C.S. Lewis once said that most of us don’t need to be told new things, but rather reminded of old truths. This has certainly been true in my own journey these past few months. On June 1, I entered into an 11 week sabbatical with the prayer that God would, in the words of David, “restore to me the joy of God’s salvation” (Psalm 51:12). It is still difficult for me to distill all of the ways God began and continues to answer that prayer, but it does become easier when I attempt to articulate it.
1. I (re)discovered that sometimes you need to stop before you run out of gas.
Less than 24 hours into sabbatical, I was posting a selfie from the side of the road with an officer of the law. This happened not because I’d neglected the speed limit but because I had neglected to stop and refuel. One of my sabbatical goals was marriage renewal. Not a good first move. As it turns out, when you’re driving on a turnpike and you need fuel, you really should stop at the first station you see. Another may not come along for a while.
This is, of course, a good metaphor for life as well. Truthfully, when sabbatical finally arrived I was running on fumes. This should not have been the case. I knew my needle was passing “E,” but was sure I could push the current tank just a little bit further. Not good.
We all do this. We all push our spiritual, emotional, and physical engines to the brink of God’s design. We all need to be reminded from time to time that our tanks will not refill themselves. We all need to stop, often (i.e., daily/weekly), and refuel.
2. I (re)discovered the power of living gratefully.
At the end of those first two weeks in Colorado, my 6-year-old son Jackson asked if we could go back again every year and my wife, Christy, said it was “the best family vacation we’d ever taken.” But it did not begin this way. Only an hour after Jackson went to sleep on our first night in South Fork, Colo., I heard Christy scream. She’d gone to check on Jackson and he was having a seizure, something he’d never experienced before. After it ended, he was temporarily paralyzed on his left side.
As you might imagine, we were terrified. An ambulance ride, a CT scan and an entire night of fluids later, we were grateful. Jackson was OK, and our perspective on life and family had been thoroughly cleansed. We had fallen into the trap of allowing the struggles in our life to cloud our vision of God’s blessings. No more. God used the trauma of those moments to bring forth clarity and thanksgiving. Within 48 hours of our departure from Liberty, we were more than determined to hold each other close, to cherish the moments ahead, to live gratefully.
God set the table of our sabbatical, and hopefully, the rest of our lives, with gratitude. It opened us up to so much joy. And that made all the difference.
3. I (re)discovered savoring Scripture.
When I fell in love with Jesus at 17 years of age, it was the prayerful reading of Scripture that most impacted me. The Bible has always been one of the most powerful tools God has used in my own spiritual path. However, as a pastor I have sometimes neglected this rich resource for spiritual transformation and renewal. It’s not that I don’t read the Bible regularly, but that it is often more of a textbook (for study) or a work book (it is my job, after all). The personal risk here is great.
One of the great gifts of sabbatical was that there was little need to read the Bible professionally, which prompted this wonderful (re)discovery. I lit my sabbatical candle in those early days and began to prayerfully meditate my way through the Gospel of Luke, and as I did I found that I wasn’t alone. The Spirit of the living God was right there with me enlivening the text and my own soul.
The Bible is a thin place. We find in it vital information that God will use to shape our thoughts and instruct our faith. But there is so much more there. If we approach in with an open mind and seeking spirit, God will meet us in a special way and use it to shape our soul.
4. I (re)discovered the power of seeking and savoring God.
The Jesus Prayer has been an important resource in my relationship with God for quite some time. It is a Russian Orthodox prayer, rooted in scripture that centers us to God’s presence with the words, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” It is said repetitively, in rhythm with our breathing.
During sabbatical I used this prayer throughout each day. I used it in the in the morning to greet the day and ready myself for time with God, throughout the day in an attempt to notice God in every inch of creation, and at the end of the day as a final act of daily consecration. This was my attempt to “pray without ceasing.”
Doing this seemed to raise my spiritual antennae. It fostered small moments during each day where I felt the subtle brush of God’s presence. It also seemed to wake me up to particularly sacred moments I’ve sometimes missed.
I’ve been to “thin places” before — geographical spots where previous pilgrims have experienced an extra measure of God’s presence. Often, I’ve found these places underwhelming, a product, no doubt, of my own readiness, or lack thereof. But this summer was different. When praying at the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul, something distinct seemed to happen. Then later upon crossing the threshold of the Porziuncolo Chapel in Assisi (built by St. Francis), I experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s nearness. In these sacred places I lingered, I savored, I cried; I sat in awe. Life should not be lived without moments like these. They should be sought, nurtured and treasured. God is too loving and too near for anything less.
5. I (re)discovered my best friend.
I weighed how to write the sentence above so that it didn’t lend itself to misunderstandings about my relationship with Christy. However, as parents of young children (6, 3 and 1), Christy and I are living in a season of life when it is easy to forget the deep, sacred, original reasons we chose to be married to our spouse. Spouses become first our co-parent, our co-worker, our co-conspirator and partner on any number of life’s responsibilities. Most of these responsibilities are good gifts of God, but leaning on your spouse as a co-carrier of responsibilities (whatever they may be) more than as a covenant partner in love can certainly take its toll on the relationship.
This summer Christy and I were granted a sacred gift that is often rare during this season of life: We spent two weeks together in Europe without our children, without our household chores, without any respective duties other than being with one another. For two weeks we were simply each other’s companions. For two weeks we were simply Jason and Christy.
Christy is my best friend. I always know that. But making space to experience and cherish that is vitally important. After all, life is too short to not to fully embrace one of God’s greatest gifts, the sacred friendship of marriage.
6. I re(discovered) the great need for good preaching and gospel proclamation.
In July I enjoyed the privilege of being a fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Engle Institute of Preaching. This experience was rich. I was enriched by the fellowship of pastor colleagues and homiletics professors, as well as the challenge of thinking together about the craft of preaching. I expected to receive at least a few nuggets of wisdom that I might incorporate into my own preaching, and this certainly happened. I came away from that week with a renewed desire to preach well and some goals that I hope will nurture that in the year head.
However, these goals were not the most important thing I brought home with me. Again and again I listened as professors asserted the elevated importance of God’s word, the primacy of preaching in pastoral ministry and the transformative power of gospel proclamation. This was a week of reorientation for me. How do we elevate the scriptures in our life together? How does my weekly rhythm need to shift so that prayer and preaching are paramount? How might I do a better job shining a light on God’s good news each time we gather as God’s people for worship? These are some of the questions I’m continuing to unpack from my sabbatical suitcase.
7. I (re)discovered the value of being fully myself.
The word “fully” is significant here. It’s not that I spend a lot of time living as someone other than myself. It’s more that the pastoral life is one often lived in check. One of my pastor mentors often repeats a personal mantra about the activities of the pastoral life: “This is what we do.” He then sometimes follows it with the phrase “Because this is who we are.” To a great extent I agree with his words. However, they also point to a way of being that can be restrictive and even harmful.
Carlyle Marney once said, “Before I am a pastor, I am a human being.” I like this. It is so important for all of us to have spaces and places in life where we can rest, laugh, offer our humor and our opinions — all of them — without wondering whether or not we will somehow disappoint someone else’s expectations of us and our particular function in their lives.
Too honest? Perhaps. But perhaps this kind of transparency is more of what this world is actually looking and longing for. Perhaps while we are pastors, teachers, doctors, business leaders and parents, we should all always strive to fully be the human being that God has created and redeemed only us to be.
As mentioned, the detailed value of this sabbatical is something I’m still parsing out, but there is something particular I hope you’ve picked up on while reading my seven (re)discoveries: The vital importance of planned renewal. When your church makes this kind of investment in your pastor, he or she will likely return to you refreshed, renewed and more in tune with God’s Spirit and that will pay dividends in your life, the life of your church and in God’s Kingdom as well. And when you set aside days, weeks or even a month to immerse yourself in the life of God, God’s renewal will likely begin to rise in you as well. I think that’s a gift worth pursuing. Don’t you?