June/July 2013 - Vol. 68

Surpassing Love: Sabbatical Reflections
by Clare Bick

I pick up the key from the foot of the cross in the small chapel of the retreat house where I spent the last day of my 6 month sabbatical, quietly leaving the place of stillness. It was here that I began the sabbatical last September, a day of consecration and joy as the Lord promised that he would far surpass my hopes and expectations of the time. He said that He would surprise me and amaze me and He did! 6 months later, I set off back to “normal life” with a heart on fire and full of thankfulness to a God of surprises and to all who made it possible for me to have this time apart. I am conscious that I don’t deserve a scrap of it, that many work hard for years without the luxury of time like this, and I truly count my blessings.

The sabbatical was from my service in women’s leadership and pastoral care in Antioch Community – and the heroes and heroines of the story are the many sisters and brothers in the community who took on a lot of extra service over the last 6 months so I could have this time of retreat with the Lord.

The sabbatical took a year to plan in terms of what I was leaving behind, and as the time approached I realised that I didn’t want to just substitute one set of busy activities for another, but to experience the vacuum in my heart and life and give the Lord space to work in that. All along I had wanted to do some course in various aspects of pastoral theology/spirituality, but in the end the course that I took (and am still in the middle of) was an experiential (not academic) course in Ignatian prayer/spirituality called “Deepening your Awareness of God within You,” which has been excellent. Week after week it has been timely and relevant, and given me new prayer tools and depth of reflection that have deepened my own relationship with God and will also, I hope, be of benefit to others in the future. 

Some reflections on this time apart

I am by natural disposition a “Type A” person – driven to accomplish things, and always rushing to the next thing (though often late for it alas) – always trying to make the most of the time, but in the rush missing the present moment. Our dog Alfie would never miss the moment: He is constantly on high alert, ears strained back to catch a sound, nose quivering for the scent, ready for any unsuspecting cat or squirrel that might cross his path. 

Taking sabbatical for me was about becoming alert to the possibilities in each day. It was about discovering Kairos time – time sanctified, time as gift in which the present can be celebrated and savoured. I learned to be more attentive to small things – to bird song, the play of light on the water of the local canal, the rich brown smoothness of a conker in the autumn – to have time to care about the homeless guy outside the local Tesco and to enjoy my amazing family: not that I didn’t do these things before, but, in the words of Mark Buchanan: busyness can make us stop caring as much about the things we really care about….Busyness kills the heart (Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God, a book that spoke to me at every stage of my sabbatical and which was written while he himself was on a sabbatical).

I learned to live in, and take delight in the present, to savor the moment and be fully awake to things that I would otherwise miss through hurry. Stopping to love. Accepting interruptions. My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, Henri Nouwen said near the end of his life, until I discovered that the interruptions were my work.

I am a slow learner, but, again using Mark Buchanon’s words, I want to learn to pass through a day without passing it by.

Symbol of the butterfly
There were 4 key symbols or pictures that were important during the time apart. The first was a butterfly. September, the start of the sabbatical, was also my birthday, and I received 3 different cards with butterflies on them. By the third card, I was wondering if God was trying to speak to me – was it to do with carefreeness? – but in my course that week, the leader used the image of… the butterfly, that savors the nectar on a flower and only moves on when it has fed enough.

I have spent the last months being a butterfly! Feeding deeply from God’s word and from the four main books I have read: not an impressive amount for a 6-month sabbatical, but I have read and re-read them, reflecting, drawing deeply from the truths or the light they have shed, before moving on. I have also fed by reflecting on God’s goodness and many blessings in my life during this time, and understanding more deeply that the more we practise thanksgiving, the more we discover even more of his grace and his sufficiency in our lives. 

In C S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, Prince Caspian, the children return to Narnia after a long absence and Lucy is aching to see Aslan the great lion. When she finally encounters him again, the following exchange takes place:

“Aslan, “said Lucy, “you’re bigger.” 
“That is because you are older, little one,“ answered he. 
“Not because you are?” 
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” 
As I have fed and said thank you and grown over the last six months, I have found him bigger. Butterfly.

Symbol of the pruned bush
The second symbol was a pruned bush/tree, stark and not a pretty sight! This one I was expecting. As I stepped back from my normal roles and responsibilities, as I let go of things and made a vacuum for others, of course there was a sense of loss of identity and disorientation. The realisation that in fact everything will run as well without me (in fact I am not stretching the truth to say that they ran better without me, with new gifts being discovered in others and some great new ways of doing things). And of course, facing the fear: will there still be a place for me when I return? As Martin pointed out, this stripping down is an opportunity for new muscles to develop and to embark on a new journey with God: In order to arrive at that which thou are not, Thou must go through that which thou are not. (St John of the Cross). 

Jesus says in John 15:2 – every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful and in Hebrews 4:12-13 we read that the Word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but even more finely… everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves. In the place of silence and quiet days I found confidence to be uncovered by and open to, the Word of God, in the way described here by St Paul. 

Already into my sabbatical, I had to make the painful decision not to go to some regional community leadership meetings held this year in Beirut – meetings that I love to attend, dear brothers and sisters that I love to be with –  but that too was part of the pruning process and when I was finally obedient to this, the peace came. 

Taking sabbatical is a step of confidence and trust, rooted in the conviction that God is good and sovereign and able to  keep that which we have entrusted to him, and of course that none of us is indispensable.  Pruned bush.

Then in Advent there was a little postscript to the pruned bush symbol in the re-discovery of this promise: A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. Isaiah 11:1. Writing on this verse, Henri Nouwen commented that our salvation comes from something, small, tender and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness and hiddenness, as a baby in Bethlehem. It is a very hopeful message, living as we do in a world full of noise and big events: the promise is hidden in a shoot that sprouts from a stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices. It reminded me too that the pruned bush will grow again: he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 

Symbol of the key
The third symbol is a key. It started on a tour at the start of my first silent retreat, when we were shown an ancient key on a nail by the back door. We were instructed that when the key was there, an individual could take it and go and pray in the rock chapel on the top of a nearby hill. A special place to draw close to God. To my great joy, the next day I found the key on the nail, and off I went for a time of adoration and praise and closeness to Jesus. Finding the key reminded me somehow of Jesus’ parable of the hidden treasure in the field, or the merchant in search of a fine pearl: the treasure that we have in knowing Christ is of immense value and worth everything we have to give. 

Months later, on a second retreat (a total and unexpected gift), I was given a meditation on … a key! Through this I was reminded that Jesus, who is the holy and true one, holds the key of David. He  is the Sovereign Lord over all our lives, and he is the one who opens and closes doors. Jesus is the key to my future in the face of doors I would like him to open or close, and in the face of doors that I am afraid he will open or close. The key became for me a tool of readiness and surrender: I picked it up as a sign of readiness to resume again the responsibilities he would give me after the sabbatical, but then I gave it again to Jesus as a token of letting go and trusting the leading of the Good Shepherd, reminding me of the Life in the Spirit seminar when we explain about inviting Jesus to be on the throne, or on the driving seat, of our lives. When home from the retreat, I placed a key by the cross near my desk, ready to be picked up at the end of my sabbatical. Key. 

Symbol of the towel
The final symbol was a towel. This too came in the first retreat, as something for the future, and became a focus of reflection at the end of my sabbatical, reminding me of the love that Jesus showed his disciples in John 13 when he washed their feet and dried them with a towel. I have taken to carrying a small towel in my bag as a reminder of the love in which there is no room for pride or self-seeking. Towel. 

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest… Hebrews 4:9-11 
There is a discipline involved in keeping sabbatical, especially when you don’t go far away from your normal work and service environment and when you have a family. It was a constant challenge to keep choosing for it and a need to be very intentional. Some days inevitably worked better than others. But throughout there was a call to be faithful to this time which was such a gift to me, and a reminder that as the Jews kept Sabbath – even at time of great hardship and terror in ghettos and concentration camps – the Sabbath kept them... Sabbath living orientates us towards that which, apart from rest, we will always miss (Mark Buchanon, The Rest of God

Call to Sabbath living and closeness to Jesus
I have returned to my normal life, but I hope not just to continue living as before, but to be marked and changed by this time apart, by Sabbath living, by a new attentiveness, thankfulness, balance, and above all closeness to Jesus, who can show me the path of love

At the start of my sabbatical, Dave Quintana, one of our regional community leaders, sent me a word that he received in prayer for me, that I should expect surprises from the Lord. Well there were 6 surprises in September alone – not just blessings but unexpected ones –and so it continued throughout the time. The surprises mostly fell into two categories. The first was unexpected renewal of relationship with at least half a dozen dear friends whom I hadn’t seen for a long time and which was a great blessing, and led to further surprises. The second was unexpected gifts from the God who provides. As I started the sabbatical, Tom and I were trying to recover from some financial difficulty, and not only did we make good progress during the time, but there were extra surprises: a basket of fruit on my birthday, a crate of wine on the doorstep on Christmas Eve, tea in the Ritz, an autumn walk in Kew Gardens, a visit to Premier Christian Radio’s women’s day, an extra retreat, a holiday in Scotland, a car to drive there, some gifts of money… all totally unexpected and which spoke volumes to me about the Father’s love for us in Christ, reflected through the faces and hearts of dear brothers and sisters.

Last September while I was in prayer I heard the Lord’s word of encouragement: “Expect great things of this sabbatical; I will surpass your expectations.” He certainly did. He wants us all to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know the love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-20). He is able to do immeasurably more than any of us can ask or imagine! All praise and glory to Him. 


by George Herbert (1593-1632) 

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, 
Guilty of dust and sin. 
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
From my first entrance in, 
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning 
If I lack'd anything. 
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:' 
Love said, 'You shall be he.' 
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, 
I cannot look on Thee.' 
Love took my hand and smiling did reply, 
'Who made the eyes but I?' 
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame 
Go where it doth deserve.' 
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?' 
'My dear, then I will serve.' 
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.' 
So I did sit and eat. 

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