Four months ago, there was an ice storm. Remember? It’s hard to picture now when we are basically collectively melting, but it happened. I couldn’t even fathom then the idea of a day so hot I’d be cranking up the air conditioning, but here it is. I also couldn’t imagine on that day what the next four months had in store for me, as the day of the ice storm was also my last day of work before I took a four month Sabbatical.
On that day, I wondered how I would feel when I would turn the calendar to August 13, the day I had written simply: “Back to work.” I hoped that I would feel ready to start again. I hoped that I would feel rested and renewed and filled with a new sense of purpose. I hoped for all of these things, but, kind of like how it feels when you’re sitting in the midst of a freak ice storm in April and you start to doubt that you will ever feel warm again, I really wasn’t sure.
I had worries.
I was worried that I would be bored. I was worried that I would not use my time well and “mess up” this gift I had been given. I was worried, deep down, that time away would make me realize that the calling to which I had given my life didn’t really matter that much.
Maybe no one would miss me…
Maybe it would turn out my church DIDN’T need me…
Maybe everyone could get along fine without me…
I actually wanted those things to be true…but I also didn’t want them to be true. I wanted my church to realize that I wasn’t essential, but I also wanted them to realize that I was. These paradoxes really made it clear that time away would be good for me, and for all of us.
So on that day of the ice storm, the day my Sabbatical was beginning, I preached a sermon. I preached it wearing yoga pants in my living room via Facebook live since the ice storm forced us to cancel our service. I preached about ephods.
A few weeks before I had been reading through Exodus in my Bible reading plan, when I got to one of those sections of the Bible that is easy to gloss over – it was about what the ancient high priest of Israel had to wear. I read that the priest was supposed to wear something called an ephod, which was like a long sleeveless robe in two parts. These parts were joined together at the shoulder by onyx stones, on which, they were to engrave the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. This meant that every time the high priest would come before God, he symbolically carried the people he served ON HIS SHOULDERS.
I don’t know if I had ever encountered a passage that spoke to me more deeply about what my job and my calling was about. As a pastor today, which is admittedly quite different than being an Israelite priest a few thousand years ago, I feel this is so much of who I am. I carry the people of God on my shoulders. I pray for them. I care for them. I (try to) lead them closer to God. Every day when I wake up and go to work, I symbolically put on that ephod. The names aren’t the names of the tribes of Israel, but they are names like Darlene and Mike and Diane and Bruce and Christine.
In my “pajama church” sermon (yup, that’s what we called church that day), I talked about Sabbatical being a time for me to “take off the ephod.” I shared how it would be four months of me saying “These names are off my shoulders for a while” – so that I could remember they are on God’s shoulders first. I shared how important it was for me to remember that I am not defined by the “ephod” that I wear, and how the best way to remember that was to pause from wearing it for just a little while.
Now here we are four months later, and I can look back and say that taking off the ephod was very very good. I will write more about the things I learned on Sabbatical over the next couple of weeks, but for now, let me just say that taking off the ephod was one of the best things I have ever had the chance to do – even as I’m feeling ready to put it back on.
Things are different today than that day in April. It’s not snowing, for one thing. It’s warm and sunny and bright. Also, I am different. My shoulders don’t feel tired! They have benefited from some rest. The really cool thing is that as they rested, the church has done JUST FINE without me carrying everything. Turns out, God’s shoulders are stronger than mine, and they never need to take a break. I’m glad we all got to remember that.
I’ve enjoyed my time away, but on Monday I will be happy to pick up my ephod again, and will wear it joyfully, confident that who I am, who God is and who our church is, is not based on what I carry on my shoulders.
This is a great lesson to learn, and I’m thankful beyond words for the chance to learn it. Thanks, Mount Hamilton, for letting me take off the ephod for a while…and thanks for being a place that makes me look forward to putting it back on. See you soon!