I will be doing nothing this fall.
For three full months, I will have no deadlines, to-do lists, phone calls or emails to answer. Nothing. I will be hiking, praying, reading, and spending time with my family. And I will still receive my salary.
How, you may ask, did I get so lucky? And, you may wonder, won’t I go insane with nothing to do?
The answer to the first question is that my church has graciously decided to bless me, as their pastor, with a sabbatical. They have done this without my asking for it. I have served here over ten years now, and they feel I would benefit from a break. This is proactive, rather than reactive, on their part. I do not feel burnt out, but they desire to keep me far away from burning out. As internetmonk recently posted, pastors are often depressed and stressed in our culture, and my church does not want me to become statistic.
The answer to the second question is, no, I don’t think I will go insane. It’s not like I will be locked up in a padded room. Rather, the first month I will be hiking and praying by myself in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and then will return to travel with my family, hike and pray some more, and then travel with my family again.
So, in one sense, I will not be doing nothing. But according to the world’s judgment, my hiking, praying, reading and such are not productive, because they are not designed to “produce” anything. I am intentionally being non-productive for a season, like ground the farmer lets lie fallow. And this nothing is the most important thing I can do right now.
Why? Well, let me tell you a story. You’ll find it in II Samuel chapter 7. The setting and timing of this story are important; verse 1 tells us that it was after David had, through many years of struggle, been made King by God’s plan, and had, by God’s power, defeated all the enemies of Israel. David is in his prime: still young (perhaps not 40 yet) but powerful, established, and wealthy. He has a secure home now in a new royal city called Jerusalem. The nation is his, and the borders are secure. And he begins to take stock of his living condition compared to the home of God’s ark, the tabernacle. The tabernacle, you recall, was the movable tent which was the place to worship God, and which contained the golden ark which represented God’s throne, and therefore His presence with His people. It was magnificent in its own way, but it was now centuries old, and probably faded and in some disrepair. And David sees a chance to do something for God: to build Him a permanent and lovely temple to replace the threadbare tabernacle.
What a lovely sentiment. What a glorious moment when we move from receiving things from
But that night, God revoked the building permit. He appeared in a dream to Nathan with a message for David. God assessed David’s proposal in a quite different light than what Nathan had. God said no.
Why on earth would God do that? In the midst of a world where so many people just want to get, get, get, how can God throw cold water on David’s plan to give and do?
Because in God’s mind, sometimes our plans to do something for God are seen, after a night of prayer, to be a huge distraction from what God is doing for us and in us. Sometimes our building plans for God interfere with His building plans for us.
So God instead, through Nathan, recites all his blessings to David, and then gives a further promise to David: I am going to build you a house: a dynasty, a House of David! Furthermore, it will be an eternal kingdom (fulfilled ultimately in the reign of Jesus, the son of David). His speech to David is dominated by what He, God, has done for David, and what He will do for David. God is the first-person subject of 23 verbs in this short message. And the point is clear: “David, this is not about what you can do for me, but what I am doing through you and for you”.
Eugene Peterson writes:
Do you know what I think? I think that David is just about to cross over a line from being full of God to being full of himself…Heady with all of his success, the king believes he is now going to do God a favor. The telltale clue is in his proposal to Nathan: See I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent. Implicit in that comparison is the judgment that David is now housed better than God, that he has achieved a standard of living better than that of God , that he believes that from his current position of strength, he now can do something significant for God. If David continues along these lines, he will soon be ruined as God’s king. If any of us develop a self-identity in which God and god’s actions are subordinated to us and our action, our kingwork is ruined.
Think about those lines: He was about to cross over from being full of God to being full of himself…what was about to happen was that he would be more concerned and focused on what he was doing for God than what God was doing for Him. He was about to forget that he was still a beggar, not a builder.
I have served in the ministry for almost 20 years now, both as a youth pastor and senior pastor. I’ve never skimmed from the offering plate, gotten drunk or had an affair. But my constant temptation is to have a self-identity focused on my actions for God rather than his actions for me. After all, I am a pastor. Doing things for God is my job and identify. Even on my days off, I am still a pastor. People call me pastor as if it were my name, and my spouse is often introduced as “the Pastor’s wife”. This is not bad, but it doesn’t help me to remember that I am a beggar, not a builder.
I need a season where I build nothing, produce nothing, but simply remember, worship, and pray. I need a season of fallowness, a time where I do nothing but receive the refreshing rain of God’s goodness.
In short, I will be listening to the silence, and, by doing nothing, seek to do the one thing needed.
Post Script: I am not planning on updating this blog for the fall, except that I may report on my sabbatical occasionally.