Back to School: Know Jesus (Stories from My Sabbatical)

We started a series called “Back to School” at Gateway Church in Austin.

As school is set to start, let’s go back to the basics. In this series, we discover what it looks like to explore God and be rooted in the fundamentals of the Christian faith. When we begin to discover who God made us to be, and then use our unique identity to love both God and others, we can change the world.

Digging Deeper

Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning. 

Digging Deeper Questions

This week I shared a message called “Know Jesus.”

Audio Version of the Message:


Message Notes from Carlos Ortiz and Eric Bryant:

Today we’re continuing our Back to School series, where each week we will be covering exactly what the kids team covers with our children, and each week will represent what we call The 5 Key Concepts of Gateway Kids

We, as teenagers, college students and adults, will journey together to walk as Jesus intended us to, to return to a child-like innocence and dependance as we endeavor to grow to be like Jesus, or for some of us who are exploring faith, to better understand the teachings of Jesus. 

So, here’s today’s key concept as we read it from the Kids Team here at Gateway:

Know Jesus: We need to learn about who Jesus is and why He came to earth. When we talk about Jesus and His place in our story (or more accurately, our place in His story) it helps us believe, helps us understand, helps us take ownership of our own faith, and helps us to live for Him.

One important caveat… knowing Jesus is not a concept to be grasped, but a person to be experienced. Jesus knows you and wants to be known by you! 

As our kids team says all the time to our children: You can become a friend with God!

For us as adults since the word friend can be so confusing now with the busyness of life, the lack of time we may spend with other people, and the fact we have “friends” on Facebook we don’t even know, I want to use a couple of different words to help us understand what this means. 

We are invited into communion with God. 

We can have an intimate and close relationship with God.

For some of us, that word “intimacy” makes us uncomfortable because in our culture the word intimacy has been connected with sex and sex is so lifted up and seen as the ultimate expression of love, but that’s not actually true. 

The word intimacy is so much more than that. Intimacy is defined as “close familiarity or friendship; closeness.” Or “feeling of being close, and emotionally connected and supported” It’s about being fully known and knowing another fully.

You could never marry and experience the beauty of love and intimacy in your friendships and in your extended family.
You could be married for 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years and never experience the depth of love and intimacy your heart and soul long to experience.

Love is so much more than being in a committed relationship.

We were created to have an emotional, mental, and spiritual connection with God and with others – where we are fully known and still fully loved and where we fully know and still fully love.

This summer I was given the gift of a sabbatical. At Gateway we get two months off every 5 years. Since our work is often jumping into crises and trauma, it’s a really beneficial way to get into this rhythm for health and longevity.

For me the timing was really good. I was slipping back into workaholism, a problem I have had in the past.

In the spring I had a gift from God in a leadership coach. I let her know how out of sorts I was starting to get, but then trying to get ready to be off for 2 months means a lot more work to do on top of the work you already do. 

I was getting frenetic and unable to fully focus, and I’m sure made life difficult for our staff, my family, and any of you I may have been meeting with in those weeks between Easter and the summer. And for that I am truly sorry. 

So sabbatical could not have come soon enough!

Now several months before my sabbatical, I had prayed for God’s provision to be able to spend more of my time out of town. Traveling is life-giving to me. Miraculously it started to happen! So I had it all mapped out. 

  • One week with Deborah at a resort in the Dominican Republic.
  • One week by myself in Minneapolis working with other pastors on connecting more deeply with God, reflecting on our calling, our mission, our core values, and acknowledging our shadow mission. 
  • Then a family trip to Greece. 
  • Then one month in Austin
  • Then one last family trip through LA to help Trevi get her car to school in Santa Barbara.

And then my plans fell apart. 

  • Deborah was told by a doctor the flu she had in May could have become pneumonia or a collapsed lung so she should not travel to the Dominican Republic. 
  • Trevi’s arrival date for school was pushed back a week meaning Deborah and Caleb couldn’t come to Southern California. It also meant that I was going to need to take 2 trips to CA in the last week of my sabbatical. 
  • It also meant that two of our family trips became me by myself trips.

Although it wasn’t what I had planned, it became an amazing time to connect deeply with God – which was the goal of this sabbatical all along.

In 32 years of being on staff at churches in Texas, Seattle, and Los Angeles, I’ve had 3 sabbaticals.

  • The first one was in Los Angeles and was all about physical healing. At age 38 I had burned out physically and had back surgery and the recovery associated with that.
  • Five years ago was all about relationally healing. God did a lot of healing in my marriage and in my relationship with my kids who were teenagers at the time.
    This time was about emotional and spiritual healing.
  • My last sabbatical I had 2 weekend trips on my own and 1 family vacation planned with 5 weeks in Austin. Since that sabbatical was all about rest and time with family I went offline for 5 weeks. My time with God came when the family was asleep or busy or on my solo trips. It was a great experience!

But this time, I sensed God wanted to do something deeper. This time I sensed God calling me to a rhythm of rest that would continue even after my sabbatical. 

So rather than giving up my phone and the internet for 5 weeks and going back to life as normal for 2 weeks, this time I was being called to give up my phone and internet for extended parts of every day.

I was being invited to follow God’s lead on how I spent each day. I was invited into a level of discipline that would require God’s help to pull off. 

In some ways, 5 weeks offline was easier because I didn’t have the temptation to go online because I couldn’t. (Some of you might remember it was supposed to have been 6 weeks, but I kept checking emails up until I got called out).

But that’s not real life. 

This time I felt God inviting me to trust Him to lead me each day. 

I had to wrestle with real life discipline. 

  • For the most part I didn’t watch TV unless my wife wanted to watch. Last time that was hard for me. This time it wasn’t. 
  • I gave up the news for the entire 2 months which wasn’t really that hard for me since I often take breaks from the news.
  • And this time as opposed to last time, my family was busy with work or their own trips so even when I was in Austin, there were many days that I was at home alone. 
  • My wife now has a job and my kids are young adults. 
  • So last time I had 8 days without my family, this time I had 25!

So the first day of my sabbatical, there I was in the Dominican Republic in a beautiful suite with a jacuzzi tub on the balcony and a view of the Caribbean Ocean but without my wife. 

And it became my sanctuary. 

I dove into my Restore workbook. As many of you know, I have found a great deal of healing through working the 12 steps of recovery.
This time what I discovered behind my struggle with anxiety and control issues was actually what the Bible calls “the fear of man” or for me in a lot of cases “the fear of woman.” 

  • For 8 weeks I got to wrestle with growing in this area.
  • I had to start practicing things like being ok with others being upset with me or being ok not being able to help others.
  • When you have workaholic tendencies and struggle with control issues, this can be tough.
  • I had to start practicing checking in with God to make sure He was pleased with the decisions I was making and checking in with my wife, my running partner, and my therapist on how I was spending my time. In doing so, then I could move forward with peace and joy.

The first book I jumped into in that hotel suite was Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton.

A quote that jumped out at me was this:

“Spiritual intimacy with God…. involves bringing more and more of myself into God’s presence and receiving more and more of God’s being into myself…. Intimacy always leads us to a place where we are not in control…. Relinquishing control can be difficult or even impossible. If we have a high need to be in control in our human relationships (and most of us do), intimacy with God will be very challenging for us.”

– Ruth Haley Barton in Sacred Rhythms

And so began my sabbatical – a call towards a greater intimacy with God. I’m sure I will be sharing more of what I discovered along the way, but let me just say this:

God is inviting you into a level of spiritual intimacy and closeness that you need.

 Here’s what’s fascinating: most of the time we don’t even know we need it because we think we are getting along just fine as we are.

But I’m here to tell you: there is so much more God has for you!

The deepest longings of your heart can be met in communion with God.

The healing you need from the painful losses in life can be healed in relationship with your Heavenly Father.

The meaning and adventure in life you desire can be found as you grow in intimacy with the Spirit of God.

The sense of identity and confidence and clarity can be discovered in Jesus.

When we pursue God, He reveals Himself to us!

When we go on with life without pursuing God, we drift.

 He seems more and more distant but it’s not because He’s gone anywhere. 

He’s right there waiting for us to turn back to Him!

The level of intimacy in your relationship with God is up to you!

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” – James 4:8a

So, here’s the question… Do you know Jesus?  Not do you know the story about Him, but do you actually have a relationship with Him where you have experienced and encountered God?

Or if you’re here exploring faith…  are you open to knowing Him?

Sometimes we settle for knowing about Jesus (mere head knowledge)… but the invitation has always been to know him personally.

Have you experienced the life and freedom… the peace, security and confidence that comes from knowing Him?

Ruth Haley Barton writes in Sacred Rhythms: 

“Your desire for more of God than you have right now, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you. You might think that your woundedness or your sinfulness is the truest thing about you or that your giftedness or your personality type or your job title or your identity as husband or wife, mother or father, somehow defines you. But in reality, it is your desire for God and your capacity to reach for more of God than you have right now that is the deepest essence of who you are.”

– Ruth Haley Barton in Sacred Rhythms

Here’s the beautiful thing: 

you can know God personally and intimately and you can know His voice and guidance in your life.

The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice”… – John 10:3-5, 14-15  

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

I know this imagery can be tough for some of us, because maybe you’ve never felt seen or cared-for by someone who was supposed to protect you or lead you well… 

maybe you’ve never experienced leadership that felt safe or trustworthy. 

Instead, you’ve experienced bosses in the workplace, political leaders, and religious leaders who’ve abused power and taken advantage of people.

Jesus is saying… That’s not what I’m like

  • I’m the good shepherd 
  • I want you to know me so you know you can trust me
  • You can trust me because I gave my life for you. 
  • You can know my voice.

I want to give you 4 ways to grow to know Jesus – four ways to relationally experience Jesus. These ancient practices are counter cultural in our busy, digital, and frenetic world.

And I realize that most of us don’t have the luxury of a sabbatical or have an amazing team at work that can take on your responsibilities. I am fully aware of how fortunate I am.

But here’s the thing, you can start moving towards greater intimacy with God today and this week with a few of these practices. 

Let me preface this by quoting Ruth Haley Barton again:

“I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God.”

– Ruth Haley Barton in Sacred Rhythms

So here they are: Solitude, Scripture, Prayer, and Sabbath

  1. Knowing Jesus Through Solitude


“Solitude is time that is set apart for God and God alone, a time when we unplug and withdraw from the noise of interpersonal interactions, from the noise, busyness and constant stimulation associated with life in the company of others….a place that is not cluttered with work, technology, other relationships, or any of those things that call us back into doing mode….a place where God’s Spirit and my spirit can dwell together in union.”

– Ruth Haley Barton in Sacred Rhythms

This is so counter cultural!

If we aren’t looking at our phones or listening to our phones, we’re watching TV or on our laptops.

We get a solitude day once a month as part of the staff at Gateway. I’ve struggled with taking advantage of this gift over the years. More recently I’ve tried to make it a priority for me and our team. When I’m not careful or disciplined, I can add a morning meeting or finish the day on a project for work. Taking a solitude half day is better than before, but it’s still not all I’ve been given.

So this summer I had 25 days without my family – to let God guide my time. 

Some of those days ended up including a meal with a new friend or a reunion with old friends. 

Some of those days included working with others on growing in our faith and overcoming our struggles. 

Most of those days had several hours of solitude – time for just me and God. 

Even my trips with family like driving with Trevi to Santa Barbara so she can have her car for her senior year, she slept on the 2nd day for the first four hours. It’s probably because we left at 3am, but it is remarkable how long young adults can sleep! I had four hours to listen to messages by other pastors on topics I’m working on, reflect on how to apply them, and pray. I had so much time alone with God, and it was beautiful!

There is something so beautiful about the silence when everything is unplugged.

There’s something hard about it too.

You see, we like our busy, digital, and frenetic world, because it keeps our greatest fears at bay. But in the silence and solitude, they can come back demanding our attention.

As Deborah’s counselor from several years back said to her:  “When you are alone and feel anxious, you should consider what’s really bothering you because it probably isn’t what you think it is. You allow certain fears to take over so you can avoid thinking about the ones you are most afraid of.”

It was in those silent moments and in the solitude that some of those deepest anxieties and fears emerged. And it was in those moments I could take those thoughts and feelings and experiences to God. I could be honest about it all! There may have been some yelling. There may have been some tears. There may have been some confusion or frustration, but as I pressed through there was also peace – a supernatural peace that comes from an experience with God.

Misfits – for people who don’t feel they fit in.

So some of the deep work I did this summer in those times of solitude was working on why I relapsed into workaholism. What triggered me. Now this is no excuse to keep being triggered. Instead this work with God was about determining the cause so I can find healing and not fall back into this unhealthy pattern. It didn’t take time alone with God and without the noise and distractions to realize how much loss I’ve had this past year that I hadn’t fully dealt with until this summer. 

My Dad died. A year before that an uncle died on my side of the family and an aunt died on Deborah’s side of the family.

We lost Mike Papale.

I don’t know if I had created enough space to grieve until this summer.

There were other losses too, and some of these are good things, but they are still a loss.

Losing my daughter to college and now to a serious boyfriend.

Losing our kids to young adulthood as we became empty nesters.

It was in those times of solitude, I could share my heart with God and let Him heal me.

Over and over we see Jesus setting aside time to be with God.

“Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”

If Jesus did so, you know we need to do so.

One last quote from Ruth Haley Barton on how important and hard taking time for solitude is:

“There is nothing in Western culture or even in our religious subculture to support us in entering into these times for ‘unproductive’ being rather than frenetic doing.” – Ruth Haley Barton

  1. Knowing Jesus Through Scripture

The Bible has been the primary way I’ve interacted with God since I have been following Jesus. And I’ve had God speak in remarkable ways in my life over and over. I’ve forgotten more ways He has given me exactly what I needed in the moment I needed it than I can even remember!

Before my sabbatical I had hoped to have all the videos recorded for the Through the New Testament series which if you haven’t been following along, you can jump in any time. It’s designed to bring clarity to each chapter to help you understand and apply it to your life.

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But I wasn’t able to finish, so I prayed about it and felt I should continue to film but to do so in a way that didn’t distract from family time so I talked with Deborah and came up with 3 times I could film several at a time and then get them in the queue.

Here’s what’s remarkable: I needed to be in 1 and 2 Corinthians this summer. So many verses spoke so powerfully to me!

In the midst of being rejected by the people with whom He planted the church, Paul acknowledges his weaknesses and points out that God’s Grace is sufficient, that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power, and that

“God is able to bless us abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that we need, we will abound in every good work.” – 2 Corinthians‬ ‭9‬:‭8‬ NIV

To top it all off, I even got to be in the actual city of Corinth this summer! I will be posting some of those videos on the Gateway South Austin facebook group this week.

  1. Knowing Jesus Through Sabbath

This is one I’m really wanting to take to the next level. This summer Deborah and I went to another church in town where a friend of mine is the pastor. And I have to be honest a couple of times we watched online.

Now if you are sick or immuno-compromised, watching online is still a good option.

But if you watch online and then go to brunch at a crowded restaurant let me encourage you to get back in person. I knew this and switched back to in person for the next few weeks..

But Sabbath is more than a worship service although that’s a great way to start one. 

Sabbath means resting. 

No working. No shopping. No yard work. No projects. 

It’s all about worship, rest, and delight.

After listening to John Mark Comer’s video curriculum called “Practicing the Way” and listening to his Rule of Life podcast, I’m planning to have our Sabbath start on Thursday night and go through Friday since Sundays end up more of a work day for me.

But I want to encourage you as the summer comes to an end to make Sundays an actual Sabbath. Start your day gather together to connect our hearts with God and each other.

  1. Knowing Jesus Through Prayer

One of the most important practices for a follower of Jesus is knowing Him through prayer.

So why pray if He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want?

We misunderstand prayer. We think prayer is our chance to tell God what to do. 

Prayer is actually how we communicate with God. It’s about sharing our hearts but also about thanking Him and listening to Him. 

In another book I’d recommend, in Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools Tyler Staton writes:

“I’m better acquainted with a subconscious drive to control the circumstances overwhelming me than with accepting the unburdening freedom promised in prayer… God promises peace—a supernatural sort of peace we can’t even logically reason out—in place of crippling anxiety. The means of this exchange is prayer.”  

– Tyler Staton in Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools

Prayer is where you truly learn to “come as you are” and bring your most authentic self to Him.

“Prayer is not a place to be good, it is a place to be honest. Prayer is not a place to perform, it is a place to be present. Prayer is not a place to be right, it is a place to be known. Prayer is not a place to prove your worth, it is a place to receive worth and offer yourself in truth.”

Kyle Strobel, Where Prayer Becomes Real 

Prayer is where we become familiar with the voice of our Good Shepherd!

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” – John 10:27-

I posted a few times this summer, but not pictured are the times God spoke to me in the midst of overwhelming anxiety or fear in the middle of the night and brought me peace.

Not pictured are the times I experienced God’s Grace and forgiveness for all the ways I failed during my sabbatical and cried tears of joy.

Not pictured are the times I was in the wilderness on prayer walks or having a long and hard conversation with one of my family members. 

By the way, one of the remarkable blessings of this summer was that a couple of random gifts and honorariums for a couple of the trips covered all the travel with the exception of $1000! To top it all off, for some reason I was upgraded to first class on two of my last two flights without asking for it!

God answered my prayers for my sabbatical beyond what I could have imagined!

By the way, I’ve discovered that sometimes God says “yes” to our small requests so we can trust Him when He says “no” to our big requests. 

I prayed fervently and for hours asking God to heal my Dad, and God did not heal Him the way I had hoped. I know he’s no longer suffering and in the presence of Jesus, but I wanted more time with him. I wanted my kids to have more time with him.

I truly believe if we want to change the world, it begins by becoming more like Jesus and asking Him to use us to bring more of heaven to earth everywhere we go!

If you believe our world needs changing, then lean into your faith. God wants to bring new life in you and through you! It’s not economics, politics, or religion that our world needs – it’s Jesus that our world needs! The world can find Him through us!

We need each other to pull this off! Join a group – one of the classes coming up.

Here’s one collective next step that we’re asking everyone across Gateway to do with us- as you pursue to know Jesus there’s no better way than to engage in a practice of prayer. 

Starting today for the next two weeks we are going to be in our second PrayFirst initiative. Listen, as the kids go back to school and the fiscal year closes, and the sports pick back up, let’s ALL Re center and keep the main thing the main thing- Jesus. So we will all be led in video devotionals and our grow team created an amazing prayer guide everyday for the next two weeks. And you’ll get more info in a few minutes on how to do that. 

But there’s nothing more powerful than when we begin to pray collectively together.

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