Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We're back!

The Higg 5 outside our cottage in Takoma Park, MD
We've officially been back from sabbatical for 19 days now and my heart and mind still haven't found a truly sufficient way to put into words all that God did in us while we were away. This post may be a bit choppy, but if you hang with me my hope is that you'll get a glimpse of how God responded to your prayers for our family.

It started out rough... If you want to get technical, our sabbatical began in the wee hours of the morning on April 1st. About 2 hours later Rylan was puking her guts out. For the next 3 days we all experienced a stomach bug as our official welcome to life on sabbatical!

It got better... By April 4th, the day we jumped on an airplane headed for Maryland, we were all feeling well enough to fly. The travel day was great. Hazel was a champ on the flight. All was well.

Then the fun really began... or not... So we've been doing the Dave Ramsey thing. If you're not familiar with him, he is an anti-debt and pro-generosity financial guru who advocates for getting rid of credit cards all together. That's great right? It is until you show up at 11pm in Baltimore, MD to pick up your rental car and they tell you you're out of luck because you don't have a credit card!!! No big deal though right? The guy told us there were a few places that took debit cards as long as you paid a big deposit. Unfortunately, the catch is that you have to have a return ticket. We had not purchased return tickets yet because we wanted to be able to come home early if things in Maryland didn't work out. So far things in Maryland weren't working out. Fail.

So what happened?

UBER to the rescue! We took an Uber to Takoma Park, MD and finally made it to our 1 room (not 1 bedroom, 1 room) 325 sq. ft. cottage! You read that right. Our family of 5 lived for 2 1/2 months in 1 room. For those of you who know me well, you would be correct in assuming that I was ready to give up after night one. But for those of you who know my wife, you will not be surprised to find out that she rises up to all challenges. She calmed us down, rearranged the cottage, turned a small storage loft into a mini master bedroom, created a nursery out of a pack n' play and a few blankets, a 1st grade boys room out of a twin mattress and a table, and a little girls room out of a bay window.


That's right. My wife is amazing. I knew that all along but this confirmed it to any doubters and haters out there. If you want more details about living as a family of 5 in a one room cottage with no kitchen and and a husband that can at times be grumpy... give her a call. She may not admit it but I think she loved it!

My biggest sabbatical lesson... So we do not lose heart.
Most of you know that we left for sabbatical after the most difficult 2 years of life and ministry we've ever experienced. We were tired... exhausted really... and according to the definitions of burn-out, I was a classic case.

I began my sabbatical reading Lamentations. That's right. That's where I was mentally and spiritually. I started with Lamentations! I just wanted to wallow with Jeremiah for a while. Lamentations 3:52-53... I was hunted like a bird by those who were my enemies without cause; they flung me alive into the pit and cast sones on me.

Cry me a river right? I was on edge, grumpy, sad, frustrated and really just feeling sorry for myself in a lot of ways.  There were many things that happened along the way that began to soften and change my heart, but let me just tell you about 3 of them.

1) God led me to 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. 
          So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. As we look not to the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Several years ago, prior to things getting really, really messy in ministry, I listened to a song by Shane and Shane called "Though You Slay Me" that had an expert from a John Piper sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 mixed in. I thought it was an incredible song about the reality of life following Jesus... things are gonna get hard but we still praise our Savior. Then I watched the entire sermon Piper had preached and it was one of the best sermons I've ever heard in my life... maybe the best. But I wondered why I kept running across it because my life was going pretty good. I loved my job. My family was healthy... finally. The Pathway was growing. We had more leaders and more Intentional Communities than ever and we were seeing people come to faith in Christ.

And then the walls came tumbling down.

Long story short, after a couple years of hard, followed by an unexpected sabbatical, I was not thinking much about 2 Corinthians 4. I was thinking about Lamentations 3 (see above). But God in his providence kept running me directly into 2 Corinthians 4.

While we were away I would spend most Wednesdays in Washington D.C. just nerding out on American history and exploring. But towards the end of the day I would attend a Bible study at Capitol Hill Baptist Church led by Pastor Mark Dever and other members of his staff. Pastor Mark was leading the church through a verse by verse study of... you guessed it... 2 Corinthians! And they were on verses 16-18 the second week I attended.

Ok God, now I'm listening.

I've rambled for long enough, but the bottom line is this: I memorized 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 as I walked from Capitol Hill Baptist Church to the south side of the White House that night and it has become my automatic prayer response to discouragement ever since.

So we do not lose heart.  Why don't we lose heart? Because the affliction we experience now, though painful, overwhelming, and not at all small, is actually light in comparison to the weight of glory and reward and beauty awaiting followers of Christ in eternity. The key is to allow the afflictions to be an automatic reminder to stop looking at the seen, and begin looking at the unseen.

I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to do just that.

2) I read a sermon by C.J. Mahaney called "Sustaining the Pastor's Soul." 
When is the last time you read a sermon? Maybe never right? Only on sabbatical! Well, one night at the Capitol Hill Baptist Bible study Pastor Mark was giving away books and the one I received was a collection of sermons from a "Together for the Gospel" conference back around 2009. I saw the title, "Sustaining the Pastor's Soul," was the final sermon in the book and I was definitely intrigued. However, being the nerdy rule follower that I am, I didn't feel like I could cheat and read the last sermon first, so I started with the preface. Thankfully, the preface said that if you were a pastor struggling with weariness, the best idea would be to read the last chapter first!

Permission? Praise Jesus! And reading that chapter changed the trajectory of my sabbatical. 

In the sermon Mahaney remarks that he believed most of the pastor's in the room were faithful pastors and for that they had his utmost respect. But then he made the statement that he believed many of the pastor's in the room were not happy pastors. That was the crux of his message. As important as it is to be faithful, it is also important to be joyful. He made it clear he was not talking about superficial happiness, but a deeply rooted happiness that comes only from the Holy Spirit.

3 keys to being a happy pastor:

I could write for days about how all 3 of these things have affected me deeply. But let me just say for sake of clarity that these 3 things are not random suggestions from a seasoned pastor. Mahaney was examining the life of one of the greatest pastor's that ever lived, the Apostle Paul. And he taught these three keys directly from Paul's words in the first chapter of Philippians.

So often we gloss over Scripture, especially the opening verses of Paul's letters. But I hope you will not be able to read Philippians 1 again without sensing Paul's gratitude for the church in Philippi despite their struggles, his faith in God to finish the work he had started in them, and his deeply rooted, absolutely authentic affection for the people of the church.

These 3 keys have played an incredible role in my new found joy in pastoring.

3) A prayer walk from the Pentagon to the Iwo Jima memorial.
A couple of weeks before we left Takoma Park, MD, I decided to go see the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon. It was a somber and sobering reminder of the brevity of life and the effects of evil in the world. I decided to walk from there to the Iwa Jima memorial which is one of my favorite memorials in Washington D.C. On the way, I prayed for my church.

Now before you start thinking I'm going super-spiritual on you, let me confess that praying for my church was difficult while I was on sabbatical. My job was to rest and unplug and praying for the church made me think of the struggles, the hard things, and the challenges. I did it because I knew it was right. But I was not "feeling" it in my heart.

That day was different. On that day I decided to learn a lesson from the Apostle Paul via CJ Mahaney and I prayed for the people in my church by name. But instead of interceding for them, I thanked God for them in very specific terms. As my prayers of gratitude began flowing from my heart and my lips to the one true God Almighty, my heart began to soften. I began praising and thanking God for all the life change he had brought into specific people over the past 7 1/2 years. I began thanking God for pulling people out addiction. I began thanking him for saving single mom's and by extension breathing hope into the lives of their kids. I began thanking God for taking people who have lived incredibly rough lives and placing them into leadership positions. I began thanking God for a church who loved their pastor and his family enough to send us on sabbatical when God showed them we needed it.

As my gratitude was unearthed, and cultivated, my hard heart began to rejoice. I began to get a taste... a reminder... of what it was to be a happy pastor.

The time since then has not been perfect. But it has been sweet and I believe I am growing.  I am grateful for who we are as a church, and for what God has done in us and through us.  I am grateful that Jesus Christ died for this church. I am grateful for the gospel.

God answered your prayers. We asked for you to pray for us in 3 specific ways and I wanted to fill you in on how God was gracious and faithful to answer your prayers.

1) We asked you to pray that we would rest with a depth that we've never experienced before. That prayer was most definitely answered. We rested physically. I took more naps over the last 3 months than I have ever taken in my life and I did not hear the sound of an alarm clock for 94 days!  It was glorious.

We rested spiritually as we just got to spend an abundance of time in God's word, in prayer, and in worship. And we rested mentally as we did not have to think strategically in any way shape or form for 3 months.

Thank you for praying for rest.

2) We asked you to pray that we would laugh... a lot. I could tell you story after story of how God answered that prayer. Laughing with my family on this trip will be a memory that lasts a life time. We slowed down, I learned to relax, and the result was a lot more fun. I'll never forget the first week we were there; no dishwasher, no kitchen sink, only a hotplate and a toaster oven. I walked into the bathroom and Kelli was doing dishes in the bathtub! We laughed a lot!!!

3) We asked you to pray for Jagen, Rylan and Hazel. I tell you what, when you go somewhere for 3 months it's not vacation, it's life. And I promise I'm not complaining at all. But the reality of our sabbatical was that real things happened. We battled sickness, allergies, lice, and Hazel even had to have a minor surgery for an infected abscess!  But you know what? God was with us, provided for us, and sustained us every step of the way. And most of all, our kids loved our time in D.C. We were praying that while this trip was a source of refreshment for us, it would not become a source of bitterness for our kids. And God answered that prayer.

Not only did our kids have a blast, we were able to disciple Jagen and Rylan in particular with an intensity that we've never experienced before. We had deep theological discussion on the way home from church. They each memorized the Romans Road during our sabbatical which was fun and amazing. And last but not least, their school in Takoma Park had a "go to work with your parent" day so I used that time to teach them how to write a sermon. They both picked a passage of Scripture, read it, pulled out the meaning, came up with application and preached it to the rest of the family!!!  No joke, it was incredible!

I'll shut up now. I just have to say we're still processing all that God did in us. We're amazed by his grace... on the cross and in our daily lives. We're amazed by the generosity of others: Our church sending us away... paid... just to rest. A sweet woman named Merita, who is now a dear friend, was willing to open up her cottage... and her home... to a random family who knows her brother-- for FREE! A church family in Maryland that was willing to allow us to step into the life of their church for 3 months without expecting anything in return. They just allowed us to sit and be for a while... letting worship and the Word wash over us week in and week out.

A question I've been asked several times since I've been back, in light of the fact that The Pathway not only did not die without the Higginbotham's, but actually thrived is this: "Is it hard to know that the church did so well without you guys?" And to this I can honestly say No, it's not hard at all. In fact, just the opposite. The first lesson God taught us when we came to Tacoma was that he didn't need us. We were new to Tacoma and had just started a Bible study when our twins were born 9 weeks early and landed in the hospital for 6 weeks.  Our focus shifted from church planting to caring for our fragile, precious, newborns. But God didn't need us. He just graciously allows us to be a part of what he's doing. A church was still started out of those crazy times when we were completely focused on our kids.

The same was true for this sabbatical. I can honestly say that Kelli and I knew The Pathway didn't need us, but we weren't sure The Pathway knew that. I'm thankful, overjoyed, and even proud to say The Pathway now knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they don't need us!  But hear this... the most encourage thing has been how much The Pathway has made it clear that they want us.  We have felt so loved, so missed, and so desired by our church upon our return home.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I have no idea what The Pathway will look like a year from now, but I'm so thankful that God has called me to be a part of it.

And I'm sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace...     The Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:6-7)

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