I am writing this on the last day of my sabbatical. It has been a huge privilege, for which I am grateful, to have time away to read (I think I have got through twelve books), enjoy scenery and get ahead with sermons for the new academic year. But the thing for which I have been most thankful has been the opportunity to enjoy less interrupted communion with God.
I do pray when I am at home- honestly! But what I have always been less good at is the moment by moment awareness that the Lord is near, that I have permanent access to Him through Christ, that I can talk to Him and enjoy His presence constantly. Yet these are some of the greatest joys that the Christian life now offers. The opening verses of 1 John speak of our fellowship with God. The great Puritan John Owen says that “for sinners to have fellowship with…the infinitely holy God is an astonishing dispensation.” He goes on to describe that fellowship or communion with God in beautiful language- “Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a discovery of the sweetness of the streams.”
Whilst I have not always been good at entering into the privilege of ongoing communion with God the last few weeks have been better. And I have noticed that a conscious awareness of the Lord’s presence makes a huge difference. Gratitude- for scenery or food, for example- comes more naturally. Temptations feel less strong. Minor irritations can be met with a more rapid sense that the Lord must have some purpose in this. Praying for strangers that you meet on a train or places you visit can happen spontaneously. There has felt like less pressure to check the latest news (even if that’s been more strained over the last few days!) because time with the Lord has felt sweeter. Overall it has been good to be near the Lord.
I know the comeback- it’s much simpler on sabbatical looking out over some coastland when you are on your own. And it is. And my fear for myself is that it will be very easy for a sense of the Lord’s nearness to diminish once I am back in the world of emails, meetings, decisions and so on.
But in the end it is a decision. Will I draw near to God? One of the books that I read over the last few weeks was Julian Hardyman’s little book Fresh Pathways in Prayer. It is mildly quirky (full of imaginary conversations in our mind) but feels fresh because of that. In particular it is great on growing into a “more moment by moment relationship with God.” Julian talks about his own experience of learning to reconnect with God in prayer throughout that day, partly by paying less attention to his phone. The thirty second to three minute quick check of social media could be turned to a moment of thanksgiving or prayer for help- a “micro-Sabbath” in Stuart Olyott’s phrase. Of course, in the toughest of moments it can be hard to articulate prayer when our heart is overwhelmed. But even at those times we can be encouraged that our groans connect with God.
Here is a prayer from Julian’s book- “Lord, I really do want to connect more with you and less with my social media feeds.” It may be things other than social media feeds for some but we will probably have equivalents. It certainly represents my longing as I return. To quote John Owen again: “A heart that is inclined to converse with Christ…is a thriving heart.”