Lessons from Sabbath with Steve Payne
Steve is a friend, teacher ,and mentor in my life. Steve helps smaller congregations develop and mature by helping to develop an understanding of God's Mission. Steve and his wife recently returned from a sabbatical and have decided to share about their experience.
My wife, Lisa, and I took a sabbatical together in April of 2021. Our sabbatical was a one-month trip to the mountains of Tennessee where we stayed in state park cabins or Airbnb rentals near state and national parks. What had days hiking the mountain trails through streams and waterfalls, and some down days where we would keep ourselves entertained.
For me, the power of sabbatical was found in the way it creates the space in your life – the time in schedule and the freedom to explore in your heart – to get deeper and be deeper, in a way that is hard (impossible?) to do without a break from everything and everyone we commit ourselves to when living the life of discipleship. It brings new value and importance to scriptures like Luke 5:16, when Jesus would go to “deserted places to pray.” (NRSV) Through sabbatical, I see two significant differences between me and Jesus.
First, Jesus has a much deeper connection with God. I am not connected deeply with God, the way Jesus is. When Jesus heard his friend, John the Baptist, had been murdered, Matthew tells us he “withdrew…to a deserted place by himself.” (Matthew 14:13 NRSV) How often would we suggest a hurting or grieving disciple go away on a trip alone? I would more often think hurting people need to be with others, not alone, because we often do not make great decisions when we are hurting. The trouble here is how radically different Jesus’s walk with the Father is compared to ours. Jesus was not going away to unplug from the needs of people around him. Jesus was going to a place that would allow him to connect more intently with his Father, for which he acutely felt the need. For Jesus, his relationship with the Father was not another person he fit into his schedule. His relationship with the Father was the heartbeat that fueled his every action.
How Jesus Connected
This revealed to me, secondly, Jesus has a different connection with the people and plans on this earth. I have a thousand reasons I need all that I do (and sometimes I really think I am the one who NEEDS to do it), but Jesus knew his Father had everyone in his hands. Jesus did not just think it was true, he lived like he really believed it was true. When Jesus withdrew in Matthew 14, the crowd found out about it and showed up, and showed up hungry! When Jesus saw the crowds waiting for him, he chose compassion (Matthew 14), and he miraculously healed people, he miraculously fed thousands of people with food from a handful of lunches. But when all that was done, he sent everyone away, including his disciples, and stayed, alone, to connect with his Father. While his disciples were off on a boat, in a storm so bad they thought they were going to drown, Jesus was alone, connecting with his Father. In fact, Jesus withdrew from evening until morning and did not walk on the water out to them until the morning! (Matthew 14:22-25) Would we do that? Or does a friend in need outrank our need to withdraw to be with God?
Do we trust that it is God, not us, who makes the difference in people’s lives? Do we trust that enough to withdraw to deserted places in order to connect with God because GOD is the only one who can make a difference in our lives (and others’ lives)? Do we trust that enough to leave others in God’s hands so we can withdraw to deserted places?
The Purpose of Sabbath
The purpose of sabbatical and sabbath, in my opinion, is NOT to unplug from your connection to others or get away from the needs surrounding you. Rather the purpose is to plug into God, and connect more deeply with him – creating a time and space where you can connect with your “deep waters” and bring that before God. “The purpose in a man's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” (Proverbs 20:5 ESV) Sometimes, we need to be the person of understanding who can help draw ourselves out, but we cannot do that if we are only filled with the needs of others. Part of the solution is to temporarily unplug from the level of connection you have to the needs surrounding you. It may seem trivial, but the motive to go to God, versus get away from the needs of others, is significant in the purpose of sabbath and sabbatical.
At the end of our sabbatical, I felt not only refreshed and more connected to God, I felt a very real need to figure out how to keep my trust in God being the difference maker (not me!) in my daily discipleship. And I think that is making all the difference.