We arrived Wednesday night, exhausted and disoriented, at our temporary home in Wales, and awoke Thursday morning to a panorama of jaw-dropping beauty: a paradise of woods and streams and patchwork fields rolling down deep folds of hills. In the pasture above us a half-dozen horses, muddy and shaggy in their winter coats, nicker and clomp, and all around us sheep, waddling fat in their winter wool, bleat and graze. The house looks down upon a valley, vibrantly green and cut by the silvery currents of the Teifi river, and across to the tidy tiny village of Pentre-Cwrt. It's as if we've been transported into a rustic shire somewhere in Middle-Earth, and any moment Gandalf will rap on the door with urgent and secret business.
But I think few visitors, wizard or otherwise, venture this far. It is so rural that the house doesn't have a street address – it's simply called Murmur Teifi, named thus because one can hear from this flank of the hill, if the wind is right and the water's running high, a thin whisper of the river's voice.
It's here we'll stay for the next 4 months. The plan is for Cheryl to complete 2 of her courses toward a masters degree in Spiritual Formation, Nicola to finish her grade 11 course work online, and me to write a novel. And we will explore, and read, and ponder, and pray, and walk, and talk. We will make new friends, and visit a few old ones. We will play more board games then we have in the past decade. I will cook more meals, and wash more dishes, than I have in my lifetime. And we will become still, and quiet, and attentive.
It's a sojourn. I've always liked that word, though I think this is the first time I've ever written it. It's a good biblical word, at least in the language of the King James: that version is thick with sojourns and sojourners. Sojourn means, literally, to rest a day (just as journey means to travel a day), but more colloquially it means to stay a while. 4 months qualifies for a while.
I've travelled a lot, but never really sojourned, never really stayed a while – at most, I think, I've hunkered down 2 weeks in a single place. I've never abided elsewhere long enough for the place to feel like home, to become part of me. A sojourn is different: it's time enough to match your internal rhythms to the world you inhabit, time enough to learn some of the quirks of that world's language and gesture and ways (though Welsh is a mouthful, thick as a barley loaf, with long snarls of impossible combinations of consonants sprinkled with the occasional vowel, and I'll be lucky to pick up more than the odd word).
A sojourn is time enough to change.
I guess that's what I'm hoping. I'm hoping to change. I want to be more thoughtful and less reactionary, more prayerful and less judging. I want to see further and deeper, and be more filled with wonder and thankfulness. I want to be quicker to listen and slower to speak. I want to laugh more, and play more, and take much longer to become angry or anxious. I want to take more risks, but be less reckless. I want to soak in word and Spirit, and the company of others.
It's a bit embarrassing that I need 4 months and a refuge in the Welsh hillsides to accomplish this, and perhaps I don't. But it's what I've been given – a fact I'm deeply grateful for – and so be it.
Sojourns are rare these days. I embrace this one with joy and thanks, and resolve to make the most of it.
I begin on February 1 a 5.5 month sabbatical, much of it to be spent in Wales. My posting this week is the letter I wrote to my church on January 29 as a farewell, an exhortation, and a thank you. Here it is:
I’m writing this at a flood tide of emotion. I am stunned almost to disbelief that, after this coming Sunday, I won’t see you until July, or even later, since my return falls smack-dab in the middle of holiday season. I have a sense my absence will be harder for me than for you. I am already feeling the symptoms of withdrawal.
Happy as I am, I’m also sad.
I have so much I want to say to you. I plead your patience and indulgence – this will be the longest of my letters to you so far.
First, before I wax poetic and become all mushy, a few house-keeping matters:
• I will go off-grid during my sabbatical: I will become as distant and as silent as the stars, but unlike the stars, invisible.
• I will not write to you during my sabbatical. My From the Desk of Pastor Mark will morph into a weekly e-letter by Pastor Shane, Pastor Rob, or Barry Lockwood, and perhaps others.
• I will post regular BLOGS during my sabbatical.
• You will be well-led during my absence. We have always had a team approach to leadership at New Life. Though I am Lead Pastor, in practice we approach decisions in a collaborative fashion. This won’t change in my absence, and the team that already leads well remains intact, minus me. We’ve compensated for that by adding Barry Lockwood as Director of Staff, to oversee the staff team during my sabbatical as well as other duties.
• You will be well-fed during my absence. We have a superb teaching team in Pastor Shane and Pastor Rob (plus some great guest speakers in the coming months), and you won’t be wanting for good preaching (thought it’s still up to you to apply it, and to dig into the word for yourself).
• I have a new book coming out in February called Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down. As with all my books, copies will be available through the church to New Lifer’s at a special discount price, and all proceeds will go to missions.
• Who pays for this? New Life’s Sabbatical Policy (available upon request) allows for a 3-6 month sabbatical leave for each full-time pastor every 7 years. The first 3 months are at full pay; any remaining months are at half pay. Annual vacation time on the year of the sabbatical can be combined with the sabbatical leave (as long as the time away does not exceed 6 months). Here’s how that applies to me: I am taking 3 months sabbatical leave at full pay, one month at half pay, and 6-weeks holiday time at full pay.
• What will I do? Cheryl, Nicola and I will be spending 4 months of the sabbatical in south Wales, near the city of Cardigan (well, 40 minutes from Cardigan, but it’s the closest centre). We are doing a house exchange with Stephen and Sulwen Evans. I will preach 4 times in Stephen’s church in Cardigan, Mount Zion Baptist. And Stephen will preach 3 times at New Life. My main activity during my sabbatical (besides a lot of walking) will be finishing my novel and beginning another book, likely based on the Against the gods series. I also plan to conduct an in-depth study of the history of the Welsh Revival and another study of the Old Testament Prophets. Cheryl will be working toward finishing her Masters Degree in Spiritual Formation through Carey Theological College. Nicola will finish her grade 11 year at Kelsey on-line. And we plan to travel a bit – around Wales, England, Scotland, perhaps Ireland, and, once our daughter Sarah joins us in early May, southern Europe.
Now this is what I really want to say:
~ I want to say I am thankful and humbled. Your gift to me and my family of this sabbatical is extraordinarily generous. I am grateful beyond words (but will manage a few anyhow). Your generosity allows me to step out of my daily and weekly routines and responsibilities for nearly 6 months in order to be renewed and recharged. Such a gift is as rare as it is valuable. All I can say, with all of my heart, is thank you.
~ I want to say how excited I am for you. I believe this will be a season of remarkable growth, numerically and spiritually, for New Life – and for you personally. I have felt over this past month a deep pang of regret that I will miss some of our church’s best days. I can’t wait to see the fruit and hear the stories when I’m back.
~ I want to wish you God’s best. I think I have consistently taught during my 16 years at New Life that to know Christ and serve his Kingdom in his power for his glory is the highest calling on earth. I pray you fall more in love with Christ, grow more into his likeness, and press deeper into his kingdom during these coming months. Please don’t miss that.
~ I want to affirm my total confidence in our leadership. God has raised up at New Life a remarkably committed, gifted and prayerful team of servant leaders. I believe that they will, not only lead with excellence and effectiveness, but will take New Life further than it’s ever gone before. I happily pass my mantle to them.
~ I want to say it’s your church. The health and growth of New Life is up to you. The Bible says that, though Christ is the head of the church and the source of its life, any church thrives only when each and all of its members choose to serve her with the same love and passion Jesus shows. Jesus is the head, but we are the body. You get to choose the body’s level of fitness. Please choose a high level.
~ I want to say I hope to finish my days with you. I believe a church needs a new pastor about every 7 years. The pastor gets tired, and tiring. The expensive way to get a new pastor, for both the pastor and congregation, is for the current one to leave and a new one to be sought, courted, called, and settled. The wise and much more affordable way is to provide for the current pastor to be renewed. That’s what you’ve chosen (again, thank you). I intend to come back rip-roaring and guns blazing, so you better get a little rest yourself.
~ I want to say I love you. I feel toward you what Paul felt toward the Philippian church:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and…; all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:3-8).
I can’t say it any better, and so I echo this with all sincerity.
~ I want to say I will pray for you. Again, Paul’s prayer for the Philippians says it better than I can:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1:9-11).
~ I want to say, please pray for me and my family. We cherish the thought of you holding us up in prayer. We feel vulnerable stepping away for almost 6 months. The thought that you, along with hundreds of others, will weekly if not daily lift us in prayer is a consolation and encouragement of the highest rank and deepest order. I am awed by it. Thank you.
~ I want to say I will miss you. Enough said. See you in July.
Many people have asked me if I’m excited about my upcoming Sabbatical, which begins February 1 and ends July 15, and which takes me and my wife and one of our daughters to Wales.
I am excited.
But actually I’ve had little time to think about it. January’s been a whirlwind.
That’s largely because I’m trying to cram too many things into too little time. This entire month I’ve felt like a traveller running late, breathlessly trying to catch up to my next point of departure, while the scenery blurs past. I’m speaking to a gathering of youth pastors this weekend, and my topic, ironically, is Sabbath rest.
I’m not sure whether God is laughing or weeping.
But I think laughing. There are times when we must go flat out. The pace is not sustainable over the long haul – you can’t sprint a marathon – but sometimes going hard and fast is the only option. I will, by God’s grace and my church’s generosity, have several months of slow and easy. A month or two of burning the midnight oil is small recompense for that.
In recent years, I have been fascinated with two ideas: soul seasons, and spiritual rhythms (indeed, my last book, Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of the Soul, swelled to over 300 pages as I probed both ideas). The basic concept: our soul, much like the earth, moves through seasons, and we best steward each season by finding the right rhythm for it. We cure firewood in summer and burn it in winter. To reverse this is wasteful and unwise. So with soul seasons and spiritual rhythms. The Bible warns us that to sleep during the harvest is shameful, to idle during plough-time is disastrous, to fast at a wedding is rude, to only watch while others worship is barrenness.
For everything there is a season.
I am right now in a season of hard work and about to enter a season of deep rest. Each has its rhythms.
And you? Know the season. Find the rhythm.
And in due time, you will reap a harvest.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my upcoming sabbatical starting February 1. I’ve been thinking about how the staff and church where I pastor will fare without me. And I’ve been trying to do as Paul advises in Romans 12:3 – to not think of myself more highly than I ought, but rather to judge myself soberly. Paul’s Greek word for soberly can be rendered sanely. Have a sane, not a crazy cockeyed, view of yourself, he’s saying. Look clear-eyed at who you are, with neither hubris nor false modesty. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know your limits. Know your place.
So I said to myself, self, you are not irreplaceable.
And self, or Spirit, or somesuch, answered back: No, you are irreplaceable. You’re just not indispensable.
I’d never before considered the difference between those two things, irreplaceability and indispensability. I always thought they were the same thing.
They’re not. Everyone is, by definition, irreplaceable. There’s no one quite like you, or me. If I died or quit, I couldn’t be replaced. There are just not enough short bald motorcycle-riding, scuba-diving, loud-mouthed 51-year old pastor-writers with 3 children and a wife of 26 years named Cheryl available to step into the role.
What a relief.
But none of us is indispensable. Everyone, by the unbending laws of nature, will one day not be here, yet the world will still turn, tides will still ebb and flow, bad movies will still be made, and somewhere, someday, McDonald’s will serve its trillionth hamburger (they’re now around 250 billion).
And all this without you.
If I died or quit, the church could easily find someone to take my role, better than me in some ways, horrifically, tragically inadequate in others (it’s hard to imagine, for instance, anyone doing a better impersonation of a Scottish highlander).
This little distinction helps me. We are all irreplaceable – which, to some measure, is good news: do we ever want another Idi Amin? If your dog died, and you got another, would you want every last quality of the last one replicated in the next one? If your spouse… well, you get where I’m going. We’re all irreplaceable.
But we’re not a one of us indispensable – which, by all measures, is good news: do you want the business or ministry or family that you are part of now to cease to exist, or to fall to pieces, when you’re not here?
So for five and a half months starting in February, I’ll have to miss my church, and they me, and realize that there’s no fitting substitute for any of us.
No one will replace you.
No one will replace me.
And for those same 5 months, we’ll all do just fine.