I’ll be taking a 4-month sabbatical from my daily and weekly ministry activities in 2017. I am excited and a bit apprehensive. It’s like I am just taking a break and releasing control of my church (as if I have control now). My associate pastor has repeatedly told me this sabbatical is part of my vocation. While I am not preaching sermons, leading meetings, counseling members, and casting a vision for our church, I am still within my calling while on sabbatical. And the church is what it has always been: God’s not mine.
In order to prepare to adjust my daily rhythms from work to rest, I have begun seeing a spiritual adviser and she has me praying the prayer of examen. In this approach to daily prayer, the one praying begins in silence building awareness of and attentiveness to the presence of God. I do the best I can to silence all other outside noise (actual audible noise and the noise in my head). I just get quiet and focus on the present God. This is usually 2-5 minutes, though I would like to work up to longer periods.
I have done this before, but the examen has been particularly beautiful for me with what comes next. The second step is to express gratitude. I usually do the examen when I first arrive at my office, about 7:30AM. In my mind, I go back through the previous 24 hours and note all the moments of thankfulness, all the things of life for which I am thankful. This has been amazing!
Before this discipline, I rarely paused to reflect on the past (in this case the most immediate past – just 24 hours). I was not aware at how much my life is just charge ahead. I live directionally – forward! My life question seems to be “What’s next?” It has been a refreshing blessing to stop, look back, and thank God. I have always known how important it is to live in gratitude. Prior to examen I had a thanksgiving practice, one done with my wife. Before going to sleep each night, she and I list three things each that we’re thankful for. This exercise centers us, forces us to go to bed in gratitude and not some other emotion (anger, bitterness, etc.). Sometimes we have to force it, but it is worth it to keep up the habit.
The examen prayer of gratitude has taken my discipline of living thankfully to another dimension. My wife and I still do our thanks, but now, I am starting the day aware that I have much to thank God for. I am a blessed guy. I am a graced guy. When I miss the examen on busy, rushed mornings, I feel like I have missed something very important. I have skipped a part of my morning that normally pours life into me.
Another effect examen has had on me is a tendency to recall why I am thankful throughout the day. When I want to get frustrated, a voice in my head (the Holy Spirit?) reminds me to be thankful because so much grace has been poured on me and into me. Because of the examen and my nightly ritual of gratitude (with my wife), saying thanks to God is slowly becoming a default response for me.
A couple of ways of seeing life emerge from living with an eye toward gratitude. First, I know my life is a result of grace. I am because of God’s grace. I have blessings because of God’s grace. I serve as pastor in a wonderful church because of God’s grace. Saying this does not negate my own hard work and accomplishment. I put forth a lot of effort and stretching outside my comfort zone to earn a doctorate of ministry. That degree (with a focus in counseling) equipped me as a pastor and made my resume more attractive. I have labored for over 2o years in 4 different churches in pastoral work. It has been a joy and at times an arduous journey.
But, I can’t fall into a trap of taking credit for anything. I work hard and commit myself fully to ministry because that is an appropriate response to the grace God has given. Also, let me not exaggerate my own work ethic. I have lazy days. I mess up. Whether by my good or in spite of my failure, I acknowledge that I appreciate where I am and I thank God for my life. I pray that if extremely hard times hit, I will have the spiritual wherewithal to continue giving God glory. I don’t know that I could do that in the face of unspeakable personal loss. I pray that I could.
Acknowledging that my life is graced and basking in God’s grace is a first way of seeing life that comes out of living in gratitude. A second way of seeing might seem more surprising. My gratitude compels me to be competitive. That’s right! I think Christians and pastors should compete hard, the way a Michigan running back leans toward the end zone or the way my beloved Detroit Lions race to be the first to clean out their lockers after yet another season without the playoffs.
Here’s what I mean by competition. When I attend a conference and hear about what other pastors are doing, or I talk with pastors in our area and find out churches and ministries that doing great works of compassion or Kingdom pronouncement, it should inspire me to strive for greatness in our ministry at HillSong. We should try to help people with such effectiveness that people in our community say, “Oh, you know that HillSong, they help people.” Our ministry should equip believers in such a way that when people in the community meet our folks out and about and marvel at how loving they are and how grace-filled and compassionate they are and then discover they are HillSong people, they say, “Of course! That’s the type of person that comes out of HillSong. That’s what we expect from HillSong.”
We should compete to be outstanding ministers of the gospels, disciples of the Master, and proclaimers of the word. We live missionally and as disciples for the sake of dying to self and rising in Christ. We become so filled with grace and with the Spirit that the Gospel pours out of us in a torrent.
However, competition should not breed comparison. If the church up the road preaches a robust gospel and doubles its membership and begins ministries that actually reduce hunger in our community, we must not compare ourselves to that church. We should rejoice in what’s happening there. I must not compare myself to that pastor. The comparison will eat me up. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus did not critique the one who had 4 talents (v.22-23). Jesus praised that one. He did not say, “Why didn’t you reproduce as much as the one who had 10?” Jesus commended him for growing from the grace he had been given. And Jesus said to him, “Enter the joy of your master.”
We must not become jealous if the church up the road outpaces us in membership. I cannot be down on myself because I don’t lead a ministry that is as “big” as the one led by the pastor on the magazine cover. There are many ways a ministry can be big, and God can do big things while working through small groups. God has lead me to my role as disciple, husband, father, pastor, and friend. I appreciate the grace God has given me and I compete to make my 2 talents become 4, and then the 4 to become 8. When I think of myself, it is not a downplaying of what I have done. Come on Rob! Why aren’t you as “successful” as that pastor 10 years younger than you who leads a 1000-member church? No, it cannot be that. Such a posture of jealousy would mock the grace God has blessed me to receive.
I want to live in constant gratitude, aware that my life is full of grace. And aware of that, I want to compete hard in all the roles I fill, so that my 1 talent becomes 2, and then 2 becomes 4, and so on. For me this approach to discipleship is challenging, satisfying, and joy-producing. Moreover, it lands me in the middle of God’s work in the world.