I remember where I was when I first saw that the name Abba was in the word Sabbatical. It was a season where I was uniquely hungry to hear from my Father. The word means daddy or papa, a name of deep intimacy...it is the "first fresh flash" of an innocent child when they speak of their father in unadulterated emotion and unedited words. Abba.
I knew that as I moved into a season of sabbatical there was a very clear purpose for it. If I would pause for but a moment, the purpose would surface like a bubble. I felt an immediate sense that I longed to be close to and hear from my Father. Over 20 years of serving Him I had lost the joy of knowing Him and feeling loved by Him. I know that seems strange, but somehow my connection to God was felt when I would do something good--better yet, great--for him. I would feel loved by him when I would hit a home run in ministry. But when I was in a rut or when I laid an egg so to speak, I would almost feel like He would shake his head in disappointment. Unknowingly it led to this cycle: I would prove and then he will approve. This works for a while...it actually produces some stellar outcomes. But in time, it is tiresome and your heart is threadbare, thinned by the trial and error, the combine of performance-based approval.
I remember a couple months ago in a particularly poignant time of self-examination that I had an encounter with God that came out of nowhere. It was a Sunday night and the first of two days of a conference our denomination put on to care for the pastor's soul. Honestly, I had just come off a long weekend of speaking 4 times and pouring myself out, so I wasn't thrilled to sing more songs and listen to a message...I just wanted to go to bed. As the first session started I remember just letting others sing around me and soaking it in. We were standing after a song and someone just encouraged us to spend a couple minutes listening for God to speak to our hearts after spending most of the weekend ministering for him. I remember him talking about how often we are talking about God but have very little time to listen for his still, small voice.
To be honest, I was tired. I had tried doing this several times in the weeks prior, so I was a little jaded as well. Listening prayer is something that has been hit or miss for me. But I stood there and closed my eyes hoping I wouldn't fall asleep standing up. I thought at the very least it would be a peaceful moment to be still and center my soul. Frankly, that would have been miraculous enough given the breakneck speed of life at the time. As I clenched my jaw and forced myself to both concentrate and relax (what?), the craziest thing shot into my head. I know I couldn't have made it up because I was in what I call "conference mode". It could be defined as "checked out mixed with dialed in". Checked out because I wasn't 'on' at church, but Dialed in because I was 'on' in the sense that I was seeing pastor friends, pressing through fatigue, creating team dynamic with my staff who was sitting in my row, and reuniting with my wife who decided to join me for the first night. I was all kinds of split-personalitied at the time. This does not bode well for listening prayer.
But in that moment I heard a phrase that pierced the firewalls of formality with a simplicity and tenderness that hit like a hurricane.
"You're my boy...and you're a good boy."
I heard it again, only the second time, the pause between the first statement and second was even longer. I felt my heart bend toward it like a plant bends toward sunlight. Tears welled up in my eyes clenched shut fighting them back...but nonetheless, the made their way out, down my cheeks gathering in the corners of my mouth and eventually joining from both sides in the cleft of my chin. Who knew that a 2-minute time for God to speak would be plenty enough time for him to do so.
The reason his words meant so much to me is that often I feel so far from being a beloved boy. I feel like those days are over and I have to be a mature man. A boy gets to run free and take risks. A boy laughs and makes mistakes and speaks without thinking. A boy doesn't live under stifling demands or fear that the world might collapse if he has a lapse of judgment. A boy isn't worried about tomorrow or fretting yesterday...he is consumed with the pregnant present. He is developing and given grace in that developmental process. Grace. So much latitude for error. So much room from improvement. So much slack for lack.
But the man...the man must perform. The man needs to learn from mistakes cause you don't get the grace you once enjoyed. The pleasure is replaced with pressure, and everything seems like life or death. There are people counting on you to succeed and with every success there is more to lose. The man is thought to need less love and affirmation, so he chases after approval through impressing people with his exploits. But each exploit demands an encore. It is wearisome as the author of Ecclesiastes admits, burdensome beyond belief. If I could sum up this life in two words I would pick empty and tired.
So for God to claim me as His boy was huge. It summoned out the son in me, not the father, husband, pastor, or leader...the son. The young man within. I felt him calling for me: "Where is the joy in my boy?" He cared. He got it. My Abba was onto me. He was into me. Like a good dad would be, he was tuned into my heart. I was His boy.
But that wasn't all He wanted to say and, Lord knows, it wasn't the part I needed to hear the most.
"...and you're a good boy."
This was the kicker. This was the question of my heart. After all that I had said and done for year after year, was it good enough, was I good enough. I know that many of my motives along the way were fleshly, but it is easy to just beat myself up and conclude: "I am depraved and all I do is the fruit of depravity even when I think I'm pure-hearted." You begin to question if there is a good bone in your body and whether every act is the result premeditated pride. The paralysis of never being enough and never doing enough is a hamster wheel of horror.
I so long to be good. I don't even want to be great anymore, I want to be known for my goodness. The pure and simple altruism of a life of honor. I want to be free of guile and agendas and angles. I want to be genuine and honest. But the attack on my mind is fierce. "You are false. You are a liar. You are a poser. Everything you do and are is fake." I don't feel good and often wonder if I am good.
So to hear God say, "You're my boy...and you're a good boy" was like salve on a wounded son's soul. I instantly felt relief and restoration. Instantly. The words were so clean and clear. I needed them that day. I need them every day.
There hasn't been a day since that I don't wake up in the morning and remind myself of God's words to me that night...
"Jason, you're my boy...and you're a good boy."