Sunday, July 30, 2023

“He Restores My Soul” -- Sabbatical Reflections

“He Restores My Soul”
Sabbatical Reflections
Lanse Evangelical Free Church
July 30, 2023 :: Psalm 23:1-3

A number of you have asked us to share some about what we experienced on sabbatical. So, we’re going to do something really different this morning. Kind of like what we did ten years ago when our family went out west for a whole month.

Instead of a sermon, I’m going to give more of a testimony. Lord-willing, we will start a new sermon series soon, maybe even next week. But I thought while the memories were still so strong, I’d share some reflections with you about how the Lord worked in my soul during the last three months while we were away.

I’m going to take the title for this message from the declaration of King David in his most famous song, Psalm 23. Let me read to you the first three verses. We’ll jump around today to several passages of Scripture, but we’ll start here. Let’s read Psalm 23, verses 1 through 3. The testimony of King David:

"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
 he restores my soul" (Ps. 23:1-3 NIVO).

It’s hard to know where to start.

How do you boil down three months into thirty-five minutes? Especially three months that were different from any other three months in your life so far?!

I brought home over 3,000 pictures on my phone. We picked out 300 of them to show before and after the service today. It’s just a fraction of what we experienced. None of Heather’s photos. Just mine.

We drove over 3,000 miles across the three countries on the island of Great Britain–England, Scotland, and Wales.

We did it in this little car that we borrowed from Icthus Motor Mission. These wonderful Christians loan cars to missionaries on home assignment and ministers on  sabbatical who will be in the United Kingdom for at least a month.

This was a little Renault “Modus.” It was an automatic transmission (most cars in the UK are actually stick-shift, but this was an automatic), but you could also switch it to manual if you wanted (left-hand stick!). We figured that out while driving it!

You drive from the right side of the car but the left side of the road. So we flew overnight into Heathrow April 27 into April 28 and got a ride from there to the South side of London to load up this little car which I nicknamed “Wee Miss Merdle,” and then the first time I ever drove in England was through the city of London up to the town of Cambridge where the university is–75 miles, in the evening.

That was exciting! It took about a month to learn how to drive over there. Everything was kind of the same but also different. Whenever I found myself getting comfortable, I knew I was doing it wrong. You pass on the right. On the highway (which they call the “motorway”), the slow lane is on the left. That’s the side you enter from. And it’s scary at first to do a right hand turn. I kept wincing, thinking that something was going to come up and hit me from behind (though that lane actually comes this way).

And often, the roads are really narrow. So that you have to take turns! You are running down this one track lane, with no shoulders, often big hedgerows, but it’s not just one way. And you encounter a car or a bus[!] coming the other direction, and one of you has to back up to where it was wide enough to pass. And if you think that driving on the wrong side of the car is hard going forward, trying going in reverse. Or parallel parking when you aren’t sure where your left corners actually are. But I had no accidents!

And I had no traffic violations. There are traffic cameras everywhere, and I kept making mistakes. They take the speed limits really seriously. They are not suggestions there to shoot for. They are limits. And I kept worrying that we were piling up traffic tickets that the folks at Icthus would eventually share with me that I owed. Maybe thousands of dollars? I didn’t know. One time I ran a red-light in front of a royal palace in Scotland. But the Lord both protected us and shielded us, so that we had no tickets at the end of three months of driving. 

However, confidence and safety in driving was the not the biggest gift that the Lord gave me during our time away. The biggest gift was a gentle restoration of my soul.

I got some real rest. I experienced some honest-to-goodness “shabbat” and “shalom.” Deep rest and peace.

This week, when I was trying to summarize the whole experience for this testimony, I kept coming back to this phrase in Psalm 23 when David likens himself to a well-fed and contented sheep, a fat and happy sheep basking in His good shepherd’s care:

“He restores my soul.”

And I told that to Heather, and she said, “You realize, don’t you, that I prayed those very words for you just about every night at bedtime for our entire sabbatical. ‘Father, please restore Matthew’s soul.’”

Oh, right!!

And many of you were also praying that for me, as well, and the Lord answered your prayers. He restored my soul.

This image of a sheep is very appropriate for life in the UK because there are sheep everywhere. It seemed to me that just about anywhere you are in the UK, there are sheep within no more 25 miles away. And that’s if you are in a town. If you are outside of the town, it seems like there are sheep within 2 miles of you in whatever direction. They are just everywhere!

And Heather loves sheep, and Heather loves the wool, so she was just about in heaven. Everywhere we went Heather was picking up wool that had got caught on a fence or had been shed in a field. And she actually got to go to some of her favorite places for wool and knitting in the world–on the Shetland Islands, 12 hours ferry ride across the North Sea. A dream come true. And we got to go to woolen mills in West Wales, too. 

There were sheep everywhere. Like this Scottish sheep out in the Pentland Hills outside of Edinburgh. I don’t know her name, but she was fine with my taking her picture. When we went to sleep in the little Blacksmith Cottage in West Wales, we could hear sheep moving around and bleating all night long.

In Psalm 23 King David likens himself to a sheep, which is not very flattering. Sheep are not too bright and are very needy. They are big bundles of need. 

But that allowed David to highlight what a good Shepherd His LORD is. Yahweh is His Shepherd, and Yahweh is perfect at shepherding. Ultimately, David has no unmet needs. David knows that he is well-cared for. Green peaceful pastures. Quiet, nourishing waters.

The LORD restores David’s soul.

And He offers to do that for you and me.

And that was a big part of what God was doing in me the last three months. Slowing me down, refreshing my heart, and restoring my soul.

And He did it through lots of different things, but today I want to highlight three.

Number one. God’s restored my soul through His creation.


Great Britain is so beautiful.

There is just so much natural beauty everywhere you go.

And because I was released by you from work and released from all responsibility, I was able to slow down and soak all that beauty in.

Just like how I like to walk here in God’s beautiful creation, I walked miles and miles and miles across God’s creation over there.

The last few weeks, I was averaging about 10 miles a day. Sometimes 13 or 14 over really rough terrain–often at a steep incline both up and down.

Heather and I often hiked together. I would go somewhere before breakfast, and we would go together after that. And we had beautiful weather. We expected rain, but we hardly got any, and when we did, it was really pleasant.

Great Britain is a big island, so we saw lots of ocean. You’re really never that far from the sea. We were often at a beach or up a cliff overlooking the sea. This is area called Eshaness on Shetland. 

I am not a big one for cliffs or for heights, but I got pretty used to it. And it was worth it to see those vistas. Blue water. The water in West Wales was so beautiful. The beaches there have almost no people at them (because it’s hard to get to them), and they’re some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Waves. Clouds. You can see out sea for miles. And the beauty is just so stark. We saw a lot of beaches in the south in England, in Devon, as well.

Inland, there are lakes. There’s a whole district called the Lake District; that’s where Beatrix Potter had her house and created Peter Rabbit. We got to see her house and hike up around that area. It’s so beautiful.

And mountains. Wide open spaces. There is a volcanic mountain inside the city of Edinburgh! It’s called Arthur’s Seat. And Heather hiked to the very tippy top. (I chickened out.)

There’s these things called “The Moors.” And they are these big tracts of open country that is uncultivated and hilly and boggy and rocky. And there are these giant rocks on top of hills in the moors called Tors. And we climbed all over them.

Farms. I got to walk alongside all kinds of farmland. They have these stone fences and then big hedgerows. Eight feet high. And you’re allowed to walk just about everywhere. They have what they call “permissive paths” which are footpaths over just about every parcel of ground. In the south, the entire coast has a footpath that that you can walk, at times, hundreds of feet above sea level and nothing but beauty in every direction.

We were so high one time on the Coastal path, that there were hang-gliders over the cliff gliding beneath us! It was so beautiful. It was mountain, moor, ocean, field, sheep, hiking, and hang-gliding all at once.

And there were animals everywhere. Not just the sheep, but horses, cows, snails, slugs. I saw a fox. I saw a hedgehog. I saw deer. And birds singing! Lots of different birdsongs than we’ve ever heard before. We heard a cuckoo. Like the clock!

And trees. I saw some big beautiful green trees that reminded me of Tolkien’s Ents, from the Lord of the Rings. And I saw actually trees that J.R.R. Tolkien had seen himself, giant ones in Oxford on this trail, Addison’s Walk, that he and C.S. Lewis liked like to walk and talk together on.

Addison's Walk at Magdalen College in Oxford

And flowers! And gardens. Heather loves gardens, and she says that Great Britain is like one giant island garden. It’s been so cultivated. There are roses everywhere. They just poke up from every corner, almost like weeds. And we got to go some beautiful open gardens that you can visit: David Austen Roses, Threave Gardens, the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh (which has a hedge of 158 interlocking Beech Trees that is 26 feet high and 550 feet long!), the Oxford’s Botanical Garden (which is the oldest in the UK, founded in 1621, also a favorite place of Tolkien), and Hidcote and Kiftsgate. We walked through a LOT of gardens. 

And it was good for my soul.

These are just a few of my pictures. You can see more after church. But of course, these pictures don’t really capture the half of it. 

We saw lots of other beautiful things that were man-made. We toured castles and palaces and super-ancient churches and the neat old houses of some of our favorite British authors. But it was just so good for my soul to walk and observe the beauty in God’s creation mile after mile after mile.

Green pastures. Quiet waters. And not so quiet waters[!] when the waves came crashing onto the shore.

The LORD restored my soul.

It makes me think of Psalm 65, another song of King David where he says:

“...O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,  who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength, who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. Those living far away fear your wonders; where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.

You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing” (Ps. 65:5-13 NIVO).

This summer, the LORD restored my soul through extended time in His creation.

A second way that He restored my soul on this sabbatical was through His people.


We got to worship with 8 different churches while we were away. And each one was an encouragement to our souls.

It’s so good to be a part of God’s family, and know that it is a global family. It’s not just us here in Pennsylvania or us here in America, but it’s us all over the world!

Let me tell you a little bit about the churches we visited.

The second day we were in the UK, we drove up to Scotland and we stayed on the campus of the Faith Mission Bible College. That was a really interesting school with classrooms and apartments and a big meeting hall, and a bookstore, and a library. They let me use their library while we there. It was our home-base for the first month.

By the way, I went into their bookstore, and what was one of the first books I saw, our very own Katie (Thompson) Faris’ God Is Still Good. That was so neat. I took a picture and sent it to her.

While we were in Scotland, we worshiped with two different churches. 

The first was St. Columba’s Church which is a part of the Free Church of Scotland. That sounds like the Free Church of America, and it has some similarities, but it is also pretty different. It is Protestant, and it is not the established Church of Scotland.  So it’s free of state control, just like ours is free. But they are Presbyterian in church polity and very liturgical. Lots of readings and structure. I don’t think I knew half of the songs they were singing. And they used real wine for communion.

This church has a building right on the Royal Mile which is one of the oldest streets in the city of Edinburgh. If you see Edinburgh on television, this is the street they normally show you. It has the ancient castle on one end and the royal palace on the other. And in the middle is this church trying to be faithful to Jesus. The building was built in 1846. 

One of the things that was really neat about that church was how they prayed. They were serious about their prayer, and they prayed for other nations. They prayed for Syria and Ukraine, and the United States! I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been in a service where people from another country prayed earnestly for my country. One of the things they are concerned about is our epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings. So they prayed for us that our nation would be healed and people protected.
And they prayed for their nation as they had just crowned their new king the day before. We were in Scotland during the coronation and watched it on television.

Interesting story, we got to see the crown jewels of both Scotland and England while we were there. This is the building where the Scottish crown jewels are kept.

But one of crown jewels was missing. The Stone of Scone was not there the day we were there. It’s always there! But it was being used in England, the first time in seventy years! King Charles was using it, so we didn’t get to see that this time around. By the time we saw the English Crown Jewels, that stone was back in Scotland.

The second church we visited was incredibly different. It was called Gracemount Community Church, and it did not have a building at all. It was a baby church, just six years old, and being planted in a tough neighborhood. Gracemount Community is what they call a “scheme” or an “estate” which we might call “the projects.” And these folks are determined to build a healthy gospel-centered church in the middle of that urban community, and they are doing it! This church was vibrant and exciting and young. There were kids everywhere. And tattoos everywhere. I thought about getting one just to fit in. And they were actually meeting in the activity hall of the Bible college we were staying in. So it was really convenient for us to just walk to it.

The pastor of that church is Andy Prime who is the grandson of Derek Prime who was one of the mentors of Alistair Begg. Some of you will know him from Truth For Life.

The first Sunday we were there, Pastor Andy (who is probably in his early thirties) was dressed really casually, like long-sleeve t-shirt and running pants. And then he got up and preached 2 Chronicles 17 through 28! Twelve chapters of Old Testament history in one message, and it was really good! I thought we were doing something when we did four chapters of Jeremiah this Spring! It was so encouraging and nourishing.

We did know more of the songs at that church, and they also write their own!

The thing I’ll remember the most about that church, however, was their hospitality.  The first Sunday we were there, they were having a fellowship meal. In that same room they were singing in. So there was food everywhere. That church service smelled delicious! And I think we were invited to lunch by like five different people. And none of them knew us. And we didn’t know all of what we were eating because it was homemade Scottish food.

And the second week, one of the few older couples in that church invited us to over to their house for lunch after church with another family from church. Completely spontaneous. They didn’t know that we were going to be there. They just brought us home like a couple of strays.

When I think about how hospitable and encouraging God’s people were in the United Kingdom, my mind goes to Philemon verse 7. 

The Apostle Paul was writing Philemon to encourage him to forgive and release his runaway slave who had become his brother in Christ. And Paul has heard a lot about how generous and hospitable and kind and loving that Philemon was to the other Christians there in Colossae. And so he says in his letter:

“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Phlm. 1:1-7 NIVO).

That’s how it felt to be with these Christians in Scotland. Our hearts were refreshed.

The next church we visited was the first one that I preached in. This was Barton Evangelical Church in the village of Barton-Upon-Humber down in England. Humber is the river that the big city of Hull is on, and the small town of Barton is across the bridge from Hull, so they like to use the bridge as their symbol for their church.

Barton Evangelical Church is a lot like our church. It is autonomous, but a part of a family of churches called the FIEC, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. And they are pastored by Jeff Higgins who is Irish but now serving in England. Jeff and I had become friends online last year, and when he found out we were coming to England, he invited us to visit and preach. And I got to preach a version of the sermon on Psalm 60 that I had preached here during covid. The Higgins have four young children, 3 boys and a girl. Does that sound familiar? Their kids are young, and ours are all grown now, but we could compare notes.

That church was also very hospitable. A family from the church had us over for lunch and another family over, too. And we all had dinner and then went for a walk around  the countryside together as a big group. Pastor Jeff just checked on me yesterday and told me that he was praying for this message. He sends his greetings.

“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

The LORD uses His people to refresh His people!

The next church we visited was in West Wales on the far west side of the island. It was a Baptist Church called Mt. Zion in the city of Cardigan, and they were very friendly, as well.

One thing that was interesting there, and was true in a lot of these churches, was they had “teas and coffees” after church, like we do. But they had it in the auditorium where you just had worship, and it was served by the youth group! So, after church, you just sat down and stayed where you were, and waited for a young person to come by with a tray and ask if you wanted tea or coffee, and if you wanted any milk in that.

And then you just sat there and fellowshiped with your neighbors for awhile and then got up and visited around the room. Isn’t that interesting?

By the way, I didn’t do any strategizing while I was away. This was not a time for me to do vision and come up with big ideas or changes for our church. This was a time to stop thinking about how we do church and just rest. So there are no big announcements that come with our return. We are just coming back to find out how things are going here and re-engage. I think that the first thing I need to do is just to listen to find out what God has been up to here the last ninety days, and then join Him where He is working.

The next church that we visited was the second and last church that I preached in. It was called Cornerstone Church in Abergavenny in South Wales. It’s pastored by my online friend Jonathan Thomas, and it was really neat to verify that he exists in the real world, and not just on Twitter. I actually poked him to make sure.

Jonathan has recently published his first book entitled, Intentional Interruptions, and I was privileged to be an early reader and give my endorsement. It’s a really good book about how to say “no” to distractions but “yes” to God’s interruptions. And it was very encouraging for me to read as we got close to my sabbatical which was a very intentional interruption. You’re welcome to borrow my copy if that’s something you want to read.

I got to preach Psalm 60 once again that for wonderful Welsh church. Cornerstone also does not yet have a building. They meet in a public school, and they are a vibrant bunch who love to God’s Word. They just soaked up everything I said and were very encouraging about it afterwards.

Talk about hospitable–two different couples in that church were incredibly helpful to us in finding housing in West Wales and in Devon. We really couldn’t have stayed over there so long if it wasn’t for their incredible hospitality.

In late June and early July, we settled down to a little seaside town called Sidmouth in Devon. I won’t give you all of the stops in between (I know that I’ve lost you already. It was a long three months of travel! Heather did a wonderful job of planning it all.). But in Sidmouth, we went to two different churches, one was Anglican, the Church of England, and the other was another independent FIEC church.

Both were evangelical. The Anglican church is called All Saints Church, and their stone building was built in 1837. But their worship was lively with a worship band, guitar and drums and all. Their vicar was out of the pulpit, and a lay reader gave the message that day. 

The other church was called Emmanuel Baptist Church, and it was pastored by an Albanian man who had married an English girl, and after they planted a church in Albania, were called to serve churches in England. Besmir and Miriam Gorrea. They have only been there for a year and half. And they have their work cut out for them. Their 3 kids are the only kids in the whole church. They have their own building (a lot like ours, brick built about the same time as ours) and some wonderful older saints, but they have no young families at all.

And it made me feel so grateful for all of the young families we have here and are trying to come alongside of with our LEFC Family Ministries. I met with Pastor Bes several times for mutual encouragement and prayer (and a full English Breakfast with black-pudding and all!). I think I got to refresh Bes some, too. It turns out that we have a mutual friend who is an EFCA pastor here in the states. We’ll be staying in touch. They were very encouraged last Sunday as they had two baptisms to celebrate.

After bouncing around Scotland, Wales, and England for twelve weeks, we pulled back into London, dropped off “Wee Miss Merdle” the car at Icthus Motor Mission and spent one last week in the big city.

That was when we saw Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, and Kew Gardens (which was Heather said was the best of all the gardens she’s ever been in!) and, of course, Big Ben.

Last Sunday, I got to worship at All Souls Church which is also in the Church of England and also evangelical. This is the church where John Stott had been the pastor for many decades. I’ve read dozens of books by John Stott, and you might have, too. Another one of their current leaders is Christopher J.H. Wright who wrote the best commentary I’ve read on the book of Jeremiah. I quoted him to you many many many times last year. And we might have been the same room last Sunday. I don’t know.

I do know that I was with God’s people. That church is very diverse. A lot of the churches we visited were ethnically diverse, which was really cool. I love worshiping with those who look and sound differently than I do. It’s a foretaste of heaven when every tribe, people, language, and nation worship Jesus together.

And let me tell you about one more church the Lord used to restore my soul and refresh my heart these last three months. It’s called Lanse Evangelical Free Church.

Well done, you!

The LORD uses His people to refresh His people!

You have done so with me and with Heather. You did it by letting us go. You did it by praying for us. You did it by doing everything while we were gone.

I didn’t even get one email asking for this or that. You took care of everything. And you did it well. 

I hear you had a great Family Bible Week and terrific missions offering. I hear the Missions Ministry Team has a bunch of things lined up for the fall. You’ve got the plan going for another Good News Cruise. There’s a new community group – talk about hospitality, the Skacels opening their home every Sunday night for Bible study and fellowship. Kids Bible Classes every Sunday.

And the Elders basically doing all of the preaching! I’m looking forward to listening to the recordings of Joel, Abe, Keith, and Cody over the next few weeks. (We’ll find out if I’m still needed around here!)

In Great Britain, they have a saying that’s like our “Good Job.” Thumbs up. But they say, “Well done, you.” And I’m saying it to you today. “Well done, you.”

“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, [brothers and sisters in Christ at Lanse Free Church,] have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

“Well done, you.”

I could say more today about how God has restored my soul. Other things he used–  reading books, sightseeing historical spots, shopping for souvenirs, following in the footsteps of our favorite detective writers–but I’m not going to bore you with all of that today.

And I’ll try not bore you with that all the time. I don’t want to be that guy who always talks about the trip he went on to the UK and it’s all of his illustrations when he’s preaching.

Though I do now have some more neat stories to share when I am preaching. Wait until you hear about this guy I met named Ivor.

But I want to encourage you that the Lord restores our soul.

You know, King David did not get a sabbatical. And yet he was refreshed. He was refreshed even in the presence of his enemies!

You don’t have to go somewhere else to get refreshed. I got to go somewhere else, and it was really helpful to me in God’s providence. 

But God’s creation is right outside those doors, and God’s people are right here inside these doors.

And the Lord uses those things to refresh our hearts.

Because it’s the LORD that does the restoring. Did you notice that in Psalm 23?

He restores my soul.”

I don’t do it for myself. I can’t do it myself!

He restores my soul.”

So the third and last thing that God used to restore my soul the last three Himself.

#3. GOD’S SON.

When I cease my striving and put my faith in Him, I experience true and lasting rest.

Rest that is salvation. Salvation is all of grace. It’s not by works. It’s all gift.

“He restores my soul.”

Who is the He? It’s our Good Shepherd. And we know that His name is not just Yahweh. His name is Jesus.

It is Jesus who said“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Not, come to Christianity.
Not, come to church.
Not, come to cleaning up your life first.

But come to Jesus Christ. Become His disciple. Put your faith in Who He is and what He has done on the Cross and the Empty Tomb. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29 NIVO).

“He restores my soul.”

Not just in a temporary way. A rest that comes and then goes. I’m sure that my sabbatical will eventually wear off. But eternally. A rest and peace that begins now and goes on forever and ever.

If you have never come to trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord and Good Shepherd, I invite you to do so now.

Come to Jesus and find rest for your very soul.

That’s my testimony, and I praise God for it.