I’m Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

A little later today, I’ll board the flight that will take me to Dublin, Ireland, for the beginning of the “cycling pilgrimage” that rests at the heart of my current sabbatical. As I prepare for my departure, I find myself pondering a brief story told by pastor and author Mark Buchanan:

A man in my church became sick and couldn’t shake it. It went on for months. He was usually a man who went full tilt at everything, night and day. One day he said to me, “I know God is trying to get my attention. I just haven’t figured out yet what he wants my attention for. He must want me to do something.” I thought a moment. “Maybe,” I said, “that’s the problem: you think he wants your attention in order for you to do something. Maybe he just wants your attention.” Maybe that’s what God requires most from us: our attention. Indeed, this is the essence of a Sabbath heart: paying attention. It is being fully present, wholly awake, in each moment.

Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God

There are so many things that I’d like to do an experience in the coming weeks. But a part of me recognizes that my plans and my desires could easily get in the way of the more valuable things that the Lord has in mind. And so, perhaps more than anything else, my prayer is that I’ll be able to pay attention—to have the kind of heart that can be fully present to God and that can listen to, learn from, and respond to the whisperings of His Spirit.

To all the members of my family and my church family who are giving me this opportunity for renewal: Thank you! And to all those who will be praying for me in the days ahead: May you, too, be attentive to the Voice that calls us “further up and further in.” Amen.

To Find My “Place of Resurrection”

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)

“Come, follow me.” (Matthew 4:19)

Faith has always been more pilgrimage than possession–a invitation to journey with God, knowing neither where we’re headed nor what will happen along the way, but trusting that He is with us and that we’ll come to know Him better in the process of responding to His call. It’s no surprise, then, that for the Celtic Christians of ancient Britain, “pilgrimage” was deeply valued. Sometimes putting out to sea in small boats with limited supplies, they often set off into the unknown, believing that God would lead them ultimately to their “place of resurrection”–a place where “new life is coaxed up from the grave of spiritual complacency.” (Thin Places, Tracy Balzer)

Although my sabbatical officially began almost three weeks ago, the pilgrimage that lies at its heart is just about to commence. I’ve spent the last few days reviewing arrangements and packing. And after some visits with family in the coming days, I’ll set off for the UK, where I’ll spend approximately a month and a half cycling through Ireland, Scotland, and England, and visiting several key sites that have figured prominently in the development of the Christian faith in that part of the world.

Of course, my pilgrimage is much more structured than it would have been for an ancient Celtic believer. I know (or at least, I think I know) where I’ll be each day. And I know how I’m getting from place to place. And yet, there’s also much that I don’t know. What unexpected developments might force a change in my plans? Who will I meet along the way? And how will God use my journey’s “wide open spaces” of both place and time to teach me new things about His goodness?

In the end, my prayer is that I’ll find my own “place of resurrection”–a place (or places) where silence, solitude, and prayer renew my spirit and prepare me for the continuing journey of following Jesus.

Thanks to all those who have prayed for and encouraged me along the way.

Let the journey begin…

A Rest from Rest?

My family and I continue to enjoy our time in Orlando, with the last two days having been spent in the theme parks of Universal Studios:

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at Universal, Disney, or similar tourism hot spots, you’ll probably understand what I mean when I say that while visiting these destinations is fun, it isn’t exactly restful and renewing. Once you’ve navigated the crowds, the noise, the walking, the heat, and the frequent waiting in line, the experience can actually be quite draining. And that’s why my family and I will be enjoying a “down day” today, before we go back to Universal tomorrow for one last day of vacationing before we head home.

I’m reminded of some reflections that I read not too long ago in a book called Subversive Sabbath, by a couple seminary professors named A. J. Swoboda and Matthew Sleeth. They observe:

We must distinguish a biblical day of rest from the world’s way of rest—a biblical Sabbath should be distinguished from vacations and “days off,” although even those we are not proficient at. Studies reveal that 37 percent of Americans take fewer than seven days of vacation a year. In fact, only 14 percent take vacations that last longer than two weeks.Americans take the shortest paid vacations of anyone in the world. And 20 percent of those who do, often spend their vacation staying in touch with their jobs through their computers or phones.44 The point? Even when we do vacation, we do it poorly.

But even if we did vacation well and took great amounts of time off for restorative rest, vacations are a poor substitute for a weekly day of Sabbath rest. I think the devil loves taking that which is of God and giving us cheap knockoffs.

Vacations are what Jürgen Moltmann has called the “Coca-Cola philosophy” of Western life. In the 1990s, Coca-Cola had a well-known campaign depicting people doing hard work, then popping open a cold bottle of Coke and taking a swig. We yearn for the “pause that refreshes.” Unfortunately, we try to refresh ourselves with empty calories, or vacations, which are not what we really need. Our souls stir, longing for Sabbath.

As my family and I begin to wrap up our days in Orlando, I’m thankful for this break, for the sabbatical grant that has made it possible, and for the members of my church family who have supported me and ministered to each other during my time away. But I’m grateful, too, that this sabbatical is more than just a vacation or a “pause that refreshes.” Because my heart is still “longing for sabbath.” And by God’s grace, there remains a sabbath rest for me and for all His people.

Learning the Art of Rest

Tomorrow, June 11, my church family will get the opportunity to learn about “The Art of Rest” from Adam Mabry, the pastor of Alethia Church in Boston, Massachusetts, and the author of a book by the same name. Adam has learned some important lessons about rest and sabbath-keeping through his experience as a pastor, as a church planter—and as a human being who lives in a very busy part of the country—and he’ll be sharing those lessons in a workshop on Saturday morning – and then again in the message that he’ll share with my church family in worship on Sunday morning.

In his book, The Art of Rest, Adam writes: “We don’t have to wait until the work is done to rest with God. Our personal sense of accomplishment isn’t what we bring to God; it’s what we’re meant to get from him…Your sense of security and accomplishment is not the ticket you must present to God in order to relate to him. Relationship is the gift he wishes to present to you, to be enjoyed regularly as you simply come to him.”

Like most of those who read this post, that’s a statement that I know to be true. And yet, it’s a reality that I struggle to embrace in practice. So much of our culture—and even our church culture—turns on the idea that our worth is based on how much we do and produce. And so, it becomes a challenging act of faith to trust that God’s welcoming love depends not on what we do for Him but on what Jesus has done for us.

I wish that I could be there to hear Adam this weekend. But I’m grateful that I’ve been given the grace-gift of this sabbatical, which is reminding me that rest isn’t a reward to be earned but a gift to be received. If you happen to be in Mount Airy this weekend, I encourage you to stop by Calvary Baptist Church and learn the lessons that Adam will be sharing.

Today’s Word from Pastor Alex

My scripture reading for today includes these words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

(Galatians 6:7-10)

Today, my church family is laying to rest a dear brother in Christ who definitely “sowed to please the Spirit.” Marvin Beasley was a deacon, a teacher, an example, an encourager…and boy, could that man pray! When people in my community found out where I served as pastor, it was not uncommon for them to say, “That’s where Marvin Beasley goes to church, isn’t it?” And then they’d go on to say how Marvin had coached, taught, or mentored them in some way. And I’m glad to say that I, too, was often the grateful recipient of his kind words and ministry.

It has been hard for me to be absent from Marvin’s family and my church family as they deal with this time of loss. But I knew that this was one of the things that might happen during my sabbatical. And I’m deeply thankful for the way that so many in my church family have “stepped up to the plate” to minister in these circumstances.

My prayers are with Marvin’s wife Glenda and all the other members of his family today—not to mention all the friends who will mourn his passing. But it brings me comfort to know that Marvin knew the One in whom he believed. And I have no doubt that today he is “reaping a harvest” of life, joy, and peace in keeping with the seeds he sowed. May God grant all of us the grace to sow and reap in like fashion. Amen.

I’m Just Waiting on a Friend

My family and I have just wrapped up a few days of “sabbatical vacationing” at Disneyworld. Of course, as anyone who’s been at Disneyworld recently can attest, such a visit is largely an adventure in waiting. Whether you’re standing in line for the latest ride, a classic attraction, or the chance to purchase an overpriced meal, a significant portion (if not the greatest portion) of your day is spent cued up and waiting for the chance to move forward.

Of course, like many people, I have some ambivalent feelings about the Disney waiting experience. On the one hand, the “minions of the Mouse” have an unbelievable gift for hiding much of your waiting from you. Just when you think you’re almost to the front of a line, you round a corner and discover that there’s a whole new section of waiting ahead. And even though you probably wouldn’t have stepped into the line if you had known you’d have to wait this long, you’re committed at this point; so you breathe deeply and do your best to practice patience. On the other hand, the “line engineers” do a pretty good job of giving you things to look at and listen to while you stand in line. And unless the cues are exceptionally long, you often get to stand in the shade. So given how many people are usually your “companions in waiting,” it’s probably not nearly as bad as it could be.

Now, as a side note, my waiting experience on this trip to Disney was complicated by the theme park’s new “Lightning Lane” practices. For those who can afford to do so (which doesn’t include me), the purchase of a Lightning Pass entitles you to “skip the waiting” on most attractions. And while I understand that this provides an easy way for the corporation to increase its profits, it does seem to privilege the “haves” at the expense of the “have nots” in a way of which the biblical prophets would have approved.

In the end, the thing I found myself pondering amid this I experience was the question of what sustains us in our waiting. And in that regard, I was reminded of two things. First, it really does matter what we’re waiting for. Standing in line just to get into the park is one thing, while waiting to get on the new Star Wars “Rise of the Resistance” ride is another. And maybe the Bible’s frequent admonitions to “set your mind on things above”—to meditate on the future God has promised to us—aim to give us a an end goal that’s worth the wait.

But along with that, I’ve been reminded over the past few days that it also matters a lot who were waiting with. Disney rides are great and all, but none of them are worth the long, hot hours that I’ve spent standing in line recently. No, what has made the waiting worthwhile has been the presence of my family. And maybe that’s why so many of the Bible’s calls to wait remind us that it’s God we’re waiting for, and not just the blessings that He’s promised. As Psalm 27:14 puts it, “Wait for the LORD (emphasis added); be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

So here’s a few photos of the “waiting companions” with whom I’ve been privileged to share the last few days:

Tongues of Fire

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Acts 2:1-3 (NIV)

Today is the first Sunday of my sabbatical; and it seems strange, I confess, not to be getting ready for a morning of worship, preaching, and interacting with my church family. Of course, I’m grateful for all those who will be taking care of things in my absence, especially Dr. Roger Gilbert – the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC – who will be my congregation’s “preaching pastor” while I’m away.

But in what I hope will be an indicator of things to come, I’d like to note that this first Sunday of my absence coincides with a celebration of God’s presence. Today is Pentecost Sunday, our annual reminder of the way that God’s Spirit came to His people and “ignited” them with power for mission. And if there’s a prayer that has motivated me throughout the process of preparing for this sabbatical, it is the prayer that God’s Spirit would come again in a fresh way to empower both me and my church family for the life to which Jesus calls us.

In a book titled, Revival, a well-known pastor of the last century named Martin Lloyd Jones writes:

It is a truism to say that every revival of religion that the Church has ever known has been, in a sense, a kind of repetition of what happened on the day of Pentecost, that it has been a return to that origin, to that beginning,..We need the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Men can conduct services. Men can get converts. Men can give additions to the Church. What a man can never do is what God does: the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, the descent of power, this uniqueness, this special manifestation of the presence and of the power of God.

From Revival, by Martin Lloyd Jones

So today, would you join me in praying that those “tongues of fire” would once again fall on God’s people; and that we, too, would be empowered, united, and sent out to be the kind of community through which His kingdom comes?

A Family Affair

The grant that is making my sabbatical experience possible comes from the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program, which takes great pains to make it clear that “pastoral renewal” is not just a goal that pastor’s can achieve on their own but is, instead, a “church family” affair. On the program website, its director states, “It is important to think of this as something that the entire congregation is a part of; it is a journey they (the pastor and church) are on together.” And then, to demonstrate the importance of this principle, not only does each step of the application process require the involvement and approval of the church, but the grant proposal can also include funding for congregational renewal while the pastor is away.

Not surprisingly, therefore, I’m deeply grateful to the Calvary Baptist church family for the support that they have provided to make our sabbatical journey possible. From the very beginning, the deacons, the congregation, and a “sabbatical team” have been deeply involved in crafting our grant proposal and in making sure that this summer’s experience provides opportunities for both me and the church to rest, reflect, and be renewed.

Calvary Baptist Church, Mount Airy, NC

I’ve shared the basics of my renewal program in a previous post. But I’m just as excited about the activities in which the members of my church family will have the chance to participate this summer. In the coming months, they’ll get to hear from some excellent speakers. They’ll deepen their understanding of what it means to “keep sabbath” and to see our individual and communal stories as part of God’s Story. They’ll have opportunities to worship, to serve our community, and to have fun together (which, after the last two years of pandemic disruption, is a great gift indeed).

For those who’d like to know a little more about my church’s renewal program, I’m sharing here a copy of the “sabbatical guide” that we produced to highlight key opportunities. And just as I know my church family will be praying for me during my time away, I’ll be praying for them! Asking God to be at work in their hearts so that together we can follow Jesus into the new adventures that He has in store.

A Gift Too Precious to Waste

In a wonderful book about sabbath-keeping titled The Rest of God, pastor and author Mark Buchanan describes a sabbatical leave that he was given by his church. And on this, the first official day of my sabbatical, I find that his reflections resonate with me deeply:

As I left for sabbatical, many people in my church wished me well. They told me they’d miss me, that they’d be praying for me, that they hoped I came back refreshed. And then they usually said, “You deserve this.” I don’t. I can think of all kinds of people who deserve it. I can think of all the people who do their jobs faithfully and capably, even though they die at it a little every day. I like what I do, and I have not worked half as hard as half of these people, and few will ever be given the luxury of a sabbatical. No, I don’t deserve it. It’s pure gift, like being born in peacetime and not war, like being forgiven, or kissed, or told you have beautiful eyes. I never earned a minute of it. I don’t deserve a scrap of it. But I feel deeply obliged to the people in my church who have allowed me it. Obliged, not to come back smarter, or thinner, or more eloquent, or more studied up, though all that could help. The obligation I feel is not to pay them back. These things don’t work that way, on some barter system where the church trades several months of leave and exchange for shorter, pithier sermons. The obligation I feel, rather, is to come back restored.

Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath

Of course, this sense of obligation raises the vital question: What exactly does one do during a sabbatical that will lead to restoration? After all, if one’s way of practicing life and ministry has created a situation in which renewal is a deeply felt need, are a few weeks or months away likely to “fix” the problem? In fact, in this same chapter Buchanan observes: “I don’t think it’s possible to benefit from a sabbatical if you’ve never learned to keep Sabbath…Sabbatical is just doing daily, for several months of days, what you’ve already learned to do weekly, for many years of weeks.”

However, as challenging as that is (because “keeping Sabbath” has never been an easy thing for me), I’d like to think that my sabbatical plan offers a genuine chance for restoration. Part of that plan, of course, features activities that simply allow me to take a break from the rigors and routines of ministry. I’ll go on vacation with my wife and daughter. I’ll visit with family. I’ll take a few brief trips for extended times of reading and prayer. But since the goal of this sabbatical isn’t only to “rest from” ministry but to be “renewed for” ministry, the heart of my plan is what might best be described as a “cycling pilgrimage.”

From late June to early August, I’ll be traveling in the United Kingdom. I’ll tour some places that I’ve long wanted to visit (Ireland and Scotland). I’ll study a subject that has long intrigued me (the history, spirituality, and ministry of the Celtic Christians). And I’ll do this while enjoying one of my favorite pastimes (bicycling). With just a few exceptions, I will traverse the distance between each of the communities I visit on a bike, covering approximately 900 miles in the process.

Of course, my prayer is that my church family will get a similar chance to experience restoration this summer; and that’s why a variety of special speakers, fellowship events, and ministry opportunities will be available to them in the weeks ahead (more on that in an upcoming post). But for now, I invite you to follow my travels as I attempt to “practice Sabbath” in a way that leads to restoration. I’ll be posting updates, pictures, reflections, and so on. And if you’d like to have a sense of where this pilgrimage will take me, you can check out my itinerary below.

A Grace Delayed

A Grace Delayed

Back in the latter part of 2018 and the early part of 2019, I was beginning to feel a need for some time away from my duties as a pastor. I loved (and continue to love) my church! But after almost 30 years in fulltime ministry – and with a lot of changes taking place in my family and the church – I recognized that I was in need of some time to step back from the unique stresses and routines of ministry to refresh my spirit, to evaluate my pastoral practices, and to “center” myself in a way that would allow me to continue serving fruitfully in the years ahead. And so, with the approval of my church family, I assembled a team of friends who helped me develop a proposal for one of the sabbatical grants that is awarded each year by the Clergy Renewal Programs of the Lilly Endowment. After much prayer and planning, we submitted an application. And on August 1 of 2019, we were informed that we had received a grant for the summer of 2020.

In the early months of 2020, my personal preparation and the planning for my congregation’s sabbatical experience were well underway. And then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic struck. The enjoyment of this incredible gift that we had received was postponed…first one year and then two. But we continued to trust that the same God who had inspired our proposal and had provided the grant would also give us the grace gift of seeing our dreams come to fruition. And now, as we enter the summer of 2022, it’s actually happening. Next week, I will begin – and my church family will begin – a prayerfully crafted set of experiences designed to help all of us “Rest, Reflect, and Renew.”

I’ll describe the nature and goal of these experiences in an upcoming post. But for now, I simply want to give thanks to the people and leaders of Calvary Baptist Church, who have valued me and my ministry enough to grant me this time away; to my sabbatical team members, who have prayed and worked with me to turn dream into reality; to my family members, who have patiently walked with me through the process; and to my Lord, whose “grace delayed” is still grace – and who I trust will walk with both me and my church family through the months ahead.