I read several articles about how to reenter the life of a community at the end of a sabbatical. All of them, one way or another described a similar set of realities the returnee would likely face.
The first reality mentioned is found in those situations that require immediate attention. Either something new has just happened or something has been waiting to be noticed by the "right" person -- one bad version is described as festering -- and cannot wait any longer.
A second category are those things that have faded or died while the priest was gone. The priest was perhaps overly involved and was eventually the main or only reason a particular practice persisted as long as it did. This often shows up in parts of the worship life of the congregation.
A third category includes those things that were born in the priest's absence. A new committee is formed, new volunteers step up to serve, or trees are trimmed, for instance.
In each case the returning priest must meet the reality with an embrace.
To the acute health crisis or the festering hurt the priest must say in word and action: I'm here. There is little else the priest must first do. No magic tricks, for sure. But also no easy or glib remarks. Instead a new moment of listening to the players and their parts.
Not all crises are immediately evident, some will require the hurt parties to say, "I'm hurt." But the embrace of the returning priest needs to be ready to reply, "Thanks for waiting, for hanging in there so that we can be together in whatever happens next."
When the new thing is the loss of some previously priest-born reality the embrace is one of a proper farewell. There may even be mourning but more importantly there needs to be a placement of a marker into the memory of all involved that says "thank you" and that begins an instruction toward whatever may need to come next.
When the new thing is just that, a new thing the embrace is like a baptism where all share in the naming and reception of this emergent necessity.
In every case the embrace of the one returning is important, even necessary and one hopes, life-giving.
So I ask for our first steps forward together to be where we make room, take time, and care for the moments of embrace as each reality requires. I can't wrap my arms and battered ribs around everything at once.
But I'm back, I'm glad to be back and before I can do any new work myself -- work that guarantees our engagement into the future -- I must manage these particular realities and embrace with love as each one calls out to me.
The important piece in all of this returning is an embrace that we hope reflects our understanding of God's already evident and graceful embrace of each of us. That is how we together can and should move forward, first embraced then sharing that embrace.