The first day of my sabbatical was the last day of my son’s life.
Writing that sentence is still strange. I struggle to believe it’s true. But it is.
I created my sabbatical plans months in advance. But my plan did not match God’s plan.
I counted the days for December’s arrival, not for a break from pastoring (I love what I do), but for the opportunity to pursue more things. My church gives every employee a month long sabbatical every four years of employment. We are committed to our staff’s long-term spiritual health. Now in my fourteenth year of pastoring TJC, I was taking my first one.
My ambitions included going for runs, loads of reading, and rest. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes were on the agenda. Date nights, a personal retreat, and a trip with Katrina also made the list.
But things didn’t go as scheduled. Kaleb died on December 1st. The next week was a whirlwind of emotions and funeral planning. My plan evaporated. Like a chalk drawing on the sidewalk disappears after a good rain, my plans washed away. But God’s plan for my sabbatical was right on schedule.
Time with my girls. That was the theme of my sabbatical. Katrina, Kaleigh, Kyra, and I cried, hugged, and snuggled together. We escaped to the hills of East Tennessee for several days. We rode roller-coasters, enjoyed cinnamon bread manufactured and shipped from Heaven, and shivered our way through a Christmas parade. Every minute was memorable, even taking Kyra to the health clinic to receive her strep throat diagnosis.
I met Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, and started my journey with Frodo in Lord of the Rings. A few more books I read were: Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, Awaiting the King (all by James K. A. Smith), Write Better by Andrew Le Peau, Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson, Suffering by Paul Tripp, and Suffering is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot. God used these in my heart in different ways, for different reasons.
The stress and strain of caring for Kaleb for over fifteen years took a toll on us. We’d pay that toll fifty more years if that was God’s will, but it wasn’t. So I tried to rest while also completing some needed home tasks. We cleaned Kaleb’s room, cleared out cabinets and closets full of medicines and supplies, and returned medical equipment. This brought tears as the reality of Kaleb’s death sunk into our hearts. We just stopped to embrace one other.
This was my sabbatical. And here are five things God used this time to teach me:
1. The center will hold if Jesus is the center.
W. B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming” says, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” He wrote the poem in 1919 after millions had died in World War I. And he’s right. Apart from Christ, everything falls apart. The center cannot hold.
But if Jesus is the center, the center will hold. Apart from him, we are adrift at sea with no hope to find land. Losing Kaleb was hard. It’s still hard. But Jesus has kept and sustained our faith in these dark days because he is faithful. When things are falling apart, Jesus is the rock that won’t move.
2. Surround yourself with great people.
Our family and friends hung out with us and provided breaks from the deafening silence. People prayed for us, brought food, and sent messages. My friend, Dean (a pastor in Tallahassee, FL), called me before the funeral and prayed for me. God used it to encourage me.
Our elders and staff at TJC cared for the church in my absence. I trust their ability to lead and that gave me confidence to rest. Someone once said, “You’re only as good as the company you keep.” It is true.
3. We exist for a mission.
During my sabbatical a thought came to me: rest implies that work is normal. We need to rest from something. That something is work. God made us for work. We exist to glorify God through our gifts and time. There’s a mission to pursue and work to engage in. I needed my rest, but lounging daily in sweatpants and reading is not an aspiration.
If we don’t serve God with our labor and time, we wither in self-absorption. We meander through life, mope over struggles, or get wrapped up in earthly pursuits. The best remedy for the grief from losing Kaleb is to undertake meaningful work. Sitting idle for long stretches is dangerous.
4. Accept the ministry God gives you.
John Piper is the “theology” guy. Craig Groeschel is the “leadership” guy. Mark Dever is the “church polity” guy. I’ve never wanted to be the “suffering” guy. There’s more to my ministry than our family’s hardships, but I’ve realized there’s not less.
Our family’s struggles exist to show the glory of God. Stewarding our experiences and insights is not confinement, it’s faithfulness. The comfort Jesus lavishes on us is what we give to hurting people (2 Corinthians 1:4). Our trials are instant access to minister to other sufferers. I’ve accepted this misery as our ministry.
5. Writing is a part of my ministry.
My calling is to glorify God with words. Preaching and leading is how I typically do that. But I believe it includes writing too. I’ve written blog posts, articles, and bible studies for years. But busyness made it easy to neglect. And if you want the last 1% of transparency: compared to preaching and leading, I felt inadequate.
I still feel inadequate, but during my sabbatical, I wrote several widely read blog posts. People mentioned their helpfulness. This confirmed for me that – despite not being a great writer – I have a spark of ability that needs developing. I want to work at writing words that glorify God and help you, even if that you is me. I’m not focused on publishing books or notoriety. I want to magnify Jesus and help others trust and follow him.
Learned No Other Way
We learn through our trials. Lessons we otherwise wouldn’t have learned. My sabbatical insights are different from what my old plan would have produced. But the steps the Lord determined formed what He desired in me. His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).