When I was a teenager I enjoyed running on the school’s track team. I usually ran in the 200 meter or 400 meter events. That was it. I like my races fast and short. 

At one track meet our team was down one long distance runner so the coach picked me. “I don’t know what I’m doing running the 1600 meter race,” I told the coach. He pointed to two boys from Knoxville, our despised competition. “They are some of the fastest milers in the state,” he explained. “Stick with them and you’ll have a chance.”  That sounded like good advice to me. All I had to was to just keep up. 

When the start gun went off that’s what I did. I kept pace with those two boys from Knoxville. Stride for stride we ran around the track. As we came down the straightaway to complete the first 400 meters, I noticed a change. The distance between the boys from Knoxville and me began to grow. The harder I tried to pick up the pace, they ran further and further ahead of me. I finished the race near the back of the pack utterly exhausted, gasping for air. The world looked to be out of sorts, or at least I was as my legs were on fire. My lungs ached.

As I laid on the grass recovering from this mile-long punishment, the coach walked over. “Sorry coach,” I said between breaths. “I just couldn’t keep up.” The coach knelt down beside me. “You never ran such a long race. It requires a different pace. That requires practice and discipline.” Running a different race requires a different strategy and mindset based on the distance. 

Sabbaticals provide an opportunity to find a new pace, to develop new strategies and nurture a new mindset. The challenge is whether or not I can maintain that pace when I return to work. Ministry is demanding and continually encourages one to pick up the pace; run a little bit faster. I remember eleven years ago when I returned in October from my first sabbatical it wasn’t long before that new pace gave way to the run-all-out sprint. The past two and one half years of the pandemic has only accelerated the pace as more was required of pastors as people isolated themselves at home. 

What does a new pace look like for me? It begins with getting up earlier so that I am not rushing through my morning rituals of exercise, Bible study and prayer. I’m trying different hours I will be in my office at church. A professor of mine despised calling that place ministers work at church the “office.” He argued it was to be the pastor’s study. I agree but the reality is that there is a great deal of activity and people happening in the church offices hindering study. Therefore, Thursdays will be spent at home where it is quiet as I prepare my sermon. For those who want to meet with me or drop by, my church office door will remain open Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I also want to be mindful of how many evenings I am away from home. If one is not careful meetings can consume every evening. With that said there must be a balance between meetings related to ministry and meetings to develop relationships. We are about people and relationships; relationships with one another and our relationship with God. 

It all sounds great as long as I’m prepared to say one word to others and to myself. That word is “no.” That’s a hard word for me because I am a “yes” person. I realize the 55 year-old pastor is not the same as I was when I was saying “yes” at 35. My ministry pace needs to change from a sprint to a distance run. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Run in such a way that you may win it (the prize)” (1 Cor. 9:24b). We have been called by God to run and finish not to flame out or call it quits. There is a lot of the race that remains. Let’s find the right pace and run that we finish and take hold of the prize that awaits.

The Final Stretch

It’s Monday afternoon in Spain. On Thursday Kara and I return home after spending three weeks away. The time away has been good. I would have written about it, but I left my computer at home as part of my “disconnecting.” I have resorted to typing this blog post on my phone. And if you could see me type with one finger…well you get the idea.

The experiences that have opened our minds and delighted our senses (except the public restroom at the Fes train station); the enormous history of the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco; the wonderful people we have met along the way; the gift of new friendships we have made and relationships we have rekindled. It has been quite a trip.

Instead of trip this was more like a peregrination. I’ve always enjoyed the word – peregrination. (Any polysyllabic word is cool.) Peregrination is a journey that meanders. There is an implied sense of wandering. For as much as I planned for the three weeks, there were opportunities for meanderings. In Switzerland we shelved our plans and let our friends take us into the mountains to visit a woman who makes cheese. And we were able to be there during the cooking process. We arrived in Málaga only to drive to a nearby town that has crocheted sunshades covering two of their streets. They are made by local women and they are stunning. In Morocco we interrupted our driver’s plan with our own. He agreed only to add to it with a surprise visit to a ceramic workshop. Never had we seen such craftsmanship. Upon leaving Tarifa by car we were to drive to Granada. We decided to meander through the countryside with a stop in Ronda first. Ronda has an old stone bride spanning a very deep gorge.

Although the planned aspects of the trip were great and cherished, it was the surprises in our meanderings that were truly added gifts. These experiences taught us to be careful about being over scheduled. To keep life a bit loose and noncommittal. Allow our curiosity to lead us in new directions and to different places because sometimes when we meander a good surprise awaits us.


It took a week but the body has finally recovered from the 13 mile race with the exception of some scabs. In mentioning that Kara and I had participated in this obstacle course race, I receive a variety of responses. Some were impressed, but most had an expression that said, ‘What were you thinking doing such a thing at your age?’ Even my mother chimed in and told me to move on to other activities that are kinder and gentler on the body. I should stop crawling in the mud under barbed wire.

Right now I’m in the best shape of my life. I’ve dropped some weight. I changed my diet. I routinely exercise. And I credit the obstacle course races by giving me a challenge. They challenge me in ways I haven’t been challenged. The last obstacle course race had 30 obstacles. I was able to complete 28. As soon as I finished I began thinking of how I will accomplish those two obstacles next time. What do I need to do in my training to complete those obstacles? How do I challenge myself in my workouts to grow in strength and ability?

Over the past couple of weeks I had multiple encounters with podcasts, a book and social media that spoke of challenge and its importance. In essence they said, if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. It’s the idea that a challenge should not be easy. A challenge should cause you to reach deep inside yourself and discover who you are. Those challenges can be more than physical. There are a variety of challenges. Overcoming an addiction is a challenge. Working on an academic degree is a challenge. We grow when challenged.

Part of the sabbatical is a challenge. Of course there are the physical challenges I mentioned, but I have been challenging myself in other ways: daily reading scripture, journaling and being in contemplative prayer. And anyone who knows me knows that contemplative prayer for a period of time is a challenge. Traveling to new places, experiencing different cultures, languages and customs is also challenging. It will cause discomfort, but that’s how we grow by moving out of our safe space and being challenged.


People ask me what I will do during my sabbatical. Many ask this either with the notion that a pastoral sabbatical is the same as an academic sabbatical and a professor is expected to use the time to conduct research or write his or her next book. Or, they think sabbatical is a fancy name for an extended vacation, and I am sitting around on some quiet beach soaking in the sun.

A pastoral sabbatical is different. First it is about rest. A majority of people don’t see the other side of pastoral ministry. The phone calls and text messages that come at all hours. There are committee meetings and visitations to people. And on top of the pastoral needs there are the weekly expectations of planning worship and preparing a sermon. Besides the time commitment what is often overlooked is the emotional toll as pastors involve themselves with the daily lives of people struggling with relationships, addictions, faith, stress and the list goes on. Then there are the letters, phone calls and meetings from members and community residents who disagree with the pastor or the church. And finally as Ponds becomes more known among the greater community, so do the inquiries asking for help. Help with food assistance. Help with finding lodging for an LGBTQ youth kicked out of the house by his or her parents. Help for a young mother whose partner died from a drug overdose leaving her with nothing. Help for a local family. Help for an immigrant. The demands never stop.

On top the varied demands Ponds Reformed Church pastors are also expected to serve in different areas of the denomination. For most pastors that involves classis, but for others it might involve serving at the regional synod or on a denominational commission. Among mainline denominations where membership is declining there is increased pressure for both pastors and members to serve in different capacities.

First and foremost a sabbatical is about rest. It is also about finding new routines and new rhythms. A routine is a sequence of actions regularly followed. Meanwhile a rhythm is a regular, repeated pattern of movement. Ministry has a way of throwing off pastors of their routine and hence rhythms. During the sabbatical, I am working to discover, create and experiment with new routines and rhythms for me personally and as a husband, father and pastor.

The new routines need to include prayer, personal study and reading of scripture and reading both general authors as well as work-related. The routine also needs to include hobbies and exercise. It’s from the correct routine that a new rhythm is discovered.

I’m also about taking risks during the sabbatical. On June 11 I competed in a 5k obstacle course race and last Saturday I completed in my first 20k obstacle course race. For me that was a risk.

Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.

Paulo Coelho

This sabbatical will include taking the risk of new experiences like participating in a 20k obstacle course race and traveling to different places by plane, boat, car and motorcycle. It’s in these diverse experiences that learning happens and from learning comes growth.

Not Ready, but Too Late

I began my time of rest and renewal (aka sabbatical) today. Quite honestly I’m anxious. This is how I felt the last time I had a sabbatical in 2011. I actually had a panic attack. There was so much to plan and prepare for before leaving on the sabbatical. It can be overwhelming. The last time I received a Lilly Grant. It was wonderful to have the support but the process was so involved that I joked I needed a sabbatical after preparing for the sabbatical.

Here I am on day one. What am I thinking about? All the unfinished business. For as much as I want to “finish” it. That is exactly why I need to hold firm and not look back. The business of ministry is never finished. There will never be a time that is ideal to step away, but it needs to happen.

Honestly, I’m tired. I was ready for a time of rest and renewal two years ago. And then COVID showed up and turned everything upside down in ways we had never imagined. Over the next three months as I’m resting and engaging in renewal activities, I also will be taking time to reimagine what it means to be the Church. For as hard as it was dealing with COVID, COVID has presented us with a rare opportunity to dream and reimagine our future. God is not done with us. There awaits a future for us. A future full of opportunities, risks and danger. It is also a future full of promise, hope and joy.

Sometimes the Answer is “Other”

Mark 5:1-20

What scared you as a child? Was it the boogey man hiding under the bed or in the closet? Or going up into the dusty, creaky old attic? Or maybe it was the dimly lit, dank-smelling basement? At the age of 8, my family and I lived in a 100 year old house outside Catskill. It was both creepy and interesting for a boy. If there was one place I was not going though, it was the attic and the basement. Every night there were strange noises coming from the attic. And my bedroom was next to the attic door.

I can imagine in the Gerasenes, no one wanted to go to the tombs. They were scared. There is a man possessed by a legion of demons. He horrifies his neighbors by howling among tombs. The diabolical powers provoke him to appalling self-abuse, power that makes it impossible to restrain him. If you are a first century Jewish listener such things reek of religious impurity. In the Levitical tradition contact with corpses defiles. But this is more than about purity laws.

The man with the unclean spirit appears to suffer from multiple personality disorder.

He runs to Jesus and submits to him while shouting angrily at him. Asking with suspicion and disgust what Jesus has to do with him. He confuses healing with torment. He referres to himself in both the first-person singular and plural. Grab the white coat. Open up the padded room. We have our first contestant for crazy.

We could see it from another angle. The man is possessed by a legion of demons. It’s not his mind that needs healing but his spirit. Either way, Jesus receives this hideously tormented figure. Ready to heal but something unexpected happens. The unclean spirits begin to bargain with Jesus. Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man. But the legion does not want to be sent out away with nowhere to go. Instead legion offers another option to be sent into the swine herd. Jesus agrees. And upon the legion entering the swine, they run down the hill and into the sea and drown.

What one thinks are early evangelists, the swine herders go and tell the people in the city and the country all that had happened! Of course, the people have to come and see for themselves. With their own eyes see Jesus and the very man who had been possessed now sitting, clothed and in his right mind.

This seems to be a good place for the crowd to erupt in praise and celebration. Don’t we like to hear stories of healing? Reconciliation? Redemption? And especially the defeat of a legion of demons. But they don’t.

They are afraid. They beg Jesus to leave. They don’t want him there. Mark is not that detailed in explaining their reasons for begging Jesus to leave. It leaves open the door for us to wonder about their reasons. Were they afraid because of Jesus’ power to expel the legion from the man and heal him? Or were they more angry because this healing episode cost them money?

I am under the belief that they didn’t know Jesus and were afraid for their own lives. If he can command the legions to leave one man causing an entire herd of swine to run off a cliff then what might he do to us? I lean this way because of what happens at the end of this encounter.

The man wants to follow Jesus. Hallelujah. Another follower. But Jesus doesn’t agree. But it’s not NO. Instead, Jesus’ answer is the third box…OTHER. He sends him home with a task. Go home to your friends. Tell them how much the Lord has done for you. Tell them what mercy God has shown you.

There is a town that has no idea what to believe about Jesus, and they are afraid. Go straighten them out with the truth about this Jesus. He’s not here to harm you but to heal you. He’s not here to lash out but to love.

I wanted this to be my role as I went to college and thought about a career. Throughout college I wanted to be the Gerasene demoniac. Not the guy in the tombs, possessed by a legion of demons. But the one who had been healed now serving Jesus back in his home town. But God’s call was not for me to check the OTHER box (for as much as I wanted to). It was to actually follow him into a more professional kind of ministry.

For so many who are not called into this professional type of ministry, it doesn’t mean that your call and responsibility is finished. For most God wants us to be the OTHER. To be the local evangelist – the one who is a living witness of God’s love and mercy – The one sharing stories of God’s marvelous deeds, the one living with the joy of the Lord and exuding the love and grace of God. And doing it – not in far off lands or in various churches – But in our home; with our friends; neighbors; those at work. Our spouse. Our children. Our parents. Our other relatives. It’s the girls and boys entrusted in our care in recreation sports or scouting.

I think most assume that since Jesus didn’t call them into professional ministry, they are off the hook. They get to return home and go back to what they were doing. Not so fast. Sometimes the answer is OTHER. It’s being a witness right where you are.


Dark and Deserted

Early in Jesus’ ministry we find him at Simon’s house healing the sick. Mark states that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). It appears Jesus was a hit. Regardless of the mission people can be exhausting. Even extroverts need a break every now and then.

What does Jesus do? He doesn’t sleep in. He doesn’t take the next day off. The next day Jesus gets up very early, finds a deserted place and prays. I don’t believe Mark is using this as a prescription for the time of day we are to pray. But I think we can conclude from the inclusion of this one verse that Mark was teaching us how important prayer is for each one of us. It was so important to Jesus that even after a busy evening, he got up early, found a place he could be alone and prayed.

Making prayer a part of our life can be very difficult. To include prayer requires a change in your routine. I’m reminded of what Sarah Young wrote in her best-selling devotional Jesus Calling. “Without any conscious awareness, they make their habitual responses. People who live this way find a dullness creeping into their lives. They sleepwalk through their days, following well-worn paths of routine.”

We need a new routine. One that includes prayer. Pray in the early morning. Find a quiet place and pray during the day. Slip away in the evening. Jesus prayed at different times. Find your time. Find your deserted place. Find your new routine. Find your life that begins in prayer.

Made Well to Serve

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus called his disciples, taught and cast out an unclean spirit. I’ve been arguing that the events Mark recounts in his gospel are compiled to form us as disciples of Christ. They are not a written version of a video of how events transpired. The gospel writer includes these events because they are important in both witness and formation.

Following their time at the local Capernaum synagogue the gospel groupies crash at Simon and Andrew’s house only to find Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. No chicken soup for her. Instead she gets a hand. Jesus lifts her up, the fever leaves and she is better. We might think the story is over because she is made well. Isn’t that the goal when one is sick is to be healed? Here is another lesson in our formation. Christ Jesus heals us, cleanses us, saves us so that we can serve. He offers his hand so we can lend a hand. What appears to be a miracle by Jesus that benefits the mother-in-law is not meant to be individualistic or self-serving for her. She is made well so that she can make others well. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we receive God’s grace so that we may serve others bearing witness to God’s good news.

What questions does this passage raise for you? Is it about the grace you have experienced in your life? Or your particular service to serve others that they may be made whole?


“Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” – Mark 1:20 (CEB)

Before Jesus can teach us what it means to “fish for people” we have to be willing to follow. That requires us to leave behind those things we may hold dear. James and John left behind financial support, family and the security of the familiar. This is what they knew. Each and every day they worked with the same people; fished the same waters; did business with their neighbors. Now Jesus was inviting them to leave that behind and follow him.

Another challenge for the disciples and for us when we follow is not only what one gives up physically but what one gives up in regards to one’s beliefs and ideas. The disciples carried with them beliefs of faith and ideas on how to live. For as hard as it was to leave behind family and their job, it was harder for them to give up their long-held beliefs and ideas as it will be for us. In our willingness to follow Jesus we are implicitly agreeing to expose our ideas and beliefs to the Light of Jesus Christ for a thorough critical examination. Are we willing to take on the work of honest, self-reflection in light of God’s Light? This might be the hardest work of all.