While on sabbatical my wife and I opted to visit the first church I ever served as pastor fresh out of seminary. I had only returned one time since we left in 1985. Nancy had never been back. On our road trip out west we traveled via Southern California for a spiritual blast from the past.
As one can imagine, lots of memories attended the visit. I only spent three short, illness-plagued years at Grace EV Free, but we engaged a lot of people and built some solid relationships. None of those connections proved stronger than the friendship made with Dave and Sheri. We stayed with them during our extended weekend. They showed us extraordinary kindness and hospitality. In the grace of God we simply picked up right where we left off with them. Our experience was at it always has been with them – saints in whom is all our delight (Psalm 16:3).
That Sunday we accompanied them to the church. So much has changed! Three services now. A thousand people. A new facility. Nancy and I both remarked how much it reminded us of our OGC building. But none of that struck me as much as something else. As we walked toward the entrance, we met a man who served on the board during my pastorate. Jim wears his 90 years amazingly well. He shared about his current ministry – caring for his physically failing wife.
Then, after service, came Sonny and his son, Phillip. Sonny used to preach for me when chronic fatigue sidelined me in those difficult days back in the ‘80s. His son, who attends Dave and Sheri’s community group on Sunday evenings, has adopted his Dad’s love for and proficiency in the Scriptures. Others we heard about who had since gone home to their rewards.
I found myself thinking about Jude 21 during the service – “Keep yourselves in God’s love.” It struck me as I reflected on our experience that these dear folks we reencountered had done that over the years, just as we have done. You can get that perspective over time when you have walked with Jesus for forty-plus years. The three disciplines contextually describing how to do this keeping in Jude 20 & 21 have been our experience. We have built ourselves up in our most holy faith. We have prayed in the Holy Spirit. We have waited and continue to wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring us eternal life. Oddly enough, the lead worshipper used this Jude text for the service benediction. I have never heard anyone do that in all my years as a pastor. I have never used it. That will change in the future as I return to ministry from this sabbatical, Lord willing.
Another related reflection caused me to praise and worship God that first weekend of our extended break. Believers do keeping things like building, praying, and waiting because God’s people are a kept people. Like fixed bookends to our persevering lives in Jesus, Jude 1 and 24-25 frame the security of our lives – “To those who have been kept” and “To him who is able to keep you from falling and present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy, to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” Our keeping ourselves in the love of God is subordinate; God’s keeping us in Christ is ultimate. The kept enjoy the keeping of the Keeper as they keep themselves in the love of God.
My thanks to the keeping people of my first church for pointing us so plainly and thoroughly to our great Keeper at the outset of my sabbatical. May the kept of God never stop keeping themselves in the love of God.