My wonderful, fruitful four-month sabbatical has come to an end. I stepped back into my work as the Enabling Minister of the Kittamaqundi Community on December 1st and yesterday was my first Sunday back in worship. The transition has been challenging--that probably goes without saying. I stepped back into a community that did not slow down a bit in my absence. On my first day back, I received dozens of emails about a dozen different projects (and a few problems). I scurried around for a couple of days trying to catch up with everything and everyone I had missed over the past four months and by Wednesday I had a sense that my sabbatical was just a dream. I was completely back into my "regular" way of living and working.
I don't want that. There are a number of habits and practices which I adopted during my sabbatical that I really want (and really need) to continue. Writing in a more focused way, for one thing. Praying more and running more. And spending time with friends and neighbors who are not part of the Kittamaqundi Community.
This last point is important for my mental health, of course, but it is also important for my ministry. KC is by no means perfect, but it is, in my experience, the healthiest and most functional community I have ever been a part of. But I know that if I let KC absorb all or most of my time and attention, I will forget about the world outside of that community. I'll stop noticing what other people need or what they care about. The more absorbed I am by KC, the less equipped I will be to enable the congregation to reach out and connect to with wider community.
I told the congregation this past Sunday about one of my favorite sabbatical practices--having people over for pie. Dan and I both love to bake, and in my opinion one of the best things about autumn is apple pie. But with Paul and Isaac gone off to college, Dan and Rosa and I discovered that we really couldn't eat a whole pie ourselves. Well, to be honest, we could eat it as all of us consider left-over pie the best breakfast. But after our first couple of pies of the season, it seemed like we were in danger of exceeding our Recommended Daily Allowance of treats.
What to do? Invite people to come eat pie with us, of course! This proved to be such a mutually-satisfying arrangement that we made our way through at least half a dozen pies this way. In the process, we connected more deeply with a number of neighbors with whom we had previously only had brief conversations. Pie helped us move acquintances towards friends.
Here's the thing: it was easier for us to invite people over for pie than it would have been to invite them to become our friends. Maybe that reveals my cowardice or my social awkwardness, or maybe it is just how the world works. We need an excuse to connect, a reason to invite someone to sit down for a moment and talk with us, a reason to open our door and ask someone to step inside. My reason these past couple of months has been pie. What's your excuse?
When I asked this question during worship on Sunday, here's what I heard: dogs, kids and a neighborhood concert series. One person told the story of a fun barter she had with her neighbor: he mowed her lawn and she played him a song on her ukelele. One person said her family hosts an annual open house for her neighbors in January.
I love all of these things. I have even asked a KC friend if I could occasionally borrow her dog to walk around the Vantage Point neighborhood because it seems that would be such a great way to meet some of the other residents. But in my experience, most of the practices we discussed on Sunday are "excuses" to talk to strangers. They are ways to move someone from stranger to acquaintance.
But how do we go to the next step and make an acquaintance a friend? I think we need to talk a bit longer than it takes for two dogs to give each other a good sniff. I think we need to give each other more attention than we can manage while also supervising a child at a playground. I think we need to look at each other in the eye and really listen to what the other is saying.
I stopped by the Food Lion on my way home from church yesterday and I saw my across-the-street neighbor there. I was tired of walking around in my dress shoes and I didn't really feel like stopping to talk, but the fact that we had just been discussing these encounters made me pause for a few minutes. "We just put our Christmas tree up," I told my neighbor. "It looks so pretty. Would you like to come by and have a cup of tea with me some afternoon this week?" She immediately accepted my invitation. I have a new excuse!