Sabbatical Longing

by Elaine Maust
Psalm 84 and Luke 2: 36-38
November 4, 2007

I hoped to meet Author Paul Boers. He is a professor at AMBS (Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), the seminary where I studied during September. “But he is on Sabbatical,” someone told me. “He’s not around very much.”

This wanting to meet him began because I started asking first one person and then another, “Who thought of this? Who wrote the grant?” I wanted to track down the person who initiated the grant that made it possible for me and other pastors to be on the campus. Finally I found out that Author Paul Boers, a former pastor himself, had created the idea and written the grant for pastors to live on the AMBS campus for study, rest, and reflection during their sabbaticals.

And so that’s why I was delighted and surprised to find his door open one day when I walked down the hall past his office. As I got to his door, out he stepped. After I thanked him, he said, “Wait a minute.” And he came back out of his office with this. “It’s a copy of my latest book for you,” he said. Another generous gift from another open-hearted professor.

As I walked back to my apartment, I opened the cover and read the inscription, “to Elaine, fellow pilgrim! Ps. 84:4.”

Back in my apartment I opened my Bible to Psalm 84. There it was as a I knew it would be, in my own hand, written weeks earlier in the margin by Psalm 84, “Sabbatical 2007.” Psalm 84, my Sabbatical song. Language for my longing.

Turn with me to Psalm 84. I’m sharing this Psalm as our text today because the worship planning team asked for reflections from my Sabbatical. And I’m sharing it because I believe God will speak to you from this passage this morning.

God led me to Psalm 84 early in our Sabbatical when I was very lonesome for Jubilee, for you all, for working with you and with God in this place. In the early days I dreamt of you all every night (they were not nightmares, you should know). Listen to these words again and imagine how they sounded to me then. (v1-2,4)

Psalm 84 was originally written as a song “according to gittith.” I double-checked with the worship band this morning and none of them seem to know how this tune might have sounded. Likely this was a Psalm sung while traveling to the temple. A song of hoping to be at this beloved worship place (they didn’t go every week, remember). It was a song designed to keep the travelers inspired for the journey. A “When the Saints Go Marching In” sort of hymn.

Initially it was the verses about longing for God that attracted me to Psalm 84. During Sabbatical I had long stretches of quiet that opened my heart to God. I found myself longing for God and verse 2 gave words to the ache in my heart. It was as if I was starving to death for God. Tozer wrote, “To have found God and still pursue him is the soul’s paradox of love.”

One of the amazing and delightful discoveries of silence is the way it flung my heart open to God. I’ve had other seasons like this, mostly precipitated by grief or pain or depression. These have been times when I knew how desperately I needed God. Times that pried my heart open. During the past four months my heart has been open to God in that kind of way. But it has been painless! In fact, I found that I enjoyed the long silences tremendously, whether they happened through a weekend at home alone, at Pine Lake, at a convent, or at the seminary. Imagine my delight! How can I ever thank you all for helping to make these experiences of meeting God possible?

Like verse 4 said, I found myself wanting to “dwell.” It reminds me of a word Jesus used, “abide.” To stay in the quiet. To camp out next to God. To never leave that close-to-God kind of feeling. Like a bird (v3) who makes a nest right there in the temple, I ached for a “place near your altar, O Lord Almighty.”

Let’s read verse 3 one more time and this time picture that bird who drags enough twigs and scraps into a crevice of stone in the temple that she can actually build a nest and raise a brood of chicks. (v3) That’s where I’ve been the last few months.

Now here’s a question for you. A quote from June Alliman Yoder: “Are there places you can go to put yourself in God’s way? What are the places where God can hardly avoid you?” Silence is one of those places for me. So, brothers and sisters, what do you do to put yourself in those places?

(v4) C.S. Lewis wrote, “Asking of God no gift more urgently than his presence, the gift of himself, joyous to the highest degree and unmistakably real.”

When I think of this part of me that longs for time alone with God, I think of this as my Mary side.

You all remember the story from Luke 10 about Mary and her sister Martha. Martha was the one who got busy getting dinner on the table for Jesus and their friends. Mary was the one who sat by Jesus and listened to him. Let’s just say the story includes them getting into a bit of a tiff about how their time should be spent.

Sometimes it seems that these sisters are fighting inside of me. Or that I am constantly fighting with myself about how to spend my time. I have a Mary side, a part of me that is contemplative. I have a Martha side, a part of me that is active. The part that loves to be the one throwing the party. I thought and read and prayed a great deal during Sabbatical about braiding these two sides into a strong and balanced cord that would hold my heart faithful to God.

The first part of Psalm 84 reminds me of the quiet, prayerful side of spirituality. The next several verses of Psalm 84 speak to me about active spirituality.

(v5) Blessed. Well, look at that. It is not just those who are “dwelling” or waiting in God’s house that are blessed. It is the ones on the journey, too. “Blessed” means happy, fortunate, to be envied.

Remember I said that this Psalm was probably written as a “traveling to the temple” ballad? Well, here the song turns to strength for that journey. And this was no walk in the park! They went through the Valley of Baca, which means the Valley of Tears. Any of you been in that valley? And look, with the strength of God, they make it a place of springs. The poetry in this Psalm is lovely. It is as if their tears are making pools that water the desert.

As fabulous and important as Sabbatical was for me, I am ready to be back on the journey with all of you at Jubilee. Together we have set our hearts on pilgrimage, we are on a journey with God. And we are going from strength to strength. From our puny strength to the dynamic strength of the Spirit.

As I return to Jubilee, my heart cries out to God with the words of verse 8. I need God to help me to live in a balanced and honorable way before him and before all of you. To make peace with a life that is contemplative and active at the same time. If I only work and never rest, I am arrogant and faithless. Even God works and rests. If I only rest and pray and never work, I will be useless to the people who need me. (v8) I beg God to hear me and to help me with this ongoing struggle.

Verse 10 returns to the joy of the first verses. I would rather be the doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than spend 1000 somewhere else. Being at a distance, I saw you all for the clear miracle that you are. How else could it be explained that folks from so many different backgrounds could praise God with one joyful voice every Sunday morning? It is the work of God.

That all of us are brothers and sisters
Praise God!
That we share our stories, make decisions, and discuss theology without fistfights
Praise God!
That together we are healed and loved and forgiven
Praise God!

Praise to the God who pulled us into this joyous orbit.
Praise to the God who named us Jubilee.
Praise to the God who has pronounced us “very good.”

And I saw that all the good that happens here has very little to do with me. Clearly you all have been thriving in our absence. By the way, we are thrilled with all the changes and progress you all have made while we were gone.

Awhile back I was with a group of Jubilee children, and the conversation turned to the work the grown-ups in their families did each day. One thoughtful child turned to me and asked, “Ms. Elaine, what do you do?” How to answer? I paused and said, “Sometimes I work at the cabinet shop, and sometimes I work here at the church.” After another pause a child responded, “Well, Ms. Elaine, we’ve seen you here at the church a lot, but we’ve never seen you working.”

The story of the prophet Anna from Luke 2: 36-38 became a favorite of mine as I considered coming back to Jubilee. I wonder what Anna was doing up in the temple all the time? Did she have a job description? Did people wonder what she was doing there night and day, there all the time but never working?

But Anna knew what she was doing. She was fasting, praying, and waiting for the Christ to appear. During Sabbatical, as a I meditated on the prophet Anna’s example, I decided that I hope to work like she did. To spend all the days of my life in this place, praying, worshiping, and simply noticing the miracle of it all. Every morning giving thanks. And when Christ is spotted, calling, “praise.” Then telling around the wonder of God’s great comings.

I think maybe the prophet Anna captured the heart of dwelling. Being with God in the place of worship. And I want to be like her. I want to become the one who is at the church not just to work or worry or try to make good things happen. But to be the one who is expectant and prayerful. (v10)

My Shepherd will Supply my Need (Hymnal #589, verse 3)
“The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days.
Oh, may thy house be mine abode
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest
While others go and come,
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.”

(v12) “Blessed.” There’s that word again… Blessed is the man, the teenager, the five-year-old, the mama…

God taught me many lessons about trust during Sabbatical. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that I realized how much I need to learn about trust.

  • “Trust the guidance,” God told me. “The guidance will come.”
  • I don’t need to work and worry every minute. I can trust God. God is working, even when I’m out of town. Even when I’m sleeping.

And here’s something else. I can trust the Spirit not only to collaborate with me as I prepare sermons and share them with you, but to collaborate with you all as you hear and consider and reflect, right now, this afternoon, and in the future.

I began to think of sermons as something with a long shelf life. That a sermon’s usefulness begins at the first moment when I consider what I am to share and that the helpful things continue long after the words are spoken. That the useless ideas will be lost, but the valuable words will be like seeds that grow up in your hearts. I can trust the Spirit for all of this.

And I learned other trust lessons that I’ll spare you from right now. I’ve been assured that you all have not acquired a taste for 4-hour-long sermons while I was gone, so I’ll not give you a semi-load. I trust that I will keep learning more of these lessons while I am back here with you all, serving with Duane as your pastor. And, I trust, there will be lots more sermons to come.

For now, I want you to know how grateful I am. I could never have had those hours to read, pray, and write if you all had not given us the gift of a Sabbatical. It was restful. It was transforming. I found myself aching for God, homesick for God, and God met me. With all my heart, thank you.

And I hope you know how grateful I am to be back serving and leading at Jubilee. Duane and I love you all and admire the risks you take for God. I am grateful to be back. It makes me smile to think that we will have many more years together in the future.

Even though you’ll probably still find me carving out more silent spaces in my life during the next five years, you should know that for right now, I’d rather spend a day at Jubilee than a thousand anywhere else.

“You are the home I could never deserve.
Here I will serve, ever under your gaze,
Here I will serve, ever singing your praise.”
(from “Strong Tower”)

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