Jamie’s Sabbatical – part I
I really thought that my walk across Scotland, from Fort William to Inverness up the Great Glen, would be a solitary affair – me, my rucksack and my little guidebook. The walk was to take six days, with five over-night stops. Measured at 75 miles, with diversions to overnight stops it was more like 100 miles by the time I finished.
If you know the Great Glen, you will know that, whilst there are a few towns along the way (Drumnadrochit, Invermoriston, Fort Augustus), the options for accommodation along much of the route are a bit limited.
One of the things that surprised me most about the walk (apart from the fact that, of the six days, four were sunny – not bad for a Scottish summer!) was that it was not solitary at all. The route – well-marked and well made – was by no means crowded. About half of it follows the route of the Caledonian Canal, and the other half climbs up into the hills above Loch Ness, well away from the busy main routes through the glen. But one became aware very quickly of other walkers following a similar itinerary, and we quickly got to know one another. Several of the days were spent in long conversations with fellow walkers.
The walk followed a week spent on Iona, a place famously described by George McCleod, the founder of the Iona Community, as a ‘thin place’. By this I think he meant that a sense of God’s presence is always close at hand. Although the walk took me away from Iona, it struck me that the walk also was a ‘thin place’, in that the conversations we had quickly took us to deep and serious matters, including questions of meaning and purpose.
Pilgrimage is an ancient practice in the Christian tradition. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The recognition that when we travel together we often get to a deeper place than when we stay put in one place is surely part of the reason. Indeed, in the life of the church, we often use the idea of being on a journey to describe what the life of the church ought to be like. I would love to think that our churches are ‘thin places’ in the sense that I discovered on my walk. If people can feel that we are alongside them on their journey of life and that the things that really matter can be shared honestly and openly then we will be being true to our calling as a pilgrim people.
Jamie’s Sabbatical – part 2
There is an old adage (possibly going back to Aristotle?) The more we know, the more we realise we don’t know.
During my Sabbatical I set myself a rather peculiar challenge: on my bookshelf I still have a few of the text books I used when I studied for my biochemistry degree some 35 years ago. Most of the contents I have now forgotten, and the little I remember is hopelessly out of date. So I bought myself the latest edition of one of the books – 5 editions later – and read the book from cover to cover, all 1,400 pages! (It does also have a lot of pictures!)
Even a few months later I have still probably forgotten most of it but it was a really rewarding exercise. It was a reminder to me of how the biology of life is truly breathtaking. There is so much of the glory of creation to be found in the minute detail of the chemistry of life. Every chapter of the book ends with a brief summary of the things we don’t yet know – with an emphasis on the ‘yet’. From the point of view of the text book, I’m guessing this summary is meant as a spur to those would-be research scientists who read it.
To me, reading from a more theological perspective, what is striking is that the list of things we ‘don’t yet know’ doesn’t get any smaller or any less profound. There are ever deeper levels of understanding to be found. So, whereas 35 years ago, we might have had a good understanding of the chemical equations of life, and even fairly detailed understanding of the structure of the exquisitely complex molecules that make the chemical pathways possible, we are now getting a much clearer picture of how the individual pathways are integrated into a finely tuned system that makes life sustainable.
There are some very obvious places to go in search of the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation – a sunset, a beach, a mountain top. The pages of a text book are perhaps a less obvious place to look. But for me, in the book I read, the grandeur and glory of God is writ large.
You could say that my sabbatical was not very adventurous. For 13 weeks I never left the United Kingdom, most of the places to which I did travel being places I’d been to before.
One of the surprises for me, however, was that my sabbatical did turn out to be a truly international experience. In Cambridge I found myself sharing the college library and refectory with ministers from around the world – Canada, India, the United States – who were also on their sabbatical. We all had a genuine interest in the things we were each studying and the conversations we had were really stimulating.
Then Fran and I spent a week staying on the island of Iona, staying in a Roman Catholic retreat house. Iona draws people from all around the world and we shared a meal table there with people from Brazil, the United States, Ireland and New Zealand. On my walk across Scotland up the Great Glen, as I describe elsewhere, I spent much of the journey in conversation – again this was entirely with people who had travelled to Scotland from around the world – in particular from Germany and from the United States. For a stay-at-home sabbatical, I have come away with a remarkably global address book, with some genuine offers to visit. So perhaps, in ten years’ time when I am next due a sabbatical, I might find myself venturing a bit further! It was a privilege to share my own sabbatical journey with fellow Christians. How wonderful to come away with a real sense of being part of a global church.
Jamie’s Sabbatical – part 5
Being in Sheffield for a good proportion of the 13 Sundays of my sabbatical, I took the opportunity to worship in other churches within walking distance of our manse. Whilst I didn’t make any secret of my identity, I was largely unknown in the churches where I attended.
I tried not to treat the experience with Trip Advisor mentality – giving churches star ratings for the various aspects of their church and worship. After all, the purpose was to find somewhere I could worship that was not one of our Team churches. However I couldn’t help but observe the differences in the way the congregations picked up on there being a stranger in their midst. Several of the congregations seemed very shy of coming forward, and others seemed very pre-occupied with their internal business. Some, on the other hand, were fulsome in their welcome and it was only in two that I felt I could easily have left without having been spoken to. I wonder what the experience of a sabbatical minister would have been in our own congregation?!
The range of churches was fairly large – from traditional Anglican to Evangelical Baptist; from very quiet Quaker worship to the full band and choir of the Salvation Army! However, it was the similarities that were more striking to me. The commitment of the worship leaders – many of whom were lay-preachers – to opening up scripture for us; the strong sense of fellowship; the centrality of the challenges of an ageing profile and dwindling congregations, but a vitality and determination to hold fast to the faith.
Tempting though it might have been to have had three months of Sunday lie-ins, I’m very glad I took the opportunity to see things from the pew, and to experience a variety of styles of worship. There is always richness to be found in diversity, I find.