Friday, May 31, 2013

In praise of puttering

As I caught up on back issues of The Christian Century, I came across a wonderful article by Rodney Clapp (click here to see it online).

I'm not sure how long the whole article will appear on the magazine's website, so I put some of the best parts here - and remind you that you can subscribe to this wonderful publication by clicking here. I would also recommend anything written by Rodney Clapp; his book Tortured Wonders is particularly good.

This is about the best description I've ever read of my "day off" on Fridays. I imagine a lot of sabbatical days like this:

The art of puttering

In our hypermediated age, there is much talk of multitasking. Multitaskers come equipped with Internet connections and attempt to engage several tasks with their keyboards, televisions and music players. The multitasker is marked by flitting, fractured attention and a sustained sense of urgency. Since multitasking is mediated by communication devices, it concentrates on the virtual world rather than the physical world surrounding the multitasker.
An older but not entirely lost practice is known as puttering. I know puttering is not a lost art because my spouse, Sandy, and some friends engage in it regularly. Sandy, as an expert putterer, will start a load of wash, then grade some papers (she is a teacher), check her e-mail, do some dusting, then pay some bills. Puttering differs from multitasking in that most of it is grounded in the actual, physical world. Puttering is also marked by a gentle, even leisurely rhythm; it involves moving back and forth from one chore to another at a sedate pace. Puttering, unlike multitasking, is not marked by a sense of urgency. Puttering allows for breaks in the work, for a cup of coffee or even a burst of play.
. . . In the spirit of playfulness and with puttering in mind, we could visit anew the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38–41. Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. “She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”
Perhaps the main difference between Mary and Martha is that Mary knows how to putter and Martha does not. Martha is so task-oriented that she is “distracted.” She can see her service only as a series of urgent tasks. She is unable to imagine and enact a rhythm of puttering, of moving unhurriedly from one task to another and taking time to pause—to pause, in this case, to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him speak. Mary, on the other hand, knows how to putter. She follows the gentle rhythms of puttering and takes time to stop and devote attention to their visitor.
. . . Like Mary, the putterer has time to listen, to mull things over, to attend to the day mindfully and meditatively. Putterers are at peace with the world—the actual, physical world in front of them—and their work. They are not “worried and distracted by many things” but instead move in and among their chores at ease.
. . . Puttering leaves or opens space for a frequent and leisurely return to prayer throughout the day. Its rhythms are freeing and relaxing. Putterers have “chosen the better part, which will not be taken away” from them.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A pre-sabbatical letter to my congregation

Here is the church newsletter article that I have written prior to my departure . . .

Dear Friends,

     As you have probably heard, I will depart for a three-month pastoral sabbatical after worship on Sunday, June 16. I am grateful to the Session and the Presbytery for making this gift of time available to me and my family. This is a tremendous blessing, and I look forward to returning to you on Sunday, September 15.

     We are particularly blessed to have a grant from the Lilly Endowment to make this sabbatical possible. Thanks to the grant, the Rev. Roger Griffith has been hired by the Session to preach each week and provide pastoral continuity in my absence. Many of you know him from his work at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Dallas, from which he retired last September. You will find him to be a friendly and warm leader, and I am thrilled that we were able to secure him. He will be available for pastoral care at any time, and you can contact him through our church office.

     Pastoral sabbaticals have emerged in the past two decades as essential practices for long-term pastorates. They provide for an extended break from the day-in, day-out demands of pastoral ministry. While my work is not physically demanding, it does require constant availability, emotional energy, spiritual presence, mental clarity, organizational oversight, and an enormous level of patience.  I love what I do – yet a break will be good for my spiritual well-being.

    In the distant past, it was common, for instance, for the Presbyterian pastor to take the month of July as vacation time, and the United Methodist pastor to take off for August. The churches would worship together during those two months and the pastors would cover for one another during this “quieter” time.  Of course, a church like ours never has a “quieter” time; the pace is constant, energy is high. And as dual-income households became the norm, this practice disappeared. “Down time” for most of us is often scheduled in small chunks – and I find that time is short for truly resting from the emotional demands of ministry.

     So I am trying to imagine an extended Sabbath time of peace and restoration. What will I do this summer? Here is a random list of things to be done at a very leisurely pace:
  • Retreat in a Benedictine monastery
  • Spend significant time with my family
  • Read a few of my many unread books 
  • Chat regularly with a spiritual director
  • Take three daughters on a pilgrimage to Scotland
  • Get caught up on some sleep
  • Enjoy my parents, my brother and sisters, and my grandmother
  • Travel with a high school friend to a jazz festival
  • Listen to other preachers do what I do
  • Allow creative new ideas to bubble up
  • Hike with my wife in the mountains and plot out the impending “empty nest”
  • Pray for the church that I love  
  • Sit in a favorite chair to watch the squirrels
  • Reflect on my life, my work, and God’s grace
     That is how the season of Sabbath will probably look for me. I hope it is a season when you can make the time to replenish your soul as well. As I will say in my sermon on June 16, Sabbath is God’s gift to us – and we must claim it if it is to have any benefit.

     As mentioned elsewhere, I have started an online journal. It will be a great way to keep in touch while I am gone. You can find it at

Holding you in my heart until I see you in September,

Rev. Bill Carter

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I love to preach, but . . .

In nearly twenty-eight years, I have preached about 1260 different sermons, not counting the homilies at weddings and funerals.

If I add the sermons that I have preached at a second service, plus the occasional ones that I have preached at a conference, a radio show, or somewhere on the road, that's about 2100 occasions when I have stood in a pulpit to preach.

The early ones were composed on a Smith Corona typewriter. A few were written by hand on a yellow legal pad. My first computer was an IBM PC Junior, which has been replaced by as many twelve other laptop or desktop computers.

About three hundred sermons were written on a program called Writing Assistant and saved on 5-1/4" floppy discs. Years later if anybody had ever said that I would save them on "the cloud," I would have laughed. That would have sounded like science fiction.

That's a lot of sermons! Someone suggested I can practically put together a sermon in my sleep and preach it while somebody else is sleeping. Maybe so. But I can count the number of sermons on one hand that came easily; every one is the product of lots and lots of labor. They need to be coaxed inside.

This summer, I will sit in front of other preachers for a dozen Sundays. Can't wait! One of the deficits of being a preacher is you can get distracted by your own voice. Even though I have a small mountain of recorded sermons by the masters (on cassette tapes, no less), there is no substitute for listening to a pastor speak to the people that she or he loves. So that's part of the summer plan: to listen to other preachers do what they do best.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who are these Lilly folks?

I am deeply grateful that my sabbatical is underwritten by a grant through the Lilly Endowment. We were fortunate to be selected in a competitive national grant program for clergy and their congregations.

Here is what the program website says about the grant program:
  • Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private philanthropic foundation, seeks to strengthen Christian congregations by providing an opportunity for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. Renewal periods are not vacations, but times for intentional exploration and reflection, for drinking again from God's life-giving waters, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry. To this end, Lilly Endowment provides funds to enable the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary to make grants to congregations supporting their pastors' renewal experiences.
Where did this endowment come from? Eli Lilly was a Civil War vet and "chemist" (i.e. pharmacist) who made a home in Indianapolis after the war. He began a pharmaceutical company in 1876 that grew and grew. The company became the first mass manufacturer of insulin, penicillin, and the polo vaccine. In recent decades, they have produced Prozac and Cialis, among many others.

Yet as his wealth grew, Mr. Lilly kept strong charitable concerns which were passed on to his children and grandchildren. The endowment that bears their name is worth billions of dollars, with a significant portion directed toward religious communities and their leaders. It would be no exaggeration to declare that the Lilly Endowment is one of the great supporters of American religion.

This is the fourth grant that I have received from the Lilly Endowment. A grant administered through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (2002) underwrote the development of jazz worship materials for the church. My first pastoral sabbatical (2006) was funded through a now-discontinued program administered by the Louisville Institute. Another grant from the Louisville Institute (2008) equipped me to develop the themes that emerged from the summer of 2006. In addition, I was asked to serve on a grant selection team for the Louisville Institute, preach at a grant event for pastors, and write up an essay about my discoveries for the 2006 sabbatical. I have enjoyed a fruitful and beneficial relationship with the Endowment, and I am deeply grateful for their support.

To read the national press release for our grant, click here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

An acre of memories

Today I take a walk among the tombstones. After we enjoy the Memorial Day parade, I will travel uphill for a couple of blocks and take greetings to the people we have lost.

Death is the recurring companion of the pastor. After a few hundred funerals, you cease to fear it. Yet each loss remains real. Each departure diminishes us. Each stone marks a story. So I will walk among my silent congregation for a while and I will remember.

What stories! The widowed school teacher who never had children of her own, but left an impression on a thousand adopted grandchildren. The henpecked man who finally found peace when he laid down for the last time. The jovial funeral director whose cancer went undiagnosed until it was too late. The pretty wife whose husband never paid attention to her, even when she was dying. The teenager who concluded his own pain. The old Veteran who survived the war but didn't wake up one autumn morning. The ancient couple that died within days of one another. The young infant who never had a chance.

These stories are the stuff of the pastoral life. We officiate as people grieve, making their grief official, bearing it with them for a while, pointing them beyond it, suggesting the Spirit's presence in the thick of it. I would be lying if I did not confess how my work as Grief Officiant quietly affects me. John Donne said it right: Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

So I walk among the stones today. In time, each story loses its shock but not its value. Wisdom is learned from the dead. We calculate what it important by paying attention to the lives that have gone before us. We learn to love by seeing the incalculable value of each child of God. The wise ones pause to number their own days.

I stop at the stones whose stories I know. "Hello again," I say. "We miss you. We wish you peace in your silence." They smile on us, these quiet saints. Their troubles are over, their joy fulfilled.

After I say goodbye once again, I depart a different man. Love changes me.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

On composing a goodbye letter

I need to write a "see you in the fall" letter for the church newsletter. It's a week past the deadline, so I will need to get that done some time tomorrow and slide it in just in time for printing.

Hmm . . . why is it taking so long for me to write the letter? I know what I want to say ("I love all of you, I'm looking forward to a time of rest and refreshment, and yes, I'll be back on September 15"). But words on a page will make the sabbatical departure real. And there is a lot to finish before I depart in three weeks.

Meanwhile, today was a busy day: worship with preaching, conversations with church leaders, updates with people in need of care, planning time for next week's confirmation service, lunch with former church members who are passing through town, a lengthy meeting with a couple who will be married in the fall. When I arrive home at 4:30, I loosen my necktie and collapse into the couch. A good day, a full day. Today it is hard to imagine an extended pause in my work.

Maybe that's why I am dragging my feet in writing the letter.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Somebody's praying, Lord...

Ever receive a wonderful gift?

At tonight's meeting of our sabbatical planning team, someone had a great idea: "How about if we pray for you and your family each Sunday while you are gone?" Wow. They plan to remember us while we are absent. Each week, recalling where we have been, holding us in prayer.

This is an extraordinary gift. I take it very seriously and I am grateful. Please keep us in prayer. I will do the same for you.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Planning ahead

A lot of planning surrounds a sabbatical. Right now, we are planning for the fall program at the church. A full slate of adult education classes has been sketched out. The planning team for our arts series has selected a number of concerts and events.

And in a couple of weeks, we will have our major planning conference with our worship staff, in order to map out all the worship services for the next thirteen months -- all the hymns, all the scripture lessons, even the sermon titles!

We have been doing some of this planning for years, but with the sabbatical just a month away, it is all the more important. If we have a clear idea of what we are doing in the fall, it will be much, much easier to relax in the summer.

Meanwhile the time is ticking down. What's on the calendar before I leave? Three baptisms, a round of ordinations and commissions, a time to welcome the confirmation class into church membership, and a time to recognize the 2013 graduates. One of them is going to preach a sermon with me on the first Sunday of June!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

So what do you do with a lot of time?

My friend Steve Ebling is taking a four month sabbatical from his church in Indiana. In his departing letter to his congregation, he blesses them as any pastor should. He assures them that he will return. And then he mentions one of the blessings of his sabbatical: "I won't be keeping a daily to-do list." 

Can you imagine? By no means is he announcing his laziness. I know Steve well enough to know that he will probably struggle to sit still, just as I will. He has undoubtedly charted out some activities, and will certainly spend some time with a fishing pole in his hand. But I am interested in his Declaration of Independence. All that unscripted space on the calendar! What shall we do with it?

Folks who found themselves abruptly unemployed have reported that an open calendar is a time of exposure. It reveals who we really are. If the only definition of ourselves is "worker," we may discover a profound poverty of spirit when we stop working. Who am I when I do not punch the clock? What is my life all about when I do not bear a work title?

I have known plenty of folks in my pastoral work who were ready for a transition, or at least a downshift to a slower gear. When one high-achiever announced an early retirement a few years ago, I asked, "What are you going to do with your time?" She replied, "Anything I want." It wasn't long before her true priorities were revealed in how she spent her time.

As I look over the calendar for my sabbatical time, I'm trying very hard not to fill up every moment. That is difficult for me. Certainly there are some events that are nailed down. One can't show up unannounced at a airline counter to ask, "Can you give me a ride?" nor appear at a monastery guest house to say, "Got a room for a couple of nights?"

A schedule allows for anticipation to build. I know, for instance, that shortly after the sabbatical commences, I will take my two daughters to Washington D.C. for a few days. One of them has a two-day college orientation. And her sister and I will be . . . well, we have no idea what we are going to do! Probably visit a few of the tourist sites, eat some Thai food, and have a good bit of city fun. I can't wait. Even the unscripted time together in the car will be fertile time for the three of us.

What is most helpful is the advice of my spiritual director: "The spiritual life is always invitation, not obligation." Rather than focus on what must be done, I have some time to listen for the Spirit's prompting, even if it is the invitation to sit still. That seems right. Just right.