Winding Down My Sabbatical & Thoughts on Moving Forward

It’s June! Wow! Four months ago, today, I began my Sabbatical, and this has been, simultaneously, the quickest and longest four months in the history of humanity. When it started in February, I was still in shock at the tragic deaths of 9 people, including Kobe and Gianna Bryant, on my last Sunday morning at the church. Little did I know, 2020 would become a global dumpster fire, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. With two weeks remaining in my time away from the pastorate, it’s time to start preparing myself to get back to the work of the ministry in a world that is vastly different. For me, that means I get back to some routines like writing. Today, I want to recap my sabbatical time and give some insight into how I’m personally feeling about some of the things happening in our culture right now. If you don’t want to read it, now’s your opportunity to back out, and there will be no hard feelings.

The first month of Sabbatical was great! I was nervous about being a full-time student for the first time in 27 years. Keeping up with the reading alone was a job in itself! I developed a good schedule that allowed me to get adequate sleep, dedicated study time, and balanced family time. I became a regular at my local Starbucks. The church I was attending was blessing me spiritually. Then came March and the country shut down. No more Starbucks. No more in-person church or classes. And a boatload of distractions poured into my life daily. Like everyone else, I figured out a way to get through it.

The classes I took were informative, and they helped me work through and articulate some matters of the Christian faith I had not worked through previously. As a pastor, it is easy to get busy and focused on the immediate without taking time to think deeply through other things. Sabbatical offered me the time, and school challenged me to think deeper. I took five classes. Christian Theology honed my beliefs and helped me hammer out the “why.” Basic Evangelism pushed me to be more intentional about sharing my faith and building relationships in which I could shine the light of the Gospel. New Testament Studies gave me a more in-depth insight into the Bible, particularly the writings of the Apostle Paul, and how it shapes my beliefs and actions. Christian Ethics was a very challenging course that forced me to look at some tough questions and formulate some judgments on right and wrong with the Bible as my compass. Finally, Church History bored me to death, but there were some nuggets there that I found helpful. Through this class, I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I have come to admire and whose work I will read more.  This semester of concentrated seminary work has been of great benefit to me as a man and as a pastor.

I’m preparing to go back into the pastoral role at a time when our nation desperately needs good pastoral leadership. To be perfectly honest with you, I am struggling with how to approach it. COVID-19, a global pandemic, has been a stick of dynamite that has brought a whole lot of ugly to the surface in America. Our country is divided around many issues, and I know that division can easily bleed over into the church. The months-long “stay at home” order to reduce the rapid spreading of the coronavirus has driven many people crazy. Skyrocketing unemployment rates and economic uncertainty have made for an explosive mixture of fear and rage.

For some, it boiled over in early May as many took to the streets in protest their states lockdown orders. Some protestors, in places like Michigan, descended on their state capitol building in tactical gear armed with assault rifles. A couple of months without a manicure or a round of golf can get to some people. I must tell you how shocking it was for me to see groups of armed civilians storming a government building, yelling and shoving police officers during a pandemic, with little or no consequences. They were even praised as heroes and patriots by some in the government. Fast forward a couple of weeks. States began to open things up. There was a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. However, the powder keg of frustration and anxiety was still brewing when a match was struck in the form of a video showing the death of Ahmad Arbery. Later the news of Breonna Taylor’s death came to the forefront (I’ll post my thoughts on these incidents another time.) I trust you’ve heard the details of these cases many times over by now. The powder keg was ready to boil over.

Memorial Day brought the blaze that would ignite the whole thing. While a white woman in Central Park attempted to weaponize the police force against a black man by claiming he was threatening her. George Floyd died after an arresting officer knelt on the neck of the subdued black man for nearly 9 minutes, ignoring his cry of “I can’t breathe.” And again, with no consequences. BOOM! These events sparked a week of protests that are still going on across the nation. While most of these protests have begun peacefully, many have escalated into riotous mobs, looting and vandalizing. As I write this, many cities are under a curfew as government officials try to get control of the situation.

So, how do I feel about it? Truthfully, I have been at a loss for words over this. I am outraged and saddened. I am thankful for cell phones with cameras but heartbroken to feel like I and my sons, must always have one on us to record any possible interactions that could go sideways. (Racist actions are not happening more frequently. They are recorded more often.) I am disgusted at the people who take advantage of peaceful protests and use them as the cover for their agenda of sowing anarchy, creating chaos and furthering the stereotype that people of color are animals that need to be subdued. I abhor rioting and looting. You will never find me out in the street, taking something that doesn’t belong to me or purposefully damaging someone else’s property to make a point. But today, I was reminded of something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said many years ago,

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.

And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?… It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

I wish all protests could be peaceful. The duplicity in the response to protests of racism is usually not conducive to peace. Yet, those peaceful protests (like kneeling during the National Anthem) were met with disdain, had the narrative twisted, or were largely ignored. Maybe someone who needs to hear it is listening now.

 President Donald Trump this morning, told governors that protesters must be “dominated” to regain control. This statement comes after comments last week that mentioned citizens who were looting were to be shot. That brings me to another source of frustration—pour leadership. Our country needs a voice of strength, compassion, unity, love, stability, and solidarity at times like this. Instead, we get hypocrisy, narcissism, selfishness, blame, hate, and deflection. I pray for our leaders daily. I desperately want God to have a hold on the hearts of our elected officials at all levels. These past few months have been a reminder of the importance of strong unifying leadership. It’s not all on one person. Some just get more airtime or Tweet more than others. In response, the gap of division, politically and racially, has gotten wider. Something must change.

America needs Jesus now more than ever! The church, as the hands, feet, and mouthpiece of Jesus, must take a stand to promote love and unity in this country. It starts within. The church must be unified. It must stand out in our culture as a beacon of truth, love, and hope. Christians must be agents of peace and facilitators of reconciliation. I’m not called to pastor every church. I’ll start with the guy I see in the mirror every morning, and I’ll lead those under my leadership to shine brightly amid the darkness. I’ve got two more weeks. During that time, I will be praying fervently, praying for wisdom for myself, for our elected officials, and community leaders. I’m praying for my church and all the other churches that serve my community. We have an unprecedented opportunity to have a lasting impact for the kingdom of God on a world that is hurting and desperate for unity and hope.

If you’ve read this far, please pray with me and for me. I have some healing to do, and a mountain to climb. I’m learning and growing every day. To my white friends and family, know that I love you. Please don’t take my anger and frustration at racism as anger and frustration at you. I appreciate you, your support, and your willingness to walk through these things with me. I know I do not see the world through a perfect lens, but I have committed my life to a perfect Savior, Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words as he pleaded with the Lord about his thorn in the flesh.

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”- 2 Corinthians 12:8-10

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