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Sabbatical Lessons: Impermanence

By October 10, 2013 No Comments
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I recently completed my first academic sabbatical. After seven years of teaching, advising, and administrative work, I was more than ready for the gift of time dedicated to research, writing, and rest. I went into sabbatical with many plans—finish my second and co-authored book, Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action; begin and make serious headway on a new project, a textbook for pastoral care courses; explore options for future projects; take up a new hobby; enjoy friends and family scattered throughout the United States; and, then return to work refreshed, rejuvenated, and refocused. Simple really. Nothing out of the ordinary for an academic sabbatical.

Considered at one level, my sabbatical plans came to pass to some degree or another. Second book finished. New project started. Yoga as a new life practice. Future projects considered. At another level, sabbatical was not remotely what I had imagined. Two months into my sabbatical, it came to light that my academic institution was in serious financial crisis—the kind of crisis that necessitated swift and significant reductions in staff, faculty, and programming. Within another few months, the program that I was hired six years previously to rebuild was suspended (with little signs that it would be reinstated any time soon). Within yet another few months, my area of the faculty (pastoral care) was reduced from three persons to one—me. I should mention that I had chaired the search committee that hired both of those faculty members. My sabbatical project—the pastoral care textbook—was linked to our common work in teaching pastoral care. I then came out of sabbatical early to pick up the pieces and to support doctoral students caught in the maelstrom. Not at all what I planned for—and of course, I’m not alone in this. Sabbatical then ended, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, with a new call to another academic institution.

The unexpected gift in all this—and it’s taken me a while to see it as such—has been the formation that occurred in response to changes in the landscape of my vocation. Layers of loss and change often function like a crucible for the soul. I learned unexpected lessons in this crucible. These, of course, cannot be planned or orchestrated, because they are tied more to the mysterious work of the Spirit than to any human strategy. These lessons aren’t exactly the content of sabbatical reports either, but they do shape us profoundly—impacting our teaching, leadership, and overall way of relating to God, self, and others.

For me, one of those lessons has been impermanence. Not a big topic in Christian circles, at least in the west. Not the most prominent theme in scripture, at least as I’ve been socialized to read it. Yet nevertheless present like a steady undercurrent. Jesus implicitly refers to impermanence again and again in his talk of discipleship, and the Apostle Paul learns the secret of contentment in response to it. 

Qoholeth, the narrator of Ecclesiastes, became my primary biblical teacher about impermanence. Again and again, Qoholeth tells his readers that human work is transitory; our accomplishments may not last; our reward is the joy of the work itself (the process more than the product, so to speak). He also reminds us that God’s work does last. Commentator Stuart Weeks sums it up nicely: “As virtual employees of God, we are compensated not with permanent possession of what we accomplish, but by the ability to take pleasure in accomplishing it (3.9, 12-13). Humans conceive of what they do as permanent, but this is because they lack any true knowledge of God’s own accomplishments from start to finish (3:11). It is what God does that will actually continue forever, without possibility of change.”

When reading through Ecclesiastes, it’s hard to discern whether or not the acknowledgement of impermanence sounds more defeatist or liberating. I suspect that is, in part, a function of the reader’s context. For most of my life, I simply couldn’t stomach Qoholeth. Where was the meaning, the purpose, the joy? But for the past year, it has been good news. Perhaps it’s like listening to the Blues when we’re sad. Accepting impermanence when our work crumbles is refreshing and heartening news, because it is a form of naming a thing what it is. And that turns our gaze toward God. It reorients our posture as one of surrender to God’s hidden work and to trust in God’s benevolent providence. It also puts us in an inner space of receptivity to new life in whatever form it may come. This, too, calls us to exercise our trust muscles. For new life rarely emerges immediately. 

For me, there are signs of new life, one of which is gratitude for the privilege of building a PhD program and for the joy of working with and learning from gifted, passionate students and colleagues. I think some things do last, relationships to God, self, and others being at the top of the list. Perhaps this goes beyond what Qoholeth says directly, but I think it’s in keeping with the permanence of God’s work in us, through us, between us, and for us. And that is worth celebrating even as we accept impermanence.

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