Walking through the valley. Climbing the mountain.

I have just returned from a journey across the pond to explore the possibilities of long-term strategic partnerships with a couple of congregations in England. One such church was a repeat visit for me. This congregation, located 40 miles southwest of London, has gone through some rather unusual leadership transition that has caused a good bit of stress for all those involved. My goal in spending a few days with them was to encourage them and to determine if they were prepared to reestablish a partnership. The other church is located on the southern coast of England, in the city of Worthing. I have become friends with a couple of their members, and I made many new friends while there. The congregation wants to reach their neighbors and could use some help with those outreach efforts. I look forward to sharing more about those strategic partnerships in the coming days, but that’s not the purpose of this post.

My route to England took me from Pensacola to Washington, D.C., then to JFK for the international leg of the journey from New York to London’s Gatwick airport. Upon leaving the States I heard of a few prayer needs and spent some time praying for my church and the needs that were being sent to me via email or text.

My return home brought me from the same airport in London to Orlando, then to Miami, and finally to Pensacola. Upon touching down in Pensacola on Wednesday night, some backed up emails, text messages, and calls came in that gave some updates about some of those prayer needs that were given to me before I left. But then the bottom fell out. And it kept falling. It fell a bit more Thursday morning. And afternoon. And evening.

A mere 24 hours after placing my feet back on the ground in the 850, we have learned of five people either connected to our church or to families in our church who have died.

  • We’re praying for Chad, Jessica, Maesey, and Pasco Rowell as they deal with the sudden and unexpected death of Chad’s father, Roger Rowell, on Wednesday evening.
  • We’re praying for Beth and Richard Wingate, as they mourn the loss of her father, James Hudson, who passed away on Thursday.
  • Our men’s ministry and a Mission Milton team had just recently been the hands and feet of Jesus to a man in our area. This gentleman was involved in a car accident. The other vehicle was trying to allude police. In their attempt to get away, they hit Mr. Andrews’ vehicle. Once removed from life support Thursday morning, Joseph Andrews passed away.
  • As Thursday progressed, I learned of a man, a friend of one of our members, who was found dead that same morning from a drug overdose. We pray for that family and those friends.
  • Earlier this week, while I was in England, one of our dedicated servants at FBC, Keith Crutchfield, sustained an injury and was admitted to the hospital. He was transitioned to hospice care either Wednesday or Thursday, and he passed away Thursday afternoon.

The day before I left we celebrated the almost-93 years of life of Mrs. Margaret Fowlkes. On Friday we will celebrate the life of another long-time servant of the Lord at FBC, Mrs. Mildred Fisher. As that service concludes, I’ll drive across town to sit down and plan a Keith’s funeral with his family.

I want to be clear about something and offer this disclaimer. I’m not one of those pastors who thinks that pastoring a church is the hardest thing to do or that being a pastor is the most-difficult job in the world. I think the schoolteacher sweats over lesson plans, teaching methodology, and the art of teaching just as much as I sweat over commentaries, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, and the art of preaching. (The sweat during my preaching is much more related to my BMI than anything spiritual.) I think that an electrician who is running wire has a difficult job in making sure it’s done properly to keep a house from catching fire, and that his stress level in doing so is no less than mine. That stay-at-home-mom, and God bless you for what you’re doing, is easily outworking me and faces many difficult tasks that I do not. Those men and women on the assembly line are putting in as much effort with their jobs as I am with mine.

The point I’m trying to drive home is that I’m not one of those pastors who thinks pastors get the short end of the stick or have the most demanding or depressing job. Regardless of our occupation, we all experience things from time to time in our jobs that burden us, discourage us, and frustrate us.

But I will tell you this about pastors. We take our work home with us. We take it to bed with us. When we wake up, our work is right there. When the teeth get brushed, the work is on our mind. There really is never a time when we completely shut off the mind to something that has caught our attention or made an impact on us that very day.

We want you to share with us your struggles, and you need to know that when we leave our office, we don’t stuff your struggles into a jar and leave them on a shelf. They ride home with us. We pray about them throughout the evening. Depending on the depth of the struggle you’re facing, we’re likely to stay up at night and pray for you to have the  strength to endure the struggle you’re facing.

When your child rebels and gives you problems, we want you to feel like you can confide in us and share your fears and heartaches about that child. And we want you to know that before we go to bed that night, we don’t just pray for our own kids, but we pray for your kid and the issue he or she is facing.

If your marriage starts to fall apart, we would love to sit down with you and seek counsel from the Word of God and pray together for strength from God to save your marriage. But know that when you walk out of our office, part of the residue of that collapse is left behind, and we pick it up and carry it home with us.

Should you struggle with addiction, we desire to know that so we can pray for you and point you to resources that will help. We understand that such experiences are messy, and we don’t mind having some of the dirt and mud slung our way.

We don’t do this because our to-do list is empty. We don’t do this because we don’t have any other plans. We don’t do this to try to impress you or make ourselves look holy and sacrificial. We do this because this is just what we do. It’s part of the calling of God to be a pastor. That calling has blessings and burdens, and one of the burdens of being a pastor is sharing the burdens that other people experience. It’s the shepherd being concerned for the sheep, and when that shepherd knows one of his sheep is hurting, the shepherd is concerned for that sheep.

In this way we have the opportunity to live out a principle from Scripture, when Paul tells the Christian community to weep when another person in that community of faith weeps. We are doing life together. But weeping when others are weeping is not the entire task. We’re also to rejoice when the sheep rejoice (Rom. 12:15). Using the human body as a metaphor, Paul said that “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

We sink or we swim, but we do it together. We walk on top of the mountain or we try to manage the difficult walk through a valley, but we don’t do that alone.

Thursday, as I quickly tossed the jet lag to the side because I didn’t have the time to experience it, I began to experience this very great wave of emotions. Because while the news that rapidly came at me upon returning to Pensacola was distressing (let’s call it “valley news” since it’s news that puts us in an emotional and spiritual valley), there was other news that was quite delightful to hear (we’ll call it “mountaintop news” since it’s news that makes us feel like we’re high on the mountain and everything is going well).

On Thursday, at the exact same hospital, I first visited a man who had just learned that he had leukemia. I then went down two flight of stairs and got to see a new mom and dad showing off their new baby, less than 1 day old (definitely a mountaintop moment). I then went to a second hospital and visited the gentleman mentioned before, who, at that time, was under hospice care. That definitely constituted a valley moment. Upon returning to the office, I learned of a few other before-mentioned deaths. Then news came that another couple in our church had just become parents for the first time, which took me back to the top of the mountain.

That’s a pretty good picture of life, isn’t it? If you strip life down to its basic structure, it can be viewed as a series of moments on top of the mountain and as a series of moments down in the valley. Sometimes we’re up and things are good. Sometimes we’re down and the valley is our home.

Can you imagine what it would be like to try to navigate that alone? What if there was no church family to walk with you? What if there was no one there to celebrate the climbing of the mountain? What if there was no one to at least provide their presence with you in the valley? The view from the top of the mountain is too joyous not to share with others and let them see the sun shine on your face. And the walk through the valley is far too dark and dangerous to not have someone else walk with you.

This is one of the many reasons why we need the church. This is why we need each other. If you’re on top of the mountain, ask someone to celebrate with you and rejoice together. If you’re in the valley, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone to come walk beside you. And for ALL of us, let’s look for some folks in the valley, let’s hitch ourselves to them, walk with them through that valley, and then join them on the journey back to the top of the mountain.

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