‘The Sabbath is simply a time to stop trying to alter the universe.’
Work, by definition, is the effort or energy we spend to try to do something…to accomplish something…to change things…to grow crops, cook a meal, wash the dishes, wash the clothes, build a building, balance a check book…
A Sabbath for some means a 24-hour period, a day, to stop working; but a Sabbath can be an hour, or even a minute when you find inner peace…healing…when you stop worrying or thinking about your troubles.
We’re here to touch that Sabbath place down deep inside; to hear and sing some words of comfort…an invitation to simply ‘be,’ to ‘be here now.’
Sermon: What I Learned on my Sabbatical
“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I experience and I understand.”
One of my favorite seminary teachers, Harrell Beck, said, “The Sabbath is simply a time to stop trying to alter the universe.” I heard him, and so I wouldn’t forget, I wrote it down, and I’ve repeated his words many times.
A sabbatical is an extended Sabbath. On January 5, 1992, I drove away in a ten-year old VW Vanagon camper to begin a six-month Sabbath, or sabbatical as it is called.
It was time for me to stop trying to alter the universe, to change things, to fix things, to prepare and deliver another sermon, memorial service, wedding ceremony, and to simply be by myself, and perhaps…just perhaps…to discover some new insights while exploring America.
I did, indeed, find ‘a me’ in America, as the first three letters of my country suggest.
I saw, and I remember; I experienced, and I understood. I had prepared for the trip for several months – bought the van which had a sink, stove and refrigerator, outfitted it with cooking utensils, food, a sleeping bag and so forth.
I kissed my wife good-bye and nervously drove out of the driveway and I calmed my anxiety by reciting, out loud, Donald Babcock’s sabbatical poem about the duck:
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity — which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.
The duck ‘has religion’ because he is connected, which is the root meaning of the word religion. He doesn’t know much, but he knows enough, and he offers a lesson I needed to learn by experience – to make myself a part of the boundless by easing into it, just there it touches me, and to think things over.
I want to tell you what I experienced on my sabbatical by telling you some of the places I went, some of the things I did, and a few lines from journal jottings.
I’ll begin by saying that I discovered parts of myself that had been waiting patiently for me to ‘stop trying to alter the universe’ and to pay attention to things that floated up to the surface of awareness without forcing them.
I really had no expectations about those things, those lessons, but they came and, truth be told, I realize that even eighteen years later I keep learning things from my sabbatical experience, especially since I wrote about it from day to day in detail in six journals.
There’s nothing like experience to deepen our understanding of ourselves and one another, but experience alone doesn’t provide understanding – reflection on experience is required, what Emerson called ‘the fire of thought.’ The opportunity to share those reflections also helps deepen one’s understanding, so thank you for providing that opportunity simply by reading these words.
One further word of preface: in the recent PBS series, The Human Spark, Alan Alda has the opportunity to experience some fascinating brain-scan tests. He is able to see the activity in his own brain and is amazed by it.
In one experiment his brain is wired up and he is put into an MRI machine and shown a series of words that he is asked to pay attention to. There’s a brief time between the words that are flashed onto the screen and he is instructed to focus on a mark that shows up when there’s no word on the screen.
He assumes the experiment will show his brain’s response to the words – words like, ‘gun, injury, pain etc.’
In fact, the experiment is designed to show his brain’s response to the brief moments when the screen is blank except for the simple mark that makes no demands on his brain to think, but simply focus on that little mark.
The experiment demonstrates that there is a certain area of the brain that ‘responds’ to the blank screen when the demand to pay attention to and respond to words that are presented to him, words that are sure to arouse his thinking…words that ‘make demands’ on him, on his brain. Work.
It turns out that the area of the brain that is ‘turned on’ by the blank screen has been identified as the source of our creativity, the sabbatical area of the brain. We need the spaces between the words, the silences. We need the moments without demands – Sabbath moments.
Allen Alda says, “I guess that’s why I have all kinds of creative ideas when I’m driving the car or taking a walk, when I’m not thinking of anything specifically, or trying to solve some problem.’
As I watched this experiment I thought about my sabbatical experience of driving across America alone in a van – a motel on wheels, better than John Steinbeck’s beloved pick-up truck he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse which was his vehicle. Steinbeck traveled with his beloved poodle, Charley – and wrote Travels With Charley.
Steinbeck said, “I had to go alone and I had to be self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.”
Like Steinbeck, I had to go alone. Clark Moustakas said, “I have to be alone in order to get back to other people. I have to be lonely in order to get back to myself.”
My first stop was Kensington, Maryland. Friends who live there sent me the key to their house – they were away. I knew I wanted to head south, like a migrating bird, and the D.C. area was a perfect first drive and place from which to begin exploring my America and me.
In addition to keeping track of every place on my journey I also kept a dream journal.
On my first night alone in my friend’s house I dreamed it was Sunday morning just five minutes before the service was to begin and I had left my sermon at my cabin in Maine. Someone drove me to the cabin and I was surprised that it had been damaged in the storm, but someone was fixing it up. The sermon wasn’t there so I decided to ‘wing it.’
The sermon, of course, represents the work I left behind in order to have my own Sabbath days. The damage to the cabin is symbolic of wear and tear on my psyche, which was being repaired with a sabbatical.
I spent the first week decompressing in the house of friends in Kensington. They were away – they mailed me a key to their house.
I drove to Kensington on January 5, and at 8 p.m. I wrote in my journal: “I knew it would be difficult, the adjustment, and getting started and dealing with aloneness and loneliness…but I really underestimated just HOW difficult it IS. Will I make it? We’ll see.”
I hadn’t looked at my journal for 18 years and was a bit surprised at some of the entries, like the one above.
Dream journal, second night: “I was doing a roofing job and couldn’t finish it; too many other things to do. I said, ‘I’m teaching full time and doing ministry full time – I don’t have time to work on this roof.’” Working on roofs, manual labor, was among the hardest work I’ve experienced – dangerous and difficult.
The house in Kensington was walking distance to public transportation into Washington, D.C. so I visited the monuments, museums and sites there. It was, of course, a perfect place to begin exploring my America.
I had been to D.C. before, of course — first in demonstrations to protest the Vietnam war, then to introduce my children to D.C.
The Vietnam Memorial is a huge black granite tombstone, sensitively and creatively designed by Maya Lin to honor the 58,000-plus Americans who died in Vietnam was unveiled in 1984. I had been there a couple of times, but never alone.
January 13: “The tears at the Vietnam Memorial took me by surprise. I found my friend Joe Drew’s name carved into the wall. Joe and I worked together at Bishops (restaurant). He was killed on December 27, 1965; born in 1946. Like so many he didn’t live to see 20! So many names…so many deaths.”
I visited the usual memorials and museums and monuments, reading Lincoln’s famous words at the dedication of Gettysburg, and words from Jefferson:
On the first panel: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted…”
On the second panel: “…all men (sic) shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”
I appreciated the Smithsonian, the Air and Space shows there and all the other places…even did a brief White House tour. After a week in D.C. I wrote:
“I’m ready to ‘begin,’ now, ready to head for the open road. I’ll get out the map and decide where to go – probably head toward Jacksonville, Florida. What’s between here and there? I wonder where I’ll be tomorrow night.”
I drove the Blue Ridge Mountain route South, sleeping in a truck-stop rest area in South Carolina the first night, stopping in Savannah, Georgia the next day and arrived at Jacksonville the next night, sleeping in a Ramada Inn parking lot.
I wrote: “This morning I woke about 6:45 and looked up and watched the sunrise over the ocean. I hadn’t realized that I was facing an open spot to the ocean. My heart leaped. I got up, got dressed, drove around the block and parked facing the ocean, made coffee, had cereal with banana, and put on a Pavarotti tape…transfixed, transcended, trans-everything (as he sang Ave Maria) and I wept with joy: oh, that voice, the emotion, the life! The depth. The passion. A hint of the Divine. I feel so fortunate, so filled with appreciation – energy. I have been a long time coming to this…soul stuff. There’s so much I want to write, and I shall, but for not I’ll just BE HERE!”
It was colder than I thought it would in Jacksonville so I decided to keep driving south; stopped for a day at Epcot Center – enjoyed the pavilions for China, Canada, Germany, France and so forth. Parked overnight in Ramada Inn parking lot.
I drove to my brother’s condo in Boca Raton, where I stayed for a few days and toured and attended church, where I met Peggy Block and Mary Sills.
January 19: “Attended Unitarian Church in Boca and the most remarkable thing happened. At the beginning of the service visitors are asked to introduce themselves, which I dislike…but I complied. The woman sitting to my right turned to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re Frank Hall…I’m Mary Sills. When I was candidating at the Westport church in March of 1984 there was a memorial service for her husband, Ben. They were active members in Westport and I communicated with Mary by mail, off and on, for a couple of years, but we had never met. She said, ‘You’ll never know what you did for me.’”
The next day we had lunch together at The Olive Garden. She said, “I wasn’t planning to go to church yesterday, I don’t go often…my feet were hurting, I don’t know what made me go, and I don’t sit where you were – what made me do that? I don’t think it was a coincidence. It’s eerie.”
I wrote: “I enjoyed our time together; it reminded me that I do love being a minister. I was her minister today, and that felt very good. I became her minister after her husband’s death, but I didn’t realize it until today.”
Throughout my travels I had a sense that I was being guided or directed by ‘an invisible hand.’ I wrote about that a lot – I guess it had to do with the incredible sense of freedom I felt.
On the one hand, I had to un-connect from the people I was closest to; on the other hand I felt myself connecting to the people and places I visited. It was a hugely transitional time in my life; there was a sense of loss and a sense of renewal at the same time. I really can’t explain it better.
I haven’t looked at the journals since I wrote them eighteen years ago; I’m surprised at the number of encounters I had, almost all with total strangers. I’m glad I wrote them down, otherwise I would have simply forgotten.
For example, there was a man in Mississippi in his mid-twenties who said, “My name is Billy but everybody calls me Bill, except for my grandmother – she calls me David, because that’s what she wanted them to name me.”
Then there was a young sailor in New Orleans who was walking along the highway. I had seen an abandoned red Mustang a mile or two before I saw him, so I put two and two together and stopped. Sure enough, it was his car, so I drove him to a gas station, then drove him back to the car. He was very appreciative. He offered money which I refused. When we returned to his car and he got out I said, “I’ll wait to make sure the car starts.” It did, and he waved for me to wait a minute and he came over to the window, took off his hat and gave it to me and said, “I’d like you to have this, so you’ll remember me.”
I spent a couple of days in Key West, at the Fried’s winter home. Greg and Edith treated me royally.
Then I drove up the West Coast of Florida; spent a day at the Florida State Fair, Tampa. I decided to visit my friend Alvin Solomon, who was 96 at the time; we had been corresponding for fifteen years, since he read a letter to the editor I wrote and was published in Time Magazine’s international addition. The letter was in support of Catholic theologian Hans Kung who had been silenced by the Pope for uttering what the Pope referred to as ‘unitarian heresy.’
Alvin and the Solomon family had a fascinating history in Helena, one of few Jewish communities in Arkansas. Alvin’s grandfather, like many other Prussian Jews, emigrated at the time of the Civil War, setting up shop as a tailor and traveling by wagon to those too far from town, and eventually building a five-story building in down-town Helena, which was and remains it’s biggest building. In 1867 his and other Jewish families founded a congregation which they named Beth El (House of God).
Alvin gave me the grand tour and history of Helena. It was a powerful visit. Suffice it to say that it was worth the trip up to Helena. As I was leaving he gave me three things: the sweater he was wearing, which he said was ‘practically new,’ some food for the road, and the food for thought in his Alvin-like poem, below:
I’m sure in olden Biblical days
Were con men who had their ways
The guy who came up with Yom Kippur
Was smarter than he who invented the zipper.
No doubt he was the incorrigible sinner
And so he comes up with this winner
All year long, he could live in sin
Repent one day and start over again.
To me – it seems quite silly
Repent one day – I’m pure as a lily
So I just do the best I can
And try to love my fellow man.
With all of Life’s push and shove
There’s more than one way to above
So I’ll do my best in every way
And take my chance on judgment day.
Alvin Solomon, age 96
On my way to Helena I stopped at Montgomery Alabama and attended a Sunday service at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. served in his first parish ministry. I was the only white face in the congregation that morning; I was asked to introduce myself and was greeted warmly. I enjoyed the sermon, which the visiting minister titled, A Certain Man, using the story of the Good Samaritan as text, pointing out that the victim in the story had been stripped of his clothing so that the Good Samaritan could not have known anything about him – his status or religion, often revealed by clothing; only that he was ‘a human being in need of help.’
I drove from Montgomery to Selma, reversing MLK’s famous march for civil rights, and from their to Little Rock and on to Vicksburg, Mississippi where I spent a day touring the civil war memorial with its 1,325 historic monuments and markers, a 16-mile tour road, a 12.5-mile walking trail.
From there it was off to New Orleans. I flew home from there to do a wedding for Van and Diane Bernhard, and flew back with Anita to spend a week there at a B& B run by a Unitarian.
From there I drove to Houston, Texas, visiting a friend for lunch and a night at the rodeo – a piece of Americana.
My friend urged me to visit Big Bend National Park, where I spent a fascinating week. The park is located in the Chisos Mountains on the Mexican border and has more than 150 miles of hiking trails …over 100 miles of paved roads…150 miles of dirt roads. I spent a day on a 50-mile archeology tour; one day I paid a man in a row boat one dollar to take me across the river…I spent an hour or so in a little village…had lunch and paid the second dollar to take me back.
To summarize, briefly, I kept going west, drove to Southwest; did Grand Canyon, Sedona. When I stood there, looking out, a little girl beside me said, “Mommy, where’s the cannon?” “This is the Canyon, the Grand Canyon.” “But mommy, where’s the big gun…the grand cannon?”
I spent time in the Southwest, drove to California, up the scenic West Coast, through Oregon and Washington, took a ferry to Vancouver, then drove the northern route home.
So, what did I learn during my sabbatical travels?
It’s a big country. Like the duck, I didn’t know how big it was, but the experience helped me to realize it. To realize is to make it real.
I was reminded that it’s a ‘big country’ inside, in a spiritual sense. Like the duck, I have hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher, but I found the poise I needed to make the journey inward as well as the outward journey in the van.
The theme that comes through most of all is about freedom; not the usual kind of freedom…the freedom of the pulpit, freedom of speech, and so forth. But I also experienced a sense of inner freedom I had never realized – never ‘made real.’ I also experienced an ambivalence about that freedom, feeling alone and lonely for so much of the five months on the road, ‘missing’ loved ones and daily routines.
There are some things we can’t have ‘both ways,’ as they say. But when it comes to a sense of aloneness, loneliness and freedom, we can have it both ways. In fact, we must ‘have it both ways,’ and when we experience it, we have a renewed sense of a well-balanced life.