Monday, July 30, 2018

Lessons From Sabbatical

Having been at Providence for over 21 years, I just finished my third sabbatical. As previously explained, sabbatical is a period of rest, research, and restoration for people in full-time ministry and other professions (like academia and counseling) so that they can avoid burnout and renew their creativity, passion, and effectiveness. Traditionally, a sabbatical occurs every seven years. The word comes from Sabbath (Greek, sabbaton; from the Hebrew, shabbath; lit. “rest”), which usually brings to mind the seventh day of the week, the biblical day of rest. Interestingly, the word is used for an entire year in Leviticus 25:1-5.
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel… For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest…”
It wasn’t just for the land, it was for those who worked the land (virtually everyone in that day). It’s a good idea. And I’m so happy that Providence instituted it for full-time ministry staff from the start.
When I’ve run into people from church this summer, I’ve frequently been asked, “How’s sabbatical going?” I try to give a short answer, like, “Great!” But it never seems to suffice. So here’s one that’s a little more complete with the top seven lessons I’ve learned from sabbatical this summer.

1. I needed some extended rest.
I’m sure there are some who decry a long break (we provide a month after seven years, and two
Darla & I in a gloating selfie after breaking the paddleball record.
The beach was great (um, after the tropical storm that hit us hard)!
months every seven thereafter). I understand the sentiment. In fact you might be saying, “I’ve been working in my job for 20 (30, 40, whatever) years and haven’t taken so much as a vacation!” While that’s a little extreme (someone actually told me this!), the truth is I understand the skepticism of those who have never had a long break from work. I could absolutely do that too because I love my job! In fact, I kind of let this sabbatical sneak up on me and had to pry my fingers away from doing ministry at Providence. It took me about two weeks to just relax and stop thinking about all the things I needed to do.
Let me say it plainly: I needed this long break. Unknowingly, my attitude, focus, and energy was being affected by what has been an unrelenting last few years, the last one in particular. As the weeks wore on this summer, I could feel my brain decompress. I found myself reinvigorated for my calling and job. If you’re struggling, maybe you need a long break too.

Here's what it looks like today.
2. Building a house is not easy. 
Ok, so I already knew that. Let’s just say that Darla and I are learning this lesson even more! After unexpectedly selling our house and unsuccessfully looking for another, we decided (after a whole lot of praying and seeking wise counsel) in June to bite this thing off and build ourselves, so we bought some property near Edgemoor Road, about 15 minutes from Providence. Whew! Making decisions, finding and scheduling subs, and getting all the details worked out is why people wisely pay contractors. And we’ve really only just begun. Seriously, we feel like we're learning a whole new trade (and I guess we actually are).
Here's the goal!
I’ve also met some good people who I would have never met otherwise and have had some great spiritual conversations. I'm super thankful for friends who are helping us and for Darla who is doing most of the contracting (especially now that I have to go back to work)! She's really organized and I'm good at shooting the bull. A great combo!!

3. Writing a book is real work. 
I’m not a writer so maybe it’s just me, but this task is HARD. I spent several days this summer researching and writing about my dad. It is exhausting! And I feel the proverbial mountain I have to climb to get this book written just keeps getting higher as I write.
A 38-year-old Ken Sparks
Some of the hardest parts include these three: 1) interviewing key people who have first-hand accounts, 2) working through the piles of articles, videos, and statistics to find what I need; and 3) fact-checking all the stuff, especially regarding some of the important games I think need to be described (probably not for the reasons you think!). And it’s emotional for me! I can watch a video on him and be in tears.
The next one is related…

4. I’m reminded how blessed I am for the earthly father God gave me. 
Ken Sparks was a great man. He lived and died well. I pray I can be a steward of his legacy and be like him in so many ways.

5. It's great to see what other churches are doing. 
This is a church in Georgia that has a similar mission & vision
as Providence that we visited. And yes, that's Dara leading!
I got to visit a wide variety (regarding style, tradition, and size) of churches this summer. All of them hold to God’s Word as true, all were fantastic (I tend to not be critical), and I learned things from each of them. I collected lots of printed material, shot lots of pictures and video, and made lots of notes. It seems I always heard from God when I went to worship, regardless of the church. That in itself is a lesson! I love that God uses so many churches who do things so differently to reach all kinds of people. I felt kinship with them all. I look forward to discussing with our staff and elders some of the things I experienced that might help us be better at Providence.
But all that visiting other churches makes the next lesson I learned even clearer...

6. I love Providence Church more than I ever knew.
I really do. The church is a group of redeemed people who have covenanted together to accomplish a mission. I love our people. I love our covenant together. I love our mission. I feel more committed to Providence than ever before! The really cool thing is that our church grew (over last year’s numbers) while I’ve been away! That shows what I already knew: Providence (unlike some churches) is about much more than merely following a man (unless the man is Jesus!). There aren't many pastors who stay at churches for 21 years (my 101-year-old grandmother who was a pastor's wife is still amazed), and there are even fewer who can honestly say that there's no church in the world where they'd rather serve than the one they're at. I'm so grateful. I can't think of a godlier group of elders, I can't think of a better staff, and I can't imagine a better group of people than those at Providence. What an awesome spiritual family I have! I have missed being with my church this summer...a lot!

7. I love my wife profoundly. 
Of course, I already knew this. But this break has given us significant time together. I’ve never gotten tired of her and she never gets on my nerves (I don’t think she could say the same of me!). As cliched as it sounds, she really is my best friend. We laugh together a lot. We are totally on the same page spiritually. We work well together and compliment each other’s giftedness. She has been through more hard times in the last year than any other year in our lives, and has come through looking even more like Jesus. I am amazed by her and more in love with her than ever. I made a great choice 29 years ago to ask her to be my wife. I had no idea how great. God had something (read: everything) to do with that.

There were many more lessons learned that I could tell you about like, "Life is possible without social media," "Sugar-free gummies cause violent stomach problems," "The beach isn't fun in tropical storms," "Extroverts need people around," "Abstaining from reading/watching news makes you happier," "Beagles like skunks," and "Ticks & mosquitoes suck" (there are stories for all of these!). And many other good things happened this summer. Among them, I read some good books, hiked some great hikes, made some great new friends, ate some good food, caught up on sleep, got to watch a lot of baseball, and (most importantly) spent some great time with Jesus. Thank you Providence, for allowing me to have this time!

Monday, July 2, 2018

We've Moved!

Well, kinda. I'm still at Providence, we're still in West Knoxville (actually Farragut instead of Karns now), but we're not finished moving. That's because through a crazy set of circumstances we've decided to build a house.

Here's the story...well, first some backstory:

From the time our middle child, Duncan, left for college almost five years ago, all our kids started telling us we needed to sell our house in Karns and downsize or get out in the country or buy an older house with more character or something. We just laughed, because we didn't have any desire to move, much less take on a fixer-upper project. Besides, why did they want us to sell the house in which they grew up? Go figure. So through continued prodding, we tippy-toed into the idea, thinking how it would be nice to have a smaller home, or a house away from a major highway, or something with a big garage where I can work on stuff. This curiosity gained momentum as Darla started seeing how much houses were selling for and some of the cool places she found on realty websites (like Zillow, etc.). Many of you may be familiar with this phenomenon. Once the train gets moving in that direction...I think you get my point. For the whole beginning part of this pursuit, I was dubious and unenthusiastic about moving. Secretly, however, I was thinking about all the appliances that were wearing out in our house that needed to be replaced. I was thinking about how every surface needed to be upgraded and about all the repairs that were needed. And it WOULD be nice to have a decent garage! So the song goes.

Long story short...we put the house up for sale and asked a reasonable price that I believed did not need to be lower. Good friends were our realtors, and they almost immediately got a bite. This older couple from out-of-town who had great credit wanted it—especially the wife. "Whoa! Are we really doing this?" I asked. They signed a contract and so began all the (many) inspections for their VA loan. Meanwhile, we started scrambling to find something. Truth is, we saw that our house wasn't so bad after all, and that it would be extremely hard to find something already built that we would be happy with. After looking at several different houses we were not feeling good. One of the most difficult things (and kinda funny) is that Darla kept extending the search area. So after praying about it (seriously) I gave her a limit. Any house we consider must be LESS than 20 minutes from Providence. For the next month, she almost daily sent me listings of houses that were 26 minutes, 23 minutes, 21, get the point. We had some stress in our marriage over it! Virtually every time she called me and said, "I may have found us a house!" I would reply, "How far from Providence is it?" and she would avoid the question and say something about it that she knew I'd like. "It's got a great garage!" "But how far is it from the church?" It would drive her (and me) crazy! Then, of course, we would find something we liked but it would be way over our price range. I would remind her of that and she would get frustrated. I think our wonderful realtors were getting frustrated with me too (although they promise they were not)! Truth is, I would have been frustrated with me!

Thankfully the couple wanting to buy our house backed out, citing one of the inspectors who had pointed out some minor things that they didn't even ask if we'd fix. They probably just found something they wanted more. Whew! I loved our neighborhood and neighbors, I liked our pretty private back yard, and I like Karns—a community that we had been a part of for 21 years! In my mind, this was all God telling us, "I don't want you to move." We happily decided to stay. Good thing, too, because my Dad soon became very sick and passed away a few months later, and several other things happened that made 2017 an extremely hard year.

But God was really saying, "I don't want you to move...YET."

So now, here's the story.

Over a year later, we were at church on Christmas Eve, when after the service a couple we love approached us and asked, "Y'all wouldn't be willing to sell us your house, would you?" We had invited them over for dinner many months earlier and we may have mentioned at the time that our kids wanted us to move. They told us they loved our house and yard and neighborhood, that their daughter went to school at GCA which is one mile away, and that they had been looking for a house to no avail. "Would y'all just give us a price?" 

Later that week, we invited them over to talk, we agreed on a price and it was done. 

Meanwhile, another good friend who goes to Providence was looking for land upon which to build a house, and found some that had been for sale and tied up in a complex family for years. He began to work hard to clear the obstacles and made an offer to the family to buy the land. He had mentioned it to me back when we were looking to move. We mused about how great it would be to be neighbors (he also likes to work on cars) and how nice the land was (woods two miles from Providence!) and other stuff. But after the sale of our house fell through, the idea faded. But he was still working on it. Months later his efforts paid off and the family sold him the land. Not knowing what was going on with us, he asked me if I thought I'd ever want to revisit that idea to build on some land. I said, "Actually, funny that you should ask..." and told him what happened. That all transpired (I may have gotten some details out of order) WITHIN ONE WEEK! Now Dara, our youngest, had just moved to college and we were empty-nesters. 

But building a house is expensive and we can't build one in a couple of months (when we'd have to get out of the house). So we asked another couple in our church who "just happened" to have bought a project house as an investment that they didn't have specific plans for yet, if they would consider renting it to us. They graciously said they would. This also happened that same week! I'm noticing a theme here, are you? Yes, that's how it seemed to us, that God was indicating it was time.

Again, long story short, we had a HUGE moving sale to off-load all the junk we (like most American families) had acquired as three kids had grown up,  closed on the house, and moved out to our temporary home in Farragut. 

As we pursued purchasing the property two miles from the church, things were becoming a bit tangled, and it had to do with some deed restrictions, neighbors, uncertainty about a graveyard on the property and encroaching Hardin Valley development. Also, our good friend, who was wonderfully helpful (and rather surprised that we were really going to take him up on his offer), was sweating whether or not we were going to be able to do it for a reasonable price and in a reasonable timeframe, as the restrictions hindered our plans.

As we were feeling (for the first time) a little hesitation about the plan, Darla looked on Zillow again. And wouldn't you know it? She hit paydirt. Or, um, dirt we would pay for. Yes, she found a piece of property, 15-17 minutes from Providence (about the same time-of-drive we had from Karns), that was like a little slice of my beloved Jefferson County home! It has a long access to a country road just off of Old Emory Road, just outside Knox County near Oak Ridge (but is actually a Clinton address). We prayed and researched and prayed some more. We found a house plan we like that is smaller than the house we had (3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths, instead of 5 bedrooms+1 bonus and 4 baths). And hopefully I'll get my garage workspace!! 

Oh, and one more "God-timing" thing? This "just happens" to be the year I have a sabbatical, which gives me some much-needed flexibility this summer to get things started.

Ok, here's the quick "So what?": God's timing is right. He is sovereign. As his children, we are wise to simply ask him to show us his pleasure and will. Then, once we recognize and diligently test it, we should move. Sometimes literally! 

"But," someone might ask, "what if you get neck-deep in this build and the economy stumbles and/or Providence decides they want a different pastor and/or you and/or Darla get sick and/or you realize you can't afford this home and/or..." Yep. We've struggled with some of those questions and more. Discerning God's will for something as this-worldly as where we will live is no exact science. It's not like discerning whether God wants me to cheat on my wife (his word is quite clear about that). It's more like applying points of biblical wisdom: will this help/hurt me minister to the Providence flock? Is this unreasonable or enslaving debt? Is this a good investment? Are we motivated by pride or self in this? Or are we motivated by bringing glory to God? Are we placing our hope and desire on this world or the next? These are the important questions that matter. 

I'll try to give updates as we work on our new house. Pray that God will help us be good stewards of what he's given us and listen to his wisdom.