It’s the second week of Easter season. A week ago, we remembered our Lord’s crucifixion, descent into death’s realm, and triumph over death in the resurrection. By entering into death, He healed us—just as He healed and cleansed by touching the unclean, the socially outcast, the outsider, the broken, the sick, the sinner. Our God’s touch heals what is not whole in us and redeems what is whole so that it can be used for His kingdom.
I have lived church and pastoral disease. Three years ago, months before the pandemic reached the US, I burned out. I had been serving in a church community that I loved, but we had major issues that we had not figured out how to work through: unacknowledged theological conflict, political disagreements we failed to navigate, and the desire of some in leadership to keep everyone happy rather than face the tensions boiling under the surface. I felt the burden of these issues and didn’t know how to bring them to healthy resolution, so the tension got buried in me. My shame, anxiety, and sense of the conflicts swirling in our community led to a year of chronic fatigue.
I thought that if we did things right then we would be healthy. If I taught the right way, or our leadership structure was right, if I agreed to the right set of doctrines, or cared about the right political or social issues, then we could achieve health. I taught through Revelation because I half believed that maybe a deconstructed and properly reconstructed eschatology would help get to the heart of some of the key issues in our community, I was part of a team working through questions around racial justice and the gospel, and I worked on another team that sought to train our community in healthy conflict—all of these in an effort to move toward healthy ministry, and all have deeply challenged and formed me as a pastor. But none of them brought health, to me or to the community. I still ended up spending most of the year in bed.
Pastors are called to tend the flock. We work for the health and flourishing of individuals and communities, measured in our faithfulness, love for one another, and ways we bless those around us. But we operate in a culture that values activity, money, and measurable impact. Our sense of what constitutes health can warp over time. Instead of understanding flourishing according to God’s design for humanity, we promote active programs, put our trust in the money we have in the bank, and measure success by the number of people in the pews. (Even as I type that, I can feel myself begin to defend the ways that I value programs, bank accounts, and numbers of people; the powers and principalities are insidious and pervasive, though not victorious.) I had lunch today with a pastor friend whose church is disappointed that he is not doing more—more programs, more money, more people, more impact. The values of industrial culture have infiltrated the church; Babylon is making its way into the embassies of Jesus’ kingdom.
And so our churches and pastors are diseased. I am diseased, and so is my church community. Lord, have mercy! Thanks be to God that he enters our world, touches the unholy (including death itself) and sick, and heals us. I have one story and two practices to share about my experience of God’s gracious healing.
First, a story. I started meeting with a spiritual director in the middle of my year of fatigue. Before one of our first early meetings, I heard from several dear friends that they believed that I would need to leave my church community in order to thrive. I disagreed but felt that I should take those thoughts to my spiritual director. We prayed about it, and I heard clearly from the Lord the words, “You’ll know when it’s time to go.” I carried those words with me through several difficult meetings, the week when our lives changed, and the meeting when I was released from that ministry context. Through that season, I experienced difficult emotions and broken relationships, but also the joy of being held and protected by the God of the universe, whose Son suffered and redeemed the worst that humans can do to one another. Jesus was with me in the middle of the hardest season of ministry; because he was there, I emerged healthy and flourishing. God’s presence heals.
Two practices. The first is prayerful listening with other ministry leaders. I’m grateful for several groups of pastors and leaders that gather regularly to share stories and listen. We just spend time listening and I find that the act of listening and the related act of sharing my own struggles gives me insight into myself and others. I feel seen, cared for, and tended to and I often learn new things about myself as I am talking about myself. But more importantly, I find that I experience God’s presence in the work of listening and sharing. He makes Himself present to us. And when God is present, He heals.
The second practice is my daily prayer, which has changed dramatically over the years. I used to work through my checklist: read a Bible passage from a prescribed reading plan, pray for the people on my prayer list, read a devotional book, make sure I was doing things the right way. I found through chronic fatigue that I just didn’t have the energy for checklists and doing things the right way. All I had was myself. And so I learned to offer myself in prayer. Through that season, with the help of a spiritual director and a counselor, I then learned to search my body to find my sins, anxieties, fears, joys, shame and then offer those to the Lord. I have found powerful healing in the act of welcoming the God of the universe—who has conquered sin and death!—into the places in myself that I try to hide. My brokenness—sin, shame, wounds, fears—is no obstacle to God. What God touches, He heals.
In this Easter season, I am learning again to practice the most basic truths: that Jesus has entered death and emerged victorious, that His victory is total and there is no place in creation where He is not Lord, that His reign includes even the most hidden and ugly places in my life, and that His victory transforms and heals. May our triumphant Lord give you hope and healing in this season!
-Josh Cramer, Pastor4Pastor Participant
Lead Pastor, Resurrection Covenant, Boise, ID