So I had long service leave for the first time this year. “How did that happen?” I asked myself, before hurtling back to reality as I remembered first my years of single ministry, rapidly followed by a church plant, getting married, becoming a rector, welcoming two small people into our world, leading a growing church, and dealing with the reality of struggling marriages and bodies ravaged by cancer.
My wife, meanwhile, was still adjusting to the fact that she was married to someone old enough to have long service leave. It wasn’t that we needed it—some friends in my year at college have been in more stressful roles that have brought them close to burnout: they needed it. For us it just felt like time, and a good investment for the next ten years of ministry: the holiday to take before you’re desperate. I’m sure there’s something in Peter Brain’s Going the Distance about that, but I never finished that book (the irony isn’t lost on me).
“What did you do?” a friend asked the other day, with his own long service leave on the horizon. I must admit that I had entertained lofty ambitions of what could be achieved. After all, esteemed mentors of mine had re-read Calvin’s Institutes on their long service leave, or done post-graduate study. And I must confess to a drive to “make the most” of long service leave that meant I even got halfway through an application for overseas study. But, in the end, we simply had a holiday: a busy, on-the-go, see-something-new-every-day, too-much-happening-to-even-think-about-work travelling holiday for a month, followed by a month in one place to, well, recover from taking two small children around the world. We’re glad we didn’t plan it the other way around!
And yet somehow in the middle of that, I’d like to think I learned (or re-learned) some gospel truths that post-grad study may not have touched on.
Like the simple truth that rest is a precious gift of God. Although I had managed to compile a reading list of twenty books I would’ve liked to consume, my long service leave reality was more like twenty readings of Where is the green sheep?. And I’m okay with that. I would’ve loved to have done more study that would, you know, help me to “make the most” of my leave for me and my ministry and my church, but it wasn’t the right time for academic study in our current stage of family life. And I’m okay with that.
The gospel tells me that I don’t have to be a ‘human doing’, because Jesus has done the doing and it is finished. And it’s so easy for rest to be something that I say believe in, but it really is only believed if practised. I’m created for rest; my body and mind and soul needs rest, and I mustn’t pretend otherwise.
And I’m destined for rest. To stop and enjoy and relish God’s good creation without the pressure of relentless emails or the need to stay on top of the digital zeitgeist or prove myself in the pulpit each week—that rest is a taste of all that is yet to come, what we are designed for, when we finally enjoy God’s goodness for all eternity. It’s not just okay to rest, it’s a joy to rest, because I rest in Christ.
I must admit it wasn’t easy taking long service leave. I know, I know, some of you can’t believe I’m saying that. Except that, although our little family has welcomed two babies, the church plant here has felt like my ‘other baby’, and sometimes it’s just not easy leaving your baby in someone else’s care for an extended time. Besides all that, it’s nice to be needed and part of me wanted to be missed. By God’s grace, though, the experience reminded my sinful heart that this church is Christ’s church and that I could “let the Word do its work”. It was that unshakeable confidence in God’s word that gave Luther such freedom:
I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
That is both a rebuke and a comfort, at least to me.
“How long did it last?” my mate inquired, six weeks after my return. “Or have you already forgotten!?”, he joked. Somehow ministry and life with little children can deplete the physical energy tanks pretty quickly, but what I hope has stayed with me is some better perspective. A renewed commitment to let “each part do its work”, and not get in the way of those who stepped up to ministry roles in my absence. A clearer perspective on my role as leader and equipper in this next chapter of ministry in this place; not only a shepherd but a rancher. A deeper trust in Christ as the ballast of my life and identity, who helps me endure the waves of crisis and disappointment that ministry will inevitably bring.
At least, that’s the kind of perspective I’d like to think has stayed with me. But you should really ask me in ten years time.