• this light lingers / A Year of Song

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  • Spiritual Replenishment (Peter Fitch)

    I once spent a weekend as a participant at a meeting for twenty or thirty pastors from mainline churches, most of whom held a theologically Liberal perspective. One of the great complaints that came from these good men and women was their sense that they were overworked and underpaid. They had endured long years of preparation in university and graduate school, and now they found themselves at the beck and call of everyone in their congregations. They felt harried, and frustrated that they weren’t spending enough time with their families, and to make it worse they were paid less than any other professional group they could think of. Gradually a consensus began to emerge. Most of them felt that 50 hours of work per week was appropriate for the ministerial calling. After that, unless it was the direst kind of emergency, they decided that the best thing was to tell people (perhaps even in an offended manner) to see them next week during office hours.

    The night I returned home I found a message to call our local Pentecostal pastor, even if it was late. I did, though I think it was after 11:00 pm. In the background of his dining room and kitchen I could hear many animated voices, and I found myself asking him if “it”, meaning his ministry, ever stopped. His answer stood in marked contrast to the one I had heard on the retreat. He said that he had decided a long time ago to give his schedule to the Lord. “He has me work many strange hours,” he confided, “but when I need it He gives me more time off than I would have taken for myself.”

    I found myself strangely drawn to the simple wisdom of this approach, and I have made it my own over the years. Largely, it has worked. Most of the time when there’s a task to be done I find that there’s strength to do it. Later, in between this crisis and that emergency, there’s usually an interval of inactivity when I have felt free to hang out with friends or family, to go for a swim or a run, to read a book or play a computer game (I like Free Cell), at times even to pray. I, too, have felt as though God has lovingly given me more time off (and more fun adventures!) than I would ever have planned for myself if I had a more highly structured and routine-filled life.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    I need to be careful, however, because it’s easy to over-spiritualize, and it’s also easy to become drier and drier inside if life is busy. In other words, there’s more than one issue at stake. In the regular ebb and flow of life, it’s true that I need some times to simply rest or to enjoy people and activities, but I may very well also need a way to replenish the quality of my inner life. In fact, adding recreation to the list, as important as it is, may simply add to the flurry of activity that masks an inner emptiness of the soul.

    Gregory the Great (c.540-604), one of the finest of all popes, spoke about the condition of the busy leader’s heart in his book, Pastoral Care (sometimes called The Book of Pastoral Rule):

    For often some persons, forgetting that they are superiors of the brethren for the sake of their souls, devote themselves with all concentration of heart to secular cares. These they gladly attend to when the occasion offers, but when the occasion is not present, hanker after them day and night with the surge of a disordered mind. When they find a respite from these occupations, because the occasion for them has gone by, they are the more wearied by the respite itself. For they take it as a pleasure to be weighed down by such activities, and regard it laborious not to be labouring in earthly concerns. And so it happens that, while they rejoice in being weighed down with tumultuous worldly business, they disregard those interior matters which they ought to be teaching others.

    I have experienced this. There’s so much to be concerned with, so many meetings, so many problems that people have. I get into a high adrenaline mode (an addiction I probably share with most modern pastors), and then I’m happy while I’m caring for things, listless while I’m waiting for the next emergency. Gregory thinks this is a very dangerous way for a leader to live. He continues:

    Consequently, the life of their subjects (read “members of their congregation”!) undoubtedly grows languid, because, though these wish to make spiritual progress, they are confronted with the stumbling block, as it were, of the example of their superior. For when the head languishes, the members have no vigour. It is in vain that an army, seeking contact with the enemy, hurries behind its leader, if he has lost his way.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    For the sake of the people following me, it is essential that I find a way to stay alive on the inside. If not, I may actually hamper the work of God in my community and lead by negative example into a condition of visionlessness.

    To try to remedy this dilemma, it is necessary to be spiritually replenished. Perhaps Jesus can help. He suggested that when we get to this point it would be profitable to line ourselves up with His way of doing things (Mt. 11:28-30). The following comments are reflections about His life and ministry that can still affect the way that we do ours today.

    First, He did the right things. Although we see Jesus wearied by ministry, we do not see him in a frantic state of busyness. I think this is because He lived in the moment and He did things one at a time as His Father pointed them out. The things that His Father didn’t point to, He didn’t do. Draw your own conclusions about how your agenda stacks up.

    Second, He fought the right enemies. A great deal of life gets wrung out of me through conflict and worry about relationships. Jesus was successfully able to discern whether to encourage someone, to rebuke them, to blast out their demons, or to go to their place for lunch. I think I get twisted because I’m not sure I’m doing the right one at the right time. He figured it out, did it, and went on to the next thing. There’s no evidence of second-guessing in the Gospel accounts.

    Third,He kept a grateful attitude in the midst of struggle. We see Him at one moment denouncing cities that failed to respond to the mighty works He did in them, and in the next breath He marvels and delights in the surprising wisdom of God that revealed itself to His child-like disciples (Mt. 11:25-27). He loved everything about His Father and found joy in Him, even if life and circumstances were messy.

    This might relate to us in a different way. I think it’s also appropriate for us to keep a grateful heart in the drier times of our experience with God. Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471), in The Imitation of Christ, said:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    I have never found anyone, however religious and devout, who did not sometimes experience withdrawal of grace, or feel a lessening of devotion. And no saint has ever lived, however highly rapt and enlightened, who did not suffer temptation sooner or later. . .

    Divine comfort is granted that a man may be the stronger to endure adversity; and temptation follows, lest he become proud of his virtue.

    In other words, some of our dryness or emptiness may be a necessary part of our training in devotion. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) suggested that God draws near to us so that we will love Him, and that He draws back so that we will long for Him all the more.

    Fourth, He knew how to gain life from His work. Jesus could be tired and hungry, in need of a rest, but the experience of Spirit-gifted ministry with the Samaritan woman took Him to a place of fullness that restored Him more than breakfast at McDonalds. He told the disciples, “I’ve got food to eat that you don’t know about—doing My Father’s will!” One well-placed word of knowledge, leading to the spiritual transformation of a city or a town, can probably go a long way towards bringing a weary pastor back to life.

    Fifth, He confidently turned to His Father in every kind of need. Whether it was the night before choosing His disciples, the morning before a healing crusade, or the night before embracing the cross, He knew that He could find His Father’s heart and learn which way to go. I think the key word here is “confidence.” It’s important that we know that when we turn to God with a sincere heart He will meet us. He will.

    Sixth, He carved out time for solitude and refilling. Jesus didn’t seem afraid that His ministry would fall apart if He left town for a little while. I think it’s also fair to say that He considered His meetings with His Father to be the most important meetings of the day. I wonder which ones He’d be willing to miss . . .

    Personally, when I’m in need of spiritual replenishment, I do some of what we’ve just been doing—I return to Jesus. I think about Him, read about Him, love Him, speak to Him, long to be like Him, and give myself to Him all over again. His yoke is easy, and His burden is sparkling Light.