In the early summer of this year, I quietly passed the thirty year mark as an ordained minister of the gospel. These three decades have not been without trials and even temptations to quit. Yet, I can look you straight in the digital eye and honestly say, by God's grace, today I am more in love with Christ and His church than when I first began.
As I personally reflected upon these years, I thought about how many other men I have seen fall away from the ministry and some even from the faith itself. Again, I know I would be among them apart from the Lord's sustaining grace. As God uses means to grant His strengthening grace to us, I wanted to share some of the ones He has used in my life. I refer to these ways He imparts His grace as "oasis places."
In the wilderness, the Lord would provide places for Israel in their journey for refreshment on their way to the Promised Land. One such location was Elim, where "there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water" (Ex. 15:27). Similarly, we need stops like these along our pilgrimage to rest and refresh ourselves in the Lord. Below I share seven of these oasis places that He has used significantly in my own life.
Devotional and biographical books. When I rewind the video and look back on the significant times that the Lord brought refreshment into my life and ministry, I usually see a book in the background if not the foreground. Reading the sacrifices of missionaries such as John G. Paton, Hudson Taylor, or Jim Elliot. Working through devotional material like Calvin's Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, Philpot's Through Baca's Vale, or Spurgeon's Morning and Evening. Picking up a Banner book like The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Flavel's The Mystery of Providence, or Rutherford's Letters. Or just simply hitting things head on with books like Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbara Hughes or From Embers to Flame by Harry Reeder. Books such as these have provided a mental and spiritual oasis to me.
Walks and talks with my wife. The older I grow, the more thankful I become for the life companion that walks alongside me in life. Miriam is such a wonderful source of sustaining strength to me. Yet it is not just the metaphorical walk we take together, but the actual ones, where I experience such refreshment. As we walk alongside the scenic Ohio River near where we live, holding hands, sharing our days and dreams, and just doing live together breathes new life into my soul. I always come back home refreshed from that time - and always wondering why I do not make sure we do it more often!
Double dates with true friends. Through the years, the Lord has given us close friends that, though we may not necessarily get regular time with, we certainly always have quality time with when we meet up. These friends are the ones that, over a meal, we can share freely and openly with about the burdens of ministry. Times like these have often blessed us with renewed hope and strength.
Drawing closer to a suffering saint. In God's mysterious kingdom economy, I often find that I am most strengthened when I am close to believers going through a trial faithfully. A widow bearing her loneliness with grace. An elderly person weak in body but heavenly minded. A single woman joyfully serving the Lord. A poor man content with little because he has Christ. Jesus uses broken vessels to display His grace, and being near them touches the soul with His presence and love.
Dedicated times away from ministry. Okay, I could just say "vacation." But simply going somewhere else does not necessarily bring refreshment. I find those dedicated times where I purposefully withdraw from being on call 24/7, whether it's simply an afternoon where I determine to put away the phone, some extended scheduled time in prayer with God, or that whole week I take with my family near Lake Michigan every August, boost my spiritual vitality for when I return to "ordinary life."
Conferences and classes. Certainly another place where God has given me vision and energy for ministry has been in attending special conferences and classes. Several Ligonier, Banner of Truth, and RPCNA family conferences have been a rich treasure of teaching and training for me. Taking an enrichment class at RPTS that Ted Donnelly taught when I was in the pastorate, or my Doctor of Ministry courses on the campuses of Reformed Theological Seminary and Reformation Bible College, were used greatly by the Lord in my life to renew me.
The Sabbath, Communion, and Christ Himself. I would be remiss - and even dishonest - if I did not testify to the unique oasis that the Lord's Day and the Lord's Table are. For as we journey through this world, the Lord has given Himself to us in the weekly time of worship and the regular time of coming to His special meal. Ministers of the gospel, in doing their "work" on the Lord's Day, can often neglect receiving the blessing of these means of grace in ministering to others. However, the sincere minister will make sure he is feeding his own soul in the spiritual delights of Christ before he seeks to feed others in them.
One disclaimer as I conclude. I am not always as consistent in going to these places as I wish. All I can say is that when I do visit them, the Lord always uses them as green pastures and still waters to graciously restore my soul (Ps. 23:3).