Reflections on the Ending of a Sabbatical—and on the Year Ahead

I’ve been on sabbatical from Northeastern Seminary throughout the Fall semester of 2016. It’s been a well-needed break from teaching, so I could work on a research and writing project I’ve wanted to dig into for a while.

My teaching for the Spring 2016 semester ended in early May. That meant I was able to get started on my planned research at the start of summer 2016.

With the sabbatical now over, I’m getting into gear to begin teaching again this week. I’ve just realized that it will be my twenty-second year of full-time teaching (I started at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in January 1996, having done quite a bit of adjunct teaching in the previous eight years).

It is also coming up on my third anniversary of blogging (my first post was February 15, 2014).

Plus, yesterday was my birthday.

So this seems like be a good time to reflect:

  • on my sabbatical
  • on blogging
  • on getting older.

It turns out these three are all connected.

My Sabbatical

The first thing to say is that there wasn’t much “Sabbath” (that is, rest) in my sabbatical; I worked very hard almost the entire time (I only took a break leading up to Christmas). But then a sabbatical these days is meant to be for academic work (usually for research and writing). Indeed, I had to put in a proposal over a year in advance to justify my sabbatical (which comes after, not in, the seventh year).

This was only my third ever sabbatical.

My first came while I was teaching at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (they gave a full-year sabbatical every seven years or a semester sabbatical every three and a half years; I chose the latter). I used that sabbatical to work on my doctoral dissertation, though I took time in the summer before the sabbatical proper to be reinvigorated mentally and physically (I did a lot of bike riding in the country).

Since I left Colgate Rochester for Roberts Wesleyan College a year before I would have been eligible for my next sabbatical, I lost out on the time I had already put in. I had to teach for seven more years at Roberts before I became eligible for another sabbatical (so there was a ten year gap between the first and the second).

After waiting so long, I decided to make the most of my second sabbatical (Spring 2009). I committed myself in advance to writing and presenting a number of papers, teaching a three-week intensive course in Old Testament theology at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (in Jamaica), continuing to supervise a seminary student for his internship (even into my sabbatical), while trying to work on my eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth (I had signed the contract two years before).

I realized afterwards that I had over-extended myself for the short time I had available. I did get a lot of work done on multiple projects, but I had only begun the eschatology book by the time the sabbatical was over.

So as my third sabbatical drew near I decided to focus my efforts squarely on one research and writing project, a new book called The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job: Explorations in the Theology of Lament (for Baker Academic).

To that end during the summer I wrote one new paper and revised two papers I had previously written, with a view to these becoming the core of the three main parts of the book—on lament, on Abraham, and on Job.

I presented all three papers, one in Canada at the start of the summer, and two in Australia during the Fall. I received good feedback on all three and in the last month I revised them all for publication; two will be published in journals (Canadian-American Theological Review and St. Mark’s Review), one in a collection of essays (Lament Rekindled, possibly published by Continuum).

The papers are:

  • “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Mode of Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.”
  • “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”
  • “Does God Come to Praise Job or to Bury Him? The Function of YHWH’s Second Speech from the Whirlwind.”

So my sabbatical was successful in terms of my completing these pieces of my larger book project. And I have a pretty clear sense of what I need to do for the remaining chapters.

My Time in Australia

Since two of these papers were presented in Australia, with feedback from other biblical scholars, I’m grateful for the invitation to go Down Under for a month.

How it came about was that in March 2016 I received  an invitation to come to Australia for 4-6 weeks in the Fall as a visiting theologian; this would involve me presenting on my current research and it was to also give me time to dialogue with others about the material I was working on and to do further research.

Normally, I would have had to decline an offer like this because of teaching commitments, but the upcoming sabbatical enabled me to accept. I went for four weeks and had a wonderful time, first at St. Barnabas College in Adelaide, then at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra.

However, the trip exhausted me. First, there was the actual travel (a 36 hour trip each way).

Then, I didn’t get much time to catch up on sleep while I was there. And I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I need more (not less) sleep to function well.

I was originally scheduled to give six presentations in Australia, three at each theological school (St. Barnabas and St. Mark’s). But then I agreed to add just one more item (and then just one more, etc.), until I ended up giving a total of eleven presentations of various sorts (from the papers I had prepared over the summer, to a two-hour radio interview the day after I arrived, preaching in two church services, giving public lectures, speaking to theological students in various settings, and writing two response papers to other scholars’ presentations).

And this doesn’t count the one-on-one meetings I had or the group social events I attended (and I enjoyed all of this). Yet as an introvert I found myself perpetually tired and often running on adrenaline.

The upshot is that I worked very hard while I was in Australia. It was definitely a worthwhile experience and I got to know some amazing people (both inside and outside of academic settings). And I got to see some of the local fauna (kangaroos and such). But I didn’t get any significant research on my book done while I was Down Under.

And I came home sleep deprived.

I had to rest up for almost a week just to get the energy for my next assignments—three public lectures I was scheduled to give on the topic of my new book at a university in Canada and two academic papers at the Society of Biblical Literature (both of which involved traveling and being away from home for days at a time).

Lessons Learned

What I learned from the Australia segment of my sabbatical was that I too easily take on more than I should realistically accept, given the limitations of my time and energy.

But this was certainly not a problem limited to my time in Australia.

Before I went to Australia I had committed to writing two book reviews for a journal and a number of blog posts for BioLogos (all things I really wanted to do, and all due by the end of the year).

But then just before I left for Australia I received notification from a number of editors I had been working with that final edits on various of my essays were due ASAP in order to meet publication deadlines.

Needless to say, very little of this got done while I was in Australia, or even after I returned, even though I worked on editing and writing in most of my free time from September through mid-December (at which time I took a needed break, to prepare for Christmas).

The Past Year of Blogging

This brings us to blogging.

Since the beginning of 2016 (and for most of the year before that too), my schedule of teaching, combined with talks and writing and presenting papers, meant that I had little time to write very many blog posts for this website.

A sign of this is that I have published part 1 of some blog posts (like on my week of Jewish learning or my Australia trip), but have not yet got to part 2.

I have actually begun drafts of these continuation posts (and many others that I’ve wanted to write), but I simply lacked the time to bring them to completion (as I’ve blogged about before, I find I need to take time to write and edit anything well, including blog posts).

When I began blogging almost three years go, my idea was to publish one blog post per week; but I have often been lucky to get one post out per month of late.

I simply came up against my own limitations of time and energy. There is always limited time available to anyone; but in addition I’ve found that I need to manage my energy better as I grow older.

Another Birthday

That leads to the topic of my birthday; I turned 62 yesterday.

The paradox is that due to regular exercise (walking swimming, weights), I feel better than I did ten or even twenty years ago. Some of my commitment to exercise is due to a couple of injuries I sustained a few years back; I’ve come to realize that without this exercise I wouldn’t be able to function at the level I currently do.

Nevertheless, I need to be realistic about my limitations.

Sure, it feels great to be asked to edit papers I’ve given orally for publication or to write an essay from scratch for an anthology, or to be invited to give talks at churches, colleges, retreats, and conferences. And many of these projects address real needs.

As I face a new year, however, I’ve come to re-affirm the truth (which I already knew) that it is better to focus on what I know I am called to do than to scatter my energies on multiple projects that others want me to do, especially when there is limited time available.

I thought I had learned this lesson a while back.

I had already come to a similar conclusion over six years ago (in 2010), and had begun to divest myself of many commitments that I had agreed to only in order to please the person asking. I have also, since then, learned to say “No” much more often than I used to.

But I clearly need to do this better.

To that end, I recently (in the past few weeks) turned down new speaking engagements and I even pulled out of some writing assignments that I had previously committed myself to. It became clear to me that I couldn’t complete everything presently on my plate (at least, not well), given the start of the new semester.

A New Year’s Resolution?

As the new year begins I want to devote my energy to my teaching and mentoring of students and to complete the various oral and writing assignments that I’ve intentionally taken on for 2017.

If I focus just on these, I might even be able to get back to posting regularly on this website.

I’ve got drafts started on the conclusion to my posts about Jewish learning and Australia (I’ll probably do these first); then there are partially written posts on the topics of prayer, worship, suffering, evolution, Jamaican independence, and my six degrees of separation from Malcolm Gladwell (that one’s been sitting there for almost a year!).

As I start my sixty-third year, I am grateful to God for all good gifts. I would say a hearty Amen! to the post about gratitude I wrote on my birthday two years ago.

Although I don’t (usually) make new year’s resolutions, perhaps one is in order as we face 2017.

I’ll take my cue from the last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon ever to appear (which was published on December 31, 1995), the week before I began my first full-time teaching job). I hung a framed copy in my office when I started teaching in January 1996.

Calvin and his pet tiger are at the top of a snow-covered hill, in their toboggan. Looking down on the scene below, Calvin says: “it’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy.” Then he adds: “let’s go exploring!”

The new year lies before us.

I hope you will join me.

Image result for calvin and hobbes let's go sledding

Heading to San Antonio for the Annual SBL and IBR Meetings

I’m getting ready to go to San Antonio to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (November 19-22) and also of the Institute for Biblical Research (November 18-20); the two meetings overlap a bit.

I’ll be presenting two papers at the SBL this year.

How the Prophet Samuel Abuses His Prophetic Office

The first paper is called “Orthodox Theology, Ulterior Motives in Samuel’s Farewell Speech? The Characterization of the Prophet in 1 Samuel 12.” This paper will be presented in (15 minute) summary form in the Contextual Biblical Interpretation Program Unit, on November 20, 2016 (click this link for further information).

This paper begins by by exploring how my Jamaican context, especially the folk tradition of Anansi (the trickster/spider), might impact my reading of 1 Samuel. The bulk of the paper is an attempt to understand the very convoluted (even contradictory) speech of Samuel in 1 Samuel 12, which comes right after the confirmation of Saul as king. I try to show (from a careful textual reading) that that the prophet is twisting the facts of Israel’s history and using underhanded rhetoric in order to portray himself as the “solution” to the problem of the monarchy, despite the fact that God has explicitly given permission for the monarchy and specifically designated Saul as the first king. The paper proposal can be accessed here and the full paper can be accessed here.

God’s Desire for Vigorous Prayer

The second paper is called “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.” This paper will be presented in full (25 minutes) in the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures Program Unit, on November 21, 2016 (click this link for further information).

This paper explores the theology of the divine-human relationship underlying the sort of vigorous prayer found in the Bible (especially the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament), by looking first at the psalms of lament, then at prophetic intercession (with Moses as the model). The paper proposal can be accessed here.

Institute for Biblical Research

I won’t be presenting at the IBR this year, though I will be attending a number of sessions, including the annual lecture by Edith Humphrey, a fellow Canadian teaching in the USA. Her lecture (on the evening of November 18) is called “Reclaiming all Paul’s Rs: Apostolic Atonement by Way of the Eastern Fathers” and will be followed by two responses, one by Michael Gorman. You can find information about the lecture by scrolling down the IBR conference page.

Next year (November 2017) I’ll be giving an invited paper at IBR on Ecology and Eschatology in the Ecological Ethics and Biblical Studies research group (this year’s topic is on ecology and justice, and two of my friends, Brian Walsh and Steve Bouma-Prediger, are participating as paper respondents).

Esau McCauley, the new Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, will be presenting in another IBR research group, devoted to Biblical Theology . His paper is entitled Exile, Restoration, and the Inheritance of the Son: Jesus as Servant and Messiah in Galatians 1:4.

Sane Action in a Crazy World—A Meditation on Jeremiah 32

Seven weeks ago, while I was in Australia as part of my sabbatical, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 32 at St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide. Of the four lectionary texts that week, I chose to focus on the prophet Jeremiah during the Babylonian siege, while touching on the other three texts (portions of Psalm 91 on God’s protection, a passage from 1 Timothy 6 on the dangers of wealth, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16).

The actual lectionary readings were Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31. These four texts can be accessed here.

It has struck me that my reflections might be helpful to those struggling to come to terms with the current political situation in the US, even though it wasn’t written with this situation in mind.

Although parts of my sermon were specifically contextual, directed to Christians living in Australian society, most of the sermon is broadly relevant to what our response should be in a time of crisis. At one point I noted: “We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.”

I have reproduced the entire sermon below in this blog. Or you can download it as a PDF file.


  • Sane Action in a Crazy World
  • J. Richard Middleton
  • Sermon for St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide
  • Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 25 September 2016
  • Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

* * * * * *

The year is 597 B.C.

The prophet Jeremiah had been proclaiming the word of God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah for close to forty years; he’s an old man now.

But his words have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

Repent, he had exhorted them; change your ways; seek to fulfill God’s purposes in the way you treat your neighbour, and do not pursue your own selfish desires. Don’t just claim to trust in God, but bring your life into conformity with the claim.

Otherwise, you presume on God’s grace, and make a sham of true religion.

But Jeremiah wasn’t just a moralist, telling people to “act nicely.” He was calling them to covenant fidelity to God. He was calling them back to their fundamental identity as God’s people—a people with a vocation, a calling of exhibiting God’s rule to all the nations of the world—by how they lived.

And he warned of coming disaster. Initially, he spoke of an enemy coming from the north. Then later he put the name Babylon on this threat—Babylon, the great superpower of the sixth century B.C.

But the people ignored his message. The priests didn’t listen; the other prophets disdained him. His own family shunned him; various kings had him put into stocks or thrown into a pit, and the latest king (Zedekiah) put him in prison.

So here is Jeremiah, confined to the court of the guard in Jerusalem. Trapped; bound; constrained.

And wouldn’t you know it—his prophetic warnings have come true. Indeed, Zedekiah was only appointed king, ten years earlier, when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and the previous king surrendered as a way to save the city.

But now the end has come. Even the puppet king Zedekiah (placed on the throne by Babylon) has rebelled against his overlords, and the Babylonian armies have again marched on Jerusalem.

And there are the armies of Babylon, surrounding the city, settling in for a siege. Many Judeans in the countryside have already been killed. And the people of Jerusalem are panicked.

This is the end; Jeremiah knows it. The city will fall; the temple will be destroyed; many people will die; others will be taken into exile; they will become war refugees fleeing their land, which will be taken over by a foreign empire.

So Jeremiah is trapped, confined not just in the court of the guard; but even if he was let free, the city is surrounded. There is no way out.

* * * * * *

There may well be some of us here this morning who can identify with Jeremiah. Our siege may be different. It may be the breakdown of a marriage (maybe it’s been coming for ten years); or the loss of a job. Possibly it’s a financial crisis we don’t know how we will get through. Or it could be a betrayal by a friend. Maybe it’s a son or daughter who has disappointed us, rejecting all we hold dear. Or perhaps our own faith is fraying.

We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.

* * * * * *

Some of us are like the rich man in our parable (from Luke 16)—though we don’t like to admit it; we typically pay no attention to the suffering of the Lazaruses around us. Truth be told, we’re oblivious to them in the mad rush of our lives. As the reading from 1 Timothy puts it, in our “eagerness to be rich” we have “wandered away from the faith” (from faithfulness to God)—while remaining (respectably) in the church. Yes, that is entirely possible.

We don’t need Jeremiah—or anyone else—to tell us this. We are aware (if we’re honest) that we have (slowly, at first) begun to buy into the shallow values of this world, placing wealth and success above people and above compassion. Until we’ve bought in, whole hog.

And the result, to use language from 1 Timothy, is that we have “pierced [our]selves with many pains,” driving people away from us, leading to a shallowness of life that we are always subliminally aware of, only to push the thought away—until it comes back to haunt us in the dark hours of the night.

And we wonder how we can begin to extricate ourselves from these prisons of our own making. What can lift the siege?

* * * * * *

But there are others here this morning who can’t identify with the besieged prophet. Life seems pretty smooth for us right now. Things are going well. Investments are paying off. We’re successful at work, in relationships.

We could almost recite Psalm 91. It feels like we’re living in the shelter of the Most High, protected by the shadow of the Almighty.

Of course, we might not actually want to recite Psalm 91, not explicitly. Yet there are many in the church—and in society—who assume the posture of this psalm.

If we are good people (and, of course, we are), then God will deliver us from the snare of the fowler; God will cover us with his wings; and we won’t fear the terror by night or the arrow by day—all metaphorical language. But we know what it means. God protects good people (like us) from disaster.

It’s interesting that those putting together the lectionary left out the really extreme verses: “A thousand may fall at your side, / ten thousand at your right hand, / but it will not come near you. / You will only look with your eyes / and see the punishment of the wicked.”

Of course, none of us really believes that—that’s just too self-serving; and too arrogant.

And yet . . . if we are honest (if I am honest) we may admit that we try to sneak in some sort of magical idea of God’s protection of “us good people,” while (maybe subconsciously) looking down our noses at those “wicked” who suffer difficulty and disaster.

It’s interesting that archeologists have turned up a number of amulets, Israelite amulets that Israelites wore to fend off evil, that have verses from Psalm 91 inscribed on them.

It goes pretty deep, this magical idea that we can somehow be protected from trouble, that we are immune to disaster.

* * * * * *

But no-one is immune; not Jeremiah (who was a righteous prophet), not us (with all our moral ambiguity), not even Jesus. You do know about the cross—this Roman instrument of torture that he was executed on?

In fact, two of the verses missing from our Psalm 91 lectionary reading were quoted by the devil to Jesus in the wilderness: God “will command his angels concerning you / to guard you in all your ways. / On their hands they will bear you up, / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

And do you remember Jesus’s response? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Because he knew that the servant of the Lord, the one who wants to be faithful to God, cannot live immune to suffering.

* * * * * *

The question before us this morning is not how to avoid suffering, but what do you do when the walls are closing in? It’s not how to prevent disaster, either personal (our own prison, in the court of the guard) or communal (with the siege ramps going up around our city); the question is whether we give up hope in a time of crisis, when things look bleak, either for us personally or perhaps when our society seems to be crumbling—when priests are complicit in sexual abuse, when terrorists bomb marketplaces, when little girls like Tiahliegh Palmer go missing and then turn up dead, discovered by fishermen.

This is a world in which aboriginal peoples do not receive justice, where race and class and wealth tilt the balance against so many; this is a world where—to put it bluntly—Babylon seems to dominate the landscape, and the city of God is compromised by the power and weapons of this world.

So it’s way too late to ask how we can avoid suffering. The question is: what will we do in the face of a world wracked by suffering, a world out of joint with God’s purposes of shalom and justice for all?

* * * * * *

It was in such a world that Jeremiah received a word from God. Or, at least he thought it was a word from God. Because it was a very strange word.

He thought he heard God telling him that his cousin Hanamel was going to pay him a visit and suggest that he buy a bit of real estate off him, some land he owned in Anathoth, not three miles north of Jerusalem. Since this was land that the Babylonian army was occupying, and Judah was sure to fall to Babylonian control, the land would be useless to Hanamel. So, no wonder he wanted to palm it off on Jeremiah!

But then this very strange word was fulfilled. Hanamel came, just as God said, and offered him the sale. “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord,” said Jeremiah.

And he goes ahead with the crazy deal. Jeremiah not only buys the land (that is overrun by Babylon), but he goes through the process of having the deed signed (with two copies) and attested by witnesses, with both copies kept safe so that future generations might know what he did.

But why did he do such a crazy thing?

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

In other words, this was a radical act of hope in the midst of what looked like a hopeless situation. It was staking a claim on a future that looked closed off. It was affirming that God was not done with his people or with this world.

* * * * * *

And some of us have heard a word from the Lord; or we think it might be from God (it’s hard to figure out if it’s really God speaking or just our crazy ideas, sometimes).

Maybe we’ve heard a word suggesting some crazy, counter-cultural action—like stepping back from the rat race, putting the brakes on our climbing the ladder of success—to spend time with people.

Maybe with the adult son or daughter who has been pulling away. Could that be the word of God whispering in our ear to book a lunch date with them, to just find out how they’re doing, and show interest in their lives—no strings attached?

Or is that a word from God suggesting that we pay attention to our neighbour who has been going through a difficult time (that neighbour might be right beside us in this church, or down the street, or in our work place)? That neighbour might need financial help; or just a friend to talk to.

Perhaps the word we sense (is it from God?) has been prompting us to get involved in our city, entering the political process, to put into action our passion for justice and transformative change.

Maybe the word in our ear or in our heart has been suggesting that it’s high time we took seriously the racism in Australian culture, especially towards aboriginal peoples, and find concrete ways to made a difference.

Or is the whisper we hear telling us to pay our employees a living wage, to re-think the pay structure of our organization, so that people are treated with dignity and humanity, and not just as “workers.”

And, of course, God could be telling us something that no preacher could guess; but we know what the prompting is.

* * * * * *

What is the plot of land that God is prompting each of us to purchase?

What great or (perhaps) small action is God asking of us, that would be an investment in the future? That would be a signpost of hope in a world of corruption and despair?

Yes, this is a time of great upheaval, with climate change impacting many coastal peoples, including Pacific islanders. This is a world of political corruption and senseless crime; a world in which millions of refugees flee their homes, trying to find a safe place to live.

And we may personally be under siege.

The Babylonian armies may be encamped all around.

But precisely in this time of crisis God gives Jeremiah a word of hope: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

For this is the world that God loves, that Jesus died for. And God has never abandoned this world; God has never given up on us

“This is my Father’s world,” wrote a clergyman (in 1901) who lived not a hundred kilometers from my current home in Rochester, NY. “This is my Father’s world.” And he goes on to say: “And let me ne’er forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong, / God is the ruler yet.”

And those words, like the words of the Lord to Jeremiah, give us hope.

But hope that is not acted on soon fades and dies.

Hope needs to be lived out, in concrete action.

And the claim that “God is the ruler yet” will not be believed—not even by ourselves—if we do not seek to manifest this rule in our lives.

And so the word of God comes to each of us, as it came to Jeremiah, saying: “Buy a plot of land.”

I know it sounds crazy. But if we are open to that voice, maybe some Hanamel will come to us and confirm the whisper we have heard, until—like Jeremiah—we just know that this is the world of the Lord.

And then we act on it.

Indeed, this may be the most sane action we can take in a crazy world.

Amen.

* * * * * *

The entire sermon is downloadable as a PDF file.