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 was describing recently our church’s outreach ministries to a pastor friend of mine. He asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks: “What percentage of your congregation understands the ‘principalities and powers’ nature of this ministry and pray accordingly?”
I’ll tell you my answer below.
But first, what’s he talking about, “principalities and powers”?
It’s a reference to Ephesians 6:10-20. There, Paul calls every Christian to put on the “full armor of God.” And he spells out the need for this: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). The King James renders this, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers….”
These spiritual forces are also mentioned in Romans 8:38, Ephesians 3:10, and Colossians 1:16 and 2:15.
There is always more going on than meets the eye. The real struggle is never with people. It’s always with a higher authority – with spiritual forces that, as Paul says in another place, “set themselves up in pretension against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). These powers try to mess with our ability to see, hear, worship, and serve God. They hate Christ, his gospel, and his people, and do everything they can to distract, discourage, hinder, and defeat us. The real battle has never been against mere people. Not Pharaoh, not Herod, not Caesar, not Stalin, not Dawkins, not Ahmadinejad, not Dear Leader, not your God-hating boss, not your Christian-baiting colleague, not a belligerent city council or board of trustees: it’s always against their spiritual backers, the principalities and powers that prompt them to action.
My answer to my friend: “I fear only a small handful.”
I would love to be proven wrong.
Or, if right, I’d love to see this change.
It’s no accident that Paul ends the section in Ephesians on the armor of God with this: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph. 6:18-20).
Prayer is the main weapon God gives us to move his kingdom forward in the face of the principalities and powers.
Do you pray accordingly?
Sometimes the only motivation for doing anything is that Jesus says so. Otherwise, we’re bankrupt. We simply can’t muster up the vision or energy to try one more time, to care for one more second. The only resolve we can make is to quit. In our eyes, this thing – this ministry, this marriage, this family, this friendship, this job – has come to a shuddering halt. It is over. It is dead. It is a black hole. All our efforts to change it have failed.
It’s those times when all that can keep us keeping on is that Jesus says so.
Luke records this encounter:
Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:4-5).
But because you say so. That moment can stand for so many of our own: Master, I’ve worked hard all night, all week, all year, all this decade, and haven’t caught a thing. I’ve accomplished zip. My spouse is still unkind. My finances are still a mess. My friendships are still shallow. My faith is still flimsy. My sobriety is still sketchy.
Master, this isn’t working.
And everything in us wants to walk away.
Except Jesus standing there, looking at us with those eyes. And he says, “Try one more time.”
Weariness floods us. Frustration grips us. Anger overwhelms us. Instantly in our mind, rising quickly to our lips, is bitter complaint: “Are you kidding? Do you know how hard I’ve tried? Why would you treat me this way? Why would you even ask?”
But he just keeps standing there, looking.
“Alright. Alright. Okay. This is useless. This is futile. But because you say so, I will.”
You know how this story goes: suddenly, the effort is not futile. At long last, and all at once, letting down the nets accomplishes what it’s supposed to. Effort produces results, abundantly:
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.
So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink (Luke 5:6-7)
Now they’ve got good problems to deal with – breaking nets, sinking boats, more work to do than hands to help; success has its own set of complications.
But they’d never have experienced that success except, against all instinct, they did what Jesus said.
Have you given up on something? Maybe you’ve invested heroic, repeated effort, but have nothing to show for it. Does the thought of trying again fill you with weariness? Does it just seem easier to admit defeat and move on?
But what if Jesus is asking you to try again? Try to make this marriage work one more time. Try to reconcile with your father one more time. Try to connect with your daughter one more time. Try trusting one more time. Try forgiving one more time?
Because he says so, will you? What if this is the time the nets actually fill?
The earth orbits the sun at a good clip. It fairly bustles, travelling at nearly 67,000 miles per hour, slowing or accelerating slightly depending on where it is in the arc of its ellipses. That ellipses is not the reason we have seasons – the 23.4o tilt of the earth on its rotating axis causes those – but it may be a factor in the intensity of the seasons. At any rate, earth, swinging through its orbit at breakneck speed (while also spinning on its axis at over 1000 miles per hour), clocks around the sun in just slightly over 364 days (our calendars compensate for the difference by adding every 4 years a day to February).
Why am I inflicting this amateur, armchair lesson in schoolboy astronomy on you?
To make a simple point: the New Year is actually a new year. December 31st marks the completion of another circuit around the sun – it’s the tape across that year’s finish line – and January 1st fires the starting gun for the next lap. (Well, more or less: the dates are arbitrary. There’s no fixed cosmic starting block. A more intuitive way to mark the annual cycles would be to measure them from solstice to solstice – winter or summer – or equinox to equinox – spring or fall – but we’ve chosen our way and we’re sticking with it).
Which is all to say, the new year is actually a new year. It is not some mere human invention. Something ends, and something begins. Something dies, and something is birthed. The old has gone, the new has come. So those cartoon images we attach to the moment –the year that’s dying depicted as a hoary, decrepit old man, the year that’s arriving portrayed as a plump, diapered baby – are not far off the mark. And it’s fitting we countdown the last minute of the old year, that we toot the horn and blow the fireworks and, at the stroke of midnight, kiss our spouse.
Because it really is a new year.
How fitting that God, who made the planets and the stars the laws by which they operate, loves newness. He is the God who, at any point, with nothing more to work with than our willingness, can change stuckness into forward motion, despair into hope, fear into courage, death into life. He is the God who makes beauty from ashes. He is the God who can bury the old and create the new.
“And he that sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5).
And he does this with nothing more to work with than our willingness.
And so another New Year’s tradition is appropriate: the making of resolutions. I plan to take stock of what’s grown old, tired, brittle, shrivelled, mangy in me – in my heart and mind and marriage and parenting and vocation and relationships – and then to ask God to make all things new.
Would you consider joining me? As we begin the New Year, let’s make it truly a new year.