by Fred May
For me, the past year has been quite an extraordinary journey on so many levels. When it started I had already committed myself to an extended ministry sabbatical. And while we all may enjoy the idea of savouring an extended break from daily responsibility and labour, I discovered that there may be a telling, unexpected distinction observable between a vacation and a sabbatical.
The dictionary defines a sabbatical as ‘a period of time during which someone does not work at his or her regular job, a break or a welcome change from the usual routine. In this sense, it certainly is a delightful prospect, especially when one has already been led to suspect that sustained pressure, stress and fatigue have all started to take their toll in ways that had not become entirely apparent yet but had nonetheless made their quiet presence felt in many insidious ways.
What took me by surprise the most in the process, however, was how deeply dependent one becomes on the familiar, and especially so as one grows older. The rhythmic flow of the mundane throb of a hive of activities that are mostly routine, long since firmly embedded as neurochemical pathways in the brain, become wonderfully, strangely comforting.
We all have an intrinsic need to feel meaningfully connected to life in some way. And of even greater importance is the need to feel an ongoing sense of personal validation, derived at a subconscious level from feeling that one’s personal contribution is, at least, being deemed significant and, at best, indispensable. And while I’m not altogether clear on how this dynamic affects women, what I do know is that for us men this peculiar derivation of job-related affirmation is intimately tied into our gender security. Our masculine integrity feeds lustily off it.
For me, all the aforementioned factors conspired to make for a rather conflicted sabbatical experience at times. I realise that when Christ invited me to follow Him as a disciple I assumed that His demand that I ‘take up my cross’ essentially meant that I be willing to do whatever He demanded of me. What I’ve discovered in 2015 is that in many ways it’s much easier to live a life of challenging commitment and sacrifice ‘for the cause of Christ’ than be asked to stop doing anything at all. Asking a preacher to stop preaching is a bit like husband asking his wife to stop being a mom to their children or for a windmill to stop pumping. It is deeply counter-instinctual. It just feels so wrong.
And yet it’s a most important discipling lesson I’ve had the privilege of learning on a brand new level. It’s what Christ had in mind when He said that only the meek would inherit the earth. While meekness refers to great personal power that’s perfectly harnessed and controlled, it also means that we’ve allowed Christ to wean us off our natural vulnerability to a performance-derived, emotional reward system and the emotional-spiritual insecurity it represents.
In that great chapter in the book of Hebrews about the valiant heroes of faith, who courageously carried the redemptive torch throughout the ages, the strongest commendation is reserved for those spiritual colossi who had grown to a place where they could resist the subtle temptation to demonstrate a presumptuous obedience instead of meekness, unlike the anti-hero of the Old Testament, the mighty Samson. Scripture celebrates the almost incredible liberty and authority these truly great men and women of God had grown to exercise: “…who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Hebrews 11:33-34 (NASB)
It may be that our deepest spiritual aspiration or longing may be that of a rich, purpose-fueled existence and the accompanying secret bliss derived from sensing something of the personal distinction, significance and fulfillment that it brings. God, however, would at some point call each one of us to forsake even that hard-won place of ostensibly lofty spiritual attainment.
The consecutive verse in the chapter just quoted marks that mostly unsung, but monumentally significant moment, of transition that every one of us would instinctively dread. Without exception, every honest believer suffers from a triumphalist hankering, one borne out of having to suffer a seemingly ceaseless barrage of frustration and disappointment in this life. This deep yearning for vindication and even vengeance is one that God recognises and even shares, yet without placing the same value on it in quite in the same way we do.
These people are truly great faith icons. “…who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection” Hebrews 11:33, 35 (NASB, emphasis mine)
At this point, the biblical narrative seems to change gear so seamlessly that one may be tempted to miss the mighty chasm that’s just been bridged. But just in case one may have missed it, the author proceeds to underscore the dramatic transition made by way of further illustration. “…and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” Hebrews 11:36-38 (NASB, emphasis mine)
God deems His saints who embrace the Cross, that is, the meek, of inestimable, eternal worth. In God’s eyes, they are most highly esteemed. Similarly, Christ, while nailed to the Cross, was in a position to summon legions of angels to His defense but He chose to exercise meekness, the greatest power known to man, instead, and desisted. He refrained from exercising His God-given authority and power to which He was divinely entitled.
Doing those things which we deem nobly vicarious and virtuous may be just that, but receiving a command to desist from all that activity is aimed at repositioning us since even divinely sanctioned activity may pose a threat to our relationship with Him. It holds the danger of estranging us from Him, by militating against an intimacy with us which He so deeply longs for.
What I have learnt in 2015 is that God is jealous for my presence. We seem to persist with the pretentious notion that we can, and need to, invite God into our presence, as if we author or create our own space. Fact is, He has placed us in His world and we happen to occupy the time and space that He has created and blessed us to inhabit. He longs for us to come into His presence by learning to be present to Him. But this transition is possible only when we become willing even to desist from doing what is good and right for the joy of being – being with Him.
Meekness ultimately speaks of a willingness to trade the satisfying spiritual modality of ‘doing’ for that of ‘being’, where the latter enjoys constant priority. Christ emphatically placed a primary emphasis on the disciple’s need to learn to value that place of rest, away from the weight of noble obligation and the inevitably ensuing weariness, over the egotistical satisfaction of accomplishment, the ‘thrill of the hunt’ as it were. “Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons.” Mark 3:14-15 (NKJV, emphasis mine)
In the last while, I’ve learnt something of what it means to simply ‘be’, with Him. He, more often than not, longs to engage us in a conversation that moves beyond the comforting familiarity and emotional security of a spiritual ‘to-do list’ or job card, even though it would commendably mean that He has been able to move the conversation with us beyond the shopping list and promise box. However, He needs the undistracted time and space to talk to one about His need to be our redemptive physician, our healer, Yahweh Rophe. He, like any medical professional, will not embark on any invasive procedure without informing, clarifying and securing our unconditional sanction first.
In this past year I have learnt, in a newer, deeper way, what loving concern would cause Him to linger at my heart’s door, knocking ever so gently, but persistently, until I muster the courage to reach for the seldom-used handle to invite Him in for what turns out to be a conversation that initially is almost as intimidating and challenging as it is ultimately rewarding and endearing. “Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.” Revelation 3:20 (HCSB)
Nothing else in this life quite compares to this critically important ‘date-night’ with the Master.