After a wonderful worship service and send off from the church, my family and I went home. We had a relaxing Sunday afternoon. At 4PM, I made a final pastoral visit – to our church’s most senior member, Esta Mae Johnson. She and I talked about 45 minutes, I left, and Sabbatical had begun.
Monday morning, I saw my kids off to school, and then hit the road. I drove 3 hours to Ft. Caswell at Caswell Beach, the North Carolina Baptist retreat center directly across the Cape Fear and Elizabeth Rivers and Intracoastal Waterway from South Port, NC.
As I drove, I listened to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She tells a history many Americans don’t know, but should. It is the horrible, tragic, and hopeful and inspiring account of Post-reconstruction black life in the Jim Crow south and the efforts black people made to get out from under the inequality of Jim Crow to the American Freedom they hoped they’d find in the west and north. The black populations of Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities are largely descendants of the children and grandchildren of former slaves. This post-civil war generation of African Americans left the miserable lives to which they were relegated in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other places in the south and sought their fortunes in the North.
Listening to these stories as I traveled, so unencumbered in all my male, middle class, white privilege as well as the tremendous blessing I have for a season of sabbatical rest, was poignant. I felt free and in my freedom I was ready to embrace and enter the stories of others, stories of people forced to live harder lives than I have lived. I cruised east along I-40 and inhabited stories of cotton picking for pennies, lynchings, and people powerless to change it. But they weren’t powerless, and when they had had enough, they left. This movement had no central figure, no Martin Luther King Jr. It is the anthology of stories of people who knew their own self-worth even though the white south did all they could to beat it out of them.
I drove along and listened. And then I got to Caswell and walked the ground. It’s a large retreat center with numerous dormitories, a chapel, a PX, a gymnasium, a theatre, and a hotel (where I stayed). Mingled in with these typical retreat facilities are the ruins of World War I era batteries which were set up as a war-time military installation. These bizarrely shaped concrete structures, long abandoned, are now weed strewn, but were once the foundation of the coastal defense.
I climbed around on the batteries. I walked the beach. I sat in the sand and unending wind. I wrote the opening entries in my Sabbatical journal. I began releasing the cares of a pastor. For the next four months, I exist in a different space, a “castle in time” (Abraham Joshua Heschel). Caswell, which at times is crawling with North Carolina Baptists, either screaming teens or adults on retreat remembering when they used to be screaming teens, was all but empty. For several hours I had the place to myself. In my journal I wrote that I had found solitude. The beach was gloriously abandoned.
So I walked and prayed and let go. I played chess on my computer with people from Morroco, Brazil, and Poland. I ate so many Oreos and fried clams I got sick (almost). And I let go.
Gazing across the Atlantic, it struck me that I haven’t settled on a scripture passage for Sabbatical. I have not been led to that one word from the Bible that will provide the undergirding and the theme for this time. As I sat atop one of the batteries ocean Tuesday morning, I found what might be it. Matthew 10:39 – “Those who find their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.” I don’t know what this Sabbatical has in store, but I know this. I have to die to self. I have to stop worrying about who I am and stand upon whose I am.
Midday Tuesday, I drove up to New Bern. I went there to interview a woman, Daynette Snead who is African American, has her own real estate business, and is the associate pastor of a Chin Church. The Chin are another people group (like the Karen who meet at HillSong) exiled from Burma (Myanmar). This African American lady from Richmond, Virginia is killing it in business in mostly white New Bern and getting it done in ministry among Chin refugees.
She and I discussed race and life and ministry. She graced me by sharing with me her story. I won’t go into it because it is hers, but in what she shared, I found symmetry with what I was hearing in The Warmth of Other Suns. Listening to that, talking to Daynette, hearing God in the wind and the waves of the ocean, listening to Jesus in Matthew 10 – it all came together for me. I have big dreams for the future of the church I pastor, HillSong Church of Chapel Hill. Big dreams. Those dreams forming and have been for some time, but they will be set aside temporarily. For now, I am awed by how God has brought things together for me.
God is dropping me into the stories of others.
I hope this expands my ability to love others.
I hope this enriches my telling of the Gospel story. I know it is deepening my understanding of it.
I pray that in all of this, I will learn to see more clearly that God is in control and that my life is to be spent following Jesus, not worrying about things. As I learn to die to self and as I am enriched by other people’s stories, my own dreams will take shape.
Next for me in Sabbatical is a lot family time, and, I hope, a lot of reading.