“And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31 ESV).
I had been in a transition as the new senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. The work was good and vocationally satisfying, but challenging. In addition to transition challenges, I was preaching three times per Sunday, teaching Sunday School, and teaching on Wednesday nights. That began in February. There was a transition before I left my previous charge where i preached a series of messages to help prepare them for their own transition as a congregation. After a long season of preaching, transitions, and normal pastoral work, and our own family relocation, the summer came. June and July passed. Then came a cherished word from a dear saint of God. In a hand-written note, this kind lady quoted Mark 6:31 and then urged me to “Come apart for a while or you are going to come apart for longer!” I made provision to take vacation immediately! And it was a true blessing. I will always be thankful to that lady. If she is reading now, she knows who she is. Thank you.
I am writing now from the conclusion of a time of “coming apart for a while.” This “coming apart” is not only for one’s self, but for spouse and children. This year we were in England and Wales. That is not a normal destination for us. Usually we go to a house in Mystic, Connecticut. But this year we celebrated our son’s graduation and I sensed a need for a special time together before we turned the page to a new chapter in the book of our lives.
As we made our way through London then to Wales and to the Midlands of England, our hearts were refreshed in Christ. Together, we have enjoyed time with each other. We witnessed new scenes in God’s creation. I shall never forget seeing Turner’s Angel in the Sun and John Constable’s paintings at the Tate Britain museum. Both of my favorite artists in one room! We marveled, together, at the way Turner used his golden pigments and his dramatic brush to startle us with the sense of transcendence. On the other hand, his contemporary, Constable, saw a quieter serenity in the landscape of England. His clouds, of course, are his trademark. I marveled at the interplay of light and shadow, of proportion and depth of the cloudy skies over fertile East Anglican field.
We reflected on God’s faithfulness to His people as we visited places of blessing in church history. Seeing C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, and walking through the woods that he and Tolkien would have traversed, and doing so with each other arm in arm—well that was just unforgettable. Reading and researching the life of St. David in Wales by WB Jones and reading Stephen Nichols’ fine biography of J. Gresham Machen was a such an inspiring time as we each had the opportunity to read while on the train or at night. Writing in long hand in my Moleskin journal was a delightful and slow time that I savored. We enjoyed learning more about Churchill as we visited the Imperial War Museum. John Michael and I also found a Word War Two Welsh regiment service badge from El Alamein, where Monty was named the top British field general. I wonder, now, who won this device? Was this part of an estate sale of a veteran now gone? Getting to share Christ with the young man, a British Army wounded veteran, who negotiated our purchase of the WWII collectable was a divine appointment we shall not forget. Seeing old friends in Wales and eating, worshipping, laughing with them, and taking in the rugged beauty of the Pembrokeshire coastline with Mae and John Michael was a feast for the heart and the eyes (and the wind blowing into your lungs from the sea invigorates the body). As we visited the Dylan Thomas Museum in Swansea, we listened to the late Richard Burton reading “Under Milkwood” and were sure that we would add that to our iTunes collection. We already enjoy “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” each year. My son grew up listening to Dylan Thomas. He got to see the sad side of an artist as we thought about and talked about the story of a sad life cut short by sin and self abuse. Those are things which one think on, as well, in times of “coming apart.” For Dylan Thomas came apart. We would later contrast the life of Dylan Thomas with Shakespeare as we took in Stratford-Upon-Avon and even worshipped at Holy Trinity Church, where the Bard was baptized and buried. Here was a man who was reared on the good business sense of his father, a prominent “glover,” and whose life stayed within a moral levee, gathering the rewards of his art along the way. He came apart for a while and returned prosperous.
Visiting woolen mills inland from the coastal town of Fishguard was a classic Welsh experience, but getting there was even more fun! Driving down narrow paths meant for sheep herding rather than automobiles (while facing fast driving Brits who seem to pride themselves on making those sheep lanes their own personal motor speedway) is a time to say, “Thank you Lord for keeping us!” It was all wonderful and invigorating.
Yet, the places we visit, the times that we “come apart for a while,” are really just backdrops to make memories with our loved ones and recalibrate our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, aren’t they?
My prayer tonight as I prepare for bed, on this Lord’s Day eve, and as we prepare to fly back to Charlotte Tuesday, is that you and your families will know the blessings of uninterrupted time together. We are given our vacation time to be renewed in God’s creation and in our relationships so that we can return renewed and recommitted to our duties. I know some of you are ministering to aging loved ones. Some of you are battling health issues. I know others of you have trials and challenges that are known only to us, or to just your family. Yet we are one in Christ. I lift you before the Lord by name even now. It is such an honor to serve with you in this glorious ministry of Christ that is making an eternal difference. I can’t wait to rejoin you at RTS as we labor with all we are to help prepare future shepherds of the flock of Christ. But let us never forget that Christ calls us to “come apart for a while.” May your times of vacation be times of family strengthening and faith building. There is no virtue in working without cease. Let us no brag about not taking vacation. Rather, let us come apart for a while lest we, indeed, come apart for longer. That was the lesson of Mark 6:31, the lesson given to me by a dear mother in the Lord, and one I share with you.