Good – but not what I expected!

I’m now a quarter of the way through my sabbatical and thought it might be a good time for another update.  These first three weeks have been really good, but not at all what I’d expected…

Week 1 – Family Holiday in Northumberland

Edge of the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland

The first week was a lovely family holiday with some friends in Northumberland.  It was just what I hoped for – good weather, in a lovely place, doing very chilled out things and enjoying some great food with lovely people.  I don’t think that there’s any part of that week that I’d have changed if I could – other than perhaps having slightly larger beds in the house we were in, and remembering to take some sun cream – despite it being Northumberland in April I got rather sunburnt.

But what surprised me was that at the end of a lovely week’s holiday, with nothing really to do but relax, I found myself feeling more rather than less stressed.  In fact when we were back home at the end of the week I was positively grumpy.

Week 2 – Shepherd’s Hut in the Lake District

The Hut (pink like my sunburn)

And that meant that when I headed off for the second week – a week on my own in a shepherd’s hut in the Lake District – I was feeling somewhat apprehensive. Would I come back feeling even more stressed and frustrated?

Well I’m pleased to say it was an excellent week, and by the end of it the feelings of stress and frustration had entirely gone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if how that happened means that week turns out to be the most important of the sabbatical. What that week was more than anything was time to think, pray and read.

The hut was very comfortable and completely free from electricity, internet, and most of the time phone signal. The weather was tremendous so I had some really lovely walks, bagging the first few fells of the Sabbatical – Loughrigg (1099 ft), Stone Arthur (1652 ft), Great Rigg (2513 ft) and Heron Pike (2003 ft).

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The first thing that a combination of isolation and exercise did was enable me to rest really well. For the first time in literally years I found myself waking up in the morning feeling thoroughly rested and not at all tired. It was such an unusual sensation that I wasn’t sure what it was at first!

The second thing was that I had some time to think about what was making me feel stressed, frustrated and grumpy. And when I gave a bit of time to thinking about it a flood of things from the last several years came to mind – things that I thought I had forgotten about. Some were work things that hadn’t gone as I’d hoped, others were relationships that had been strained, and others were just things that, for whatever reason, had been hurtful. Few of them were of any real size, although some had been fairly big deals. I was really surprised how things from years ago, as well as some more recent, were able to affect how I was feeling in the present.

Before coming on sabbatical a friend recommended a book that he found very helpful at the start of his sabbatical some time ago, Total Forgiveness by R.T. Kendall. It’s a book that firstly makes Jesus’ command that we forgive people who have hurt us starkly clear, and then secondly gives some really practical steps we can take to be able to do so. I spent the Tuesday of that week reading it and found it very helpful. I spent that evening praying for God to bless the people I was feeling most hurt by and had the most tremendous sense of a burden lifting and a wonderful sense of peace.

I think this has taught me something quite important: I need to get much better at processing things that have frustrated me. None of the things that came up are things that I had consciously tried to bury, but the nature of the pace of my working week, and the fact that I spent much of my time with people who are dealing with far more painful things than I have, meant that rather than pay any attention to the things that were bothering me I would simply move onto the next thing in my diary.

A Study Project – Forgiveness and the Imprecatory Psalms

Thinking about forgiveness like this, though, has also raised an interesting study project that I spent some of that week working on and that I plan to spent much more time looking at. It’s really a project about the relationship between the imprecatory Psalms and Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.

The imprecatory Psalms are the ones like Psalm 69 where David appeals to God to judge his enemies. Many Christian pastors, myself included, see these Psalms as a helpful way for people to deal with anger in a godly way. It is inevitable that people will, from time to time, wrong us, and when Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us’ he was assuming that people would be ‘sinned against’.  So it’s inevitable that people will feel anger from time to time. The question is what should we do with that anger?

One option is to take it out on the person we are angry with, or even worse on an unrelated third party who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is the revenge option, and it’s not a good one.

A second option is to somehow repress the feeling of anger and to not give it any expression. This is the burying option, and although it’s not as obviously destructive as the first psychologists do tell us about the dangers of repressing strong emotions because they have a habit of festering and reemerging some time later. The burying option can actually be as destructive as revenge, only it’s a different person who gets damaged.

The imprecatory Psalms give us a third option, handing the anger over to God. When a Christian prays a Psalm like 69 today he or she can effectively pray something like ‘O God – you know what _____ has done to me, and you know how angry I feel about it. I would love to do something to get even, but I know it is your place, not mine, to judge. So I am telling you just how strongly I feel and how cross I am, and right now, in the heat of my anger, I feel that I would love you to do _____ to them. But it’s a good thing that you’re an impartial judge and able to make a much better decision on what should be done than I am. So whilst I might love them to take a nice confident step in bare feet on an upturned plug I am going to leave it to you, O just Lord, to do what is right.’

This third option avoids the destruction of revenge or burying and gives an appropriate outlet for strong feelings, handing it over to God for him to deal with.

But the question I am now wrestling with is how does this fit with Jesus saying Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt 5:44) or Paul saying Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (Rom 12:14)? Have I, along with many other pastors, misunderstood what the imprecatory Psalms are for, and was David in fact wrong to pray in the way he did? Or is there a way where the two come together and give a fuller picture of how a Christian should deal with anger? If you’re someone who prays I’d very much appreciate your prayers for me as I continue to wrestle with this question.

Week 3 – Back Home

ppsThat lovely week of studying and walking was followed by an equally lovely, but very different, week back home. Highlights of that week were going to some friends’ wedding in Oxford, helping Ali shovel coal into the biggest steam engine we’ve ever seen at Papplewick Pumping Station, taking Ali to the cinema  (Boss Baby is not a great film…), a day that Kate and I had to ourselves with Ali at nursery, assembling an Ikea kitchen island, and repairing my grandmothers old kitchen table.

I’m now back in the Lakes, with still more perfect weather. I rather overdid the walking yesterday – Hardknott (1801 ft) and Harter Fell (2128 ft) – although not huge were part of significantly longer walk than I’ve done recently and I was very grateful for a lift in a 23-year-old Ford Fiesta for the final bit back to the car at the top of Hardknott Pass.  Absolutely stunning views throughout the day though.

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The rest of this week will be a mixture of walking and studying.  And this time I’ve remembered to bring sun cream.



Beginning the Sabbatical

So I’ve just finished my last bit of ‘normal work’ for the next three months, and am about to head off on Sabbatical until 17th July.  It’s a very strange feeling indeed!  The last few days have been frantically busy tying up all the loose ends before heading off, and it’s only really now that I’m having a chance to pause and think about it.  And as I do that there are a few thoughts and feelings uppermost in my mind.

  1. Gratitude!  I am so grateful to a generous diocese, wonderful colleagues, and a hugely supportive church family who together have made it possible for me to take this time off.  The list of people who are shouldering extra burdens while I’m away is too long to include here, but I must mention our superb curate Tom who is hugely stepping up into new roles. 

    But even more than to the diocese, Tom, and the rest of the family at St. Mary’s, I am so grateful to the Lord of the Sabbath, who wonderfully invites his people to rest.  What a generous God who includes periods of rest in his commandments for how his people should live.

  2. Tiredness.  Or perhaps I should say exhaustion.  I am absolutely shattered!  Partly from the last few weeks – who on earth thought it would be a good idea for me to be getting ready for Easter and finishing off everything else in readiness for sabbatical at the same time?  The last week in particular has been full of very long days and not all that much sleep, so i’m not entirely surprised that I’m feeling it now, nor that I seem to have caught a stinker of a cold.

    But there’s a deeper tiredness than that.  I’ve been trying to serve St. Mary’s for very nearly ten years now, and I’ve definitely felt myself flagging and getting a bit stale in these last couple of years, and in these last few months in particular it feels that I’ve somewhat run out of steam.  I’m really praying, and I’d value your prayers too, that this time off will enable me to come back with way more energy, and a much fresher and more enthusiastic approach to the work that I love so much, and a closer walk with God.

  3. Apprehension.  I really don’t know how I’m going to find this time.  I’ll be spending two out of every three weeks away from home, and one out of every three weeks on my own.  There are so many people (the church family) and things (my coffee machine) that I’ll miss, not least the work that has become so familiar over the years!  I suspect that without the routine of daily prayer meetings, service planning, staff team meetings, sermon writing, pastoral visits and so on I’ll feel quite disorientated.

    That, I think, is part of why it’s so valuable to have a sabbatical – it’s not just about the rest but it’s also about reconnecting with what it is to simply be a person – a Christian, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend and so on – without it all being about the fact I wear a dog collar from time to time.

    This is one of the reasons why I’m still going to be visiting St. Mary’s from time to time on a Sunday – for me to learn, and perhaps for everyone else to learn, what it is for me to simply be part of the family without having any particular role.

  4. Excitement.  Despite the apprehension I am really looking forward to it. Tomorrow morning we’re leaving the house in the hands of a friend and the dog and are heading off to Northumberland for what will simply be a family holiday with some friends.  There’s no big agenda here – just to unwind and and enjoy a holiday.

    Then in a week’s time, I’m beginning the sabbatical proper with a week on my own, in a hut in a field in the Lake District.  I’m excited about lots of time to read, pray and think, whilst taking lots of the form of exercise I enjoy most (fell walking) and getting lots of fresh air.

    And I’m excited about the prospect of several weeks like that – some in a tent by myself, some in a cottage with family and friends, and some back home in my study.  I’m excited that several weeks like that – eleven to be precise – should enable me to come back to St. Mary’s refreshed, re-energised, and re-envisioned for another decade of ministry.

Right – I think I’d better go and get packed!