“You, dear brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people,” wrote Paul to Philemon. As you know, Paul had a big ask of his old convert and colleague: grace for his runaway slave, Onesimus. Today, let this phrase rest upon you like a benediction:
“You, dear brother [or sister], have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.” (Philemon 1:7)
It could seem that refreshing the saints is a kind of pastoral extra, like remembering to send your grandmother a birthday card, nice to squeeze in between the big stuff that dominates ministry. But we underestimate how weary, lonely, and thirsty our people often are.
Years ago, a strange headline in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention: “City tries to pump up its crews down under.” It was a story about a pep rally for the 800 employees of the Chicago Sewer Department. It’s a tough job and the new head of the department gave them a rousing speech. “Winning is not a sometimes thing,” he shouted. “It’s an all-the-time thing!” (Who knew there was a contest going on down there!) A photo showed a big banner on the wall behind him that said in huge letters, “Bringing Sewers Above Ground.”
I often thought of that story on Sunday mornings while I watched folks find their seats. I’d think about the dirty, difficult places where my people worked every week. Some offices are filthier than sewers. Some schools are darker than tunnels. A lot of believers spend their week trying to keep the gunk off their hearts, trying to keep their souls from smelling like a cesspool.
We draw the refreshment we pour forth from the Spirit’s well springing up within us. Paul commended his old friend Philemon, “I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus” (v.5). There’s our well: love for them and faith in the Lord Jesus. Apart from that whatever we offer is stagnant.
On the sidelines during football games you always see those people whose sole job seems to be squirting Gatorade into players’ mouths to restore their electrolytes and keep them hydrated. Our ministry is like that. We circulate among our people—in person, emails, cards, and prayer—offering grace, fresh from Jesus to the spent and parched. When I look back on 40 years of pastoring, I think the best part was simply refreshing the hearts of the Lord’s people. Like Paul to Philemon, that is what they thanked me for.
Ours is remarkable work, a wonder really, but it is not too great a stretch for any of us. It isn’t dependent on our schooling, age or personality. It does matter, however, that we actively trust Jesus to use us. It does matter that we love the people we meet. It does matter that we shoulder our people’s burdens, share in their joys, honor their dignity, and thank God for their fellowship. It does matter that we linger and listen, and that we wait for the Spirit’s prompting before we speak. It matters that we attend to our own souls and that we are refreshed ourselves by Jesus.
This particular aspect of our work is not only Christlike, it is heavenly. Revelation 7:17 says that in the kingdom to come, the Lamb “will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.” Till that day, good shepherds here will always “refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people.”
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.