Good News of Great Joy: Spiritual Resilience in a Time of Dying
Pastor, you are God’s beloved. Even if your church like mine faces overwhelming odds – in deep need of soul revival, visionary co-laborers, and ministry re-birth. God knows these burdens are too big for you and me. If we make these our goals, we might feel deeply unloved, overlooked, unheard. Some of us may even feel our churches, or our call, are dying.
I write to you – mostly Fellowship pastors – as a Deacon, praying that the Lord helps you to see He is beside you, interceding for you, with a cloud of witnesses including some in your own pews – a priesthood of lay believers who want to help pick up some of your heavy load, die to self in the difficult work of building Trinitarian community, and share the hope of joy just ahead.
These brothers and sisters may seem few, in the midst of our congregations, but they have been listening, absorbing, and they want you to challenge them to be part of a bigger story, “for such a time as this,” as Mordecai reminded Esther.
Let’s not pretend: Things are terribly wrong in many lives, in all our churches, in our communities. We face burnout, exhaustion, grave financial losses, heaving grief over relationships, mental health crises, addictions, despair over global dilemmas. Our churches are community hospitals, trying to offer hope to the dying. It is too much. Too much.
In Exodus 18:18 (ESV), Moses’ father-in-law sees Moses is going to collapse under the spiritual and physical exhaustion of ministry needs: “You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.”
Personally, and in the life of my church, this is the great gift of the Fellowship Community, and the annual Gatherings. Your friendships have been a lifeline, in a season of dying to the church we once were, dying to particular dreams that may have been ours rather than God’s, and preparing to become the church God intends us to be. First Pres Hollywood has been part of the Fellowship Community since its founding, but in recent years, during a season without a senior pastor, several of our elders, the chair of our Pastor Nominating Committee, and lay leaders including me, began attending National Gatherings and regional events. We started from a place of something close to desperation. When our little group arrived, we felt so welcomed, so loved, so seen. So prayed for. We brought home to our local Session a profound sense of unity, encouragement, and kinship. Seminars on evangelism and renewal gave us hope and direction for the coming year. We wore ribbons identifying that we were searching for a pastor. We knew as a church we were a mess, but we also were reminded of the beauty of our church, the hope that God was with us. All we ever have is loaves and fishes. But He does not mock us or throw up His hands as if we have given Him unexpected trouble. He is already intervening, to glorify Himself in our weakness and grave difficulties.
November is a good month to remember we are indeed dying. Flaming trees let go of leaf after dying leaf, but flowing sap defies each little death. We’re still recovering from candy stupor and the catharsis of Dia de los Muertos, All Hallows’ Eve, and All Souls Day in memory of those who’ve already gone to God. We Presbyterians celebrate Reformation Day, recalling Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the Wittenburg Cathedral door and unleashing a century of religious wars and rumors of war, societal and economic upheaval, even as the beauty of Reformation theology provokes generations of spiritual and cultural renaissance.
Surely some among the church in those deadly days lamented with Jesus, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Enduring days when we feel forsaken, we remember Hebrews 12:2, “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” (NASB 1995). Christianity places infinite hope in things that are dying, finding joy in a future nobody but God can see. For this same reason, Noah was ridiculed for at least half a century, building his ark as the world descended into madness. But the rains came. He was not crazy to have given up his life for the rescuing to come.
Everyone we know is waiting on God for something – living in the unresolved middle of their stories, learning to face death in big and small ways. “Die before you die. There is no chance after,” C.S. Lewis dares in the exquisite “Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.”
God has hidden Himself from His beloved, for reasons known fully only to Him. Even His favorites can feel abandoned, though His Word promises again and again that we are not. He came to dwell among us, and says He has written our names on His hand and our days in His Book of Life before the foundations of the world.
This is the most beautiful story in all of human history, but we are in hard chapters, where it sometimes looks like all is lost.
Pastor, you are God’s beloved. And He wants so much more for you, and your team, than effective ministry strategies and goals. He wants your burning heart. Your unmet needs for Him, your hunger and longing for His Words and His presence, are treasures, incense to Him. The time of Thanksgiving is coming, for all the mercies we’ve been given. Don’t give up. Wait for the Lord, who overcomes all dying to bring Good News of great joy.
Memento mori. Coram Deo. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.
Rebecca Russell serves as a deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, CA.