“Mom, can you turn up the slow?!” My three year old screeched. I smiled. We were driving somewhere and he believes he is Lightning McQueen.
“Wesley, did you mean, can I turn up the speed?”
This summer I got to turn up the slow. This is my attempt to capture it in writing. Mostly for me to remember down the road. But also to leave a trail of bread crumbs as so many of us are figuring life out together. How do we handle the fast pace of our lives? With increasing technology, how are we making space for silence, friendship and presence? How do we recharge and renew when our lives are so full?
Every four years, United Methodist clergy are able to take four weeks off paid as a renewal leave. Some take it. Many don’t. It’s tempting for pastors to feel their church couldn’t go on without them for four weeks. But they can. And they should.
I spent months and months preparing for renewal leave. I worked with my coach to process through my hang ups and expectations for this season. I had a lot. Was I supposed to accomplish something specific? How would I know if it was successful? Could I really stay off email and social media for four weeks? Could I rest and recharge while caring for a 3 and 6 year old?
What would I do?
You might roll your eyes at my questions. But remember, I’m a One on the Enneagram. Reformer, Perfectionist. In my brain, I am defined by what I do. You want me to take four weeks and not really do anything?
Unheard of in my 36 years of life so far.
The questions rumbled: Who am I without my work? How do I relate to my family when work quiets down? How might I be different when I return? What could I practice in this kind of season that would be nearly impossible to learn in my normal life?
Three priorities emerged. I wanted to spend some time by myself, some time with just my husband and time with family. I booked a trip to Alaska and Oregon. We envisioned day trips from Marysville the rest of the time. I was set.
Then our nephew got critically ill. As I wrapped things up at work, my husband flew across country to sit in a hospital room with his beloved family as they watched Graysen fight for his life. Graysen passed away. Within an hour of this news, we were booking flights to Ohio, cancelling a flight to Alaska and asking people to cover things at work.
I’ll never forget my last staff meeting before flying cross country the next day with my kids. Our team looked at me and said, “We want you to take a week of bereavement leave and then maybe a vacation week to be with family. Then you can start your renewal leave. We’ll cover everything.” My eyes blinked back tears and my throat tightened with emotion. “But then I’d be gone a long time.” They nodded.
At the time, it was an astounding gift of grace. One I will never forget. I took a deep breath, put up an email away message and got on an airplane.
My uncle gave me three things to think about practicing on leave:
1. No expectations. They’re too heavy to hold.
2. Become all eye. Notice everything. The breeze, the warm sun, the sound of my kids’ voices.
3. Distrust all thoughts. Let them go.
These were very helpful as I moved through my days.
We also practiced things like taking the most scenic route when it was time to drive somewhere. I rarely chose the most direct route on the interstate. The side roads were glorious and felt like an adventure.
Our mornings were slow. We didn’t set an alarm more than 3-4 times the whole month. I still woke up at 6:30 most mornings. I would quietly slip outside for a walk, to read, to journal, to talk and listen with God.
I set everything aside when I heard little feet come downstairs. They crawled up into my lap and we rocked.
Nature was dripping with heaven. Everywhere I looked, I breathed in the green leaves, the sun shining on the water, the bird that flew overhead. With fewer things begging for my attention, I was free to focus my gaze on God all around me.
I read a ton of books. Mostly fiction.
I stayed off social media (mostly) for four weeks. Very little email.
I ate breakfast by the water. Hiked and played outside.
We had dance parties in the playroom, ran through the sprinkler, colored and rocked on the porch swing.
We went swimming. At last count, Isabella was excited to have swam in ten different bodies of water this summer! And she even started swimming all on her own. I couldn’t believe she was able to jump off a diving board into the deep end too!
I cried. A lot. Pretty much anytime I was by myself and I turned on some music, tears sprang to my eyes. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about why. I simply allowed the tears to warm my cheeks.
I discovered the poetry of Hafiz and soaked up his wisdom and wonder. He helped me know the joy and laughter of God.
I noticed a deafening lack of stress during renewal leave and spent time reflecting on how I relate to my work. I work hard at my job. Really hard. And I value Sabbath rest on Fridays and Saturdays. Which means my pace on Sunday-Thursday can be intense. I reviewed the things we’ve worked on in the last three years as a church and was overcome with the magnitude of this list. It helped me see some things I want to shift as I move back into work mode. How can I hold the calling differently? I want my ministry to be sustainable for another 30 years. I want to feel fully alive in this work. These reflections invited me much deeper to see what was underneath a desire to work so hard. God helped me uncover some profound things I haven’t seen about myself in a long time, if ever.
I learned to trust the dying even more when it comes to death and resurrection. I restarted a consistent meditation practice and noticed immediate benefits in my attention to the present moment. I asked God a million questions and learned how to listen. I realized I don’t need to hold things alone. They’re too heavy that way. I realized I’m still trying to earn love when it’s given so freely.
The lack of stress and expectations from anyone else made space for me to connect with God, myself, my husband and my family in ways that can get chaotic during our normal rhythm. We absolutely loved it.
Yesterday, Isabella smiled and said, “Mom, the next time we’ll get four weeks like this together, I’ll be ten!” She’s really appreciated the gift of this summer together.
So how was renewal leave?
I noticed the warmth of the sun on my skin. I felt the breeze move through my hair. I noticed the sounds of my kids’ laughter. I kissed my husband like I meant it. I rocked on my swing and listened to the world. I struggled some days with the pace and the lack of productivity. I cried by the water. I danced in the kitchen.
And it was enough.
For my 36th birthday, Aaron gave me two nights away at a cottage on a lake near our home. Just me. It was glorious that it came at the end of my leave. I originally had planned my alone time at the beginning. It was the perfect way to reflect on this month. As my kayak paddle sliced through the cool morning water, my soul whispered, “it’s time to go back.”
So here I am. I’m still the same person, but my heart is new. And it turns out, that’s probably the point of renewal leave. It was never about what I would do. It was always about remembering I have a heart. And actually living in that heart.
While I’m glad to offer a new heart to the people in my world, I’m most thankful for this relationship with the One who made me. May our connection be the source of all goodness in my life for years to come.