I was thrilled to pick up a good friend of mine at the airport recently. He had flown all the way from Australia to spend time with me and see firsthand the remarkable work of transformation taking place in the inner-city neighborhood of Pittsburgh where I serve as a pastor. He had heard me tell stories about the lives that were being changed through mentoring relationships, church planting, and community development projects; he wanted to see what God was doing in person so that he could support me, train the volunteers and leaders who have been so deeply engaged, and dream about how the model of ministry in Pittsburgh might be replicated in other cities around the world.
Shortly after my Australian friend’s arrival at the airport, I received a phone call from a young man I have heavily invested in for years. He’s had an extremely difficult life. Even though he is resilient, courageous and talented, he has also spent a significant amount of time in jail throughout his young life and has had a very difficult time finding a job since he was recently released from jail – due to the felony convictions on his record. This young man has overcome so many challenges in life. Now that he is starting to finally get things turned around, he is having many struggles. He chose this particular night to have a small breakdown. He was tired; he was desperately hungry; he really needed to talk to me. I could tell by the tone of his voice that I needed to pick up some food and stop by to check on him. It was close to midnight, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain this to my Australian friend. He wanted an up-close view of the ministry, though, so he was about to see things in action.
We stopped by Wendy’s to grab a burger and fries then headed over to my young friend’s house to drop off the food and check on him. He lives on one of the most dangerous blocks in the city, so fear would seem a natural emotion for that street corner in the middle of the night. Instead of fear, though, something different was present. Something far more powerful than fear. It was something like light. This street corner was holy ground! The presence of the Holy Spirit was strong there, as the Lord opened up the opportunity for ministry. We talked for a while. I encouraged him. He encouraged me. And my friend from Australia got to see something beautiful… a young man who is close to God’s heart taking steps ever closer to his Heavenly Father. He got to experience firsthand the power of presence, the significance of simply being with someone.
I apologized to my visitor for having to go out of our way for a few minutes to spend some time with a struggling friend in the middle of the night. He was totally fine with it, as this was the kind of thing he was hoping to experience during his visit. Little did he know, though, that would be the first of many amazing encounters during the week. We would do training sessions with volunteers and organizations during the day. Then, in the evenings and often late into the night, we would spend time with the stream of people who knocked on my door. Or those we bumped into while we were walking or driving through the city streets. We got caught up in the stories of so many people we interacted with that week. We saw God at work, in remarkable ways, with people struggling just to get by on the margins of the city.
I was excited about what God was doing throughout my friend’s visit to Pittsburgh. To be honest, though, I was also tired. Extremely tired. I knew I needed to take some time to refuel with the Lord; otherwise, I would be of no use in the battle. Going from one day to the next, entering other people’s brokenness, and navigating through the dramatic ups and downs of inner-city life can be mentally, physically and spiritually exhausting. It can be very rewarding; it can also be extremely taxing on me, my wife and our two daughters. Sometimes, a life filled with presence and passion can be overwhelming, leading to a sense of burnout. God calls us as human beings to live life to the fullest, lives of meaning and purpose spent passionately participating in God’s redemptive mission. A life of presence with people also draws us into exhaustion at times. So, how are we supposed to live with this paradox?
Jesus modeled a life of fullness that all Christians can emulate. Jesus had incredible rhythms to His life. He would engage passionately then withdraw into solitude and prayer in order to rest and rejuvenate. Jesus obviously accomplished a lot during His short life, but He also spent a great deal of downtime in preparation for the mission of God. Central to Jesus’ full life was the power of presence. The very idea of God becoming man gets at the heart of our relational God. God loves us; God would do anything to pursue us; God is profoundly with us; God is radically present with us. The Bible puts it this way: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14, ESV
Perhaps God could have sent His Son, Jesus, to appear as a cerebral vision in the clouds to shout down to earth with a heavenly megaphone, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” But, that’s not the heart of God. The Lord is not a disconnected deity floating around in the clouds. God is with us in every way. And, to demonstrate that, God became flesh and became present with us in the fullness of the human experience. Jesus experienced heartache, pain, joy, love, brokenness, hope, struggles, victory, temptation, happiness and hunger. Our God rolls up His sleeves and jumps right into the gritty moments of life with us. Jesus saved His harshest words for the people who thought they had it all together; He chose to spend most of His time with the people on the margins of society. Jesus proved that God is with us all the time but especially when we go through trials and tribulations in life.
I have seen this to be true in my own life. Sometimes, it seems like God is distant, when I feel like I’m in control and things are going along pretty well with my life. When life becomes challenging, it seems like Jesus is right there with me. God is always close, but He comes especially close when I’m desperately in need of a Savior. I have seen this firsthand with the people I pastor on the margins of the city of Pittsburgh. I don’t have much to offer any of the people that I have the privilege of serving. All I can do is point people to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world Who is right there with them in whatever trial they may be going through at the moment. God is not waiting in the sky with a lightning-bolt ready to throw at us to harm us when we fail in life. Our loving Heavenly Father is radically present with us.
If this is true, and Jesus is the model for how this incarnational presence should be done, we must follow Jesus into that same type of radical presence. There is no effective ministry from a safe distance. Transformation does not happen in antiseptic environments. A life that is defined by fullness will only take shape when we roll up our sleeves and become radically present with others. Each time that we do this is a small act of obedience. Our natural tendency is to withdraw and disengage. Our culture subtly tells us that a life of fullness can be achieved on our own, in isolation from other people and with a God we somehow hold at a safe distance. Jesus shines a light on those lies by showing and telling us that a life of fullness is defined by intentional community in right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves and with creation.
RESTING IN GOD
Once we are obedient to the call of radical presence, we must beware of burnout. If we try to do all of this on our own, without abiding in God’s transforming love, we will surely not last long in the battles of life. Our culture has major problems with busyness, exhaustion, sleeplessness, stress and anxiety. We drive ourselves to the brink of personal destruction then self-medicate with a whole range of vices that are not healthy. Yes, a full life is filled with meaningful relationships and passionate duties that are a part of our unique callings. But, a full life should also be filled with the rest and peace that the Lord so eagerly offers. In the gospels in the New Testament, we see Jesus relentlessly engaging with others while also relentlessly withdrawing in order to be refueled by the One Who gives rest. The Gospel of Matthew describes the process this way: (Jesus said) Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30, ESV
Simply stated, we must turn to the Lord and rest when we are tired. We cannot live a life of fullness apart from the Vine that is our intimate relationship with God. For some people, this might mean a time of quiet contemplation and prayer throughout the day. For others, this might mean journaling, reading the Bible or devotional material, listening to music, going for a walk to get some fresh air or doing the creative things that God has gifted us to do artistically or with hobbies. We can spend time with the Lord in many different ways. The point is to be intentional about resting in God; otherwise, we will fall prey to the enemy’s plots of distraction and the emptiness of a destructive, driven life.
EQUIPPING FOR BATTLE
God does not leave us ill-equipped for a life of fullness. The God of the universe makes accessible a wide-range of effective tools that equip us for the battles we will all inevitably face. Before I head into some of the difficult situations I know I will face as an urban pastor, I often prepare to enter into the battle by putting on the armor of God that Paul describes in his New Testament letter to the Ephesians: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints… – Ephesians 6:10-18, ESV
This passage of Scripture unlocks the keys to living a life of fullness. Stand up for what is right and just in the midst of this present evil age. Do so with all the authority that comes from being a child of the Most High God. Win the spiritual battles through prayer. Meet resistance with faith, truth, righteousness, peace, salvation and the fully accessible power of the Spirit. We are in the fight of our lives – every single day. Pray at all times and persevere until the end. Intercede on behalf of our fellow human beings, with the full knowledge that God is with us. Be radically present with others, just like Jesus modeled. And, withdraw intentionally into times of contemplation, reflection and prayer, just like Jesus modeled. Then, stand firm and enter into the life of fullness to which God calls us.
~Dr. Bryan McCabe