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AN INVITATION TO AWE

Many months ago, I was sitting in our weekday morning prayer service, leading the responsive reading of Psalm 78, the psalm assigned for that day in the lectionary. Five of us were gathered in the chapel working our way through the psalmist’s review of God’s goodness and Israel’s ingratitude, when verse 11 leapt right off the page and lodged itself in my heart:

 

“They forgot what God had done, and the miracles that God had shown them.”

 

They forgot. We are no different. We too can forget. We don’t intend to, but sometimes we forget.  The sense of wonder that first draws people of faith into relationship with God often fades over time. Awe gives way to routine, to exhaustion, or to doubt. Even faithful clergy and good churchgoing disciples are not immune to this waxing and waning of awe. But forgetting does not have to be permanent. If we can forget what God has done, we can also remember. When we are intentional about noticing and giving thanks for God’s presence in the world and in our lives, I believe we can rediscover our sense of awe.

 

For the months of April, May, and June, I will step away fully from church life for a season of rekindling my own awe at the wonders of God, thanks to the generosity of a Clergy Renewal Grant from the Lilly Endowment. Each of the activities I have planned for my time away are designed to foster opportunities for being awestruck by the wonder and majesty of God. You can read an overview of these activities below. Some of the plans are grand and some are ordinary, but either way, throughout my time away, the prayer I hope to say most often during the period of Renewal Leave is this: “Wow, God. Wow.”

 

As I prepare to begin my sabbatical after Easter Sunday, I want to invite the entire St. Alban’s community to join me in a season of experiencing awe. This Sunday, there will be a gift waiting for you in the narthex when you come for worship. Each household will receive a copy of the book Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott, plus a prayer journal in which to record your own “Wow” moments, and other prayers too. (I will be keeping my own prayer journal during my time away.)

 

Lamott’s book has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She writes about prayer with honesty, encouragement, and plenty of humor. In particular, her chapter “Wow” has enriched my own prayer life considerably. I hope you will find it meaningful too. In May, our clergy Kevin, Leslie, and Valerie will lead a series of Sunday morning conversations on the three chapters of Help Thanks Wow.

 

So make sure you pick up your gift. As you do, please know that I will be savoring every moment of our Holy Week and Easter together, that I will miss you very much while I am gone, and that I will come back full of immense gratitude and excitement for returning to the ministry with you that I cherish so deeply.

 

Yours in Christ,

Carmen

 

P.S. I should add a quick reminder that, to allow my sabbatical time to be truly effective and renewing, I will not be in contact for the duration of my leave. This includes e-mail, phone/text, and communications via my family, who you will still see around most Sundays. Our amazing staff and vestry will ensure that the ministries of St. Alban’s continue without missing a beat. If you need pastoral support during this time, I know you will be in excellent hands with The Rev. Kevin Lloyd, The Rev. Deacon Valerie Davis, and The Rev. Leslie Steffensen. Thank you for honoring this boundary and for all of your gracious support of this opportunity for me.

 

 

CARMEN’S SABBATICAL OVERVIEW:

 

Celestial Awe

To begin the sabbatical, my family and I will travel north to put ourselves in the path of a rare astronomical event: a total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. We will watch as the moon briefly aligns itself with the sun, casting a mysterious darkness all around save for a perfect corona of light. God’s handiwork in creating our amazing universe will be on full display. The wonder and majesty of such a rare event is sure to result in many “Wow!” prayers.

 

Mountaintop Awe

There is a reason pivotal events in scripture often take place at the summits of mountains. Whether Moses on Mount Sinai, or Peter, James, and John with Jesus on Mount Tabor, there is something powerful and awe-inspiring about the perspective that comes from a mountaintop ascent. But climbing an apex alone can be lonely and unsafe. I am blessed to have a phenomenal group of local clergy colleagues. We come from different denominations and racial/ethnic backgrounds, but we are all women pastors with experience leading complex systems. These sisters in ministry are a source of joy and companionship for me. To nurture these relationships, we have planned a mountain retreat with time and space for silence, prayer, reading, conversation, hiking, and more. We will come back down from the mountains renewed and refreshed, having deepened our relationships with one another and with God.

 

Quotidian Awe

I won’t be traveling the entire 3 months. I have planned for more than half of my sabbatical to be unstructured time at home, allowing space for lifegiving activities that I rarely have enough time or energy to fully enjoy. I trust that plenty of awe will be experienced as I spend with my family, take daily walks, dig in the garden, read some good books, and perhaps write some poetry. I don’t know if I will accomplish anything worthy of awe during this time, but that’s not the point. The focus of the sabbatical is rekindling a sense of God’s awesomeness, not my own. If you see me around town during this time, feel free to say hello! I will be happy to chat with you—I just ask that we not discuss any church business, to allow my time away to be as restorative as possible.

 

Apostolic and Oceanic Awe

I’ve always been hesitant to preach the Epistles. When crafting my sermons, I tend to go most often to the Gospels, and then to the Hebrew scriptures. But in the early months of the pandemic, I began to feel a kinship with Paul. During that period of physical distance from the people of St. Alban’s, I came to understand something of what it must have been like to pastor a community from afar, as Paul did. Suddenly, I found myself drawn to his letters and gleaning much inspiration from them. He wrote to the Christians of Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Rome, and elsewhere, offering encouragement and instruction on living faithfully in community, from hundreds of miles away. And he was able to live out such an effective ministry to these communities because he kept rekindling his own sense of awe at what Christ had done for him. That’s why the next phase of Renewal Leave is designed as a pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey by boat. How miraculous it will be to look out onto the same vast turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea that Paul sailed! By embarking on this journey, I hope to deepen my own burgeoning appreciation for Paul and his writings, rekindling in myself the same sense of awe that sustained his own decades-long ministry with God’s people.

 

Architectural Awe

I will conclude my sabbatical with a pilgrimage to Great Britain (and beyond) to visit some of the cathedrals and other architectural marvels of our Christian and Anglican heritage. For centuries, the faithful have built churches and cathedrals for the purpose of glorifying God through their beauty and splendor. Entering these spaces is always a “Wow” experience for me. So my family and I will travel across the pond to admire some of these architectural wonders. While we will surely learn some history and drink some tea along the way, our main goal will be to visit these sacred spaces, and simply allow ourselves to feel awe at the talented artists who designed them, and the amazing God who inspired them. Some of the sites on our list are Iona Abbey, St. Giles and St. Mary’s in Edinburgh, Coventry, Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Christ Church in Oxford, the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, and St. Paul’s, all in London, and Notre Dame (the outside) and Sacre Coeur in Paris. But the cathedral I am most excited to see is St. Alban’s, which we will visit on the Feast of Alban the Martyr, June 22-23. While you all are celebrating the Feast of St. Alban in Davidson, we will attend the festivities in Great Britain, complete with a parade, a special worship service, and a dramatic retelling of the story of Alban, a man who was so devoted to Jesus that he gave his life to save the priest who shared the Gospel with him.

 

An Awesome Reunion

I haven’t even left yet, and I am already so excited about coming back! When we are reunited on June 30, I will have much to share, and so will you. We will plan some opportunities for me to tell stories from my sabbatical, and for you to share your own “Wow” moments if desired. Together, we will make sure we do not forget the miracles God has done for us.

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