Loose Ends

My life is full of “loose ends”: unfinished household projects, ideas for articles I want to write, dreams of new ministry opportunities to pursue, sermons I want to preach that aren’t even written yet…and more.

Some of this is the result of procrastination; much of it is the result of choosing to work long hours at two different jobs to help meet the financial needs of our family. There simply has not been much extra time during the past several years.

Unfortunately, all of these loose ends contribute to a sense of being overwhelmed; to feeling a bit out of control. Sometimes I wonder “will I ever catch up?” 

One of the great joys I’ve experienced this fall is to have more breathing space: to slow down and smell the roses; to truly live in the moment. And as windows of time have opened up, I’ve been tackling many of the loose ends dangling around my life.

One project has been a particular millstone around my neck: a sunken brick patio in a back corner of our yard. I started this project four years ago when I dug out the earth and built a small gazebo. Since then, work only has occurred sporadically. But now, just in the past few weeks, I’ve made major progress: laying the last of the bricks, running conduit, wiring some lights (with help from my son), setting up a small fountain. The end is in sight…and boy, does it feel good! We’ll actually be able to use this patio in the near future, rather than stare at an unfinished hole in the ground.

As I tie up my loose ends, one-by-one, it brings a sense of completion and wholeness. But just as importantly, I think this is an outward picture of what God is doing within me.

He’s tying up the loose ends within my heart and within my soul…and He’s slowly bringing me to a place of peace and contentment and wholeness that I’ve never before experienced.

- Bruce

Finding Meaning in NOT Working

One of my favorite biblical themes is the spiritual value of work. Several times, I’ve preached sermons and taught lessons on the topic of “Your Work Matters to God”. Scripture makes it clear that all of our work is a gift from God, and that our work gives meaning and purpose to life. And my work as a pastor is, for me, the most meaningful and fulfilling work I’ve ever done. 

Therefore, my sabbatical presents me with a tremendous challenge: how do I find meaning and purpose when I’m not working?

The answer: it’s not easy.

Throughout the Fall, I’ve received several invitations to preach/speak/teach in various places. The Lord made it clear that I was to turn down all such offers and truly make this a season of rest, refreshment, and renewal. To pursue Him above all things. In other words, He wanted me to throttle back on my “Martha” habits and spend more time like “Mary” [see Luke 10:38-42]. Of course, this is not an easy thing for me to do. (You’ll understand more clearly if you read my earlier post on “The Idol of Responsibility”.) 

So…how would I rate my progress toward this goal? Fair. Just fair.

Because I need some sense of rhythm and order to my life, each week I have been identifying certain tasks as my “work”: household projects (of which we have a HUGE backlog), managing our finances, clearing months of clutter off my desk, reading and discussing with Julie our “homework” assignments from the Mountain Learning Center…. There is plenty to do, and it’s all good. And when I complete these tasks, it provides a sense of accomplishment and progress. However, I realize that I’m still overly focused on Martha-like behaviors. My default is to place far too much emphasis on “doing” (Martha), and not enough on “being” (Mary).

So…in the weeks ahead…I will strive to take more moments to simply sit in the presence of Jesus. To talk to Him and listen to Him. To be as intentional about my times with the Lord and as I am about my work.  

I know that I will be returning to pastoral ministry at some point, and I know that the Lord wants me to find meaning in my work. But I also want to understand…I desperately need to understand…how to find meaning in not working, so that I can find deep and lasting meaning in just soaking in the presence of my loving and gracious God. 

- Bruce

A Poverty of the Soul

I always admired my mother for her gracious, loving, and patient spirit toward others… and especially toward my dad. I wanted to be like her when I grew up. And through the years, I believe I have become more inclined that direction. Many people would probably say I am kind or compassionate or gracious (at least in most situations). 

However, I have discovered that deep down I really evidence “a poverty of the soul”. I’m more aware of this now, because I’m in a season with more unstructured time. Because I’m less outwardly busy, I have more time for interior reflection. (“Search me, O God, and know my heart today…” – Psalm 139:23-24). And because I’m not working, and because we don’t have limitless funds, I have started to recognize my own feelings of insecurity. I don’t like admitting this, because it makes me feel vulnerable and inadequate.

Since Bruce and I have been together much of the last 4 months, I more clearly see behaviors that can be annoying: words that are better left unsaid...demands that should be released…and a heart that can, at times, simply be uncooperative. 

I am thankful for our love. I am thankful that we have shared over 30 years of married life. But I now see so clearly my poverty of soul; my lack of reflecting God’s Spirit more fully. This extended time together, which has been good in so many ways, has awakened me to my own impurities and has reminded me that God still has much work to do to shape my character.

I need Christ – not just to worship in my life, but to change me to be like Him. And in this season, I see that many of those changes have to do with my behavior and attitudes when things don’t go my way; when I’m feeling adrift because of the lack of daily structure; when I hear my words that try to control others. In these moments, my poverty of soul is showing. I know I need the Savior, and I realize – in a fresh way – just how much I need Him. 

When I was in high school I memorized a scripture that continues to surface in my life…and even today nudges me toward more fully reflecting God’s character:  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9]

God continues to teach me many things during this “way station” of our sabbatical. I want to learn from Him so that I become more like Him; so that my aching soul will be healed, renewed, and transformed.

- Julie

Our Sabbatical: A Way Station & A Journey

Ever since our kids were little, we have taken them on camping trips. Some were short weekend jaunts, others were major road-trips. (Our longest trip was 4 weeks and over 6000 miles of driving). Planning these vacations always was a lot of work…but the work was tempered by the excitement of the anticipated trip. And the work paid off when the trip became a reality! There were always some unanticipated events, but – for the most part - each trip would unfold much as expected.  

Our season of sabbatical is also a kind of “trip”…but this one is unfolding much differently than we anticipated. Unlike every other trip we have taken, our destination this time is unclear. It is very odd to depart on a journey without knowing exactly where you are going or when you will arrive.

I was excited at the beginning, because we were stepping into a new adventure. Yes, we were leaving our church home but we were excited to see what God would reveal for the future. And there were a lot of plans to look forward to: Karina was moving to Portland for grad school; Rachel was heading to Minnesota for college; we would be visiting a pastoral retreat center.

But time has passed since our trip began and we now are beyond all of the planned events. And (what a surprise) experiences have unfolded differently than we anticipated. Karina is settling in at school and work in Portland...and she’s engaged! It’s not easy planning a wedding when she and I live in two different states. At this momentous season of her life, I deeply miss her and wish she was here with me. Rachel withdrew from college and returned home because – despite a lot of research by all of us – the academic writing program she entered just was not what she expected nor wanted. She’s now working with a writing coach, and has found a job, but she’s wrestling with disappointment and shattered dreams… and we’re trying to support her as best we can. For us, the wonderful pastoral retreat is over and we’re now engaged in the challenging daily work of implementing what we learned about ourselves.

It’s been just three months, but it seems as if this journey began a long time ago. We feel like we’re in the middle of the trip, but we still don’t know how or where or when it will end. As Christians, we know that God is in control and directs our days. But because our direction is unclear and the future continues to be uncertain, we find ourselves in a bit of a funk. Furthermore, without a church family we feel like nomads, and without ongoing activity in daily pastoral ministry, our “passions” are not being tapped. Needless to say, at times we wrestle with questions and doubts.

We’re reminding ourselves that this trip is not just about taking a break and then finding new jobs. It’s about connecting with God in new and different ways. So we’re trying to dig deep and seek our loving God with all of our hearts, trusting Him to lead us into our unknown and unseen future.

- Julie

The Idol of Responsibility

I have been guilty of worshipping an idol - the "god of responsibility."

Obviously, being responsible is a good thing. It’s important to meet deadlines, to follow through on commitments, to take care of business. But over the course of my adult working life I have – far too often – turned this strength into a weakness. I have allowed myself to become driven by the “musts” to such an extent that my life has been driven by behavior that is almost obsessive-compulsive. Sadly, much of this has been entirely self-inflicted.

When essential work needed to be done, I often would volunteer...even if the task logically belonged to someone else.  When other people would drop the ball, I would pick it up. Over time, colleagues observed this pattern and began to give me responsibilities that should have been assigned to others. Why? Because they knew I would "get it done."

This approach to life – bowing before the god of responsibility – became such a habit that I carried it over to activities outside of work. Even vacations were overly planned…and woe to the family member who caused us to run behind schedule! (And let’s be honest…is it really that important if you show up at a campground 30 or 60 minutes “behind schedule?")

The result of my behavior? Major overload. Non-stop working. Emotional depletion. And even spiritual dryness, because all of this was terribly bad for my soul. I was so busy serving God (I thought) that my relationship with Him was adversely impacted. The harder I worked to fulfill my “godly responsibilities”, the more distant God seemed to me.

So a key goal during this season of sabbatical is to connect more deeply…more intimately…with God. To listen more closely to His voice so that I will draw better boundaries when I return to pastoral ministry. To only take on responsibilities that truly are part of His plan for me. Because I want to stop worshipping the idol of responsibility…and worship only the Savior of my soul.

- Bruce