Sabbatical-ing

The last five years have been rough for me. It started out with the death of my mom. Then came the death of my dad a little less than two years later. I was finishing up seminary, was involved in a difficult situation in my church, and was trying to transfer my credentials into a different denomination. I was diagnosed with a weak heart and I could feel my anxiety and stress ever building within me. Thankfully, the church that I serve saw fit to extend me a sabbatical, three months away from work with the goal and intention that I rest, recharge, and study.

If you had asked me ten years ago about a sabbatical, I may have been able to tell you what it was, but it never occurred to me that I actually might have one someday. My father was a pastor for more than forty years and never took a sabbatical. While he worked towards and received his doctorate degree during that time, he never had that much consecutive time off. As he reached the end of his career as a pastor and as he reached the end of his life, I think the lack of some kind of sabbatical may have been detrimental to his health.

I was and am so incredibly grateful to my church for this opportunity. To whom much is given, much is required, and so I wanted to make sure that I was making the most of this time. I put together a plan, found an area of study that I could dive into during the time, planned some travel, and planned time with my family. Although it felt like a tall order to accomplish a lot in this period of time, I felt like I could do it.

Since I am used to sitting in front of a computer and typing a mile a minute, I knew that one of the things that I needed to do during my sabbatical was slow down. I wanted to be intentional about slowing down and that kind of intentionality can be somewhat painful. So, I went to the store and found a journal, you know, one of the ones that has paper and that you actually have to use a pencil, pen, or other writing utensil. I thought to myself, “Here goes nothing!”

The first few weeks were a little awkward. My hand hurt…..a lot. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had sat down and written so much. It was awkward because the words just didn’t flow the way that they did when I sat in front of a computer. They felt forced, contrived, empty, but I wasn’t going to give up, I was going to press on. So press on I did.

The more that I forced myself to pick up a pen and write, the easier it became. I realized that the intentional slowing down was forcing me to think things through in a different way than I did when I sat at a computer. I realized that although I couldn’t get the words out as fast as I had hoped, the slowing down was helping me to process things, helping me wrap my head around things that I had been speeding past as I typed my words so quickly on a screen and keyboard.

By the time I got to the end of the 13th week of my sabbatical, the entire journal, the one that I had wondered whether or not I would even keep up with, that same journal was nearly full. I couldn’t believe it. My diligence had paid off and I had learned an incredibly important and valuable lesson in the process: journaling could significantly improve my own processing of information and spare some of those closest to me the pain of having to listen to me verbally process my thoughts.

I’m different than I was at the beginning of the three months. I’m not quite sure how, but I can feel it, I can see it. I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask my wife and kids, they might say the same thing. I’m hoping that the difference becomes evident to those around me, I’m hoping that they see how much this time has benefited me. I’m hoping that my goal of delivering a better me at the end of thirteen weeks will be realized.

My heart is full of gratitude for my church and this gift that I received. Even in the midst of a difficult season, they were willing to cut me loose to be recharged. For this, I will be forever grateful and I’m pretty sure that my family shares that same amount of gratitude as well.

A Month In

It’s been about a month since I started my sabbatical. Over the course of that month, I’ve spent some good time learning, resting, reading, and spending time with my family. I’ve also spent time getting even more familiar with myself, seeing my own idiosyncrasies, and seeking out ways to continue to grow and learn.

The first couple of weeks were kind of rough. To be honest, I felt like I was a bit of an exile. I was gone for a week spending time with some colleagues in Charlotte, when I got back I had a rough reentry and I began to think about just how weird it was to still be at home but be disconnected from all of the people who I had come to know and love, people who had become good friends, people whom I had invested my life. It felt odd.

Much has happened in our country in this month. Specifically, much has happened in Orlando. Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. The shooting of a rising pop star, the insanity of someone acting out their hatred and disagreement with violence, the death of a little child by alligator, and these are just the ones that are making the headlines. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that the headlines I was reading were out of a movie script rather than the reputable news outlets, this kind of news used to be the stuff of make believe and fiction, yet here it is, a reality for us all.

I have found that when I stop and slow down, I begin to see God everywhere……EVERYWHERE. When I am rushing through the tasks of my day, it’s easy to lose sight of the little miracles that take place right under my nose, I brush past them as if they were no big deal and then when something doesn’t go the way I want it to, I unload my frustrations. As I have slowed down, I’ve been able to better assess the things before me with a more rational and controlled response. When something breaks, instead of getting so worked up, I lift up a prayer of thanksgiving that I have the means for repair or replacement, something that the majority of the world can’t always say.

I continue to express my gratitude for this time, a time that I am privileged to have. One of the outcomes of this time, a deliverable, was “a better me.” God has done a lot in this short time. He has blessed me with great friends, colleagues, and family. I have filled nearly a third of a journal with thoughts and notes on my experience, which is fine since I still have some more time to fill it up. I have rested, embracing the nothingness of my schedule to seize the opportunity not to be lazy, but to rest and recharge.

This extended time has done nothing but reinforce my own need for a weekly Sabbath. Finding time for rest and recharge is not only beneficial, it’s essential. A few years ago, I could feel the toll that a lack of Sabbath was having on my body, if I’m not careful, I will feel that toll again, and the older I get, the harder it is to bounce back from those tolls.

There is still adventure ahead, there is learning ahead, there is rest and recharge ahead. I am reminded of the words of Solomon, who wrote, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Plans are for paper, but reality can often take a different shape and form. I guess you can kind of think of it as origami, once you’re done folding the paper, it might little resemble the original flat piece of paper, but what you hold in your hands has a beauty that is far surpassing what you might have imagined in the very beginning. If nothing else, this time will contain the stuff of which memories are made. Here’s to the great adventure!

Slowing Down Again

slothI don’t write very fast. I’m not talking about typing, I’m talking about manual handwriting. I’m not a fast writer and the further I get away from my school years when I had to write by hand every day, the harder it is to write for prolonged periods of time. I’m a much faster typist and it’s much less work for my poor hands. Not to mention, as fast as my mind moves, trying to capture my thoughts by writing things down by hand can be downright frustrating.

But slowing down is important. In fact, this isn’t the first time that I’ve thought about it or written about it (check this out). Writing things by hand is far from convenient for me, but the whole point of the sabbatical that I am on is to slow down, to rest, to recharge, and to refocus. If I try to maintain the pace that I keep all year long, how am I supposed to do those things?

A few weeks before my sabbatical started, I went and bought a journal. Part of the reason why I blog rather than journal is for the reasons listed above. I’m not a fast writer and it gets me very frustrated to feel like my hand moves at a sloth’s pace compared with the thoughts that are whizzing through my brain. But I figured I would give it the ol’ college try. After all, it was only 13 weeks, how hard could it be?

A week and a half into this sabbatical, I’m not sure that there’s anything profound or earth shattering that I’ve written in my journal, but is that really the point? Like I said, it’s about slowing down, resting and recharging. I think it’s achieving that purpose for me.

The other night, I connected with my accountability partner from when I was in Asheville. We spent a good chunk of time together and he was telling me all about his business and how God was using it to bless others. He hired a chaplain for his employees and was doing his best to make sure that his life at home, at church, at work, or wherever was the same, that there was no inconsistency across the different aspects of his life.

I was proud. I was proud that he is my friend. I felt privileged that for one short period of my life, we walked together, encouraged one another, challenged one another, and cried with one another. While we don’t talk often or frequently, when we get the chance, we connect and do our best to pick up where we left off.

There’s no way that I have found to REALLY slow down time. We can only control what we can control (which doesn’t seem like a whole lot), everything else is out of our hands. But why not do our best to control those things that we can control with reckless abandon? Why not completely capture those things and use them to our advantage?

Sabbath. Slowing down. Resting. I’m certainly not an expert in those areas, but I’ve been growing more and more and forcing myself to slow down while I am writing will hopefully cause something else to change in me.

Resting

sabbath-restIn the biblical creation account, God creates everything in six days and on the seventh day, he rest. Did God need a rest? Was he tired? No, he did it to set a precedent for his creation to follow. He knew that within the order of creation, humanity would need rest and what better way to set the standard than to practice it as an example.

Rest continued to be emphasized by God when he gave his commandments to his people on Mount Sinai. The command was to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Set apart a day to stop, to cease, to rest, to recharge from all that happened up to that point. Rest.

I’m not sure when the idea of sabbaticals first came up for people to practice. I know that when I came into the Presbyterian church, it seems that it was a standard that had been set long before I had gotten there.

Those who work in vocational ministry know that it’s hard to put a timeframe on the work performed. While some jobs have a typical 9 to 5 component, it’s hard to put those specific boundaries on ministry work. That’s part of the job, knowing that your schedule will be different than the typical job, knowing that evenings and weekends will often be overtaken by work, duties, and responsibilities.

For as long as I have been in vocational ministry, I have had Fridays off. At the beginning of my time as  pastor, it was just me and my wife. It would be a few years before we added a son to our twosome. Fridays have been my Sabbath. I’ve set Fridays aside to rest, to recharge, and to step away from the things that I deal with Sunday through Thursday.

You don’t always know how you’re doing with something until you step away from it. It’s hard to access the successfulness of something until you can step back and analyze it. Have I been doing as well as I thought I was doing? Have I been achieving success or have I only thought that I was achieving success?

It’s been funny and a little ironic that these last few months leading up to my sabbatical, I have had to speak about Sabbath rest. I spoke to a group of young mothers about it in early February. Then I preached a sermon on it at the end of last month. Preaching and teaching on a subject is a sure fire way for me to see just how well I am doing. While I didn’t think that I was succeeding with flying colors, I also knew that I had been fairly intentional about fencing off those times of rest that I have.

Just a few days into my sabbatical, I’ve found that I’ve been doing a pretty good job with fencing off my Sabbath. The last few days have felt, in a way, like the movie “Groundhog Day.” I’ve felt as if I’ve been reliving Friday over and over again. I guess that means two things. One, that I’ve been doing my best to rest. Two, that I’m doing a decent job on all those other Fridays of being restful.

I’ve found that there are seasons in my life when my pace can get so frenetic that when I finally give myself time to stop and rest, my body catches up and I get sick. It seems a little odd that the sickness wouldn’t come in the midst of the busyness, but that’s just how it seems to happen. I’ve felt a little worn out these last few days, no surprise, I expected that I would feel that way. If I’ve felt worn out having done my best to preserve the weekly Sabbath, I can’t imagine what this would be like had I not been practicing this every week.

My sabbatical will not be me simply resting the whole time. Saturday marks the day that I begin some of my adventures. After trying hard to rest this week, it will be nice to head out and see what things I can learn on the road.

Working For the Weekend

sabbath-restThe weekend is a funny thing, isn’t it? We wait all week to get there, we work hard and keep it in our sights all week long. When it finally comes, we celebrate, we proclaim, “TGIF,” and we party like it’s 1999…….right?

Well, that may have been the case back when we were teenagers. Maybe we even carried it into our 20s and 30s, but at some point, it seems that we begin to understand that the whole purpose of the weekend was to actually rest and recreate. After all, there is a reason that some of us call the weekend a Sabbath.

Of course, not everyone does this. There are some people who simply see Saturday and Sunday as an extension of the work week. Some of those people do it because that’s the nature of their job. Others do it because they are drive, motivated, and (possibly) obsessive people.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a room full of young moms about Sabbath. I felt a little inadequate on a few different levels, not the least of which was the fact that instead of speaking, I felt more like I should be listening to this roomful of wisdom. Young moms are a resource that more people need to encourage and tap into because of the collective wisdom that they have and can offer.

But I also felt inadequate because speaking about Sabbath rest to a roomful of women who can barely find 5 minutes to themselves can feel a bit overwhelming. The biblical mandate for Sabbath speaks of setting aside a day of rest, how could that possibly be on the radar of people who can’t think about an hour of rest?

As with so many other things in life, we don’t get there overnight. As the old adage says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It’s taken us a long time to get to where we are and it will most likely take a good deal of time for us to establish a new norm, a new way forward. Just because it takes time and work doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile though. What things have you ever found that were valuable and didn’t require work?

As I said to that roomful of moms that morning, you’ve got to start somewhere. You need to find an hour or two and fence it off. Protect it…..relentlessly. Let everyone know that it’s important to you, that you’re not to be disturbed during that time. Communicating that to infants, toddlers, and children is a challenge at best and a fiasco at worst, so enlist the help of someone else to make it happen. We aren’t alone in this and we weren’t created to be alone. Set the time aside and then make it happen.

Once you find that time and fence that time off, use that time to do the things that energize and recharge you. A Sabbath, a weekend, they’re not there for us to get ahead on the stuff that we do Monday through Friday, they’re there so that the stuff that we do Monday through Friday can be better because by the time we get back to them after some rest, we are fired up and ready to go.

I’m no expert in Sabbath rest. I’ve gone weeks without really taking some down time. Sometimes that’s a stage of life thing, but other times it’s because I’ve not relentlessly protected the time that I had set aside. No one else will protect it if you don’t. If you compromise it, everyone else will as well. That’s an important lesson that I am learning. If I set aside a day to step away and yet engage in every phone call, email, test, or social media post that comes across my path or screen during that day, I’ve said with my actions. rather than my mouth, that this time isn’t important to me.

Rest. Relax. Recharge. Find restoration. I’m learning through my limited experience that the more I take time for these things, the better I am to do the things that I have to do throughout the week, and the better I am to be around.

It’s an uphill battle, but the reward at the top of the hill is completely worth it.

A Clear Head

2014-12-01 08.09.02Sometimes you just need to step away and clear your head. Sometimes you need to do your best to remove all distractions and find a place where you can think and simply be.

It’s not always easy to do; it’s an intentional slowing down, almost like pressing the “Pause” button on life. It’s easier said than done unless there is some real intentionality behind it. It’s too easy to let other things push it out. This is more important, that needs to get done, we can always find excuses as to why not to do it.

I am stepping away for the purpose of planning out 2015 but also for the purpose of recharging. I might call it Sabbath even though there is still work. Some work is fun and when it’s fun, it doesn’t always seem like work.

To breathe in the fresh air, to gaze into the blue sky, to feel the warm sunlight on my face, that is life giving and life restoring.

When was the last time that you got away? When was the last time that you slowed down or even stopped? When was the last time that you pressed the “Pause” button on life to catch your breath.

It’s something that I need to do far more often than I have been doing. Here’s to hoping for more opportunities and occasions!

Time Away

Time away is always a good thing. It’s good to get away to clear your head, to change your surroundings, to change your perspective. It can be helpful, especially when that time is full of restoring, recharging, and life-giving activity. Time away can prepare you for diving back into the fray of everyday life, of facing the pressures that come on a regular basis.

At the same time, time away can be a strain on family. Spouses are tasked with single-parenting for a period of time, children who are not old enough to understand this absence may be confused, and most likely other various impacts on the family.

My seminary education was done by distance. I had to go away for 2 weeks every year. I also was gone from my family for one night a week during that time as I traveled to a class 2 hours from my home. I remember the night before I left for Minnesota, where my classes were held, my wife was pregnant with our second child and we were up in Connecticut with our family.

I had never been away from my wife and 18 month old son for more than an evening. As I stood in the room where my son was staying, holding him in my arms, I began to weep. I wept because of the gravity of the moment. I was going back to school after a nearly 10 year hiatus. I knew none of my classmates. My background had been in engineering and this was going to be a significantly different degree. I wept mostly because I would be away and would be missing moments with my family.

My wife and I had made a commitment at the beginning of the seminary process that I would not be gone for more than 2 weeks a year. That was the best decision that I ever made. While the 2 weeks away were difficult, I grew to appreciate them and even benefit from them. I grew to know many of my classmates and the time away truly became life-giving, restoring, and recharging for me, so much so that time outside of class felt like the more significant time than the time spent within the classroom.

This past year, I have been away from my family a lot. I realize that statement is relative considering that what is “a lot” to me is normal, average, or typical to many others. The time away has not been easy, but I think that it’s been beneficial. This recent trip away, my middle child broke his arm when he fell off the monkey bars (those @#$% monkey bars). It was hard not being there, but squeezing him and hugging him will feel that much better when we reunite.

Home is a good place to land. It always feels good to be back there. No matter how many times I go away, there is nothing else that can bring me joy and peace like coming home again. While I’m grateful for time away, there’s nothing like time at home. I think that the old adage still stands true, absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.

“I Just Can’t Do It, Captain!”

mister scottI was never a die-hard Trekkie (Star Trek fan, for those of you scratching your heads).  I watched the original series in reruns because my brother forced me to watch it.  I halfheartedly got into the first set of movies, kind of steered away from the Next Generation movies, and was pleasantly surprised at the reboot by J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame.  All that being said, I know enough about the series, the characters, and the plotline to be dangerous.

It seemed to be a regular occurrence on the original show when Mister Scott, the chief engineer on the Enterprise, would be asked to do something crucial that he would exclaim to Captain Kirk, “I just can’t do it, Captain.”  Despite his reluctance and insistence against the possibility, it always seemed that Kirk could convince him otherwise, which was kind of disturbing to me.  I guess, when you find a good plot formula, you stick with it and rarely look back.

But life is not an episode of Star Trek.

I took a detour from my 2014 reading list (which I am sadly behind on following) to read a book that had been on my Amazon wishlist for a while.  I regularly check my wishlist to see what items have dropped in price and I noticed that this book, which had been there for a while, was being offered for free on Kindle.  Never one to pass up a good deal, especially for something that I had wanted for a while, I purchased (do you really purchase it if it’s free) and dove in.

The book was entitled, “Delirious: My Journey with the Band, a Growing Family, and an Army of Historymakers” written by Martin Smith, the lead singer of the Christian band, Delirious.  I had been introduced to their music not too long after I came out of college and when I began to lead worship on a regular basis, so I was very anxious to read his insights about his own experience as he journeyed through his own adventure.

As I read through the book, I was captivated and couldn’t put it down.  Not sure that there was one thing that grabbed me other than the fact that I felt like he was very real in his description of his own experience and adventure.  While much of it seemed fairly whitewashed, I appreciated that he was being honest about some of the struggles that he had along the way.

One particular quote stood out to me.  After seeing some of the devastation after the earthquake in Haiti and also experiencing the death of a friend from church, he said, “I just didn’t have the emotional capacity to fully engage with both.”  The statement seemed so innocent and yet raw.  In those few words, he seemed to capture something that I have experienced multiple times over the past few years, the lack of emotional capacity to fully engage.

It’s happened with pastoral visits.  It’s happened with phone calls.  It’s happened in leading worship.  It’s even happened when spending time with my family.  There have been times when I just felt that I had no more to give, that I had exhausted the well, that I was empty.

When emotional energy is expended, it’s not as simple of a task to recharge as it is when physical energy is expended.  Physically expended, one can sleep or eat and gain some energy to push on.  Emotionally expended, the task is not quite as simple.  Emotional exhaustion can result in fitful sleep, loss of appetite, and just an overall sense of being worn out.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine gave me a charge when I was officially installed as a pastor at my church.  As he talked through life and all of the bumps along the way, he said that we can consider our lives like buckets with holes in them.  We all leak.  We all expend energy.  The trick is to fill faster than you leak.  That simple statement was so profound that it stuck with me and just about every other person that heard it that day.

Fill faster than you leak, and that’s just what I am trying to do.  I have learned that in those moments when emotional capacity seems lost, saying “no” is more important than ever.  If it means letting a phone call go to voicemail, answering an email later on, or asking someone for a little alone time, those choices can be crucial for recharging and gaining more emotional capacity again.

Personal limitations are important things to understand and acknowledge.  None of us are superheroes, and the sooner that we realize that, the better off we, and all those around us, will be.  When we continue to try to press on with empty tanks, we will burn out.  Learning that it’s okay to say, “I just can’t do it” is an important lesson.

Let’s face it, things don’t seem to slow down much, and they certainly don’t slow down just because we are experiencing a heavier load than usual.  But others are around us, they are ready and willing to help, they are understanding (well, most of them are) and they can get over the disappointment that they might experience with our initial refusal.  If someone is unwilling to understand our own need for recharge, we might want to press them on it, asking them whether they ever need time for recharge themselves.  If they say that they don’t need that time, we’re well on our way to understanding why they press so hard.  Hopefully, that will be further encouragement for us to enforce those breakaway times to fill our own buckets.