I honestly cannot believe we are only a few weeks away from a new year. I know of many that are saying how long of a year it has been. While it is most definitely a challenging year, I have felt that it has gone by rather quickly. Maybe it has something to do with the busy pace at which my family moves.
As most of you know, we were able to take a sabbatical recently. We had a great time catching our breath and visiting family for longer than just a week or two. I have never been on sabbatical, and I didn't know what to expect. I had read some blogs and such, sought council from people I knew had taken sabbaticals in the past, trying to prepare myself for whatever God had for us. I learned real quick that most people's thoughts of a pastor taking a sabbatical are joined with the idea of something bad. Are you getting burned out? Are you leaving for good? Is your marriage ok? And so on... The thought that you are stepping away from your work to recharge, to rest, to reconnect with your family and wife, to seek the Lord for a vision for the days ahead so that you can avoid some sort of calamity in your life is somewhat foreign generally speaking. I believe God met me at every one of those levels while away. I am confident of what He is doing in my life, and in the life of the ministry He has put us in will continue to bring Him glory and honor.
One of the things a dear friend of mine said to me about sabbaticals was that "re-entry is hard." I did not think much of it when he told me that and thought to myself that it couldn't be too bad coming back into something you already knew—my how I was wrong. We got home late on a Tuesday night, and I was preaching a funeral on Thursday morning in Manderson while another funeral was going on at the church in Sharps later that same day. The Lord allowed me to lead five funerals the first two weeks we were home, not counting the graves we were asked to dig. All the while, Amanda and I are trying to navigate getting the kids back into a routine and schooling, picking up pieces of brokenness and hurt around the people that you love and desire to walk alongside. Let me just say something, "Re-entry is hard." It has taken several weeks to get our feet back under us. I am so grateful for the team that God has put around us. It would not have been near as possible without the other families we work alongside being here and filling in the gap for us. Even their patience in allowing us to get settled back in has been very enduring, and my heart is full to work alongside some amazing families.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to dig a grave for a lady that I did not know, which is common. However, this time the funeral director asked if I could leave the backhoe there and help with the burial as he was not sure if there would be anyone there for her. I could spend all day talking about funerals and my experiences with them here but for the sake of time, understand that here the families will often dig a loved one's grave by hand. Still, even if they get someone to dig a grave with a machine, the family will always grab a shovel and fill the hole back in by hand. It is a tough process that I did not learn until living here. When you dig a grave by hand for someone you love, the weight seems to carry heavier. You are not only emotionally drained, spiritually drained, but now you feel it physically as well.
Chad and I dug this lady's grave (which was a tricky one to get to at that). I left the backhoe there and came back a couple of days later for the burial. She had a small handful of the family members present, and I was fully prepared to lead a service if needed; however, there was a priest there that knew her, and he was prepared to lead the service, and so he did. He began by sharing about this lady and the love she had for people. She was blind from birth, and yet it did not seem to stop her or slow her down. She loved people around her, and she diligently did her best to serve them. The story of this lady was quite remarkable and made the scene there all that much sadder. He then went on to talk about the grave itself being a demonstration of love. He said that the hole in the ground and the rough box that had been placed in there ready to receive her remains and the time and effort it took to get it all ready was a work of love. He did not know that I had dug her grave and put that rough box in and went on to say, "whoever dug this hole and prepared this grave whether they realized it or not, showed a great deal of love for this lady; it was a work of love." I stood there beside that grave, humbled, and encouraged by this man's words. I have not thought of digging holes and preparing graves as a work of love before. I had found myself many times before praying for the families of the person I was digging for, even when I had no idea who they were. I have often sat at the backhoe in the middle of a cemetery, reading the grave markers of people, wondering what their story was. Since this man gave those words at that graveside, I have since been able to think on them some. I wondered if it really was a "work of love" or if it was just the next thing to do on my to-do list.
I wish I could give you an honest answer as to my motives that day, but I am not entirely sure. I truly love people, and I like to think that my love for people motivates me to check things off my list each day, but the more I thought about it, the more I was truly convicted about the motivations of my to-do list. It is so easy to get caught up in what is happening right in front of us. To be engulfed by our circumstances or the things we feel we can control. I wondered what God could do in my life if I were truly doing things motivated by the greatest work of love ever. The work of love Jesus has completed and prepared for me goes beyond any form of struggle or hardship I could ever imagine. In Matthew 9 it gives us a glimpse of Jesus' "to-do list" and then closes with this;
35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
Jesus saw people and was moved/motivated by love for them. I know, generally speaking, end of the year updates are not filled with stories of funerals and graves, but 2020 has been an off year for many, so maybe you will oddly find it fitting.
I wanted to encourage you that in the midst of suffering, there is a great work of love. I am more encouraged and motivated than ever to love people, to check things off a list with the gospel being at the heart of why we are doing it. I desire to see people know Jesus the way I do. To experience the presence of God and to know His love. To know that there is great joy and holiness beyond the grave because of that incredible work of love.
Dear friends, we are so grateful for all of the outpourings of love and resources to our family and ministry. We have been able to accomplish so much this last year, things that I knew were only possible by the mighty hand of God. I want you to know that Jesus is alive and well, He is sitting on the throne, and it is so very evident if we would only open our eyes a bit.
Next year we will be diving into new aspects of ministry through the medical program that we have been building and developing. We have great plans to pick back up with summer camp, jail, meal, children's, discipleship and vocational ministries, and whatever else He allows us to open back up. My heart is to do it motivated by a great work of love, and I invite you to join in the work wherever you are. There is so much work to do, and the fields are white with harvest. They are ready. Will you grab a shovel and help dig? Will you grab a bag and help gather? Will you hold whatever tool the Lord puts on your hand and start working? What a great time we are living in. I am sincerely excited for 2021 and am genuinely looking forward to seeing you in the field.
Learning to serve the Lord in all we do,