Note: For those of you who have been reading my friend Drew Trotter’s series Loving Your Neighbor by Watching the Oscar Best Picture Nominees, you can read this week’s post about Marriage Story here.
After 34 years in ministry, I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical these past three months in order to be renewed, refreshed, and retooled for the next season of ministry. Little did I know a global pandemic would play a defining role in what God wanted me to learn. My sabbatical ended April 30, and as I look back over the past three months I find three lessons the Lord taught (or retaught) me during this time.
My Nagging Assumption of Self-Sufficiency
First, and in no particular order, is how self-sufficient I think I am (and it seems we, as a culture, think we are). When a problem arises, no matter how big, the first thing I (we) do is go to work on solving the problem on my (our) own. The last thing I (we) do is pray.
This is so different from what I’ve observed when with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, such as in Nigeria. When faced with a problem (even what we would consider a “small” problem like catching a slight cold), they don’t first go looking for meds. The first thing they do is to pray.
This was evident as COVID-19 spread across the world. My first reaction was to ask how we are working to develop appropriate protocols to contain its spread and develop effective treatments. Of course, these are good and important things to pursue. But my first impulse wasn’t to pray. I’m sure if I had been with my Nigerian brothers and sisters that’s what we would have done first and continually.
This reminded me again of how much I am a product of my environment. Specifically, it reminded me how much the philosophy of the Enlightenment (a period of Western intellectual history from roughly the late 1600s to the early 1800s) continues to pervade my understanding of reality.
One of the theses of the Enlightenment was human self-sufficiency. The idea of reliance on God fell out of fashion as more progress in science produced mastery over more of nature. In the words of the Enlightenment astronomer Laplace, when asked by Napoleon how God was involved in the formation of the solar system, he replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” That pretty much sums up the Enlightenment’s view of God’s relation to anything and everything.
Fast forward to our day, and this is the common assumption permeating all aspects of Western thought. And as one born and bred in this culture, it permeates my thought. Although I’ve been walking with God for four decades now (my 40th spiritual birthday was April 21st), I am still steeped in this Enlightenment notion of self-sufficiency.
God helped me see this as I reflected on my first (and second, and third) response to the outbreak of COVID-19. He was right. I was humbled. I was driven to my knees to pray for all those affected by the pandemic and for God’s grace, truth, and peace to prevail.
This is the main point of a Sabbath rest, whether it be a day each week, or a longer sabbatical. By not working we are reminded that ultimately we are not the ones ultimately responsible for our own flourishing. Rather, we are fed, in every way, by His good hand. I pray that as a result of my sabbatical I will be a little quicker to remember this, and not be so driven by the Enlightenment philosophy of self-sufficiency.
My Need for Regular Silence and Solitude, Rather than Amusement
The second lesson I learned (or at least had reinforced) is the importance of solitude and silence for soul health and growth in Christ. These are two spiritual disciplines practiced for ages by believers seeking to walk more closely with the Lord.
Solitude is simply taking time away, to be alone and seek the Lord’s presence. Silence is just what it sounds like–a period to be silent (not listening to anything and not speaking to anyone) in order to hear the voice of God more clearly. (For more on these and other helpful spiritual disciplines I recommend Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines.)
I designed my sabbatical to provide time for these disciplines in ways not possible during my normal routine. As a result, I believe I am a better man, father, husband, colleague, and minister of the gospel.
However, the increased opportunity for solitude and silence reminded me how hard it is to practice these disciplines, even when I have the opportunity. There is the constant pull of distractions that the enemy uses to divert my away from such rich times of communion with my heavenly Father.
This runs against a deeply entrenched value–the importance of amusement. So important is this to us that we commit billions of dollars each year to being amused–in parks, by television, via the internet, and in so many other ways. But even the word itself should give us pause. It is the combination of two words: “muse”–to think, and “a”–not. So amusement is the act of not thinking–of distracting oneself so one doesn’t have to think.
The constant opportunity provided to be amused made it hard to pursue silence and solitude. But I did find times to not be amused, but rather to be alone, silent, in thought and in prayer. When I did I realized again why these disciplines are so hard. It is during these times that we understand ourselves most clearly, including the many ways we need God’s grace. I confess I often would rather not be reminded of this. Furthermore, it is during these times that I see God most clearly, and realize how great he really is. Both of these experiences forced me to further confront the myth of self-sufficiency.
Yet it is during these times of musing and prayer that God often “shows up” and I develop a deeper sense of his love, grace, and peace. My sabbatical provided this space to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
How Deeply Incarnational Reality Really Is
Finally, as a result of the stay-at-home order, I was reminded of our deep need to be with others. We are created in God’s image. Part of his nature is to be in community with the other persons of the Trinity. Being with the others in a sustained loving, giving, and caring relationship is not an option–it is a necessary aspect of what it is to be God.
And so it is with us. As God’s image-bearers we are intrinsically and essentially relational. And relationships are best experienced and grown when we are in one another’s presence. I was reminded of this truth during my sabbatical when I was not present with friends and colleagues as I normally am.
As helpful as it is as a “work-around,” mediated contact via Zoom still isn’t the same as “being there.” Contrary to those who accept a modern form of Gnosticism by arguing the mediated world of the internet provides us with an equal, and maybe even better, deeper, and more connected experience, I have been reminded again that this is simply not the case. Reality is deeply incarnational.
This also reminds me of why God decided he had to become incarnate. Only then could he be present with us in a way not possible otherwise. This was essential for him to identify with our struggles without sinning in order to be an equal and adequate substitute for us on the cross.
I thank God for coming up with the idea of a sabbatical, which he first modeled by resting after his work of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3). He then commanded us to do likewise, follow cycles of work and rest (such as rest from our work on the Sabbath each week). Such times of rest allow me to be reminded of the truths above and experience God’s provision, grace, and peace in unique ways.
I also thank the Global Scholars board for realizing my need to have a sabbatical and insisting I take one before embarking on the next season of ministry. I now have a deep sense of being ready for what God has in store for Global Scholars in the months and years ahead.
Finally, please continue praying with me for those suffering from COVID-19, those who have lost loved ones, for the frontline health professionals playing heroic roles in the fight against this pandemic, for the researchers in universities and labs worldwide searching for a vaccine and effective treatment, and for economic stability in the midst of these challenges. And above all, pray with me that God is glorified even, and especially, during this challenging season.
Next week I’ll pick up my series on Predestination or Free Will? Until then, grace and peace.