Losing My Voice, Finding Grace

Sunday was our last day at Pres House as we were “sent” off by the community during worship and blessed. I must say that it was quite emotional for me–several times I found myself tearing up. I am incredibly grateful for the call to be Campus Co-Pastor along with Mark at Pres House, and for the people whom we serve and love. Leaving Sunday night, it was difficult to imagine not coming in each day and catching up with students and hearing about what’s going on in their lives. I realized how much I love being a part of this community and what a privilege it is to serve there. It gave me a taste of what it must be like to really have to say goodbye to a congregation–and I’m so glad that I will be returning to this community in four months, because I’m definitely not ready to say goodbye!

Well, of course, as it often happens after a busy season, I got sick. It’s not surprising, because Sophie had this cold earlier in the week, but mine has taken on an additional symptom she did not have. I have completely lost my voice–people can’t even understand me when I whisper. This is, of course, highly ironic given that I’m now in Louisville for a Sabbatical Grant conference with more than 40 other pastors–a bunch of preachers, and I cannot even speak one word!

Then again, perhaps this is a perfect way to start my Sabbatical. I’m doing a lot of listening and keeping silent, and as I do so, I realize how frequently words are used to explain ourselves, prove ourselves, justify ourselves. I’m meeting a lot of new folks, and the usual interchange happens: where are you from, what denomination, what church are you serving, how big is it, etc. This is quite an accomplished group of folks, so the stats are impressive and intimidating. And it’s a bunch of pastors, who let’s just say can talk…and talk…and talk. I can only listen, since my voice isn’t working, and cannot jump in with my list of credentials to prove I’m supposed to be here.

But it’s exactly what I need at the beginning of my Sabbatical. I am literally unable to make any witty remarks or intelligent comments to demonstrate how clever I am, or able to talk about what I’ve done or plan to do on my Sabbatical. I can’t even tell people my name! Yet it is a vivid reminder that there is no need to prove myself worthy to God, and for that matter, to anyone else. I am already a beloved child of God, and so there is no need for me to say anything. I can simply receive what’s being offered and I don’t have to come up with anything profound to say. Losing my voice forces me to live into the reality that I am already accepted and loved–nothing more needs to be said on my part. That’s especially relevant for pastors who spend a lot of their time trying to explain, prove, and talk their way into this truth.

That’s not to say I’m not ready to be healthy again! But being quiet, literally and spiritually, is helping to open up my soul to receive the abundant grace and blessings that God has in store for this season of rest. It’s a good, good thing. I’ll close with a couple of stanzas from a hymn that everyone else sang today and that I simply soaked in:

Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed: clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.

Silence is a friend who claims us, cools the heat and slows the pace, God it is who speaks and names us, knows our being, touches base, making space within our thinking, lifting shades to show the sun, raising courage when we’re shrinking, finding scope for faith begun.

– Erica 


Day 1

No, we are not going to title each post by the day number…but it seems appropriate on day one.

Our sabbatical began with a trip to Louisville, KY for a conference with 45 other pastors to talk about, of all things, sabbaticals. The Louisville Institute invites/requires all recipients of their sabbatical grants to attend a consultation to meet the others awarded grants and to talk about their sabbatical plans. It is an honor to be here at Louisville Seminary with this group of pastors who have served at least 7 years in their ministries and have unique and thoughtful plans for their time of renewal. Most of us are still amazed and grateful to have been one of the roughly 10% of applicants to have been given this incredible blessing. Interesting note: the institute has prepared a personalized press release about receiving the grant for us to use. Not sure if I should send it to CNN or the New York Times first. 😉 In any case, it is fun to connect with a very diverse group of pastors from all sorts of denominations and from all over the country.

In other news that certain folks at Pres House might find particularly interesting…we heard today from the wonderful couple we are exchanging homes with in England that we are invited to learn bell ringing at Hexham Abbey while we are there. Looking forward to that!


So what will we be doing?

Right now I am focused on wrapping up things at work and preaching my last sermon for a while this Sunday. But beginning on Monday I’ll have to turn my attention to what we have planned for our sabbatical.

The very first thing we will do is fly to Louisville, KY for a conference at the Louisville Institute and to receive a grant that we were awarded for our sabbatical leave. This grant is a remarkable experience of grace. We are receiving significant financial support to carry out our proposal which was called, “Resting in our Roots”.

After returning from Louisville we will have one day home and then go on a family vacation to celebrate Erica’s father’s 80th birthday. Then we return home for one week of frantic preparation before leaving for three months in Hexham, England!

After spending the last seven years developing new programs, buildings, and ministry at Pres House, our sabbatical plan is to connect with the past by exploring our familial roots, visiting ancient Christian places with connection to our family roots, and recovering “old” practices that physically embody spiritual growth for each of us.

The first aspect of our Sabbatical centers around family roots. While we have been praying and thinking about a Sabbatical for some time, it was a trip to England this past April to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday that inspired us with a vision to root ourselves for a season in an ancient town and enter into its daily rhythms of life. We were fascinated with the sense of history these towns had, especially as we worshiped in Hexham Abbey. To ponder that people had been walking the same streets, kneeling on the same church floor, and going about their business for more than a thousand years was humbling—the town has seen much change, and yet it remains the same.

Hexham Abbey

We will root ourselves in the town of Hexham for three months where we can enter into the life of the community as we get to know neighbors, shop in local grocery stores, and have our children attend school all in the context of my ancestral homeland. We are exchanging homes with a retired couple – living in their house while they live in ours. Our “work” will be to slow our pace, read, journal, cook, exercise, observe, and simply be. This location also allows us to reconnect with my grandmothers and uncle’s family, which have been distant for most of my life due to living so far apart.

The second aspect of our Sabbatical centers around ancient Christian places, specifically those connected with my family roots. There is a small village near Hexham called Elsdon. When we were there last April we learned the story of the first Elsdon, an orphan abandoned at the church in the village. The pastor took the baby in and named him Cuthbert Elsdon after the church and village (St. Cuthbert’s parish in the village of Elsdon). Hearing this story (see video clip below) was powerful for us because learning about where we come from roots us in an identity much deeper and older than the roles we play in everyday life. On a spiritual level, our family name Elsdon connects us not only to a beautiful village in northern England but also to an ancient expression of the Christian faith.

St. Cuthbert, the patron saint of northern England, was an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop, and hermit in the seventh century. His life, ministry, and death had a lasting impact upon many communities in the Northumberland region of England. As a way of experiencing and reclaiming the roots of our faith, we plan to visit and reflect at some of the sites connected with St. Cuthbert such as Lindisfarne (Holy Island) and Durham).

The third aspect of our Sabbatical plan centers on recovering “old” practices that physically embody spiritual growth for us; for Mark, that is bicycling and for Erica, that is martial arts. Over twenty years ago, I experienced the profound presence of Christ while on a youth group cycling trip in Colorado. Since then, cycling has been an important part of my spirituality. I plan to volunteer 10-15 hours a week at the Bike Shop Hexham as a mechanic’s assistant to learn the art of bicycle maintenance.

During her college years, Erica devoted herself to the practice of taekwondo which is derived from Korean ancient martial arts. After an extended hiatus, she has recently reacquainted herself with this physical discipline. Taekwondo has long been a source of refreshment and joy, and she has missed not having the time to study and engage in it more seriously. Erica plans to practice and grow in taekwondo by joining a local club in England, to further develop her skills. It is her hope not only to recover this practice into her daily life, but to also take steps toward earning her black belt.

In mid-June we will return from England and spend a few days getting re-acclimated to Madison before beginning work again.

– Mark

Preparing for Sabbatical – feeling a bit nervous!

In less than a week we (Erica and I) begin a four month sabbatical. We will be turning off our work email, cell phones, and Facebook in order to step off the normal pace of life and work for intentional rest.

It is a scary prospect!

We have been preparing for this for a long time and are very excited to have time to rest, be together as a family, and travel. But I am feeling pretty nervous. What will I do with myself for four months without work?! I am afraid I will find that even more of my identity is wrapped up in my role at work than I’d like to think. I have trouble sitting down to read for one evening never mind for weeks upon weeks. I spend most of my life thinking, “What next?” as I move from one project to another.

So what next?

I guess I have to really practice what I preach (literally – I preached a sermon about Sabbath and Sabbatical a few weeks ago) and open myself up to what God has to teach me about myself through this experience.

We will use this blog to share some musings about our experience. We are intentionally disconnecting from much of the technology that drives our lives and spending three months resting in our roots in northern England. So don’t expect lots of blogging! But we do want to share insights that come up for anyone who might be remotely interested.

– Mark