As a preacher and teacher I often use stories to illustrate principles and lessons. Rarely do I tell a story for the story’s sake.
I guess this is an exception.
I’m currently 2 1/2 weeks into a 6 week sabbatical. This time off has been on my radar for nearly a year. This fall marks 10 years pastoring our faith community in Hutchinson Kansas, and while the ride has been fantastic… It’s also been a little tiring.
Growing from a neighborhood church of about 160 people to a multi site with 10 campuses in 9 cities and attendance numbers that qualify us as a “mega-church,” the last 10 years have been stressing.
Not to mention, I’ve made some pretty dumb mistakes in those years adding to my own stress level. Even though my personal mantra is work smarter not harder, it doesn’t seem to always work out that way.
For example, for a couple years in a row I preached at least 50 of that year’s 52 weekends. And when you’re preaching 5 sermons each weekend, simple math shows that’s 250 messages delivered just on Saturdays and Sundays during one calendar year.
See… not that bright.
So, a six-week sabbatical has been a highly anticipated break for myself and my family.
Now, the story. Every single thing I have planned and looked forward to during this break has fallen through.
- A prayer retreat facility I had planned on visiting was closed by Colorado wildfires
- One of my good friends whom I was wanting to spend time with ended up going on mission to Russia
- A scheduled visit to a well-known pastor/author and multisite church authority was canceled due to a death in his family
- My mentor has been running nonstop up-and-down the eastern seaboard ministering and preaching
Please, don’t hear this as poor pitiful me. I understand that my issues are very small, simply calendar inconveniences compared to the awesome opportunities and difficult losses of these others. But, it has made me begin to ask the question, “God, do You have different plans for me?”
So, on-the-fly I scrapped my prayer retreat in the beautiful Colorado mountains stretching towards the heavens. Instead, I booked 3 nights at a Catholic Convent in Great Bend, Kansas.
I know, not really a lateral move. But, it’s all I had left.
So, I attempted to make the best of it. I spent some significant time and energy prior to the retreat searching the Scriptures, reading up and praying for my time in isolation with God.
I read a book called “Come Away With Me” about successful prayer retreats.
I created a list of things to do during my time away: write prayer letters, play my guitar in personal worship, prayer walk, and submerge myself in God’s word.
Most importantly, I felt that God confirmed a passage of Scripture to meditate on; it just kept coming up everywhere I turned.
A father brings his demon possessed boy to Jesus and asked Him to do something if He can help. Jesus responds, “If?” To which this father says:
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV)
That settled it! Even though my plans had fallen through, I was sure God wanted to tell me something amazing. To strengthen my faith. To speak boldly to me. I was ready for God to show up!
The covenant was a beautiful place, not Colorado beautiful, but very nice. And the sisters there were not at all like we see in the movies… they were nice, too.
Although I hadn’t planned on doing it, I found myself joining them 3 times a day for prayer and services. As a lifelong Protestant, there was much I didn’t understand. Also, being the only man there (and probably the only one under 60), I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Sister Teresita, amongst others, smiled at me in the way they probably smile at all the preschoolers they teach how to walk through these services as she help me through the liturgy. I learned, grew and enjoyed the beauty of those reverent times.
In between services I prayed. I prayed. And then I changed things up a little, I prayed some more.
I prayer walked, prayed on my face, and prayed through Scripture. I studied the word, read old books and listened to great teachers.
I even took the advice of one of the prayer books I previously read, reminding me to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). I was encouraged to use an egg timer (I used an iPhone) set at 3 min. to just learn and be quiet.
Can I be honest with you… I was a little disappointed. It was all good, it was refreshing, it was godly.
It just wasn’t the big, booming, in-your-face, presence and glory of God experience I was anticipating.
The night before I left, my wife and youngest son drove to Great Bend to play at the water park and we scheduled dinner together. Sister Teresita found out my family was coming and asked if I would bring them by so she could give them a tour.
To be honest with you, I knew Kathy wouldn’t be excited about it because after all day at the pool she wouldn’t feel presentable. I knew Nathan wouldn’t be excited about it because, well, he’s 11.
But when a sweet little 94-year-old nun who has been in the convent since she was a teenager asks you so sincerely… that’s what we did.
It was totally worth it, too. She did a great job and even kept Nathan’s attention for the hour plus walking tour.
There was a moment in her presentation in which she took us through the beautiful sanctuary. As we were walking, she was describing all the renovations she had witnessed through the years. In the foyer/hospitality area before you come into the worship area, there are large wooden screens that veil the view.
She paused us there and made note that most churches open right up so you can see the grandeur of the room, but not here. She said the screens were put in place to make it difficult to see for one reason.
Sister Teresita said, “The mystery unfolds gently.”
Hmmm, I thought it was an interesting phrase and I hung on it for a moment. But, it slipped away and we finished the tour.
The next day I attended morning prayers, hugged a few of the sisters and packed my stuff up in the truck.
It had been a good time, just not a great time. It had been restful, just not inspiring.
Part of the contract with myself for this sabbatical break had been to do extended devotional time each day, no matter what. So, before leaving the grounds of the Dominican sisters, I pulled up a spot in the garden and began to read and pray.
I filled out several pages in a journal, prayed a very peaceful prayer and then decided to read a chapter from a book I had started the night before.
Reading this book (True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer), I was taken aback because some of the language sounded almost identical to language from another book I had read the week before.
It was telling me to be still and know who God was. It even suggested setting a timer and just learning to be quite.
“Okay, okay, okay God. I get it!”
I pulled out my iPhone/egg timer and set it for 3 min.
And, there in the garden I attempted to be still. Have you ever tried this?
Let me invite you inside my brain for this “be still” moment:
- all right, be still…
- Is that the mower, are they really mowing the grass right now?
- Shhhh, focus…
- How come I couldn’t hear traffic until now?
- Seriously, come on Addis.
- If the sprinklers are on over there, will they come on over here?
- Wow, I’m frustrating myself. I can’t even put myself in timeout.
- Do I need gas before I leave town?
- Dude! It’s confirmed… I have spiritual ADD
As I struggled through one of the longest three-minute periods of my life, I realized I didn’t just struggle with stillness, I couldn’t even focus on a single thought. My mind was bouncing back and forth and I kept asking God for direction and discipline.
Some of the thoughts, ideas and experiences I had walked through in the previous 3 days were floating through my mind. Including, the haunting words of Sister Teresita: “The mystery unfolds gently.”
As my mind rolled these words around I took them as a rebuke from the Lord.
“Yes Lord, Your revelation and Your speaking unfold gently. I’ve been disappointed this week because I’ve been asking for Your mystery to unfold with thunder. I’ve been asking for a sign, a voice, a miracle and You have said all along You prefer whispering. Sorry, I have tried to make You do what I wanted You to do. I accept the fact that You will simply unfold gently, whenever You want.”
I waited a moment, silently patting myself on the back for being so humble and contrite before God (that was sarcasm), but I felt no peace or affirmation from the Lord despite my confession.
The words rolled around again: “The mystery unfolds gently.”
Yes Lord, it unfolds gently… That’s what You wanted me to get, right?
Then, in a way I haven’t experienced in while, God redirected my thoughts and with almost an “aha” exasperation I mouthed the word “mystery.”
Exactly at that moment, my timer went off. Ironically, it was set on church bells.
That was it! Like a flood of peace and affirmation, that is where God wanted me to turn my heart.
It wasn’t that God would reveal Himself slowly, that I was pushing Him beyond the boundaries of gentleness. I was completely missing the point… If He is God then there must be mystery.
Things I cannot know, proof I must never see, trust of my hand reaching into the darkness to grab a hold of His.
These were hard words from my God, but they were also beautiful.
Page after page I poured out in my journal. God had given me an answer to my question with a nonanswer.
My focus has been for God to show up, give me a new evidence, hand me some hard proof, but He chose to give me what I needed, not what I wanted.
I believe Lord, help my unbelief.
We love to categorize, quantify and expose. One of my favorite classes in seminary was systematic theology. By definition, theology means knowledge of God and systematic means to create a system… It is the compartmentalization and labeling of God.
He is too big for that. He’s too amazing to be completely understood. He is too massively infinite for our finite comprehension.
Does he reveal himself to us? Yes!
Does he interject himself into our reality? Yes!
Is he still the God of miracles in this day and age? Yes!
But, we must accept Him for who He is. He is God, there is no other. If we could completely understand Him, there is no way He could be God. And if we could completely outline Him, He would not be worthy to be our God.
But He is beyond our understanding, He is incalculable, He is mystery.
It will take a lifetime to get to know Him. And, when this life is over and we meet Him face-to-face we still won’t be able to comprehend Him fully.
We wouldn’t want to…
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,
(Colossians 2:1-6 ESV)