I was grateful that many people in the church were praying for David, Janet and me as we attended the Pastoral Refreshment Conference last week. Several asked me on Sunday whether I was, indeed, refreshed! The answer was yes! Let me explain why.
By far the most helpful thing about PRC is that it treats me as a Christian before I am a pastor. It is not a conference that is primarily helping me to be a better preacher, counsellor or theologian- though I suspect all three are accidental consequences. No- instead it is reminding me that I am a Christian. I am a sinner adopted into the Father’s family out of sheer grace through His Son, the Lord Jesus. And I need that- because, frankly, I forget. I mentioned in last week’s post that I easily drift into a works righteousness or an absorption in my circumstances. The result is forgetting the heart of what I believe. I suspect that can be a particular danger for pastors- the Sunday services which should remind us of the Gospel become another form of the works righteousness merry-go-round for those of us leading them: God will like me more if I preach well! However, I am convinced that the same principle can apply to all of us- we get our identity from something other being a Christian which leads to a works righteousness mentality. The result is that I think God likes me if I parent/work/care (delete as appropriate) well. So it may be that my reflections on the conference will be relevant to your situation as well.
So what did we actually do at the conference? Paul Mallard was the main speaker and picked up three themes from his recently published book Staying Fresh. There were significant challenges. In the opening talk he picked up the theme of love by reflecting on the church in Ephesus from Rev 2. He noted the danger of leaders who are orthodox, busy and persevering in the midst of challenges yet who have stopped loving Christ. He was right when he said that it is possible to churn out sermons (or add your own equivalent) for a reasonable amount of time without reflecting on our own spiritual condition. In that situation, Jesus’ call is to repent. Likewise, Paul’s second talk on holiness brought much to reflect on particularly a graphic illustration of the sin of God’s people in Jeremiah 2-3 where they preferred to seek refreshment from a pile of mud rather than the life giving stream of God. Both of these challenges I needed.
But where does repentance and love spring from? I appreciated one of Paul’s illustrations- he spoke about a period of struggle when he was younger when he ended up pouring out a list of all his pastoral failures to an older pastor. The advice that came back was very helpful- “Have you ever heard of the Gospel?” Love and repentance spring from a joy in knowing that all our sins are forgiven and that we are deeply loved. We love because He first loved us.
Three things particularly helped me to remember this. Paul’s final talk was on suffering- which was moving considering that he and his wife have suffered greatly over the years. Some of their story is in this book. However, it was Paul underlining and hammering Romans 8:31 into us that helped me most. God is for us. We doubt that so easily thinking that we needed to earn His favour. But God is for us and not against us- and a knowledge of this is a spring of our love for Him and desire to choose Him over sin.
Secondly, I was helped by a seminar Richard Underwood led on rest. He made the interesting observation from Genesis 1-2 that Adam and Eve’s first day was a day of rest- they are created on the sixth day and the seventh day is a Sabbath. In other words they worked out of rest rather than using rest as the way to recover from work. Actually when you apply that to the Gospel then it is very powerful. We work and serve out of the rest that we have found in Christ. We don’t work to prove ourselves or gain acceptance. We work out of the acceptance that we already have. I need to remind myself of that regularly: perhaps you need to as well.
Finally, the communion service on the middle evening was a particular highlight. We reflected together on one of Jesus’ most astonishing statements- “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” (John 15:9). It was glorious simply to receive the love of Christ as we met around those great images of His love. It was wonderful to be able to do that alongside brothers and sisters, many of whom I have known for a number of years and who have been a massive encouragement to me. And most of all, as we sang in celebration of the Lord’s love and took bread and wine together there was a deep sense of the Lord’s presence encouraging and refreshing us. It was very good to be there that evening.
So I did come away refreshed by the Lord’s great love for us which has prompted in me a fresh desire to love Him and live for Him. I came away rejoicing to be a Christian- which should, I hope, make me a better pastor…