I wrote this report for Bethlehem and have adapted it for this first day of 2011 on the DG Blog. It’s longer than a blog should be. My only excuse is that I did cut 263 pages.
For eight months of this year (May–December), I was on a leave of absence. That meant I was free from all my pastoral duties. It also meant that all my public ministry was shut down (with a few exceptions): no preaching, no writing for publication, no speaking (except for the Desiring God National Conference and two overseas engagements), no blogging, no tweeting. Therefore, this report will be on the blessings of this leave.
My heart overflows with thankfulness to God and to the elders and staff and people of Bethlehem, and the team at Desiring God. I know that the staff in particular bore a heavier burden because one of the team was missing. Thank you for this kindness.
In March 2010, I wrote to the elders about the goals of the leave, Noël and I
enter this eight-month season of detachment from public exposure and public productivity with a view to serious biblical examination, assessment, nurture, and growth in four areas: 1) our own individual persons, both physically and spiritually; 2) our marriage; 3) our relationship with our children and their families; 4) our pattern of ministry on returning to Bethlehem.
I will say a few words about each of these. But please know that the depth and magnitude of the value of these months will take the rest of my life to unpack. For example, I kept a journal which is now 265 single-spaced pages and has 214 entries. Most of these are personal reflections on what God has been doing in our lives. Perhaps I will write a book someday called The Leave.
So this report is a tiny fraction of what needs to be said, and what, Lord willing, will be said over the next months in conversations and sermons and blogs and books. I will mainly speak for myself here in the expectation that in various ways Noël will speak of her own experience. I know she is thanking God with me for the value of these months. She has read this report, made tweaks, and given approval.
I have been able to linger longer in the word and prayer than in any other eight-month period in my life. These times have been sweet. The insights and changes in ourselves that we have seen are owing deeply to these meetings with God in his word. I am jealous that these encounters not become hurried or mechanical on my return.
Our normal place of corporate worship has been Sovereign Grace Fellowship, led by Rick Gamache, who used to serve on the Desiring God staff and is one of the best preachers in the Twin Cities.
This was a soul check: Will I flourish spiritually in corporate worship when I am not leading or preaching? O how sweet to experience the answer to this question! I sang and I soaked. And it was not a chafing to be on the front-side of the precious pulpit of God.
I love the word of God, and to have it cascade over me with clarity and depth and power has been authenticating to my faith and my calling. My faith, because I really did enjoy communion with Christ in worship. I experienced afresh that I love God, not just talking about God. And my calling, because I was on the joyful receiving end of the power of the preached word. Yes, I want to preach like this. I want to do this for people.
The crucible for refining my soul is marriage and family—even more so than the challenges of ministry. So I turn to these now, knowing that I am still talking about the effects of the leave on my soul.
On December 21, Noël and I celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary. It was peaceful, happy, memory-laden, sober, and sweet. We are in a good place.
I would label my decades-long, besetting (and I hope weakening) sins in this relationship as selfishness, self-pity, anger, blaming, and sullenness (all of them species of pride). There are others, but these are close to the root of our troubles. I put my gun-sights (Romans 8:13) on these with increasing focus as the leave went on.
Time will tell, and Noël will tell, whether the progress I have made is deep and durable. I pray it is. How these changes happened and what God has used to bring them about, will, no doubt, be subjects of messages and writings in the months and years to come.
For now, I should simply say that in the refining process God has used a combination of things:
- private soul-work in the word and prayer,
- formal counseling,
- the faithful personal ministry of David and Karin Livingston, who have been more deeply in our lives than anyone else,
- much reading about the relational shape our sins take on,
- research into the peculiar (dis?)orders our brains bring to the relationship,
- corporate worship,
- endless conversations (time!),
- new physical efforts to be strong and healthy (sleep, exercise, diet, leisure), and
- new, more rigorous applications of Philippians 2:12–13 (“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one at work in you”).
The upshot for our marriage of this sanctifying work has been
- less withdrawal, more engagement,
- less moodiness and sullenness, more hope-filled emotions,
- less brooding over past disappointments, more dreaming from God’s promises,
- less of a critical spirit, more verbal affirmation,
- more tenderness, kindness, and touch,
- more intentional time together,
- more patience with (genetic?) personality traits without assuming sin,
- more of a spirit of forgiveness,
- more gratitude and less taking for granted,
- more courage to name sins (our own and each other’s) without sounding hopeless or condemning,
- a fresh sense of God’s gracious fatherhood over us, who, when he disapproves, does not hold us in contempt—and our learning to do this for each other.
Relationally, perhaps the most crucial text has been Ephesians 4:31–5:2.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
God has been very patient with us.
There has been a lot more spontaneity and availability in these months than usual. We have tried to be intentional about being in the lives of our sons and daughters-in-law and to our 12 grandchildren. That has meant helping with house-painting, yard-cleaning, lots of babysitting, some really wonderful times of unhurried leisure together, and some weighty conversations as I tried to share with my sons some of the things I was learning about my own soul and marriage.
Talitha has been a great joy during these months. She has flourished in two home-school co-ops, and in worship leadership in the youth group at Bethlehem. We have drawn her into as much of our personal, marriage, and family issues as seemed appropriate, and she has been sensitive, wise, and affectionate to all concerned. I am a very fortunate father.
In the latter weeks of the leave, attention has turned toward thinking through the pace and pattern of ministry for 2011. The aim is to be proactive in not overloading the weeks with outside speaking engagements, and not piling too many Bethlehem responsibilities on top of each other so that body, soul, and marriage are overburdened.
A subcommittee of the elders has been vigilant over Noël and me during this leave and has been involved in helping us think through what the new year should look like.
Eleven days after I return to ministry, I turn 65. One could look at this two ways: 1) it’s the age most people retire, or 2) it’s the age Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and led England and the Western World to victory over Hitler’s aggression. I find Churchill much more inspiring than retirement.
In the days ahead I hope to work with the elders toward a plan for Bethlehem’s long-term future, including a succession plan for my leadership in the next few years. My deep desire and firm commitment is to stay at this post long enough to see Bethlehem on a solid footing when I am no longer the Pastor for Preaching and Vision.
And when I am no longer in that post, I hope (if the elders agree) for Bethlehem to be my base as I do more writing, and continue to serve as Chancellor and Professor in Bethlehem College and Seminary, and as founding contributor to Desiring God.
I believe that Bethlehem’s greatest days are ahead. God is as sovereign and gracious as ever. And I find myself chastened, humbled, and perhaps more useable now. It is good to be back.