• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Post Sabbatical Reflections

2019 is my seventh year as Pastor of Oconee Presbyterian Church. When I was called here in 2012, the church and I imagined a three-month sabbatical in the seventh year, should we make it that far together. Well, we did! So this summer, they sent me out with blessings and prayer from May through July. I returned to the church the first week of August.


Going into sabbatical, I imagined and published four lenses for this Sabbatical… rest, healing, reflection, and study. I also imagined a hidden fifth lens... planning. Now, that I'm back, it seems wise to reflect on each of those five lenses.


The first lens was REST. That's the most obvious one to most folk. If someone thinks of Sabbath, they probably think rest. It was the most common question people asked, "Do you feel rested?" It was the most common welcome, "I hope you feel well-rested!"


On the seventh day, the sabbath day, even God rested. Have you ever thought about that? God needed rest? Or did God not need it, but just knew it was wise to take it? God's rest became a commandment... Thou shalt honor the Sabbath and keep it holy! At first, it was used to encourage people to rest at least one day each week. Then, like most good intentions, it got twisted in the hands of hardcore religious leaders and literalists and became a source of judgment and punishment for doing anything that resembled work.


There's a story about Jesus getting in trouble for plucking grain on the sabbath as he and his disciples walked through a field. There's another story where religious leaders were offended when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath. Jesus pushed back, asking them if they would untie an animal to let it find water on the sabbath, or if they would pull an animal out of the water on the sabbath if it was stuck? Of course, they would. So shouldn't he unburden a brother or sister on the Sabbath? I thought of these scripture passages when I worked on the lawn and shrubbery and trees of our yard, or when I walked or fed the dog or let him play in the sprinklers.


Jesus once said about Sabbath rest, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." People need rest. People need play. People need unstructured time where their mind wanders without keeping a schedule or worrying about what they are forgetting or what comes next. People need sabbath. Sabbath was made so people would rest. It's not that people were made so that the sabbath would be obeyed.


When I thought of REST for this sabbatical, I wanted and needed rest from the weekly routine of church. I needed rest from the hurry, the schedule, the responsibility. I needed rest from the worry over individuals, over families, over the future of this congregation.


I began Sabbatical with REST as the priority. I intentionally put the first week as Vacation and Jill and I got away to a water-side resort. On our return, for the first few weeks of Sabbatical, I tried to schedule nothing, to have no responsibilities. I postponed appointments like Counseling or Dentist until August. I woke without an alarm. I woke up with the sun, or the dog, or the call of nature.


My body, soul, and mind were in the habit of waking and quickly thinking, "What's today? What happens today? What do I need to do today? Who do I need to check on ro tap today?" I was in the habit of waking, remembering, and planning. It took me almost two weeks to break that habit. I had set a new routine and boundary for myself. I deleted the church email/calendar app from my phone. I removed any other app that might alert me about church issues or congregational prayers. I avoided consuming social media, so I would not accidentally see church events or issues, celebrations or prayer requests. Yes, I love this church and these people. Yes, I want to be able to keep on loving and serving them. But I need a rest. I need the discipline of trusting them to the bigger church, and to God.


For those first two weeks, I awoke, and tried to put aside any thoughts of what I have to do, or should do, or need to do. I tried to wait for something beyond those to arise, for a whisper of interest or curiosity or excitement to appear. When it did, I gave it time. If I wanted to work in the yard, I did. If I wanted to learn a new song on guitar, I did. If I wanted to text a family member, I sent it. If I wanted to experiment and play with an idea for a new blog site, this site, I did. If I wanted to replace the blown-out electrical socket in the Dining Room, I did.


Rest did not mean being idle and doing no work. It meant being allowed the space to create and play and work without the burden of obligation or expectation. I walked the dog and did laundry. I played Xbox and cleaned up the office. I played guitar and assembled some new furniture. I began practicing Spanish and reorganized the shed. Some of it was playful and some of it was labor. All of it was rest.


Sometimes, in the middle of these moments of rest, a face or task or idea of church would tempt me. They would tug at me and suggest I needed to be somewhere else doing something else. That's an unhealthy way to live. There's no better fuller way to live than to surrender to who we are, where we are. To ache for something else, someone else, somewhere else is suffering. To just be... be who I am, right where I am, right now, to fully be me and be fully present... that is holy. That is sabbath.


It took me weeks to notice those temptations and observe them without urgency or judgment or guilt, and just set them aside. In my mind and heart, I wanted to give them some attention, because I care about them. I didn’t want to lose them. But this was sabbath, sabbatical, a time of rest. Now was not the time to hold them. Now was a time for something else. Trust those things to God.


I had to remember and reembody my prayerful mindfulness practice. In my mind, if I felt one, I would imagine it in my hand for a moment. I would look at it with love. Then, in my mind, I walk down a hallway, open a closet door, click on the light, take a glass mason jar off of a shelf, unscrew it, and drop the worry or concern or person or idea into that glass. I put the top back on, and set it back on the shelf. Its safe. It will not be lost. Then I click off the light, close the door, and go back to being present. That closet isn't mine right now. It's all God's. This is Sabbath, sabbatical. Those people and ideas are not mine right now. They are God's and the church's. The other leaders and staff of Oconee Presbyterian will hold them for the summer, so I can rest.


After about two weeks, the regularity and aggressiveness of these invasions into my psyche began to slow. A pastor is often being pulled in so many directions that we don’t truly get the privilege of being present. The next visit, meeting, call, task is always pulling us forward and tempting us to avoid being here and now more fully. This rest period reminded me how ingrained those habits of looking beyond are in me. I remembered and practiced again my tools of pausing and being present.


I hope those skills stay with me this Fall and beyond. I don't want to sit with someone and be thinking about my next meeting, or my next visit. I want to be present with each person until my time with them is over.


There's another thing about Jesus and Sabbath. He went to worship. It was his custom. I am happy to be back in worship. Worship is a workday for me, but it feels good and restful again, when we can sing together, pray together, read and discuss scripture together. I pray the good people of Oconee Pres will give themselves the gift of true rest, be fully present, and will continue to show up to worship with one another the one God who made us and loves us all.

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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