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!

Please don’t give up chocolate!

Have you given any thought as to how you could make the most of Lent?  Are you planning on giving up something this year?  If so the interesting question to me is not what, but why?  What benefit do you hope to derive from it?

There are all sorts of good reasons that people have for giving up the traditional unhealthy luxuries – chocolate, alcohol and so on – but are you doing it for the best reason?  Lent is traditionally a time when some people choose to fast, because it’s a time that remembers Jesus’ time of fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), but what really is the point of fasting?

The easiest way to describe the point of fasting is that we fast in order to feast.  We fast from earthly treasures in order to feast on our treasure in heaven.

In Matthew 6 Jesus’ teaching on fasting (vv. 16-18) is immediately followed by him saying

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (vv. 19-21)

The point seems to be that when our lives are rammed full of treasures on earth, the earth is where our hearts will be, and we’ll be oblivious to a far greater treasure in heaven.  The point of fasting is to clear our some of the earthly treasures, that get in the way, so that we might better appreciate our heavenly treasure, which is nothing less than Jesus Christ himself.  We fast in order to feast on Christ.

So a question to consider is whether what you’re thinking of giving up is actually going to help you appreciate Jesus more.  Personally I’ve never found that avoiding chocolate or the like much changes how I think about him, and therefore I’d question its value.

Where I’ve found fasting really helpful is when it doesn’t just deprive me of some trivial luxury but it actually frees up time in my day that I can spend in God’s word and in prayer.  It’s interesting that the majority of occasions when the Bible talks about fasting it goes hand in hand with prayer – so often it speaks not just of fasting but of ‘prayer and fasting’.  Fasting should enable us to pray more.

There have been times when we as a staff team at St. Mary’s have agreed to forgo lunch on a particular day (or a particular day of the week for a number of weeks) and to spend the time when we would have been eating praying together instead.  But of course it doesn’t have to be food – it could be anything that regularly takes up your time.  A favourite TV program? Facebook? Paul even advocated couples fasting from sex on occasion (1 Corinthians 7:5).  The idea is that it will clear out space in our overcrowded lives for our relationship with Jesus to grow.

I am a bit of a Modern Family addict, and I was thrilled to be given the box set of seasons 1-5 for Christmas.  My Lent is going to mean me not watching it, and using the time that frees up to follow a series of Lent readings devised by a friend of mine.

The point of fasting is not to make us miss out on things we like, but rather to stop us missing out on something even more precious.  If you’re going to give something up this year will you be fasting in such a way as to help you feast on Jesus?