I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
- Jesus is John 15:15
How are you God’s friend? And how is God your friend? For most of my life, friendship has not been the way I have understood my relationship with God. I usually waffle between “God is my Lord, and I just say ‘yes sir!’” and “God created me and inspires me and it’s my job to make sense of the puzzle of life with God’s help.” The truth is, I often don’t understand what the master is thinking and planning.
Still I do think God has a relationship with us that is strangely best characterized as friendship. One of the earliest images of God is the one Adam and Eve go walking with “in the cool of the evening.” That sounds pretty friendly.
What does it look like to be in a close “friendly” relationship with the divine master of all that is? Strangely, this God of ours wants us to be at his side, not groveling beneath him. While no single image in our own experience is going to make complete sense of God who is always beyond our understanding and wildest dreams, there is also this real sense that God wants to take walks with us, wants to know us intimately like a good friend, wants us to be there for him as he is there for us – not just as an heroic power, but as a person who loves and cares for us.
As we prepare for the Sabbatical that is coming in September, one of the things we all will be asked to explore is what does it mean to have a faithful friendship with the Almighty? Something in us may cringe at the thought of having a buddy in the divine. And there is something right about that cringe. But there is also something strangely wrong about it. When Jesus is preparing for the cross, what he wants is some of his closest friends to pray with him, to stay awake and be there with him.
How odd of God to make us friends. Yet God is odd indeed to our ways of thinking. And we can do few things as wonderful as take some time in the cool of the evening or the middle of the night or any other time to walk and be with the one who gives us life.
One of the most spiritual and important places for me to visit on our recent pilgrimage to the Celtic Holy Land was St. Cuthbert’s Island just a mucky walk away at low tide from Lindesfarne or Holy Island in the Northeast of England. St. Cuthbert (635-687) was Lindesfarne’s bishop and abbot of the local monastery; he would go off to the little island to be alone and pray, to set aside the formidable responsibilities of his everyday work, and to rest in Sabbath peace. I think of this as I prepare to go on Sabbatical at the begin-
ning of September. I wonder if Cuthbert worried about leaving behind his people to be alone the way I am worried about being separated from you all for three months. Like the little island, this time is not forever and will be done in the blink of an eye. And it will be important for you and for me to use that blink for good prayer and rest and whatever else God throws our way. I know you all will continue without me just fine. You will have a very special interim rector in the Rev. Jen Kimball. You have a good, strong vestry to help with the daily life of the parish. And you have an amazing and gifted senior warden in Valerie Lewis. Karen Jones, our parish administrator, will continue to anchor us all as she does when I am here. All shall be well and very well!
We have been blessed to receive a Lilly Grant for this Sabbatical which will allow me to travel away and will pay for Jen’s priestly service and leadership for the three months I am gone. Jen will be here about half -time, offering the regular Sunday services, pastoral care as needed, and some time in the office. I, on the other hand, will be out of contact for the three months. Part of the requirement of the Lilly Grant – and basic good practice for a sabbatical – is to be out of the regular daily and pastoral loop of the congregation. After six plus years with you all, you are a big part of my family, and it will be a difficult spiritual discipline to be out of touch with you all for this time. Still, I know you all will take good care of each other and be in good care with the parish leadership.
The focus of the sabbatical time will be on Christian Friendship. I am not talking about a superficial coffee hour acquaintance, but deep true love and care for one another in the presence of Christ. It is strange at first glance that we will be centering ourselves on that idea by being separated. Yet part of what made Cuthbert a saint among his people even while he was still alive was his ability to separate from them for prayer and centering. He modelled that for his monks and the people of his diocese as Jesus had modelled it before him. And the people also lived their lives centered in the same prayer and peace. It will not be only my charge to go apart and rest and pray and center in God. It is also your charge during this Sabbatical. I will talk more about this in the weeks to come before we begin Sabbatical, but it is good to begin our work ahead of September. How are you in communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ? What does it mean to you to be grounded in the body of Christ? How do you live that out and how might you try something new with that as part of your Sabbatical journey? Perhaps that is as simple as taking some time the next time you have a social dinner with some of your church friends to say: “Let’s talk for a minute about a special experience we have had at church or with God.” Perhaps that is too mechanical and there is something else that would be meaningful. There will be a couple opportunities that Jen will offer in some form in the course of my time away. Perhaps those will give you direction. I prepare for Sabbatical with about equal part excitement and trepidation. But my expectations are high. I expect God is working in us to do things we can hardly yet imagine. And when I return this coming Advent season, I expect that we will all be more deeply and truly friends in Christ and that grounding will make us better ministers of God’s Grace and love.
God’s Peace, Gary+
The Very Rev. Gary Barker