Two weeks ago I stepped down as the lead pastor of the church I planted eleven years ago. Before stepping into a new season of ministry, my church has generously provided me with a three month sabbatical. There are no amount of words that I could use to express how special this gift is to me.
As I feel led, from time to time and with no particular schedule, I want to share some sabbath thoughts. The only reason I feel compelled to do so is out of the hope that someone somewhere would find a sense of peace and rest in these words–a mini-sabbath for them.
Sharing these thoughts for me is enjoyable and life-giving. It is not work. If I felt that I had to do this, and that it was work to do so, then I would stop doing it for the simple reason that it was working against my effort to rest from my work. Yes, I just used the term “effort to rest,” a term I discovered in Hebrews 4:11.
So here goes…
First, I am not what I do.
I’ve realized that this is the first time in 20 years that I have no title and no responsibility for people (obviously I am still “Dad” and still responsible for my family). At the age of 18 I was serving in the U.S. Marines and before the age of 20 I was responsible for the lives of a number of Marines. That number continued to grow as I was promoted and assumed greater responsibilities. I was Sgt. Moore and I was responsible. Having become a Christian while in the Marine Corps, I quickly went from the Marines to ministry. I was now Pastor Mark and I was responsible.
Today I’m just Mark and I’m not responsible for much of anything other than getting my son to his morning off-sesaon workouts on time. When I get home from dropping him off I pour a cup of coffee and I sit down with my Bible and my journal. I read, meditate, pray, and journal. I don’t study. Truthfully I’m about studied out. I currently have no sermon to prepare, no lesson to teach, and no one to listen to me even if I did (my dog sits at my feet each morning, but she doesn’t seem interested in much of what I have to say).
What I’ve learned in a very short period of time is that we easily become what we do. When what we do is taken away we quickly discover whether or not we are more than what we do. Am I what I do or am I who I am?
Having no title and no responsibility, I find that I can only define myself as one loved by God. I am loved by God not on account of what I do. I am loved by God not on account of who I lead. I am loved by God simply because I am his. I belong to him and am a highly valued son to my Father.
Yes, I knew this while I was a pastor with people I was responsible for, but somehow I’m having to relate to that truth in a new way. What was in my head is slowly descending into my heart.
Second, my brain needs rest.
I became a Christian 17 years ago and from the time of my conversion until now I have done nothing but read, study, research, preach, and teach. I’ve taken time off for vacation here and there, but I’ve never been away from reading and thinking. As a pastor, even on vacation you carry with you the text you will preach upon returning from vacation. The next sermon always looms just over the horizon.
As I’ve been thinking about the meaning of rest, sabbath, I’ve been thinking about the fact that God told Israel to let the land rest for a complete year every seven years. The land needs a break. I should have already had two sabbaticals by now if I treated my brain like the land. Interestingly I have a dear friend who is a farmer. He is an older man who I love and respect. At the seven year mark in my church he came to me and said, “Your supposed to take a sabbatical. It’s been seven years. You need to rest from your work.” Of course I didn’t do it because I worried about what would happen to my church if I were to do so. I now realize that fear was more about my own misplaced trust than anything else. God gave the sabbath day to people and the sabbath year to the land. God obviously wasn’t worried about the people for a day or the land for a year. God doesn’t seem to have the same trust issues that I have.
So, I’m letting my brain rest. I read a John Grisham novel last week (Sycamore Row). I remembered that reading was fun. Books are not always something to be conquered and critiqued. They are a gift to enjoy. Literacy, wow, what a gift to be able to read!
I’m pretty sure that I won’t read very much during this sabbatical unless it is fiction and is not boring. Boring reading is work.
Third, I need to keep still.
In Exodus 14, Israel is being pursued by Egypt. As their captors are nearing, Moses says to Israel, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.“
In extended periods of silence and solitude I’m learning that I have only to keep still. God will do the rest and therefore I can rest.
This is a season for me. It won’t last long. Lord willing, soon I’ll return to having some silly title that others give me and I’ll resume being responsible for people and things. But when that time comes, when I return to serving, I pray that I will daily remember these lessons I’m learning on sabbatical.