin your Yiddish accent here) “So thank you so much! While you’re at it why don’t you squirt some lemon juice in my paper cut!) (End Yiddish). New name AND you limp for the rest of your life. That’s the sabbatical journey, that’s what it looks like to encounter g-d throughout our lives. Anybody who tells you different is selling something.
The goal of the Christian life is not prophesy, people, productivity, or profit, it is God. But first we have to go through years of anger, arguing, chaos, competition, compulsions until there is no longer any fight left in us. My doctoral thesis states that the what happened to the desert fathers in the 4th century is that they fled from the sinful world out into the Egyptian desert, only to find their own demons within themselves. In other words, they thought “sin” was out there in the world. They thought they would just “put on Christ” like Paul says we should do (Col 3:9-11; and also Gal 3:27; Eph 4:24). Okay, then stop being angry – got it? Okay, now stop being judgmental – got it? Okay, now start being generous, loving, kind, compassionate, and perfect. We cannot only think our way into Christian living. We have to take the inward journey, and rassle with the unknown g-d. Few are willing to take this journey. And we all pay for it. Starlings and frogs, Simon’s and Jacob’s.
Tile’s done. Drywall, electricity, painting – done. The bookcases turned out good enough. My new office shelves are 80% full and I still have 16 boxes of junk sitting around the house that came out of my office. I’m angry because I don’t feel like sorting through junk. All this junk is “my precious,” or my identity, my Self. Throwing it away is an act of downward decent. I resist and that’s why I am cranky (in part).
Maybe I will make another sabbatical journey entry – maybe not. It may be a sign of health instead of madness if I keep my mouth shut! It will mean I am at rest and feel no need to justify or validate my false self. We will see.