Sabbatical year

FAQ: “Sabbatical” … What does it mean? and What will you do?

We’ve called this a sabbatical year. I’ve had mixed feelings about continuing to use that word. Some people hear it and think we’re taking a year-long vacation. That’s probably because when pastors take sabbaticals, they tend to look like extended vacations. That’s something I’ve advocated for. (Not necessarily a year, not just for pastors, and doesn’t have to look like vacation. More here and here.)

We’re still using the word “sabbatical” because it seems the best fit, regardless of some of the perceptions. Here’s some of what that means for us.

1 – Time for the church and people in Spain

For our family, sabbatical means leaving behind what we normally do to focus on something else for a time. That new focus will be the church and people in Algete.

For several months, we weren’t sure Spain was an option. We talked with One Mission Society (the organization that sent us last time), and they offered us other possible locations, but Spain was doubtful. There were some suggestions that we could just go on our own, but then there would be no visas. And then you pray the Spanish government doesn’t realize you’re there illegally… So that wasn’t a great option.

We didn’t enjoy those months of uncertainty but they were clarifying. Would we consider going somewhere else? We prayed and talked and decided that if we couldn’t get back to the same people and church, we wouldn’t go anywhere. This trip is primarily about people and place.

When we were in Algete seven years ago, our little church there was just beginning. Our first worship service happened four months after we arrived––a handful of us in a living room. The missionaries we worked with then have since retired and moved back to the States, but the church keeps on going with local leadership. The picture above is from one of our final gatherings in 2014.

We had wondered whether there was any real need for us there right now. A family of six imposes a big new burden when we show up. (We have several friends in Spain helping us with housing options, vehicles, visa paperwork, etc.) So we asked a lot of questions about whether the leaders in Spain could really use us and whether we would be more burden than blessing. One of the greatest pieces of encouragement came from one of the church leaders right after we decided to go back:

“This reminds me of truths I needed to rehearse –  that God still has a plan for Algete – that I’m part of his plan and so are you. I’m bowled over that God still wants to use me, and that he is moving pieces into place (YOU ALL) that I had not dreamed of, not dared believe for, not known about.”

How exciting to get to work and worship again with people like that! More than any specific thing we’ll do, going back is about our general support and vote of confidence for people we love who are there for the long term.

But for you who ask, “But what will you do?” here are a few of the specifics we’ve been discussing:

  • Helping with worship, studies, and other church activities, and meeting with the church’s leaders to plan for these.
  • English classes in the community. We did these last time, had a good response, and met many new people through them.
  • Establish a regular men’s meeting. I was just beginning a series of men’s lunches when we left in 2014, and we think there’s opportunity to try it again.
  • Retreats. We’ve discussed offering a couples’ retreat and an English weekend for all ages.
  • English week in the schools. Last time, Emily and I went to all seven Algete elementary schools to lead “English Week” presentations. (The country focus was Canada –– Emily went as a Mountie. I went as Justin Bieber. It was as good as you’re imagining.)
  • Missionary support. In 2013-14, this involved over a dozen airport runs, a few people we helped move as they arrived or left, and showing up as extra support for various events.

Last time, most of what we did wasn’t planned until after we arrived. And some of what we expected to do never materialized. We’re sure the same will be true this time.

Aside from church-specific activities, we generally plan to keep our time as free as possible for people. We developed some great friendships last time over long Spanish meals, time at the park and pool, a reading group we started, and for Emily, a lot of teas while kids were in school.

2 – Slowing down

In at least one sense, this is like what most people think of when they hear “sabbatical.” Life slows down quite a bit. We plan to do a lot to serve in the church and to be available for people, but we don’t expect 50+-hour work weeks. There’s extra time for language learning, reading, writing, and being with friends and family. There are fewer deadlines, fewer commitments, less stress. We try to use that freedom responsibly. It’s not a year for Netflix binges.

Some of that extra freedom is probably necessary. Day-to-day life in a foreign country is more taxing. Grocery shopping, going to the bank, or buying a fly swatter can take a lot more effort.

The whole bit about “slowing down” is more for Emily and me than it is for the kids. They’ll be in school, which will be all- or mostly-Spanish, with new friends, new norms, and new curricula (e.g. they have to learn cursive, gone the way of the dodo here). So life may not slow much at all for them. We’re proud of them that they’re up for that challenge. And it’s probably good that we have extra time to devote to them as they manage new schools and new relationships.

3 – Traveling?

Some people ask if we’ll use the time to travel. We’ll travel a bit. Last time included a trip to the south coast during spring break, a long weekend to Barcelona, and several day trips to nearby towns. We’re hoping to make it to the north coast this time.

And if friends or family visit, we’ll make plans to take them places. (Seriously, this is an open invitation. If you book the flight to Madrid, we can take care of the rest. It’s a great deal. You should consider it. Yes, you.)

But aside from a few small excursions, we expect to spend almost all of our time right there in Algete. That’s the people and place we’re going for.

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Sabbatical year

FAQ: How are the kids?

As we’ve shared about returning to Spain this summer, the most common question people have asked is about how the kids are feeling. One of the biggest differences between now and seven years ago is that the kids can share about this for themselves well now. And they’ve decided they want to. They asked if they could record their own occasional podcast about our plans and time in Spain.

Here’s their first recording.


Hear the podcast audio on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or download the mp3 here. It should be available soon via Stitcher, etc. If you want updates whenever we (Teddy & Emily or the kids) put out a new episode, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.


If you prefer video, here’s the original, unedited video of their recording.


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Sabbatical year

España 2020

Hi friends,

We’re reviving this old site. This is the first post here since nearly six years ago, when we were preparing to leave Spain and return to Kentucky. To those of you who followed it back then, thank you. Your support leading up to and throughout that year meant more to us than we had even expected.

For anyone new to this page, our family spent 11 months in Spain in 2013-14. We called it a sabbatical year. (That’s a term we’ve struggled with since, but we’ve decided to keep using it. More on that later.) You can see more about that decision and the year that followed on the page “The First Year.”

A “first year” implies a second. We’re reviving this site because our family is planning to return to Spain this summer––late July or early August––for another 11 months. That decision has been even more surprising to us than to some others. We’ll share more about it as we go.

Though many things will be the same––we’re going back to the same town, working with most of the same people, on the same 11-month timeline––this experience is, at least so far, more different than it is similar to the last.

Last time, we were primarily compelled to go because of rhythms and renewal. While those are still a factor, this time is more about people and place. If we hadn’t been able to return to that little town and church and group of people––an obstacle that was a strong possibility for a few months––we would be staying home.

Last time, it was as if signs and provision were falling from the sky. We would pray and surprising things would happen to propel us forward. Everything seemed to come together easily and on time. This time, nothing has fallen from the sky.

Last time, the kids weren’t involved in the decision and planning process. This time, they’re heavily involved. (In some ways, they may be the reason it’s happening.)

Last time, we were quite ready to get away. This time, there has already been a lot of grief in leaving. That’s despite the fact that last time, I thought I was leaving my position at the church for good, while this time, we’ve already made plans for me to return.

Each of those little paragraphs has much more behind it. We’ll let this serve as an introduction and share more over the next several months.

One other difference between last time and this one: Last time, all of our updates came as blog posts from Emily or me. This time will be different. Emily suggested that we record some short family podcasts. The kids agreed but demanded suggested that they also do their own recording “so people can hear from us without you all interrupting.”

Here’s a clip from their first recording. And now the full audio and video are available here.

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Sabbatical year

Fresh Breeze

I am sitting here listening to a combination of “White Christmas” (the movie the kids have chosen for our Friday Movie Night) and the wind outside. It has started to warm up and the breeze is so welcome. Quite often the breeze becomes a strong gust. I had no idea before we came how windy it could be here but on those hot days it’s worth the occasional slamming door to have the windows and doors open. I usually open them every chance I get. Teddy is kind enough to tolerate it.

People use the breeze and the air in a more practical way here. It’s common to see the linens being aired out by hanging out of an open window. Also, living in a Mediterranean country and lunch being the primary meal, the open windows help to air the fish smell out of the house after lunch. There’s something about a breeze clearing out the air in the house and giving it a fresh flavor. Sometimes gentle and almost unnoticeable and other times so strong you can barely stand straight.

There’s something in this year that has felt like a fresh breeze. We’ve had time to spend together as a couple, we’ve had more time as a family, we’ve been able to get a more global sense of the church. It’s refreshing to remember and set aside time for the things that are most important, a call to be still at times.

I have to admit that I am a busy-body. “Hi, my name is Emily and I have problems resting.” “If I’m wrong I will resign as the president of the New England Chapter of busy-bodies anonymous.” (Just heard this line in the movie.) I knew this year would be challenging in this way for me. Before we came I had a list of all the things I was going to do while I was here. What can I say? I like making lists. But in hindsight, I can see the ridiculousness of this. Okay, maybe I could see a bit of it at the time but I quickly pushed that aside so that I could “GET THINGS DONE”! My list included many good things: Spending more time with family, having devotions more consistently, practicing Spanish every day, flossing more regularly, wearing my retainer more (totally serious), etc. Some things were obviously more important than others. As Teddy and I were preparing for this year we were able to figure out that if we devoted our time to all the things that we wanted to do then there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do them all. We could have scheduled our ‘sabbatical’ year so well that we would have had no time left.

Luckily that’s not the way things have ended up.

We have come to the end. That’s a sentence I have trouble writing. As we reflect over the last year, as in every stage of life, there are times where we got it right and times where we got it wrong. The good times were choosing to sit and watch the kids play or watch the birds outside in moments of free time instead of surfing on Pinterest. After an entire year, I’m still practicing the stillness side of Sabbath. I’ve been reading in Ezekiel where God says that the Israelites “dishonored” his name by not keeping the Sabbath. For me right now there is nothing passive about a Sabbath. It’s staying on my guard for the things that waste my time or direct me/my thoughts toward myself instead of God or others. I used to think that Sabbaths weren’t for those that had young children. Making meals and breaking up fights weren’t what I thought made up a Sabbath. Then I read a fabulous book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, that lists ‘the care of children’ as a Sabbath activity. Nothing turns me/my thoughts away from myself like having to care for others.

Where was I? Oh, yeah the breeze. The breeze of Spain has aired me out. There are so many things that make my heart ache to leave. There’s a spot on one of the trails where I run where you can see 360 degrees around. You can see the Cuatro Torres (the only four skyscrapers of Madrid), the mountain range, our little town and all the fields that cover everything else. I have tried to stop there and force myself to take in everything that I feel and see so that I won’t lose any of it after I get home. But even more than that I will miss the people and the way they spend time together. The other day our group of neighbors had a BBQ. We ate slowly and talked for five hours. There was no sense of having overstayed the welcome. It was relaxed and meaningful. What a lesson in stillness and the value of time spent with people.

I have a refreshed sense of family time, time with my spouse, time for relationships. My prayer in these last few weeks is that I won’t divert back to the ‘to-do’ list but will use what the Spanish people have taught me about not being so focused on accomplishing tasks that I overlook time spent together.

Sabbatical year

The Church as a Blessing

I’ll start with a confession/acknowledgment. I’ve always turned my nose up at community events put on by churches. I’m thinking about “secular” events––the kind that could have just as easily been sponsored by a Rotary Club or the city hall, where they distribute a little grab-bag at the end with information about the church and maybe a brief articulation of the gospel. Or sometimes a little bolder: someone takes the microphone near the end of the event and shares the gospel and/or invites people to come to a worship service.

Now we’ve come to Spain and helped put on several community events and activities sponsored by the church. We ran an English Weekend in September, held a big Thanksgiving dinner in November, and sponsored a secular concert in January. We’re teaching English classes to government workers for free every Friday. Next week, we’ll be in all seven of Algete’s elementary schools leading an “English Week” program. None of these are exclusively Christian activities. That is, any Rotary Club could do them without needing to make any changes (except for that little handout telling people who we are and giving them an invitation to our church gatherings).

Emily's mom, sister, and sister-in-law came at the beginning of the month. Her sisters just left, but her mom will be here for a month, with her dad joining us for 10 days at the end.
Emily’s mom, sister, and sister-in-law came at the beginning of the month. Her sisters just left, but her mom will be here for a month, with her dad joining us for 10 days at the end.

Rather than turning my nose up, I’ve come to appreciate these activities and look forward to more opportunities for them. That change of heart has come because I’ve seen a different reason for the activities in the first place.

In the past, I’ve seen the invitation as the real point of these activities. Why does a church hold a concert or a children’s fair? So they can invite people to their church or share the gospel. If they knew that no one would respond to those invitations, they wouldn’t waste their time on the events.

But the invitation has never been the point of the activities here. There’s no veiled, “real” agenda. The point has been to bless.


We wrote early on about the way the church here emphasizes prayer––a more serious emphasis than I’ve ever seen or given before. Most unique to the church’s prayers here is a focus on blessing. We spend a lot of time praying God’s blessing over Spain, the city of Algete, and its people.

The church has especially taken Psalm 132 as a word for us. The psalm says,

13 For the LORD has chosen Zion,
he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,
14 “This is my resting place for ever and ever;
here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.
15 I will bless her with abundant provisions;
her poor I will satisfy with food.
16 I will clothe her priests with salvation,
and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.”

One of our leaders began asking last year whether God could say the same for Algete. Whether God has chosen Algete, desiring to dwell here and bless its people.* As the church, the Body of Christ, we want to join in that blessing.

Hunter and Abigail's 5 year-old birthday party. A big event with family, neighborhood friends, and church friends.
Hunter and Abigail’s 5 year-old birthday party. A big event with family, neighborhood friends, and church friends.

Why do we do English camps and classes and presentations? Why do we sponsor “secular” concerts and Thanksgiving dinners? To bless. Those events have no veiled purpose. Yes, we hand out information about the church and invite people to join us. We do that because we want to invite people at every opportunity. But those invitations truly aren’t the reason for the events. If we knew no one would respond to our invitation, even after doing months’ worth of free English classes, would we still do the classes? Absolutely! We don’t do them to add new people to our church. We do them because we’re part of the Church, and the Church blesses.

Maybe this has always been the point of all those “secular” events I’ve seen churches sponsoring, and I’m late to understand it. If their primary purpose is veiled and strategic––trying to bait people with an event, then hook them with an invitation––well then, I continue to turn my nose up at those. But there’s a place for the church to bless just for the sake of blessing. We bless not to achieve some other goal, but because we are a people of blessing. I’m embarrassed that I’m only now seeing that more clearly.

A Ray family update

March has been very busy, and will continue to be, but it’s a good and special month. Emily’s mom, sister, and sister-in-law came at the beginning of March. The weekend after they arrived, we had a big birthday party for the twins. Her sisters just left, but her mom will be here for a month. A friend from church, Caroline, comes on Sunday to help with English Week. The next week, Emily’s dad arrives to spend ten days with us. In all, we’ll be making 11 airport runs this month, but those represent lots of coming and going for people we’re so happy to have here.

We have only 14 more weeks here. Hard to believe! Paul has already returned to the US (must be out of Spain 6 months due to Social Security regulations) and Sylvia leaves next week. That leaves our church without its two primary leaders and challenges all the rest of us to take on much more leadership. A good challenge for the church.

Also, I paid 9.50 euros (~$13) for a box of Froot Loops at a Taste of America store. I didn’t realize the price until I had paid.

Please pray for us. We could especially use prayer for these things:

  • Our leadership roles in the church will increase over the next months. Pray that we can fill well the big shoes Paul and Sylvia leave.
  • We’re leading English Week in the schools next week, and we’re the “featured speakers” (in Spanish!) at our church’s big worship service at the end of the month. Pray that we lead and share well.
  • We also continue to work on jobs for when we return in July. Please pray for our continued discernment and the right opportunities.


* The psalm’s reference to Zion as God’s chosen place isn’t insignificant. There are lots of big theological things happening here. You can’t just replace “Zion” with any city of your choosing. And yet, we still believe there’s a word here for us about our particular location.

Sabbatical year

Learning to listen and more notes on calling…

We had lunch and a great conversation with neighbors last weekend. That conversation included a lengthy discussion about faith.

The woman is an atheist, but she pursued the discussion. At one point, she said, “What I don’t like about a lot of religious people is that they don’t listen. They just want to tell you what they think and what you should believe.” [That’s my best translation — she said it in Spanish. She may have actually said she’d like more soup.]

Right there, for the first time, I thanked God for my bad Spanish. To understand the majority of what someone is saying, I have to devote my entire mental energy to listening. Divert any of that attention––e.g. to what I want to say next––and I’ll be lost in the conversation.

I wondered, if our conversation had been in English, if I would have come across as another one of those “religious people” who’s uninterested in listening. I know my more typical manner is to give half my attention to what someone is saying and half my attention to how I want to respond. I (wrongly) suppose that I’ll be able to understand what they’re saying if I give them a good half of my attention.

For what it’s worth, I usually understand more with half my attention in an English conversation than when I give my undivided attention in Spanish. But understanding isn’t the only point. The act of listening, itself, makes a big difference.

These shouldn’t be astonishing revelations. I’ve always known that active, fully-engaged listening is important. Be quick to listen, slow to speak… But the Spanish language has made this a necessity for me rather than simply a good idea. That somewhat forced practice has exhibited the way that fully listening to people blesses them. I’m sure many people have learned this more easily and without having to do it in a foreign language.

Our neighbor showed me how many of us––perhaps especially “religious people”––still need to learn to listen rather than just spout off our own beliefs. We have strong and deep-seated beliefs, and we want to share them with people. (I shared more on that in this post.) But we also recognize that none of those people are blank slates, just waiting for us to thrust our beliefs onto them. They have deep histories that have shaped their own deep beliefs and convictions and ways of life, and we want to know more about those. We can only hear those when we’re quick to listen.

Do we speak? Of course! It’s not listen, don’t speak. It’s be quick to listen, slow to speak. I hope that being forced to practice that in Spanish will help me choose to practice it better in English.

More On Calling

In our last post, I suggested more than I intended when I wrote about calling. I’ve received a steady stream of e-mail counsel and questions ever since. Those e-mails have been full of wisdom and encouraging words, so I’m a bit glad that I said what I did, even if it wasn’t what I intended.

I mentioned not having the same assurance of calling that I’ve heard from other pastors. I was thinking about something I’ve heard from several pastors––that if they’re doing anything in their careers other than pastoral ministry, they know they’re doing the wrong thing. I’ve never had that certainty––that career pastoral ministry is the only thing I can do and be faithful to God. I’m okay with that. Calling transcends career. But it makes transitional times like this more ambiguous.

We’re all called. Every one of us. Read through the New Testament, and you’ll see that almost every instance of “calling” is about all of us being called to be the people of God, using our unique, God-given gifts in his service. This will influence our careers, but it may not specify them. A friend reminded me that the Bible reports only a few “particular and extraordinary” callings, and these tend to be for prophets and apostles, not priests and pastors.

Instead, priests and pastors are usually recognized and appointed by the church. They don’t choose themselves, and they’re rarely surprised by a vision from God. The church (hopefully by God’s guiding) appoints them. My path in the UMC has kept me aware of this. I’m not ordained, so my constant submission to the Church isn’t where they’ll appoint me to serve, but whether they’ll appoint me to serve. (I wrote more extensively about that in “Why part-time local pastor?“) A perceptive friend wrote, “Where you might fit best is something you don’t always get to decide.”

Twice this past month, in situations that were poles apart, I’ve said, “I love this!” ––

The first was while we set up chairs for our first worship service this year. I remembered our earliest days setting up chairs in the church basement for Offerings worship––praying, hoping, expecting who might fill those seats and be part of something new. I love preparing for worship, anticipating what God might do.

The second was leading a part of our church’s leaders’ meeting a few weeks ago. Never do I feel more in my element than when I’m working with a group of leaders to pray and plan––asking how we can use their gifts, feed God’s sheep, and reach out to new people.

I expect I’ll always be doing those things in some capacity, whether they’re connected to my career or not. This much I know: God calls us all to himself and to his service. That’s not up for question. The only question is how each of us does that best. If we’re sincere about asking that question, it will involve a lot of listening and a lot of patience, and we may not get to decide the outcome.

Quick to listen, slow to speak… 

Sabbatical year

Looking Forward

I shared in an earlier post that we had decided not to look forward until 2014. We wanted any thoughts about home to focus on reflection and gratitude during the first half of our time away. But just like that, 2014 is here. With its coming, we know it’s time to begin looking forward.

Looking forward is about lots of things. Once we go back to Kentucky, we expect life to return to more typical (for us) forms. But we don’t intend our future to look just like our past. Just as New Year’s gives people a chance to reflect on their past year and make some adjustments for the year to come, we’ve all along intended this year to be a larger-scale version of that reflection and adjustment.

Whatever else it is, looking forward has to do with jobs. We need to begin looking at possibilities and having discussions with people about work. A few people contacted us about possibilities last fall, and we said we’d like to wait until now to have those discussions.

I come to that process with equal parts anxiety and restlessness. I loved a lot about pastoral ministry over the last 12 years. I loved the privilege of participating in some of the most important times of people’s lives––preparations for weddings and funerals and all the joy and hardship that surround those, new babies, praying with people through difficult decisions and struggles and celebrating with people after breakthroughs and miracles. I loved the opportunities to preach and lead and experiment with new ways of doing things and reintroduce ancient ways of doing things. And as with any vocation, there were parts I didn’t love. But more importantly, I’ve never had that same assurance of calling that I’ve heard from several other pastors––that assurance that God clearly has called me to the pastorate for all of life. Plenty of questions linger there.

So the anxiety in looking forward is that I know I’ll need to begin answering those questions, at least for the next season of life. And if not pastoral ministry, then what? And what opportunities will there be? And will any of them be the right fit? If you’ve ever had a time of unclarity about which direction you should take––and which directions will even be available––I’m sure you understand that anxiety.

The restlessness is more simple to explain. It feels good to have a direction and a plan. Planner that I am, I’ve never been just six months away from having no idea what was next.

The kids' table at the Día de Los Reyes party. Hannah won the prize for finishing her chocolate (think, thickest hot chocolate you've ever seen) first.
The kids’ table at the Día de Los Reyes party. Hannah won the prize for finishing her chocolate (think thickest hot chocolate you’ve ever seen) first.

Looking forward, being here

And then there’s the other side of looking forward––it reinforces that we’re here only six months more. People have asked how it affects things knowing that we’re only here temporarily. It increases urgency and makes us plan wisely about how we’re doing things––being sure that nothing that needs to continue is so reliant on us that it can’t work without us. But I think that’s all that it changes.

Some people have asked if being here temporarily makes us less likely to connect, or think more now about beginning to disconnect. Not at all. Wherever we are, we’re only there temporarily. Temporary may be measured in days or decades, but it will come to an end. Nothing gives me more urgency than that reminder.

So while our first six months have been primarily about developing foundations––gaining a small general understanding of our surroundings and meeting people, we hope to use our next six months to invest in those as much as we can––cultivating friendships, enjoying people, doing our best to support and encourage church leaders, and finding better and more opportunities to share the gospel.

With the reminder that all these things are temporary comes also the reminder of eternal life. We believe our brief time here is contributing to something eternal. Though the church buildings and structures will come to an end with all the rest, a church community is being drawn up into eternal life. What a great privilege to be a part of that work!

Looking forward brings a lot of new prayers. We’re praying for God to give us discernment and clarity about what we should be doing next, and that our own designs and desires don’t lead us astray. We’re praying for our new church here to take some big strides this spring and that we’ll be able to give helpful support and leadership to it. We’re praying to enjoy and develop relationships well, even with the knowledge that our time here is short.

If you’ve been praying for us, thank you! We’d especially appreciate prayers for thinking forward well, for the right opportunities to become available, and for God to give us discernment with those. Please continue to pray for our time here. Our church community is trying to make important decisions about worship locations, we have our next big worship service coming up this Saturday, and we have an important leaders’ retreat for training, prayer, and discussion about next steps on the following Saturday.

Sabbatical year


As we ventured into this year, we knew there would be a lot of failures, especially with respect to language. Some people have asked us to specifically relate the times that the language barrier guided us into territory both humiliating and hysterical. (Like the time that I followed my friend upstairs when she was going to change her clothes. It turns out that what she was telling me downstairs was “Wait right here for me,” not “Follow me.”)

The bigger question about failure, though, was what would make this year a success or a failure? Time spent learning a different culture? Acquisition of language? Participation in the church around the globe? Making friends? Winning converts? A thriving new church here? The list of possibilities is actually quite long. Funny given that a sabbatical year was also supposed to be about simplicity.

Teddy and I have struggled with what makes this year “worth it.” Will those that have invested in our time here be satisfied with what we bring home?

I had a great Bible study the other day. We have been studying Hebrews, and we were reflecting on Hebrews 11–the passage about Abraham’s life. One of the questions was, “Have you ever left a place of security in order to follow God? What was the result? Were you ever tempted to return?” Ummm… yeah, though the decision to come here for a year feels small compared to the decisions of others we’ve met–people who have left home for good to go to faraway places, or those who have answered a call to go to places much more dangerous and difficult than any we’ve been. Still, the conversation turned to me as an example of this. I felt honored and embarrassed. I tried to find things to say about the exact reasons I thought God had called us to come here, but alas, I didn’t have the answers.

I am proud that we chose to do something that we felt God was calling us to. How lucky I am to have a husband who is listening to the pulling of Christ and that we could work as a team to spend this year in Spain. But I always find myself needing to justify it to those around us.

Why would we take a year away from family? Why would we leave financial security for uncertainty? What is God trying to teach us? What is he trying to use us to do? I have many questions, few answers. We trusted that God was calling us to this and that he would provide what we needed. We took a leap of faith without all the answers.

So what would make it a success or a failure? The conversation came up because I don’t know that our kids are going to come back speaking Spanish. “So, you’re telling me that your kids spent a year in Spain and won’t be speaking Spanish??”

No por eso estamos aquí (We are not here for that reason), I have to remind myself. What makes this year a success or a failure?

Back to Bible study: One of the group members said, “You know, Abraham wasn’t the evangelist of Ur (his town). He was revered and regarded as righteous because he led a holy life and passed down a heritage of holiness within his family.” That was a huge weight lifted.

For me, this year is a success if we endeavor to trust God, lead holy lives, and teach our children to do the same. Isn’t it through this that others see Christ in us most?

When I get bogged down with all the day-to-day things to do or worry that I’m not sharing my faith enough, I come back to focus on what I believe is most important right now. I truly believe that years later I’ll be able to see more clearly what this year is about, but for now I find peace in knowing that God’s primary calling for all of us is to the simple, yet difficult, mission of holy lives. I can live with that.

Sabbatical year

On Looking Back, and a Ministry Update

A Reflection — Looking Back

It’s good to be able to stop occasionally and take a long view back over things. There are some built-in times to do that in life, usually at major transition points — a graduation, leaving a job, moving…

Those occasions are helpful breaks after all the time we spend immersed in the day-to-day demands of life. If you’re like me, those times make you more sentimental than usual, more ready to overlook some of the petty things that clutter daily life, more grateful for people and special moments and even mundane routines.

In total, we’ll be away twelve months — six in 2013, six in 2014. When we began our time away, we committed to not think much about the future for the first half of our time away — until January. As far as life back in Kentucky goes, that’s giving us some good time to reflect back, which has proven to be a special blessing. More than expected.

I’ve found myself thinking about different people and how grateful I am for them. Some of them are obvious — people who surely would have made any short list of most important people in my life. Others come out of the blue — someone who sent a small note of encouragement several years ago, someone who always went out of her way to pay me special attention when I was a kid. A few have come to mind often enough that I sent them an e-mail or card of thanks.

When you stop and think about where you are — wherever you are — you start to realize just how many people played a role in that. Whether it was because of too much busyness or too little effort, I hadn’t spent enough time reflecting on that, being grateful, and expressing that gratitude.

When January comes, we’ll begin to look forward again. We’ll need to start thinking about jobs and figuring out all the other details that will come with a return to more “normal” life. For now, not worrying about the future has been a welcome break to allow more reflection on the past.

So many of you who read this have been a part of that great community of love and forgiveness and support and encouragement. Thank you.

Ministry Update

Spending time to reflect on the past should never make us miss the present. And there’s plenty going on now that we’re happy to share about…

We’ve had some good meetings in the past few weeks, and we have some exciting things coming up. This Sunday, we had our biggest church meeting since the first one — 18 people and a great spirit in the room. After a week in a city-provided space, we decided to move back to the Cummings’ home for now. There’s a great difference in intimacy and what you can do when you’re in a home. We especially enjoy having a meal together after worship each time.

For the first time this week, I led our Bible Study time and gave a short message — some in Spanish, some in English while others helped translate. There were only a few pieces of what I shared in Spanish that were entirely unintelligible. I learned not to take a Descartes quote that’s difficult to understand in English, then try to translate it into something that makes any sense in Spanish.

Our children’s and teens’ groups are also coming along well. The teenagers who have come are really bright, and I’m enjoying early discussions with them.

At the end of November we’ll have a big Thanksgiving celebration for anyone we can invite in Algete. The Cummingses have done this for several years and had 60 there last year. It’s something a lot of people here look forward to and hopefully a good opportunity for people to meet each other. Then in early December we’ll be having a white elephant party with the youth (something they’ve never done but are excited about) and possibly with children and young adults, as well.

Thanks for all of your continued prayers. We have so much to give thanks for this Thanksgiving season.


Sabbatical year

“So what do you do?”

“What will you be doing?” Several people asked before we came, and we weren’t able to give them many specifics. A lot was still undefined.

When people hear “sabbatical,” they tend to hear one of two things —

  1. A time to break away from work for rest and renewal, similar to a lot of pastors’ sabbaticals. I’ve recommended that more pastors (and others) consider something like this.
  2. A time to break away from normal work and focus on a specific project, similar to the sabbaticals that professors take.

We intended this time to be a bit of both. We wanted to participate in a new church start, learn from veteran missionaries, and give extra support to them. We also wanted to devote more time than usual to family and some of our other interests.

So what have we been doing?

1. Formal ministry work — We’re in the early stages of a new church start here in Algete. That has involved a lot of prayer, a lot of meetings with leaders, and a lot of planning and inviting for our early gatherings.

Our regular church gatherings include three prayer times (two for the church, one for other OMS workers) on Fridays, worship every other Saturday, and groups for children, youth, and young adults on the off-weekends — Friday nights for young adults, Sunday nights for children and youth.

All of those groups have had their initial meetings with small crowds, but we’ve been encouraged by the spirit of the group and having a few committed leaders. I remember the early days of our Offerings worship gatherings back in Lexington — a small group of dedicated people — and it excites me to think about what a great community that became. We’re hoping the same will happen here over time.

We’re also doing a few programmed things to try to meet more new people and build relationships. Those include the English Weekend we had in September, an upcoming Thanksgiving party, Emily’s Tuesday night Patchwork group, and English Week in the schools this spring. We might also be teaching English classes for children and youth if enough people sign up with the Department of Education.

That’s a brief outline. We’ll be sharing lots more about all of these throughout the year. I call this “formal” ministry work because we hope several of the other things we’re doing are ministry-related, too.

2. Language Learning – We spend as much time as we can trying to improve our Spanish. We do Anki flash cards and Duolingo religiously. (If you’re interested in learning a language, I highly recommend both.) We have people over for English/Spanish exchanges. And we’ve just begun Spanish classes through the Department of Education on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Paul and Sylvia have to return to the U.S. for six months beginning in March, which will leave us responsible for more of the ministry work from March through June. That’s giving us an extra urgency for language learning now.

parque retiro
At Parque del Retiro.

3. Family Time – Though we have plenty to do here, we’re not as busy as we were at home. That extra time was something we wanted to safeguard. In Spain’s schools, children have a 2-hour break to come home and eat before going back for an afternoon session. It has been great to have lunch and dinner together as a family most days of the week. We usually find something special to do each weekend, too. While the kids were off school one Friday, we took a trip to Parque del Retiro — a beautiful, 350-acre park in Madrid. Other times it’s something a bit simpler — hot chocolate and churros (i.e. Spanish doughnuts) at the churrería or walking a nearby path full of blackberry bushes and fig and pear trees.

4. Side Interests – I schedule consistent time for reading and writing. I had looked forward to spending more time on a few research interests and working on writing projects. Emily has been working on some sewing and craft projects.

5. Meeting People – We use a lot of our free time to meet people in our neighborhood. They’ve been quick to welcome us, and we’ve already begun making some good friends. When we’re free and the weather is nice, we go to a nearby park where several families go before dinner. While the kids are at school, Emily regularly meets with some of the other mothers in the neighborhood for scrapbooking (a brand new concept in Spain) or tea. And we’ve begun having people over for dinners and being invited to others’ houses. We’ve really enjoyed all these developing relationships and have had several opportunities to discuss faith, too.

6. Keeping in Touch – It was important for us to keep in touch with people back home – especially family. We have at least two or three brief Skype conversations each week with family. We’ve also kept up with other friends, leaders from the church, and the coffee shop, but we try to limit those conversations to about one per week. The Internet and social media can be a great blessing or a great distraction when you go away for a while. We love things like being able to watch nieces and nephews grow from afar and keeping contact with other good friends, but we also know we could spend all of our time here “back home” via the computer.

So far, we’ve been happy with how we’ve been able to use our time. We’re accomplishing a lot, learning a lot, and still having the extra time for family and new relationships that we hoped for. Thanks to all of you who have asked how we are and have prayed for us.