On the other side of sabbatical – Part 1


A year ago this month we began a summer sabbatical. What we didn’t know at the time was how those eight weeks would lead into a year of sabbatical. A year of wilderness. Of faith. Decisions. Change. 

It seems those initial eight weeks did its intended work. We climbed the sabbatical mountain to view the landscape of our life, and what we discovered shocked us. From the sabbatical overlook we saw an endangered and stagnant ecosystem. An abused forest. An eroding soil. 

We knew we had to act, for our own sake, our children, and others who we were charged to lead. But at the time, we had no idea what those actions would be. 

Our first instinct was to try to fix it. We could truck in some new soil, we could plant new trees. For in our pastoral life, that’s what we had become…managers of crisis. But those instincts weren’t formed in a healthy environment nor were they forming a healthy future. 

So, inspired by the sabbatical view…we decided to do something unexpected. To lead in a different way. Rather than leading with just words…we decided to lead with action. 

Not long after returning from sabbatical we awkwardly resigned our jobs, gave away most of our belongings, and put our house up for sale. When people would ask what we were planning to do next the only truth we knew to offer was, “We don’t yet know.” For some, it didn’t make sense so they made up their own reasons. Others just pretended the process wasn’t happening at all. For us, even through the confusion, it was a stumbling toward faithfulness. 

I’m convinced that decision of blind faith was a necessary part of our action. It was an act of resistance amidst the forest consumers and neglect of the land. An act of protest against unsustainable ways and the not-so-abundant-life. 

Following those initial decisions, there was a time of waiting. Wandering. An attempt to gain a new sense of direction in life. It required the encouragement and words from our Spiritual Directors, but with their discernment and prayers, we began to watch for the trailhead of what Richard Rohr calls, “the journey into the second half of life.” It seems Rohr’s description best matches the journey we had begun.

Admittedly, having the patience to find the trailhead was challenging. We impatiently hoped for a easy-to-read map. We naively wished our future would come to us neatly packaged…as some kind of an out-of-the-sky miraculous sign. We waited. Hoped. It didn’t come. No phones calls or emails. No opportunities were presented. All we were given at the time was a compass, and it was up to us to find the path. 

It has taken nearly a year of searching, but finally we think we have located the trailhead. In our discovery, we found that this path into the second half of life is not a mere destination or vocational change, but rather, it is a transformation. A radical change of our being, not just a change in our doing. 

Brennan Manning calls it a “second journey.” Most often happening, says Manning, between the ages of 30 and 60 and initiated when one becomes acutely aware of the limited amount of time we are given to live out what really matters. For me, the moment of clarity came while being care-confronted by my Spiritual Director to live into a True Self (I’ll write more about this in part 2). It’s that specific moment of clarity that continues to move us forward on this journey. 

As we look back now a year later, we hear Jesus’ words more clearly when he told his disciples, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.”

Jesus knew the limiting identity of comfort, convenience, and position. Perhaps that’s why our journey had to start with abandoning our positions and place. Jesus knew that most often spiritual formation is more of an unlearning than learning. An unlearning of the patterns derived from the comforting influences in our first half of life. The kind of patterns that tether us away from our own journey of seeking. Jesus seems to suggest that wholehearted discipleship is a journey that first requires leaving the convenience of our false selves. 

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that after 17 years of pastoral ministry we find ourselves in this time of transformation. But I find solace in these words of understanding from Rohr in his book, Falling Upward. Rohr writes, “It is religion’s job to teach us and guide us on this discovery of our True Self, but it usually makes the mistake of turning into a worthiness contest of some sort, a private performance, or some kind of religious achievement on our part, through our belonging to the right group, practicing the right rituals, or believing the right things. These are just tugboats to get you away from the shore and out into the right sea; they are the oars to get you working and engaged with the Mystery. But never confuse these instruments with your profound “ability to share in the divine nature” itself (2 Peter 1:4). It is the common, and in this case tragic, confusion of the medium with the message, or the style with the substance.

It’s the “sharing in the divine nature” that marks the trail before us now. We still don’t know where the path might take us. But we have found where it begins.

2 thoughts on “On the other side of sabbatical – Part 1

  1. Jamie Roach

    Wide is path that leads to death. It is a path comprised of words. Most of us walk this wide, easy, popular path of correct speech and doctrine. There is another path that leads to life; the path of transformation. It is a long, narrow and harrowing trail. It is paved with actions, doing, obedience. Few are willing to walk this lonely path. Thank you for your obedience, courage and faith.

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