Well, that's it! After a fantastic 4 months off, tomorrow I return to work. (I'm spending my first week at General Synod because I thought it would be a good idea to ease myself in gently. Ha!!).
I really had no idea what to expect before my sabbatical began. What would it feel like to have 4 months 'off'? Would I find myself feeling lonely, disconnected, bored? Would I want to come back after just a week or two away? Or, worse, would I not want to come back at all?! Would I find I'd forgotten how to truly rest and relax?
The idea of sabbatical is something we just don't come across in our society today. Almost without exception, when I told people outside of the church what I was doing, they said "wow, lucky you - I wish I could do that!" But no one ever had done, or realistically had any chance of ever doing so. I realise it is a very lovely gift which most clergy are able to enjoy, and I am grateful for it.
Sabbath is such an important biblical principle, stemming from God's resting after he had created the world. I'm grateful for my weekly sabbath, and also for this longer one, which I began 7.5 years into being an incumbent.
To be honest I'm still processing all that happened during my sabbatical, and I will probably be doing so for some time to come. I'm sure there will be many more blog posts about different aspects of it. I'm very much hoping that at some point a book will emerge too, but I didn't get as much written as I'd hoped. Oh well - there's no rush!
Here, then, follow (in no particular order, and still fairly unfiltered and unprocessed), some of the main highlights of the past 4 months.
* Simply, if it doesn't sound too mad, the gift of not rushing! This is something I simply must learn and carry with me as I go back. I am determined to not plunge immediately back into headless-chicken territory! I *will* remember to pause, and rest, and go to bed at a sensible hour.
* Not being in charge of anything. I am most definitely wired to be a leader, so I wouldn't want this long term, but for a while, it was great! I didn't have to make complicated decisions, I didn't have to make sure anything was running smoothly, no one was looking to me for answers!
* Loads of time to read. I loved this! I do read a lot anyway, but generally in fairly snatched chunks of time. So lots of uninterrupted time to read at leisure, and really absorb what I was reading, was great.
* Being able to simply worship on a Sunday morning. Now, of course, I hope to manage this most Sundays! But the honest truth is that it is often a bit complicated by leading, or preaching, or both. I have one eye on what's coming next, and who is doing what, and if everyone's OK. I worship too, of course, but it's different. And so to be able to concentrate simply on worshipping was a joy.
* I mainly worshipped at 2 very different churches - different from each other, and different from St. George's. While I was in the US I was most often at Desert Vineyard Church, which is the reason I had gone to the US at all. It's a very large church by UK standards, with a fabulous worship group, great teaching (much longer sermons than most Anglican churches!), and a significant ministry among the poor. While I was in the UK I was most often at Liverpool Cathedral. It has stunning choral music and inspiring teaching, and is a growing cathedral with an impressive ministry of outreach and discipleship. Being part of both churches, even for a short time, inspired and blessed me, and I'm grateful to them.
* Learning from others. I wanted to go to the US to spend some time with a leader I greatly admire. Unfortunately due to his being diagnosed with a serious illness just before I went, I couldn't spend as much time with him as I'd hoped. My plans had to change. But nothing is wasted with God. I did still spend some time with him, and even in that, I learnt. And because of the change of plans, I met lots of other amazing people. They were kind and generous and wise and fun and I learnt from all of them.
* Travelling. I LOVE to visit new places, and boy did I get to do that! New York, Alexandria, Washington DC, Lancaster, Palmdale, Santa Monica, Laguna Beach, San Francisco (and all points up the coast towards it!). It was so much fun to explore.
* Preaching. It was a total joy and privilege to preach at the Desert Vineyard. I know, as a leader, that it's a risk to invite someone else to preach in your church, and so I'm grateful for the invitation and the opportunity. It developed a good bit of stamina in me too - a 45 minute sermon repeated 3 times is not something I do every week! I absolutely loved it, and it certainly didn't feel like work.
* Urban mission and ministry. I wanted to go to Lancaster (California, not the north west of the UK!) because of the incredible way the church there loves and welcomes and ministers to and basically IS the poor, the broken, the vulnerable. This is my heartbeat, and it's theirs too. It is such a beautiful church. Serving in some of their compassion ministries was an absolute privilege, and I am awed by the way they love their neighbours. God re-broke my heart for what breaks his.
* Unexpected blessings. From the beautician who gave me the gift of a free manicure and pedicure, to an overnight stay in a beautiful beach house; from the numerous occasions I was treated to a meal out, to the friend who sent me a Christmas chocolate parcel; from the hospitality of all the people who let me stay in their homes, to being driven up the coast in a convertible for a yummy breakfast - time and time again I was overwhelmed by people's generosity and kindness.
* I love my friends! I'm so grateful to the people who kept in touch via text, Twitter, email, Facebook etc. Thank you for being interested in my over-sharing social media rambles! Thank you for missing me. 2 massive highlights of my whole sabbatical were the first time I saw my best friend's 3 kids and they literally leapt on me with joy, and the time I went to my friends' house for dinner on my return to the UK, only to have several other friends jump out from behind the door for a surprise party. I'm so blessed! One lovely friend came out to join me on an epic road trip. I saw 2 old school friends that I hadn't seen in donkey's years. And I made loads of new friends while I was away too, and they're also a wonderful gift.
* I love my church! Much as it was great to worship regularly in 2 other churches, and occasionally in a few more, I can't wait to be back with the wonderful, fabulous, gorgeous people of St. George's Everton! They are my family and I love them lots.
* I said in no particular order, but actually, this last one is the biggie. God used this sabbatical to do in me some things that really needed to be done! He gently showed me some things that I needed to sort out, and provided the people and the places and the opportunities I needed to do that. Ultimately, above all else, that's what this sabbatical has been about - foundational, heart stuff which will last forever. I'm so grateful to him for that.
That's quite enough rambling for now. On the eve of my return to 'real' life, I feel grateful and blessed. I'm excited to be back at work (that's a relief!). I have so many good memories. And I just may be beginning to plan my next sabbatical...