Rick's Sabbatical 2017: Story 5

Posted by Rick Carpenter on


All three times that I've taken Sabbatical from UBC, one of my primary goals has been to get away from it all—from church, and church members (no offense), and church staff, and even family, to some extent.  Obviously, that hasn't happened every minute of every sabbatical, but each one has had some significant time in some quiet, secluded setting where communication with the outside world was limited.  This time, as was the case five years ago, one of those get-aways was at a place in western England called Lee Abbey. 

 After our week in London, Kay flew back to Houston, and I took a 2-hour train ride from London Paddington Station to Taunton.  I had made a reservation with Lee Abbey to be picked up at Taunton by a taxi service that would take me the rest of the way (about a 90-minute car ride) to Lee Abbey.  The train was packed, and I could not find a seat, so after dragging my luggage a ways, I found space in an overhead rack. But I couldn't find a seat nearby, so I went to the next carriage and found a spot in the connector between 2 carriages to stand for the entire ride.  We stopped 3 or 4 times before I heard the call for the Taunton Station stop, and when the train slowed down, I started trying to make my way to the back of another carriage to collect my luggage.  I started, but I made little progress.  People were getting off, and there was no room for passing in the tight aisle since some were getting on as well.  So I turned around and went back, hoping to go around, but I got stuck again.  I finally reached the place where my luggage was "stored," pulled it from the overhead rack, and turned to see about 15 people standing in the doorway where I would exit.  I shouted, "Please excuse me, I need to get off here."  But they did not move.  Then one of the guys in the group looked at me and said, "You're not getting off here.  This train is moving."  And it was.  And I did not.

 I panicked! But a nice English lady sitting nearby pulled out her train schedules and began to form my strategy for getting off at the next station, crossing over to the other platform, and getting on a return train headed for London that would stop at the Taunton station.  That was the tricky part—to make sure I didn't get on a return train that would not "call" in Taunton.  So I got off, and she and her husband did too.  And she left her slow-moving husband and followed me on the crosswalk to the opposite platform.  I checked schedules, and just as she had said, there was a train coming in 2 minutes—and it would "call" at Taunton.  As the train came into the station, I headed toward a carriage door, and I heard a voice behind me, "I'll help you with that door."  It was that same English lady again.  She seemed to be focused on making sure I got on the right train.  I thanked her and got on board.  And I never did know if her husband caught up with her.  Or if she was even planning to get off at that stop.  Or if she just dragged her husband off so that she could help me.  Maybe she went back over to the side we started on, she pulled him on to a later train, and they continued to their destination.  It made me smile, and almost laugh, but she was a gracious host who helped the American navigate the train system of England.  And as I arrived at the Taunton station in time for the taxi, I was very grateful.


Lee Abbey is on the northern coast of England on high cliffs that drop down to the Bristol Channel not far from the point where it empties into the Irish Sea.  The landscape is spectacular, breath-taking, and just plain beautiful.  It's a conference center affiliated with the Church of England.  It is run by "the Community," about 100 young and a few not-so-young people who come to live there for 2 or 3 years, or some just for the summer.  These are the cooks, cleaners, farmers (they raise sheep and cattle), who take care of the facilities and the guests who come to Lee Abbey.  They also engage with one another in spiritual formation exercises, including prayer, worship, and fellowship. 

 The conference for the week was led by a vicar/warden of the Church named Tim Lomax.  I had several nice conversations with Tim, a young man who has written several books on worship.  He spoke that week on "Jesus—Knowing Him and Making Him Known."  His passion is worship, as is mine.  And he loves music, as I do.  As a matter of fact, he played piano and sang several songs he had written.  I didn't make all of his sessions, but the ones I did make were fascinating and provocative.


I spent some of my time walking, and some reading "The Devotional Classics" and "The Good and Beautiful Community."  We are planning to use the latter at UBC in our Apprentice groups initiative in the spring of 2018.  There was a great library at Lee Abbey with a desk in the window that looked out toward the crashing waves of the Bristol Channel.  It was my place of choice when I was writing and reading, or while I worked some on my sabbatical project.  (As Martha Tanner reminds me, I've been working on the project since the 2012 Sabbatical, and I still have long ways to go.)

 The project is to collect, re-write, edit, organize, find, type some 200 files of stories, vignettes, poems, songs and prayers that I've written and presented in worship over the last 30 – 35 years.  Some are on pieces of paper that I dragged all the way to Great Britain, some are on cd's that were used to record worship services, and others are in some electronic form on my laptop or my UBC desktop.  Most of these are what I call "Opening Sentences."  (The more crass term is worship set-ups.") 

 Harry Wooten and I give ourselves credit for creating this concept of beginning a worship service with some thought-provoking story, or news flash, or words of wisdom, that would help people get into a frame of mind to worship, and would prepare them to ask the question, "what do I do with all of this?" at the end of the service."  A couple of my UBC friends through the years have encouraged me to "write a book."  I don't know if this is the beginning of that or the end of an era in how UBC begins to worship.  Either way, I believe that I'm just getting started and that my sabbatical project might become a retirement project.  But, at least I've got a template set, and I've begun to organize what I have collected over the years.  And maybe, just maybe, this will be the start of something that I can work on for a while. 

 Now back to Lee Abbey.  I mentioned the beautiful scenery.  A popular walking path leads to Jenny's point, where, as the legend goes, a young lady jumped to her death because of, you guessed it—her parents denied rejected her choice of boyfriend.  In the opposite direction, a walk leads to the valley of the rocks, where strange rock formations jut out from places in the side of hills, and where high rocks look out over the channel.  You can also encounter wild goats that graze in the high grasses around the rocks.  Directly to the north, there are three life-size crosses planted on top of the hill that overlooks the Abbey.  And toward the west, you can walk down a steep pathway that leads to the beach and the Tea Cottage. 

And so I walked every day, several miles, along beautiful pathways that reminded me that God is a beautiful Creator.  I read a little every day—from the Devotional Classics and the Good and Beautiful Community.  I worked on the project several times.  And I prayed a lot—about the future, giving thanks for the past, remembering my family members and friends who needed healing and encouragement.  And I spent as much time as I could, getting to know some followers of Christ who spoke a little differently from me, but who were as excited as I am about what God is doing in our world, and what He wants to do with us.

 The Tea Cottage is owned by Lee Abbey and managed by members of the community.  It sits smack dab in the middle of a very popular coastal walking path for Brits.  It is a small "house," where members of the community bake the bread and cookies and cakes, and where the tea service is prepared.  There are multiple "picnic tables" set up with umbrellas.  A couple of times I went to the Tea Cottage just to hang out and watch as weary travelers stopped in, wearing hiking boots and sometimes rain ponchos.  And they would order their tea service, and a member of the community would bring out to them a beautiful china teapot, with cups and saucers and scones or cakes, and they would, as the English say, have tea.  It's as important to them as lunch is to us.  And I found out when we visited Bailey Sincox in Oxford that there are certain things you can and can't do while you're drinking tea in England.  You can't rattle your spoon against the side of the cup—it's just rude. 


Talk about getting away.  From TV (I didn't see one all week), from the internet (only at a certain spot in the Abbey was it available—just to "catch up" with Kay, and find out how the family is doing.  (Our son Landon who had extensive surgery in June had some difficulties with infections while I was there.  I could only pray and check-in occasionally.)  But it was so good to get away and to be with the English people.  I had some great conversations around the table at mealtimes—to hear their perspectives on our political scene (pretty sad), to hear their own stories of family and life and day-to-day living:  like Natasha, the young mother who had been training to be a counselor and was excited about the future, who came with her 14 year old son, Noah, while her husband and another son stayed home to do sports.  Or like Helen, the physician, who with her husband Angus, had taken their three children to Nepal several years ago, with the Baptist Mission Society.  Angus had taken on a project of building a new school.  Then there was Peter, a fellow-grandfather, who had retired as a prison probation worker, who was preparing to visit 3 of their grands in Sewanee, Tennessee, where their son teaches philosophy at the University of the South—a place that I'm familiar with because we lived in Nashville.  I met Alex and her husband, Nicolas, the Anglican vicar, with their two children, Nick and Elizabeth, and I heard of the difficulties of pastoring two different congregations, only to learn that some vicars have 4 or 5 congregations for whom he is the pastor.  And I loved talking to Kate, a district nurse—which means that she makes home visits—similar to our home health services.  She was with husband Tim and their children Toby and Grace.

 One thing that stuck out for me regarding the English people was their unpretentious love for one another.  Maybe it's just me, but most people came on their own, not with a group.  And they didn't know one another. But there was a lot of sharing and mingling.  It seems that this particular group of people was made up of simple, happy people, who cared deeply for their families, who were not about the things of this world, but who shared life with strangers and went away with new friends.

 Perhaps the most valuable "lesson" of sabbatical, is to experience life with people who are very different from me, but who are very much like me.  To realize that, no matter their denomination or religion, regardless of their professions, most people in this world care about the same things:  family, friends, purpose, meaning, learning, loving, and knowing God.  Those are the things I care about as well.  And those were just the kinds of things that I wanted to get away TO.  Thanks, UBC, for letting me get-away FROM – YOU.


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