Last week I returned to work after my first ever ministry sabbatical. It was three wonderful, life-giving months, and I am thankful for every moment. When I returned, I sat down and started to write this post and quickly realized I had more to say than was appropriate for a blog post. Needing to write a full summary for my elders anyway, I decided to write a full report of my sabbatical reflections in this Google doc but make it available for anyone courageous enough to try and plow through nine pages of my thoughts! For those of you who are more visual, feel free to just flip through my Google album of photos from my sabbatical. Finally, for those who want to just cut to the chase, here are the bulleted reflections from the end of my report (though be warned: some reflections might not make much sense apart from the explanations in that document):
- I am more convinced than ever of the life-giving rhythm of sabbath that God has woven into human existence. We were made to work, to produce, and to steward this world God has given us, but we are called to the regular practice of sabbath – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and seasonally. It is not a rule to be followed but a gracious invitation to life to be pursued.
- During my sabbatical I intentionally engaged in the practice of presence – attempting to give myself fully to the people and circumstances of each moment of each day to receive what God had for me. In truth I feel that for the first time I realized that the present moment is the only thing real that we as humans experience. The past and future are out of our reach, but the current moment is real and available to us. So living – really living – is embracing that and remaining conscious and awake to that truth every moment of each day.
- As I practiced being fully present, I realized that one of the great enemies of that for me and others is technology, mobile technology in particular. I became more aware during my sabbatical that we are all subject at times to the compulsions created by these mobile devices. When you are present in a place and a moment of time, it is easy to see how many people aren’t. I saw it in the couples sitting at a romantic dinner next to a canal in Venice, Italy – both staring at their mobile phones not talking to each other or observing their beautiful surroundings. I also saw it in the families who traded opportunities to interact with each other for moments of silence while all of them were absorbed in their screen, sometimes in my own family. I most definitely saw it in myself as I was compelled to exit whatever special moment I found myself in to try and capture and curate it on social media or engage with whatever was happening in the world.
- Art and creativity feeds me and draws me into the moment. The time I spent sketching during my sabbatical was such an enjoyable practice. I want to continue to make time and space for entering into moments and places by recreating them artistically. Likewise I recognized how good it was to appreciate art and beauty created by others. It renews my hope for the goodness and creative capacity inherent in human beings.
- I observed a number of what I’m referring to as “symmetries” during my sabbatical. Here are a few and some initial reflections:
- The three phases of my sabbatical were a reflection of my life – past (time with my mom and brother, and friends from Atlanta), my present (time with my wife and kids), and my (hopefully) future (time with just my wife). This symmetry allowed me to see what has been, what is and hopefully what will be. Like my life, what was most important in each phase changed, and I could see how God has worked and is working through the context of each season of my life and in the most important relationships of each phase.
- I realized during this sabbatical that I began my professional work life when I was 24 years old – almost exactly 20 years ago. As I thought about it, I realized that meant I am probably right at the midpoint of my working life, as 20 years from now I will be 64. As I thought about that and remembered what the last 20 years has brought, I thought forward to what the next 20 years would be and what I might do. I realized that half of that time – the next 10 years – will be spent raising my kids and getting them out of high school and on to whatever is next for them, hopefully off to college. At that point I will be entering a new chapter and perhaps a season of consolidation in my work and ministry.
- On the first day of my sabbatical the Lord led me to Psalm 23 and during the course of my time away I also meditated deeply on Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 about staying focused on each day, “for today has enough trouble of its own.” Norton, my co-pastor at NDC, had no idea about these verses or their importance to my sabbatical, but my first Sunday back at NDC he read Psalm 23 during our time of worship and preached from Matthew 26. It was as if the Lord was reminding me that the words he had spoken during my time away were to come with me as I re-entered my normal rhythm of life and work.
- My experiences this summer led me to the paradox of feeling the insignificance of humanity’s existence in the universe and at the same time our supreme uniqueness. We are nothing but space dust – made of the same essential elements and compounds of the planets and stars, but we are dust that contemplates our existence and seeks meaning. This led me simply to an appreciation of life, gratitude for the human experience, and inspiration to not simply let the years of my life pass by but to contribute my part to the world, each moment of each day I live.
- As I returned, I had three important realizations about what is in the season ahead for me:
- I have ten really important years ahead with my family. During those ten years I will launch my children into adulthood. Every moment counts, and I want to do everything I can to help my boys become men.
- I have ten really important years ahead with my wife. During those ten years, we will either grow in intimacy and prepare for the season together after our kids launch or we won’t. Every moment counts, and I want to do everything I can to sustain and grow my relationship with my wife.
- I have ten really important years ahead with my work. Before, and even during, my sabbatical, I heard the message from leaders I respect (via articles, conversations, or messages) that “most pastors stay too long.” They hold onto organizational leadership positions and often end up burning out, being forced out, or otherwise leaving under less-than-desirable circumstances. I don’t want that to be my story. In looking at my life I recognize that I’m twenty years into my working life with (hopefully) another twenty left. Of that, it is reasonable to expect that the next ten years here in Denver are an opportunity to leverage my skills and gifts in a primary organizational-leadership capacity, presumably continuing to lead New Denver Church. After that, I think it will be time to begin taking steps back from primary leadership and giving responsibility to younger leaders, with my work taking on more of a mentoring and developing role.
As I return to my life and work after sabbatical, these reflections provide a sense of some of the ways God worked through my sabbatical to draw me closer to him and reveal some of the ways he is leading me going forward. I will continue to process many of the things revealed during my sabbatical for deeper insight and will trust God for the daily steps as I seek to move in step with the Spirit in this direction.