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An End … And A New Beginning

Last November I declared “midlife sabbatical is over.”  In the aftermath of the election, I felt called to apply my skills more intensively in places where they could make a difference—I just couldn’t watch from the sidelines of sabbatical any longer.  At that time, I had no idea what shape this might take.  Now I do.

There have been a few twists and turns along the way, but last week I was offered, and accepted, the position of Chief Network Officer at Care Oregon, a nonprofit health plan serving the health care needs of low-income Oregonians.  I begin work March 27.

In so many respects, this new role is the fulfillment of my goals of sabbatical.  As I wrote in my first post over four years ago, “sabbatical has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something.”  What have I achieved?  Among many things, what stands out for me right now is rest, perspective, and motivation.

Rest has been essential.  The Hebrew Torah teaches shmita, or release, the commandment to desist from working the fields every seventh year.  Like many, I had gone more than 30 years without this rest, and my reservoir was depleted.  It has been true privilege for me to have this time to replenish, and I am now brimming with energy.  It’s time to put this to good use.

Perspective has been helped by trying out many new possibilities.  Biblical scholarship.  Creative writing.  Youth development.  Spiritual direction.  Independent consulting.  Playing for the Kansas City Royals (OK, only in my dreams).  What became clear over time, though, is that my heart remains drawn to what it has always been drawn to—working in close teams with talented people to accomplish difficult, worthwhile goals.

But what was my “worthwhile” now?  First, it became clear that I could make the biggest impact by using the skills that I spent all those years building and honing in the world of healthcare.  And I have been encouraged by promising developments here in Oregon, where we have begun taking a more holistic, integrated view of health and well-being, and a more coordinated approach to serving our low-income and otherwise marginalized populations.  I have cared deeply about these issues my entire career, and my excitement has grown as I have observed substantive changes and promising preliminary results.  It became clear to me that I had found, to borrow the words of Frederick Buechner, “the place where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

And I couldn’t have found a better place and role to focus my heart and skills than the one I am stepping into at Care Oregon.  In the past month, I have met with over a dozen people there, and without exception I felt great about the people I met, and a strong sense of fit with the mission, values, culture, and competence of the organization.  I simply couldn’t be happier.

As for my work on my M.Div., I should have no problem completing my current class, and I hope to finish up the degree as time and opportunity permits.  For now, though, my work on the degree will take a back seat to my new job, and I’m good with that.

Those who have known me for a long time know my fondness for using the Monty Python phrase “And now for something completely different …” to communicate my major life transitions.  It’s come true once more, and I hope that we all live long enough to see me use it again.  But for now, and I hope for a long time to come, I’m exactly where I want to be, and I’m looking forward to this new beginning.

Midlife Sabbatical is Over

Seriously.  But it’s OK.  It might even be a good thing …

Wherever one sits on the political spectrum, we all agree that something shifted on Election Night.  As with most earthquakes, the pressure had been building for some time but the magnitude and fracture lines were not as predicted.  Whether devastated or elated, all are disoriented by the event.

I began my midlife sabbatical four years ago with the goals of rest, renewal, and personal growth, and I have been richly rewarded in more ways than I can count.  I have also been “listening for what comes next,” probing a variety of possible callings, and seeking to be of service in small ways while waiting for way forward to open.  The waiting has sometimes been a challenge, but the process has always been a joy.  Today, though, continuing in this mode no longer feels like “way forward.”  Things shifted, and I feel led to re-engage with the needs of the world more intensely.  Sabbatical must be laid down for a while.

There is an economic dimension to this.  I retired early knowing fully that our assets were only a bit more than adequate to fund our goals for our remaining years.  This is still true, thanks to a strong market over the past four years, but I feel less confident going forward.  Moreover, if Obamacare is repealed both Diane and I may become uninsurable (due to histories of cancer) until we qualify for Medicare in four years. We still consider ourselves extraordinarily blessed, but rejoining the workforce offers us greater long-term stability and helps us to sustain our giving to the causes we cherish.

Still, the greater calling for me is to apply my skills more intensively in places where they can make a difference.  I don’t know what this looks like yet, but the need feels like it just got bigger.  My sabbatical has offered me opportunities to engage a bit in work related to youth development, homelessness, and the healthcare needs of our most economically marginalized, areas that now seem more vulnerable and urgent than ever.  Seminary classes have given me skills and perspectives that equip me to make new contributions, and now the time feels right to plunge back in.

This means letting go of a few things that I have come to enjoy, especially the flexibility to exercise, hike, meet up with people, and travel when I please—but I did these things before sabbatical, so I just need to work harder to schedule them.  I also may feel the need to lay down seminary classes for a bit (I still have 13 left)—I will wait and see how that goes.  These seem like small sacrifices relative to the need.

In my pre-dawn reflections today I drew an analogy between the election results and Pearl Harbor—perhaps this event would open our eyes to the struggles with darkness that have welled up around us and rally us to push back the tide.  But I also see an analogy to the German elections of 1933, when a seismic shift took place that presaged the horror to come, a time that many came to look back on and ask themselves, “If only we had acted then …”

I don’t want to watch from the sidelines of sabbatical any longer.  I don’t know what difference I can make, but it won’t be for lack of engagement.

Stomach for the Fight

I live in a place of tension, at least in my spiritual life, as I have worshipped within a community of evangelical Quakers for more than twenty years.  In the broader public consciousness, both evangelicals and Quakers have distinctive reputations that have little to do with each other.  My friend Mike noted that evangelical Quakers are a bit like satyrs and sphinxes—the incongruous conjoining of incompatible beings.  But, he continued, evangelicals and Quakers are united in the belief that Christ has the desire and the power to completely transform individuals to become more in God’s likeness.  This, at least in theory, is more powerful than any differences, and many Quakers in the U.S. are, in fact, affiliated with evangelical meetings.

Quakers are also rightly noted for certain beliefs and practices that are, or have been at times, at odds with mainstream society and, in particular, mainstream Christianity.  Since their founding around 1650, Quakers have believed gender and race pose no barriers to full participation in the life of the church, and our history has been blessed with outstanding leaders reflecting this diversity.  Quakers took up the cause of abolition around 1770 and played a key role in convincing the broader Christian community that slavery is incompatible with Biblical teaching.  Quakers of all stripes continue to hold a strong peace testimony that remains unacceptable to the majority of Americans today.

Quaker discernment regarding same-sex relationships and, more broadly, LGBTQ equality has followed a more uneven and difficult path.  Some Quaker meetings, often those less Biblically oriented, affirmed LGBTQ equality more than twenty years ago, while others needed more prolonged discernment to find the Light on this matter between the leadings of the Spirit and the words of the Bible, and still others see Biblical prohibitions against same-sex behavior to be so clear as to preclude consideration.  My own meeting, West Hills Friends, falls in the middle of this spectrum, spending a decade in discernment before reaching unity in affirming committed same-sex relationships in 2008.

At first our affirmation went unnoticed by Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends (NWYM), the broader community of evangelical Quakers in our region, but as the political tides in the U.S. began to shift on this topic, West Hills Friends became a focal point of conflict within NWYM.  Our position was deemed “shattering” to the Yearly Meeting and, after two years spent seeking a path of reconciliation that would restore a sense of unity, we were “released”/removed/expelled in late July.

Throughout our discernment process and the subsequent conflict, many friends and family have said to me, “I don’t know how you find the stomach for this fight.  Why don’t you just leave and affiliate with people who believe as you do?”  The same question has been posed to our meeting by well-meaning outsiders.  I think this is a tremendously important question to consider, as it transcends LGBTQ equality and speaks more broadly to what it means to live in community.

First, a central tenet of Quakerism is that God’s Light is in each person, but each person only holds part of that Light—it is by sharing our Light in community and learning from the Light of others that we come to a more complete understanding of God.  As a consequence, every time we choose to separate ourselves from people who see things differently, the full breadth of understanding available through living in a diverse community gets diminished for everyone.  However strongly I may disagree with someone in my community, I believe we have greater potential for learning and growth by remaining in a community that embraces the tension of conflict than by going off to our own echo chambers of like-minded individuals.  The key to this in any community is respect.

Second, my experience convinces me that there are LGBTQ people within all of our communities—whether community is defined by place of worship, work, or living, or whether LGBTQ orientation manifests itself as out, questioning, closeted, or in denial.  Our testimony as a meeting has brought life-giving light to many evangelical Quakers and other Christians in our region, helping them to affirm and grow their faith despite the hostility and rejection they may have felt in other churches.  I have seen how important our witness is to so many outside of West Hills—eight other NWYM meetings and, separately, more than 220 named individuals have appealed our expulsion—so I am not willing to walk away from these dear friends, especially with the increased sense of vulnerability caused by our expulsion.  After all, NWYM is their community, too, irrespective of the action of some in leadership.  We need to protect those who are wounded from further hurt, but not abandon the fight.

More broadly, I’m staying engaged because this is where the fight needs to be fought.  I understand the intent behind the statement “I don’t believe you change hearts—you change laws,” and I’m grateful for the recent progress in changing laws, but I believe changing hearts is important, too.  Much resistance to LGBTQ equality today is centered in groups that identify as evangelical Christian, and their resistance is not going to be reduced by screaming at them from the other side of the barricades or by pulling away into our own separate bubbles.  As a straight person, I feel less vulnerable to hurt from those who are not loving and respectful toward LGBTQ friends, and I feel like I have a role to play in building bridges with unconvinced evangelicals.

As an evangelical Quaker I believe Christ can transform each human being, but I also accept that true transformation comes from God working within each of us.  As my friend Mike noted, we need to leave room for people to tap into a power that is beyond our control.  We have now been asked to take our Light outside of the tent of the Yearly Meeting, and perhaps by stepping outside we can help provide that room.  But I plan to stand just outside the door of that tent, so that our Light stays visible to all within that seek it, and so we can remain in dialog with those for whom our foundation of shared values and beliefs are stronger than our disagreements.  And I think I will have the stomach to stand there for a long, long time.

Rooftops in Pushkar

I should have known better …  In embarking upon my trip to India this past January—undertaken as part of my seminary program at the Earlham School of Religion—I somehow thought I would be able to blog in real time, capturing and communicating new experiences as they took place.  Not a chance …  Not only was there minimal time for free writing, given the volume of reading and journaling required for the class, but, more significantly, the intensity of the encounters and the foreign-ness of India left me—and all of us—literally dumbstruck, requiring extended time for decompression and reflection before the words and images were ready to flow from my fingertips.  And then there was my spring semester, plus the consulting work I added on top of that.  But now I am enjoying the down days of summer, and it is time to write …

As my memories unfold in my mind, I find they are organized around pairings of place and people:  the desert jewel of Pushkar and the yoga teacher upon whose rooftop we practiced three hours a day; the ashram in Rishikesh, perched above the sacred Ganges River, and the Hindu wise men at whose feet we sat and learned; the village of McLeod Ganj, above Dharamsala, with neck-craning views to Himalayan peaks and Tibetan Buddhist monks living in exile from their homeland; the Punjabi city of Amritsar, with its astounding Golden Temple and the Sikhs who come from all over the world to worship there; and Delhi, India’s capital city for centuries, where I spent my final day with my new best friend.

I am eager to immerse myself once again among these fascinating places and people, and to share them with all my friends who did not join me on this journey.  So let’s begin … in Pushkar.

I spent a lot of time on open-air balconies and rooftops throughout India, as they offer a unique combination of immersion and detached perspective.  From these places, usually two to four stories above the street, one can observe while being unobserved, and focus fully on the sights, sounds, and smells without needing to pay attention to navigation and or interacting with others. No place was the viewing better than Pushkar, a town of 15,000 several hours southwest of Delhi, in the desert state of Rajasthan.  I awoke each morning before dawn and ascended to the open-air rooftop.  These notes captured my experience there:

“It is 6:30 am and there is just the faintest light in the sky over the mountains to the east of me.  I am gazing toward a bright moon—one day past full—hanging in the western sky, with a brilliant Jupiter looming just over it.  But my primary sensory inputs are auditory.  Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India, said to be created by Brahma, and it contains one of the only temples dedicated to Brahma, built in the 14th Century.  Today Pushkar has about 500 temples, and I am surrounded on all sides by sounds emanating from them.  From one comes the sound of rapid drumming on a tabla, with a man singing in a high register, the whole chant moving toward a frenzied conclusion.  From another I hear a slow, deep, sonorous chant, echoing as if from some cavernous space.  From yet another comes the clanging of bells hung from chains.  Now another sound has started up in the far distance, this one sounding like a brass horn, joined by a chant in a mid-range register.  It would take weeks, if not months or years, to visit each source of these sounds, much less to understand the religious stories and historical events that led to their construction.


“Occasionally I have been interrupted by sounds from just across the street, where a team of about 20 camels resides, along with their tenders.  At one point I heard a scratching sound and saw that a tender was sweeping the dust from the front of the stand from where they will sell rides to tourists like me.  Two days ago I stood at this stand in the mid-afternoon sun and watched them organize the team for our group, decorating each camel with colorful saddles and bridles.  I focused on one man in particular and reflected on questions to which I will never know the answer:  What kind of home do you return to?  How well are you able to meet your basic needs through this living?  Do you hope for your son to make his living this way?  Two hours later, as we boarded the camels, I got a little closer to the answers.  The tender for my camel was a young boy of 10 or 11.  Regrettably, neither my Hindi nor his English allowed us to exchange more than a few words, but as we walked through the outskirts of town and out into the surrounding countryside, one could see the pride with which the tenders paraded their animals and the respect and friendliness with which they were greeting by their acquaintances in the street.  As I say to myself so often in India, theirs is a reality that seems harsh to me, but I hesitate to consider it lesser—it feels arrogant for me to judge by my western standards, especially when there is so much for which we rightly come under judgment by their standards.”

Morning Yoga

It has been six months now since I wrote these words, but in my mind I can still feel the warmth of the morning sun as we gathered on another rooftop in Pushkar for yoga.  For three hours each morning we were led through cleansing and breathing exercises as well as many asanas (poses)—some familiar to me, some new—by the wise, kind, and humble Dr. Kamal Pandey, in his “studio” on a rooftop facing the Old Rangji Temple.  Our group had a wide range of experience and skill with yoga, and in the best teaching tradition he “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable” so that all could have a positive developmental experience.  I also took advantage of his offer of an hour of reflexology and ayurvedic massage, and through both the spoken word and the medium of touch, we came to a deeper understanding of each other’s life story.  His lessons permanently influenced my daily morning routine, and provided a perfect “opening” to the discoveries that lay ahead for me in India.