A Rest That Still Stands
Pastoring during COVID reminds me of my friend Ted who owns a swimming pool. When we lived in the same town as Ted, we often swam in his pool. On hot days, we could not wait to rush over to his house and dive into the refreshing and cool water. One day, we saw several hoses placed at each end of the pool. Water bubbles surfacing near each spot told me that the hoses were on full blast. I asked Ted what was going on. He informed me that the water level was lower each day, no doubt because the pool had developed a leak. Since it was already late summer, Ted decided to keep using the pool and deal with the leaks next spring. Until then, he would keep those hoses in the pool to maintain the necessary water level.
Many pastors I know avoided facing the causes of their pain until COVID hit. A study done by The Barna Group suggests that because of this reason one in five churches will close post COVID (See source here.) Barna also anticipates that one in three Christians will likely stop attending church or already has. (See source here). It comes as no surprise then that according to Thom Rainer a significant number of pastors plan to quit post COVID. (See source here). You can read that article to review the reasons, but in summary, COVID did not cause the problems but only exposed them.
Like my friend Ted, many pastors have avoided emptying the pool to assess the extent of the damage and instead have poured into their ministry whatever they can to keep “the water from draining.” Well, COVID has drained the pool. Fast. And what appeared to be a full, vibrant community now sits empty, and the cracks, fissures and rips are as visible as an empty and damaged swimming pool. The pastor is tired. Exhausted. Having time and space to take stock of the true health of his ministry and of his own life, he collapses into a realistic form of himself, and by doing so, he hopefully collapses into the waiting arms of his Savior.
Yes, there is life after COVID.
And, yes, I do also believe there is ministry after COVID. COVID, in fact, could be the best thing that happened to you. Without it, you might have never taken the time to see the true condition of your ministry and of your own heart.
The fact that you can now better see the cause of your previous anxieties is good. You should take advantage of that. This is an excellent time to take stock of your surroundings and consider how the Gospel will help you recover. Again, the fact that you can now see the true condition of your ministry and life is good.
Let’s begin by reviewing those refreshing words of our Lord Jesus in Matthew 11:28-29. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
This blog is really more of a devotional where I want to encourage the tired pastor, the pastor who, during COVID, has seen too much of the un-health of his church and of his own life to come to Jesus for rest. What does it really mean to find rest for your soul? Like those Jesus spoke to, you, too, have labored and are heavy laden. To that, to you, he also promises rest. Twice in this passage, Jesus promises rest.
Pastor, if you are tired and eager for rest in your soul, I invite you to three things, the three things we are asked to do by Jesus in this brief passage of Scripture. And let me add here that these are best captured and applied when the stark reality of your crisis stares you in the face. As you picture yourself looking into an empty swimming pool where all you see are the cracks and brokenness of life and ministry, begin to reflect on what your Savior offers to you.
COME TO ME
1. First, come to him. Come to me, Jesus invites. He invites you to him. He invites people who have labored hard and are heavy laden because of it. Look closer. Keep your eye on that pool as you do. He invites only those who are burdened and heavy laden, those that are overwhelmed by what the empty pool, perhaps even caused by COVID, has revealed. Do you see yourself in the crowd hearing these words, Pastor? You have labored hard, and you are tired, heavy laden.
Jesus uses the same word, labor, as he does in Matthew 23:4 when he acknowledges the heavy, unreasonable load the Pharisee places on others. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” What pastor doesn’t live under that kind of unreasonable pressure? What pastor has not pushed off the burden of people’s expectations only to have it placed back on his shoulders over and over again by others. Now, staring into that empty pool, it overwhelms him. Each crack, all those ripped pieces remind him of one tiring event after another. Then, he hears those words. Sweet, soft, inviting and urging: Come to me… Pastor, where have you gone with that heavy load? To your favorite sin? Do you take it out on your family when you come home, or perhaps you have even shut them out? I know a lot of pastors who do, who have. There is rest for your soul, Pastor, and it begins by hearing those words from your Savior, “Come to me.”
I do not believe this exercise happens in isolation. Most often I have heard those sweet words through my fellow companions. Some years ago, I began to surround myself with four to five men with whom no subject was off limits. My son has become one of those men. So often, they remind me to come to Jesus. And Jesus uses them, their tears, their acceptance and their embrace as his means to offer rest for my soul.
TAKE HIS YOKE UPON YOU
2. Secondly, you will find rest for your soul by taking his yoke upon you. It was Elizabeth Elliot who reminded herself in her heaviest moments, when the labor seemed almost too much that Jesus was carrying the heavier end of her cross. Many farmers who heard these words understood exactly what Jesus meant. The yoke was what connected two strong animals who plowed through the drudgery of the farmer’s field. What one animal did, the other did. What one animal could not do, the other took up the slack. It overwhelms me as I look back over the hard times of my life, or even now as I stare into what seems like years of empty pools, that I was never working alone. Jesus was there with me all along. And he still is. And others are there with him. Yoked to him and yoked to me. I am deeply connected to him and them. Intimately connected. That means that when my son died and my wife suffered from brain cancer all in the same two months, Jesus wept with me. He felt the heaviness of my heart pulsating in his own. In the successes of ministry and even in the failures, Jesus was right there going through it all with me. He also stands with me as I stare down into that empty pool full of cracks and broken pieces.
When the disciples stood with Jesus prior to his ascension, they must have been overwhelmed by his last marching orders. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” How overwhelming this must have sounded to twelve men and perhaps the five hundred others who were there. What a responsibility! What an assignment! Disciple the whole world? But before this could even begin to become a burden on them, Jesus uttered these sweet words, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This reminds me of the children’s book I read often to my granddaughter, I Love You, Forever. I like You for Always. I love you but not just now. Forever. Always. I love you, forever. I will be with you to the end of the age. I am with you, forever. All the way until the end. With you until you wrap it up, pack it in and lay it all down in death. He is with you.
Pastor, look next to you. Do you see him? Glaring into that deep, empty pool with you? It’s Jesus. He’s been in this with you the whole way. Even in that hardest moment. Even now. And yes, even tomorrow and the day after and even the day after that. I am with you until the end. Forever. Always.
REST FOR YOUR SOUL
3. Finally, you find rest for your soul by truly understanding the scope of that rest. You will find rest for your soul. My son called me today while I was on my twenty-mile bike ride. I do a lot of talking on these rides where the quiet side roads and lack of traffic provide a wonderful place to converse with good friends. Somewhere in our conversation, I quoted the first line of Augustine’s book, Confessions. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” As I wound through a couple of turns and paused below a short tunnel, I shared with my son that this is ultimately a future promise. I get a taste of it on occasion, at rare moments, but it’s the promise of that that drives me. It’s a frustrating promise in many ways but also a hopeful one. I won’t look at it here, but I would encourage you to read Hebrews 4 where the writer expounds on this promise. I cling to these words: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands…” (Verse 1). “…Therefore it remains for some to enter it…” (Verse 6). “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…” (Verse 11). Clearly, this rest is before us not behind us. The promise of entering his rest still stands.
I put up with a lot because of this promise. I put a lot of stock in it. All by faith. This promise gave me the courage to keep trusting when my wife lost so much following her bout of brain cancer. This promise kept me pushing ahead after my oldest son died shortly after, also from brain cancer. It was this promise of a rest that still stands that gave me the resilience not to give up when a church forced me out of my ministry. It has been this promise that helps me get up each morning to face another uncertain day. Because he lives I can face tomorrow and today.
So, there you have it, Pastor. That is what you do when you stare down at those cracks at that bottom of your empty pool. You come to Jesus. You find rest for your soul. And you live for the ultimate fulfillment of that promise when Jesus brings you, finally, into that promised rest.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10
“If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God, you’ll be at rest.” – Corrie Ten Boom