As you all know, I was recently granted 5 weeks of Sabbatical time by the Session of HPC. This was a wonderful gift for me and my family. But what did I do with 5 weeks of time away from the church? How did God grow/shape/change me during this time? Here is a quick run through.
December 4th – 14th, Chattanooga.
I confess that as I began my sabbatical, I didn’t know what to do with my time. I am so accustomed to having a constant to-do list in my mind, that to be without one was an alien experience. So I spent my first day decompressing and letting it sink in that I did not have anything pressing I had to do. Sure, there were still the responsibilities of being a parent and helping around the house, but I had to wrap my mind around the fact that my work responsibilities were on a very long hiatus.
Once this sank in, I spent the better part of the next couple of weeks camped out at various coffee shops and restaurants. I spent part of my time each day in devotional time reading slowly through Exodus. It is always so refreshing to prayerfully and slowly read through the Scriptures!
My “work” during this time was to carefully read through a book entitled, “The Vine Project” by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. This is a practical follow-up to their book, “The Trellis and the Vine,” which seeks to differentiate the important ministry categories of “trellis work” (structures, programs) and “vine work,” which they define as “making disciples of Jesus through the prayerful speaking of the Word.”
The Vine Project wants to help churches become vine oriented, but without getting rid of the trellises altogether. It helps us prioritize these two categories in a way that is honoring to Jesus and healthy for the Church. My primary goal in reading the Vine Project was to glean as much as I could on how to better make discipleship a part of our Youth Ministry’s DNA. In particular, I was challenged by their claim that a disciple is a “Christ learner.” This means a disciple is engaged in transformative learning, the outcome of which is to observe and obey the commands of Jesus. A disciple has renounced the lie that used to be at the center of their lives (sin and idolatry). A disciple is a forgiven sinner who is learning Christ in repentance and faith.
As a Church, and as a Youth Ministry, it must be our goal to make disciples. How do we do this? Through the proclamation of the Word, with prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit, alongside people as God’s fellow workers who are persevering in faith, step by step. I was so thankful for my time spent in the Vine Project, as it reignited a desire in me to work toward making our Youth Ministry more discipleship oriented.
December 15th – 26th, Destin, FL.
We left the chilly grey of Chattanooga for the warm, sugary sand beaches of the Emerald Coast of Florida. Getting to spend such an extended time at a slowed-down pace next to the Gulf of Mexico allowed me to relax in a way that I hadn’t in a very long time. Something about the ocean (or in this case the gulf) makes me feel small and more in awe of our Creator. That is, to me, the best foundation for rest.
While we were in Destin, we as a family enjoyed the indoor pool, played on the beach, ate out a few times, basked in the sunshine, and marveled at the sunsets. I had some things to accomplish on my own as well. The “work” goal for Florida was to spend time deepening my own spiritual life and walk. So I worked slowly and intentionally through two books: “The Prayer Life,” by Andrew Murray, and “The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life,” by John Calvin. Of the many truths that God used to strengthen and grow me through this time, there are two that I want to point out. One, from Andrew Murray, is that the life abundant which Jesus speaks of in John 10:10 is “Nothing less than the full Jesus having the full mastery over our entire being, through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Murray says this, as you might have guessed from the title of the book, begins with prayer. After all, he says, “No man can expect to make progress in holiness who is not often and long alone with God.” As we spend this time with God, trusting Jesus by faith, we find that the Holy Spirit “is the Spirit of light and wisdom who leads us into the heavenly secret of God’s overflowing grace.”
Calvin’s book was a bit more general in its scope, covering matters of the entire Christian life rather than a narrow focus on one aspect like prayer. But I found that God used Calvin to point me to a similar theme as he had in both the Vine Project and the Prayer Life. In his first chapter on “Humble Obedience, the True Imitation of Christ,” Calvin discusses holiness and all that it entails. He rightly claims that the Gospel is “The Doctrine of All Life,” and that this Gospel of Jesus Christ is “fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the heart.” Holiness, discipleship, the abundant life…these things are not about the boxes we check with our religious deeds. In fact, Calvin says “our religion is unprofitable if it doesn’t change our hearts and transform us into new creatures.”
We sadly said goodbye to Destin on the day after Christmas, but God did a work in me during my time there that I will not soon forget.
December 27th – January 2nd, Chattanooga for a minute, then Snowshoe, WV
Before I ever proposed doing this Sabbatical, my in-laws had planned a family ski trip to Snowshoe. So, thanks to their generosity, we made our way from sunshine and sand to snow and seriously frigid temps (it got all the way down to -10)!
We all really enjoyed the chance to get out and ski. Elijah learned to ski for the first time and did great. Nathaniel traded in skis and decided it was time to master snowboarding (check). And Jennifer and Isaac felt accomplished by doing a bit of sledding in the gentle snow next to our lodge. Fun Fact: I have been on numerous ski trips…almost too many to count, dating back to 1995. But other than a spontaneous half-day of skiing in Colorado about 5 years ago, this was the FIRST TIME I had ever been on a non-Youth Ministry ski trip!
While I was at Snowshoe I scaled back my work a bit and strolled through a book entitled, “An Unhurried Life” by Alan Fadling. The main thought behind this book is that our hurried way of life is a heart issue, something the author refers to as "inner hurry." You can tell this is true when you are externally unhurried, but still feel hurried on the inside. This inner hurry, Fadling claims, comes from the idolatry of self-dependence. Under this false notion, we are always in a hurry to get more and get it quickly, because we wrongly believe it is up to us to sustain ourselves. Slowing down and waiting then becomes a waste of time. Life ends up being little more than a hamster wheel.
Jesus, however, was not hurried. And in the Gospel, we find that “we are truly alive when we let ourselves be nourished by God and sustained by God. Temptation would claim that waiting for these is a waste of time.” I don’t want inner hurry to be a defining characteristic of my life. I want to “Wait on the Lord,” to “Let my heart take courage and wait for Him!” (Psalm 27:14) Isn’t it interesting that the Psalmist says it takes great courage to wait on the Lord? Isn’t he correct? I pray we all have that courage in 2018, and for years to come.
Whereas Destin provided me with both spiritual and physical rest, Snowshoe only gave me the spiritual kind. I was so tired after 3 days of skiing that I rang in the New Year by sleeping. The next day I binged on College Football, and the following day we headed home. When we left Snowshoe it was NEGATIVE 8 DEGREES!!! Though we thoroughly enjoyed our time there, we were all thrilled to be heading to the warmth of Chattanooga and its temperatures in the 20’s and teens.
January 3rd – 8th, Back home in Chattanooga.
As we got home and back into the swing of things, reality hit me: Sabbatical was almost over. Still, I had one more book to work through: “Gospel Centered Youth Ministry,” edited by Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson. Youth Ministry has a well-deserved reputation for being mostly about things like pizza, fog machines, and Mountain Dew. But in this book, the authors paint a picture of a model of Youth Ministry that is shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, founded on God’s Word, driven by Discipleship, and that spurs its students on toward mission.
After reading through this work, I was partly encouraged that our Youth Ministry in its current state gets much of this right. Yes, we eat a fair bit of pizza and play our share of silly games, but at our core we are very much Gospel-centered and Word based. However, I think we have a lot of room for growth.
In particular, we can make discipleship not just something we do, but something that is the very DNA of our Youth Ministry. I want discipleship to be the thing that, if we took it away from our Youth Ministry, there would be pretty much nothing left.
I also believe we have a great deal of room for growth in mission. Yes, we take mission trips and do a bunch of work to prepare for those. But is each individual student being challenged to live missionally? Do they have a clear idea of how that might look? Do our volunteers know how to encourage students to live on mission, and do parents have a vision for how to prayerfully encourage their sons and daughters to give their all for Christ? These are questions that must be asked, and these are questions we will seek to answer in 2018 and beyond.
What a blessing it was to get away for 5 weeks on Sabbatical! God brought me and my family much needed physical and spiritual rest, and even strengthened us as a family. We had the time of our lives as we travelled, and I was able to spend such quality, lengthy time with the Lord as I had not had in a very long time. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all who prayed for us and made this a reality.