by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
I have been on sabbatical since August 1, and it ends December 1. Sabbatical is not a fancy name for a big vacation. Whether a sabbatical is academic, executive, or ministry it is a journey in three movements. First, one must Rest – wipe the slate clean of work. I recommend an immediate change of venue – get out of town. Go do something fun and refreshing. Forget about work. Second, one must Re-Create. Not “recreation,” that’s the first movement. No, Re-Create means one must seek new and challenging voices. One might begin going to a counselor, spiritual director, enroll in a course, or go on a pilgrimage to NorthUmbria UK and make retreat for example. Third, a sabbatical journey points toward Rassle – or “wrestling” with one’s demons, baggage, misperception of God, the world, and mostly self. This is the hard work of a spiritual sabbatical. This wrestling is Jesus entering the wilderness for forty days. Wrestling is Jacob wrestling with the Lord all night, and in the end receiving a new name and a displaced hip.
Wrestling with God always involves receiving an “unbidden new identity.” It has to be unbidden because one cannot control or manipulate the Holy Spirit. One cannot demand something from God. One must wait for God like Elijah waiting for the still small voice of the unknown G-d. No one ever receives a new identity without some kind of crisis. And any diligent pursuit of God will eventually bring the pilgrim to crisis.
My sabbatical is showing features of this three-movement journey (Rest, Re-Create, Rassle). Laurie and I went to London and Italy this month. I have many thoughts about this trip – mostly pastor/scholar nerd thoughts. First, it was a journey of exploring failed empires. In London you can see many buildings and statutes of the British Empire’s glory days – Trafalgar Square, Lord Nelson, Buckingham Palace and on. The British Empire began to fall apart around 1897 after the Second Boer War. Britain was then bankrupted by WWI. I ponder if America is beginning it’s decline as an empire.
Then we traveled to Florence, Italy. Here in Tuscany one can see the remains of the great city-states like Sienna and Florence (1500s)… castles, palaces, basilicas, and gold – lots of gold. The Medici family invented banking and grew fabulously wealthy. They bought Popes and armies. They must have eaten gold for breakfast. But they eventually were overrun. Wealth and affluence suffocates a people.
Then we traveled to Rome and saw the ruins of the Roman Empire. We stood in the foundations of once huge palaces of the Roman Senators and Caesars. We toured the Colosseum, the arches, the Forum, the temples, the Pantheon… “all glory is fleeting.” We spent a lot of time in great churches, including the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. We toured the Vatican Museum and sat in the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescos surrounding us.
All three empires crisscrossed Christianity and wove the faith into their destinies. From Constantine’s edict to allow Christianity in the Roman Empire to Oxford and the spot where the English Reformer Bishops Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake in a fire so large it burned down the surrounding buildings – there was Christianity.
The Europe trip accomplished (in part) sabbatical movements one and two for me: Rest and Re-Create. I can sum up much of my thoughts about Europe and my faith by stating “I do not wish to become Catholic.” And I will just leave it at that. Since coming home I have been poring over 1) the Medici family 2) reading a new biography of Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas. going wiki-link crazy chasing down everything Luther meant by “conscience” when he said at the Diet at Worms
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
When Luther used the word conscience he did not conceive of it as “personal opinion” or something private and original like we use the word today. He meant that God and the Scriptures are stating something that is true that he has no choice but to obey. Luther and his times had no concept of an individual forming their own opinion about God and the universe. No one would have ever said about the church, “We’re leaving.” And if you think this is perhaps irrelevant today then just toss the Gay/Lesbian morality debate into the ring and see where it takes you.
Then next (3), I have been revisiting and reviewing the debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul. This is probably the biggest theological issue for the 21st century so far (within Protestantism). This is still a big deal and it has everything to do with how one understands sin, justification, “imputed righteousness,” atonement, and Paul’s understanding of “what is the purpose of Christ’s cross?” I wish every Lakelander would read about this debate. Probably only a handful of Lakelanders understand how influential this debate is around our church. But it is woven into our church’s DNA.
Finally, in November I have a doctoral class I am auditing. It’s at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. The instructor is Chuck DeGroat and I am thoroughly enjoying his book. I have about eight books to read I think. So that’s breathing down my neck. The class is about spirituality in the church. So that’s in my wheelhouse and should be engaging.
Also, I have been working on my book but mostly with reading and organizing. Writing will come soon.
Last thought… I am beginning to picture what it looks like to return to Lakeland. I am formulating some goals and objectives. I have some ideas. More on that when I have more on that.