by Jennifer Hackbarth

Last summer I was given a three-month sabbatical from my responsibilities as a pastor. Not many people have such a wonderful opportunity, so I was intentional about making the best use of this gift–this gift for which I was, and am, so grateful.

I chose the power of water as the theme of my time way, as water had always been a refuge of respite and calm for me; being near water heals and refreshes me like nothing else. My earliest memories are of a cabin with a grassy lawn sloping down to the shore of a lake. My childhood summers in Minnesota included bike rides to the beach, my towel draped over my shoulders and flip-flops skidding on the pedals. My faith was formed and stretched at church camps with evening campfires next to serene lakes reflecting the setting sun.

For my sabbatical, I planned to spend lots of time near the ocean, basking in the rhythm of waves, letting the crash of the surf soothe me. But the ocean is different from a lake–there’s a power and wildness to the ocean, at once exciting and overwhelming. I expected my sabbatical time to be easy and carefree, like an afternoon at the lake. At times it was. Other days I found myself fighting the current of my own fears and expectations. I forgot that letting go of control, seeking time to rest, and setting aside responsibilities can often feel like fighting a rip current.

The congregation and I prepared for the sabbatical for months, trying to put all the details in place so things would run smoothly while I was gone. I also prepared for time away from my family. As the sabbatical approached, I was astonished at the amount of effort it took for me to let go of my daily responsibilities and rely on others to do them without me.

For me, letting go was not only emotional and mental work, it was physically exhausting. My shoulders knotted as I fretted over what would happen in my absence. My head pounded as I agonized over countless “what-if” questions. My sleep suffered as I worried about how my kids would do without me for three weeks.

It was an exercise in pushing down the temptation to keep every part of my life firmly in my own hands. I wanted to swim in a straight line, not pushed by the wind and waves (this is impossible, even in a calm little lake). I longed to control the tides, to steer the currents, to raise and lower the waves myself. I learned quickly it was impossible.

I spent part of my sabbatical on an island. One day I joined a group traveling an hour away to the next island. A thick fog encircled our boat, so dense so we could barely see a few feet ahead of us. It was the first time I’d ridden in a small boat on the ocean, and as we left the shelter of the bay and into deeper waters, I felt the power of the ocean waves rising ever higher beneath us. At first I tensed against the movement, gripping the rails, but after a while I became used to the rocking sea and relaxed into the rhythm of the boat, which made for a much more pleasant ride. Slowly the other island appeared ahead of us, wild and remote, and visiting it became one of my favorite experiences of my travels.

Rest is risky. It’s hard work to move away from responsibilities, to give up control, to give yourself a break. Sometimes it feels easier to keep swimming forward, kicking and stretching, never looking up, stealing breaths when you get a chance. Letting go and letting the waters carry you means not knowing the outcome and being open to new possibilities, to trust in the directions God will take you.

The waters of baptism bring both death and new life—death to our human failings (and human plans!) and new life in our identity as a child of God, each and every day. Baptism reminds us we can’t do it all ourselves and we need to rely on God, remembering Jesus’ promise in John 7:38 that “. . . out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” We don’t provide living water for ourselves; Jesus is our endless source of water and life.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Taking the risk of rest brought grace to me and to those around me. And rest isn’t always an absence of movement; sometimes it’s giving yourself permission to seek what gives you life and joy and relaxing into whatever direction the current takes you. For me, sabbatical rest was both gift and challenge, wild and powerful, and it was good.

Discussion questions:

1. How do you define rest for yourself? Describe a time when you experienced true rest.

2. What prevents you from seeking rest? What challenges do you face when you try to rest?

3. What brings you life and joy? When have you experienced rivers of living water flowing out of your heart?

Closing prayer:
God, thank you for bodies made for work, play and rest. Remind us to trust in your daily grace and direction and give us courage to let go and seek the life-giving water that only you can give. Amen.

Jennifer Hackbarth is the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, Minn. She enjoys cooking, reading, travel and spending time with her husband and two kids. You may find her reflections on faith and daily life at www.narratinggrace.wordpress.com.