Over the summer, I had the great gift of an eight week sabbatical from my job as a pastor. The purpose was a time of rest, reflection and uninterrupted family time. It was all of that and more. With our oldest heading off to college this fall for the first time, we were very grateful for a chance for the brood to be together before the first one left the nest. It gave our family time to be together without watching the clock, which provided opportunities to talk when someone wanted to talk, or simply “hang out” each other and enjoy each other’s presence. We all agreed it was one of the best summers we have had as a family.
My wife and I noticed that a theme for the sabbatical arose when we heard through several different channels, the admonition to “mind the margins’. The first came while we were attending a Sunday morning worship service at another church in town. While preaching from Ruth, the pastor mentioned the Hebrew practice of leaving the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and the sojourners to gather from. He went on to say there is a principle here beyond just agriculture. In our day and age, we want to maximize everything, our time, our money, our efforts. Our calendars are full, our credit cards are maxed out and every minute of the day has something going on. He challenged us to leave margins in our lives so the Lord could work in ways we couldn’t plan for. My wife and I looked at each other knowing we were going to need to continue talking about this.
Just a few days later I was talking to a longtime pastor and friend, asking his advice about how I could best continue to grow as a pastor. Fairly quickly in our discussion of possible studies to do, degrees to seek or ongoing training, he told me he thought it was vital for me to not forget the margins in my life, but to leave room for rest and reflection. I told him it was interesting that he would use the word “margin” given the sermon I had just heard. He encouraged me to consider the importance of rest and reflection (sabbath) in my life, as a husband, as a father and as a pastor, not just for my longevity, but for my ongoing effectiveness.
The following week provided a real life example. That week I spent 3 days in the car with my 16 year old on a road trip through the southeast. The stated purpose was to give him concentrated time behind the wheel on various roads for experience. The key thing for me was 72 hours one on one with my 16 year old son. (one clue for anyone wanting to do this, let your son or daughter choose the music. Better yet, play their music from their Ipod. I found out my son has amazing taste in music.) In those 72 hours, I estimate we had 8 hours of some of the best talks we have ever had. Those 8 hours, however grew out of far more hours of small talk and silence while we listened to music. We had reaped the rewards of having margins.
Even though the sabbatical is over, I am still chewing on this. I am thinking through what this means for me in my role at the church, in the life of my family and the call to being light and salt here in Gainesville. I don’t have a hard fast system down, but I know this is vital. And not just as a strategy, but as an issue of flourishing. The sabbatical has shown me that there are some things that come only from having unstructured time for relationships to unfold in their own time and at their own pace. If we run our lives filling in every empty space with activities and distractions, I fear we will forfeit that deeper growth. I think it’s not unlike trying to grow a plant in a pot that is too small. At first it’s OK, but over time, the roots get balled up and growth is stunted. But move that plant to a larger pot, to a pot where there is room to spread out and grow, and the plant will flourish.
So I continue to ask myself, where am I harvesting my field (time, talent or treasure) right up the edge and leaving no room for growth or for the Lord to call me to do something unplanned? Where I am seeking to maximize my time and efficiency, but what I am really doing is robbing my self or my family of sabbath rest? I think the wisdom of Ecclesiastes gives us insight when the writer tells us there is season for everything. A time to work, a time to rest.
I know its far easier to do this on a sabbatical than in the midst of our jam-packed lives that most of us live. School starts, the church gears back up, the family calendar fills up. It’s my third week back and I’ve over booked the week already. Three steps forward, two steps back. That’s why in the midst of being more intentional, of minding the margins, we so desperately need grace.