Discernment, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sabbatical, The Inner Landscape, The New Normal

The Open Space

The remote office.
The remote office.

When I agreed to my wife’s suggestion that I take a time of sabbatical after our wedding and my move to live with her, I did it reluctantly. I’ve been pushing hard for ten years in local church ministry, pushing to show I could support my family and pushing to show I could be useful on behalf of Jesus Christ. Laying down both those responsibilities felt strange. While it’s nice for my wife the Presbyterian pastor that I hold a high view of the call to ordained ministry and the duties appertaining thereunto, it took another kind of hard push to detach myself from them, even temporarily. Who would I be without the weekly sermon and all the preparation that contributed to its preparation — the studying and discussing and pondering and praying? the writing itself?

Who would I be without the deadline?

Furthermore, Kathryn and I built a friendship on supporting each other in the sermon-writing process, a foundation we have been inhabiting and expanding upon for almost seven years. Who would we be without that work to share?

Would the one without a sermon to write even matter?

Please be assured, that was my question, not hers.

Now, I know sabbatical derives from Sabbath. In theory, all a sabbatical ought to require is rest and worship, or, at the very least, prayer.

But I’m not wired that way.

Six Word Memoirs — go ahead, click on it.

Remember the Six Word Memoir meme from a few years ago?

Mine was as follows:

Proving I was not a mistake.

That’s a big job. How do you do it and not push?

Taking a break seemed scary.

So I:

  1. thought up a writing project
  2. made the bed every day
  3. did laundry as often as I could find enough dirty clothes to justify turning on the machine
  4. folded things and put them away in drawers and closets
  5. read a lot of books
  6. said yes to everything anyone asked me to do (social invitations, opportunities at Kathryn’s church)
  7. worked on the writing project
  8. learned my way around from the Panera to the many locations of GIANT to the Starbucks and home again
  9. cooked things from scratch, including but not limited to chicken parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, shamrock cupcakes and carrots glazed at least three different ways (maple–yum; honey-mustard–also yum; whiskey–unfreakingbelievable)

honey-im-a-lesbianBasically I aspired to be the lesbian version of a Stepford Wife.

Again, be assured, this all came out of my head.

Providentially, and referring back to the actual purpose of a sabbatical, I also prayed. This helped in numerous ways, because the past three months also included adjusting to a new family configuration, living far from my daughter, and stressing over where two of my three children will be going to school (college and grad) in the fall.

A little over two months in, I accepted an invitation to supply preach one Sunday at a church in transition. I leaned on what one of our friends calls a Sustainable Sermon, and Kathryn wasn’t preaching, so we missed the chance to prep together. We got up on Sunday morning and went our separate ways. I came home exhausted. I think I cried later. I’ve cried almost every Sunday. I miss LP the most on Sundays. And I miss my identity as pastor and preacher, but not while I’m at church, worshiping. I never miss it then. While I’m at church, I enjoy my new identity as the minister’s wife, as “Kathryn’s Martha,” which again is my way of saying it — such a retro ‘5o’s girl I am, turning my tomboy wife into the patriarch. I cry later because I wonder what’s going to become of me vocationally. What does God want from me?

On that day, however, I cried because I faced a realization growing throughout my sabbatical time: a rest from working six days a week meant I didn’t need to rest — literally — as much. I have a chronic, auto-immune disease, and I grow fatigued more easily than the average bird. Let’s just say that when I worked full time, I wasn’t glazing carrots with whiskey or anything else.

“I’m really not up to doing the job, physically,” I confided to Kathryn. I watched the expression on her face, then spoke before she did. “You already knew, didn’t you?” She nodded, slowly, carefully, lovingly.

(LP knew, too, but that’s her story to tell.)

Whatever God wants from me next, it doesn’t seem to be going back into local church ministry.

Accepting this — and there are other reasons to believe it’s true that are not part of this particular blog post — meant rolling over in my head the question of whether I had ever belonged in parish ministry. No need to reassure me. I got over it. But it was an honest phase of my existential angst. I always seem to need to go there, to prove something to myself.

I’ve grappled for five years now with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a noteworthily invisible illness. I kept insisting to myself that I was doing well, that my case wasn’t that bad, proving I could still be useful, pushing back on my fear that I would become the 21st Century equivalent of a bedridden Victorian hymn-writer.

Giving in feels like declaring defeat.

But here’s a story I’ve been saving, from my longtime blogging friend, Milton Brasher-Cunningham (buy his book, it is beautiful and has communion and baseball and poems and recipes, too), who I finally met in person last fall. Over a fantastic lunch at the Great Lost Bear in Portland, he told me about visiting a family member with a young child who played soccer. His relative remarked that the child’s team did unusually well, because of something the coach told them. All the other teams of kindergartners clustered around the ball, moving around the field in a mass of little bodies. This coach told them to look for the open space. He taught them that the open space is where you find opportunity. 

The home office.
The home office.

What does God want from me now? It’s pretty clear what the closed space is, and if I can come out of a three month sabbatical knowing that, I guess it’s something.

In the short term, I’ll test the big decision by covering a friend and colleague’s sabbatical this summer. I’ll be back in the pulpit most Sundays from May 12 to September 1, as well as handling emergencies, all very part time. I’ll be working on sermons across the desk from my wife, and if that’s not a dream come true for two girls who read their sermons to each other over Skype, I don’t know what is.

But mostly, I’m looking for the open space. And when I find it, I’m going to run.


27 thoughts on “The Open Space”

  1. You matter very much to me, and I’ve only spent 2 weeks with you in my whole life, in person, at least.
    Love the idea of looking for the open space. And thankful for all of the spaces you inhabited so well along the way to now.

  2. You are such a gifted writer. Your images just “pop”. Love the open space! And I might glaze some carrots next week. I’ll think of you. Thanks for writing.

  3. Martha, so many times you created opens spaces for me with your writing. This is beautiful and speaks some hard and beautiful truths to my heart. Thank you…

  4. Two very gifted women, you both touch my heart and have so much to contribute to those you serve in Christ’s name. Beautifully written Martha!

    1. Janet, the welcome I’ve received at MPC has been such an important part of the discernment process. I’m grateful.

  5. OK, your mission –fully accomplished–is to make me both laugh and cry, and holler “Yup, amen” and all before 5 a.m. (Mountain Daylight time). “A bedridden Victorian hymn-writer,” indeed! If I get the giggles and am turned out of the Chrism Mass this morning, it will be all on your head.
    What kind of whisky, or whiskey, exactly? Details, friend, details!
    a happy Easter to everyone in the household !!

  6. Lovely! I am experiencing something similar, although with nowhere near your grace. Your words are a wonderful gift. Thank you.

  7. I hope you get your chance to run Rev. Martha, you so deserve the opportunity! I am so happy you have such a supportive wife, who understands what you need before you do… Something we all hope for in our life partners!

  8. I may have said this to you before, but Sundays are always the most difficult, both when I have an opportunity to preach and when I don’t. And Sunday have been the most difficult the entire time we’ve been married/discerning how our calls work together (15 1/2 years at this point). Holy Week is, well, sort of like a week of Sundays.

    My “sabbatical” time didn’t come as intentionally as yours, and sometimes I feel stuck…hemmed in by responsibilities…something a bit constricting, anyway. I try to take the opportunities, the open spaces, as they come, and be grateful for them and blessed by them. Sometimes I do that more graciously than others.

    Thank you, as always, for your honesty and insight. Like others, you’ve spoken to my heart with this. Blessings to you both~

    1. Tonight was tough. I really love MaundyThursday. And I can’t sit there thinking, “Just wait til next year,” both for the health reasons because I really love being in church with K. Hence my continuing search for the open space.

  9. Parish ministry may not be your calling, but you might consider on-line pastoring! Your reflections, stories, and sermons, all experienced through this virtual space, has been a gift to me. I am wrestling with some “what does God want me to do about ______” questions myself, and your words have helped me see some things in new light. And as someone newly diagnosed with RA, I understand how the fatigue shapes what one can accomplish. May you always find the open space.

  10. You may be thinking of the prolific Fanny Crosby, who wrote about 8000 hymns while completely blind.
    I think you could write some excellent hymns, although they probably wouldn’t sound Victorian and I hope you don’t write them while bedridden.

  11. I can’t believe I waited until today to read this. Open Space.
    Love to you.

Comments are closed.