The story goes like this: European missionaries serving in Africa a century ago hired local villagers as porters to help carry supplies to a distant station (imagine Mombasa to Lake Victoria). The porters went at a slower pace than the missionaries desired, so after the first two days, they pushed them to go faster. On day three of the trek, the group went twice as far as day two. Around the campfire that evening, the missionaries congratulated themselves for their leadership abilities. But on day four, the workers would not budge.
“What’s wrong?” asked the missionary.
“We cannot go any further today,” replied the villagers’ spokesman.
“Why not? Everyone appears well.”
“Yes,” said the African, “but we went so quickly yesterday that we must wait here for our souls to catch up with us.”
Is it time to let your soul catch up?
Leaders – we’re supposed to be people who lead from strength at the ‘soul level’ but we’re expected to perform at a pace that’s often unhealthy for our spiritual lives. Rather than reflection, study, and quiet, we live in a real world of Twitter, smart phones, social networking, blogs, email, congested traffic, and over-committed schedules. A British pastor once pointed out that a British pastor has a “study” and an American pastor has an “office.” The naming of our workplace belies the expectations.
We need to return to the concept the Bible calls Sabbath – a time when we, like God, rest and get refreshed (Genesis 2:2-8; Exodus 20:8-11). Sabbath, in the biblical sense, is a time to slow down and build back our reserves – physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.
Consider these five ideas for making space for God so that He – in the words of Psalm 23 – can “restore our souls.”
RESTORER #1: Cut a firebreak. When a forest fire burns uncontrollably, firefighters do not fight the fire directly. They move ahead of the fire’s path and cut the trees down so that the fire has nothing to consume. When the fire reaches the firebreak, it burns itself out.
When our schedules burn out of control, we look ahead and try to plan a day or a couple of days when we can stop to regain our sanity. This time off functions as a firebreak. Or, to change analogies, the break allows us to “come up for air” after we have been submerged too long. Our souls have a chance to “catch up.” In addition, the anticipation of the change ahead helps us persevere until a break is possible.
One practical note from years of ministry experience: to avoid out-of-control demands on our time, Christie and I schedule our days off three to six months in advance. Even if we cannot honor every one, planning ahead keeps us from going for weeks without a break.
RESTORER #2: Take a rest with God. Meditate on the Psalms, or examine texts like Matthew 11:28-30. These bring our lives into a perspective in line with God’s. In our productivity-driven culture, even pastors feel under pressure to be busy, productive, and involved in 1000 things. Sometimes I joke that the church wants the pastors to be just like God – omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Distinctly biblical concepts like contentment (Philippians 4:11) or rest (Matthew 11:28-30) remind us God’s long-term design for us includes time for refreshment and recreation, renewal and rest for our body and soul.
RESTORER #3: Consider the lilies and birds. Develop an appreciation for nature. God “rested and was refreshed” on the Sabbath after He took a long look at His creation. Consider a “nature” hobby. Our hectic pace separates us from the wonder of God’s creation. Growing flowers, observing the industrious and pesky squirrel, or listening to the bird songs can slow us down and help us relax. The words of John Stott, the great British Bible teacher and author influenced us to take up bird watching (consider getting his book The Birds Our Teachers). We heard him say, “I’ve never seen anyone who watches birds suffer from high blood pressure.” The relaxation of observing creation refreshes our spirits, our nerves, and our bodies.
RESTORER #4: Tune-up. Use music to heighten relaxation. Soothing music on the ride home from work can help us decompress from a tough day. Quiet music can set a tone for thought, prayer, or romance. I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll, but I have to admit that while I enjoy celebrating listening to rock music, many times in my daily routine the volume and beat were adding to my stress. I noticed that with loud music thumping, I would drive faster. I discovered that Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or some other quiet music serves better than Led Zeppelin to help quiet my soul.
RESTORER #5: Capture opportunities for interpersonal quiet times. Refreshment spiritually often goes hand-in-hand with refreshment in our closest relationships. And to find this, we need time to converse at deeper levels with the most important people in our lives. In worlds filled with noise, IPods, and chatter, our dialogue is often only sharing news.
To keep sanity in our daily lives, Christie and I have adopted the British custom of teatime around 4 pm – sort of a daily mini-inter-personal Sabbath. We take a break in the late afternoon to talk – no music, reading the mail, or answering phone calls. For about twenty to thirty minutes, we talk. We discuss the day’s events, listen to each other, and prepare for the evening.
Teatime might not fit every couple’s schedule – and the time to talk might be with children and co-workers, not just a spouse – but some version of what someone called “relational quiet time,” allows our souls to catch up with each other as well as ourselves.
Vance Havner was a Baptist preacher renowned for his quick wit. A church leader criticized him for the long break he would take each summer (a month to be with his family and then a month dedicated to study). The church leader summarized his rebuke: “Dr. Havner, don’t you realize that the Devil never takes a vacation?”
Dr. Havner shot back: “And who wants to be like the Devil?”
Take some time so that your soul can catch up.
 John R. W. Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Birdwatcher (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.