If you had to pick a single word and let it sink so deeply into the fibers of your being, determining your priorities and mindset, what would it be?
Yes to all of them, of course. The world is a desert that will soak these outpourings because we’re collectively as thirsty as we’ve ever been for meaning, hope, direction, and healing of divisions. 2022 has exposed ignorance, fear, loneliness, lusts for power that burst into wars and killings. We’re seeing unprecedented levels of addiction, global poverty, immigration, human trafficking, gun violence, and a global migrant crises. The list is long. What are we waiting for? Let’s find a word, a cause, and get busy!!
I’ve written a whole book about the necessity of ordering our lives around the priorities of justice and mercy, so I get it. There’s a problem with this line of thinking though. To explain the depth of it, let me take you back to a day 30 years ago.
I’d arrived in England to speak at a conference for Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship in 1993. It was my wife’s first time overseas, and I was excited to share it with her, but I boarded the flight with a sore throat, and landed with a full blown flu virus. We were in London and Donna was eager to see the sights! I on the other hand was sick enough that a slow walk through Hyde Park felt like a marathon, leaving me frustrated with myself, and anxious as I tried to quickly gain enough strength to speak.
My encounter with the virus had come in the third year of our founding and leading a non-profit ministry that focused on Bible teaching, intensive hospitality, and wilderness activities. It’s safe to say that most nights of the year we had company at our supper table, sometimes more than twenty people; safe to say that we were living frugally, and generating precious little income; and safe to say that I didn’t have an off switch.
Although we said we’d moved to the mountains ‘by faith’, the reality is that we were willing to work hard (“whatever it takes”) to make our vision of hospitality ministry viable. And work we did! I officiated hundreds of Basketball games for $20 each, wrote a grant for a county agency, said yes to literally every speaking engagement that was offered, and often brought students home from places I was speaking to enjoy a weekend of hospitality after I’d finished teaching. Meanwhile, Donna was managing the property, including dealing with renters, administering the grant I’d written for the county, cooking and cleaning for ministry guests, and raising our three children, ages 6, 4, and newborn, including homeschooling the oldest one. “Burning the candle at both ends” isn’t adequate to describe our workload. The reality I can see now: out of fear that we wouldn't succeed, I had no off switch.
I didn’t say it that way though. I sanctified my fear and anxiety, naming them “vision” and “calling” instead. What’s so insidious is that there was compelling, God revealed vision behind our work. There was a clear a path for this calling that God had supernaturally opened up. But the cord of my life was woven with strands of faith and fear, obedience and anxiety - a strange mixture indeed, but not uncommon among people of faith. It was that fear and anxiety that led to overwork, that led to me lying in a room in London trying to regain enough strength to speak on important matters like faith, trust, and contentment - lessons I knew about more in theory than reality.
After a quick attempt at flu recovery in London, during which I was Mr. Grumpy, we finally arrive arrive at the big conference where I’ll be speaking. It’s a gathering of faith leaders from around the world who are working hard to help people discover the reality the “Christ” is more than a religious symbol or historical figure. We’re thrilled the be there, and I’m feeling better, when the speaker begins:
“Some of you here tonight are excited. Your ministries are thriving and you’re looking forward to the future. Others are discouraged. Your ministries are struggling in some ways, either visible or invisible, that have you questioning your call. And some of you” he paused here for emphasis - “Some of you are tired. Your ministries are outwardly successful, but it’s coming at too high price. Nobody knows it yet. But you know it. You know something needs to change.”
“Why are there tears forming in my eyes?” I remember thinking. In less than a nanosecond the room had disappeared, and I had this sense that my Creator had a message just for me, using this man’s voice to declare that the fear and anxiety motivating my work was destroying me - spirit, soul, and body.
I’d return to America with some altered values around the theme of rest and continue that ministry until December of 1995, when I’d move to the big city and lead a church in Seattle for 27 years. During those years of leadership I'd lead a church of 300 to become a church of around 3500 in six locations with a vision for “making the invisible God visible” in both Seattle and the far corners of the world, which we'd do through the launching of variety of unique ministries. There’d be two building programs, with attendant fund raising campaigns, along with the addition of five locations, the addition of dozens of staff, and so very much more that was rewarding, and meaningful, and tiring.
It was just over a year ago that I stepped away from that senior leadership role, handing the torch of leadership to a faithful and gifted friend. I remember that last Sunday, and the the thoughts about how great life would be once I was relieved of the stresses of day to day leadership.
Being who I am, though, I set some new goals right away:
Ski 500k of vertical during my first months of semi-retirement
Write a book proposal
Start a coaching ministry
Expand external speaking ministry
It's now a year later. Things have happened, including
the development of a discipleship manifesto whose working title is called “Habits for Wholeness” because we’re made for wholeness and habits are easier to live out than asking “what should I do today” every morning. This may become the basis of a book proposal.
becoming a better skier
starting a micro business coaching select leaders, including a new generation of leaders from the church I lead
speaking on the road for seven weeks this past summer
This is where I need to be vulnerable. The sum total of these endeavors has been rewarding. Still, I have this nagging sense that I’ve been reliving the ‘burning the candle at both ends' problems of 30 years ago, only now it's not about, but the basic question of all: “Who am I”?
Most of us long to have a sense of calling in our lives. Calling creates a life of meaning, a reason to get up in the morning. Callings, though, are fluid. You write a book, it’s done. You lead a church, then you don’t. You train for a ski season, and then the rain comes and the snow melts, or you hurt your knee. And so it goes. Nothing lasts forever.
I’m discovering that I’m afraid of the empty space at the end of the endeavor. As I lean into that fear, and expose it to the light of day, there’s a realization that I’ve always been afraid of it. I’ve usually answered the question of who I am by talking about what I do. I teach. I lead. I write. I climb. I ski.
Maybe this only comes with aging, but I’m facing up to the fact that defining myself this way had led to an avoidance of silence, sabbath, and rest. I suspect I’m not alone. There are a lot of people who read this kind of material who, we all know, would never be accused of laziness. We work hard. Set goals. Create stuff. Lead people. Communicate meaningful truths. Build systems. Defend the oppressed. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Write code; or books; or curricula. Heal people. Take steps of reconciliation where there’s racism, classism, sexism, division. And so much more. A lot of outwardly successful people are busy, productive, and tired. This is where the ghost from “Christmas Carol” warns… if this shadows remain unaltered…. Being driven by fear, whether of poverty, or insignificance, is a surefire formula for burnout.
I teach that all positive transformation is response to revelation, and I believe that more now than when I first said it decades ago. The difference between now and then, though, is that I’ve come to believe that many of us have failed to create enough space in our lives to pay attention to the amazing revelations we need if we’re truly to be transformed.
Surely there are more important things to do than “pay attention” to things like an ancient sacred text, or the voices we receive inwardly only during times of silence, or to be wide eyes with wonder when we see signs of seasons changing and cycles of the moon. These revelations are there, waiting for us to receive them, and we’re rushing past in our zeal to provide for our families, or make a difference in the world, and simply avoid the fear of any empty space.
The result of the rushing is that we’re tired. We’re missing the foundational revelations we desperately need for groundedness, guidance, and peace. We’re on a treadmill, and some of the pace, at least, is of our own making. We’re running too hard but afraid to stop. Productive? Caring? Hard working? Willing to go the extra mile? Check, check, check, and check. And yet… can we handle the silence, the sabbath, the listening?
For some, likely too many, the answer is no.
That’s why my word for the first third of 2023 is REST. I’ll be writing about it here, seeking to understand the what and why of it, and seeking to practice it so that:
Sabbath rest is not only better understood, but taken seriously, and actively pursued.
Sleep is embraced as foundational to all that is life giving, and becomes better
Jesus’ invitation to come to him and find rest moves from “a slogan” to a deep reality
The rhythms of creation inform my priorities of time use
My identity becomes more deeply rooted in who I am in my relationship with Creator and Christ
I create intentional spaces to receive the revelations needed for real transformation
“There remains a rest for the people of God…” is how the Bible puts it. Before we pour out anything, we must first receive, but before we can receive we need that space of rest which enables receiving!
That space has been there all along, hiding in plane view. I hope you’ll join me here on my journey to discover it more fully.
Sign up to receive these via email so you can join me as I unpack these components of rest in the coming weeks, each in a post or video, pointing you to the why, the how, and extra resources:
Finally, this word “rest” can’t be my “word of the year” because I’m convinced that rest only works well in an eco-system of two other values. I’ll be sharing those values here too, but if you want to know them sooner rather than later, join me on January 8th and 15th of this new 2023, where I’ll be sharing them in sermons - live and online.
May you find the rest that needed as a foundation for transformation, so that you can pour your blessings into our thirsty world in 2023.