Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to summit a mountain with him. He then peeled back his humanity and revealed an unprecedented, electrifying display of unveiled glory. Oh, and then he was joined by two luminaries who had been dead for centuries. And then, just when they thought this jaw-dropping experience could not possibly get any more intense, the voice of God the Father resounded with a declaration of his unreserved approval.
Naturally, the three witnesses were gobsmacked. And very much in character, a star-struck Peter blurts out exactly what would have been swimming in my dazed thoughts in a mesmerizing moment like that: I don’t want this to end. Ever. Let’s set up a tent-town and soak this experience up forever.
But then—in a flash—it’s all over.
The dazzled disciples descend from the charged mountaintop experience and, before their brains have had time to acclimatize to the sudden loss of experiential altitude, they are immediately accosted with the frightful and gritty melee of a demon possessed burn victim thrashing about in a fit, while onlookers desperately call for Jesus to intervene.
I find this scene in Matthew 17 to be an apt analogy for what it’s like coming home to ministry after a glorious, edifying, encouraging pastors’ conference.
It is an experience that is difficult to relate to anyone who hasn’t had it. But when a church sends its pastor to a conference like the Shepherds’ Conference Summit, or T4G, or Desiring God, or any well-executed gathering of pastors, it is a boon that can be a defibrillator for the pastor’s heart.
Ministry is one of the most rewarding vocations in life. Pastors get a front row seat to God’s work in the hearts of people. We get to bring the gospel to crowds and individuals and see it take root and transform souls before our very eyes. We get to spend countless hours in the Bible and then we get a hushed and hungry congregation with which to share what we have discovered. We get to see drug recovery, theological shifts, and relationships healed. But we also have a lot of bad days.
We see the darkness of human depravity up close and personal. We see broken lives get more broken, hard hearts grow harder, and we endure innumerable grumbling complaints and unappreciative comments and even outright accusations and attacks. Ministry is fraught with disillusionment and disappointment, betrayal and backstabbing, emotional stress and spiritual strain. For many it is financially challenging and even physically dangerous in regions where persecution is a lurking threat.
And it is not a job one can clock out of. Concerns for the flock hover in your mind like a swarm of insects. You are haunted by feelings of helplessness and inadequacy to remedy family situations in which sin has wreaked havoc. You don’t turn those cares off with a switch. They dominate your thoughts, prayers, and often conversations with your wife. The church isn’t a job, it’s a family. And you don’t clock out of family.
As Paul said, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).
Ministry can be exhausting for pastors and their wives and families. And exponentially more so for missionaries.
This is why gathering with hundreds or even thousands of other pastors and missionaries at a conference is indescribably comforting. Just to sit in a room, surrounded by a huddle of brothers who know exactly what it’s like—to hear thousands of voices boom in harmonious unison “It is well with my soul!” Well, there is nothing like it…on earth. Which is why I honestly describe the Shepherds’ Conference to pastors I encourage to attend: “like a glimpse of Heaven. They ply you with gifts, and breathe life into you with encouragement, and shower you with the warm water of the word from the best preachers God has grown. And then there is the singing. Oh, the singing…”
When I attend a conference I always want to set up a tent and listen to the preachers, hobnob with my brothers-in-arms, and bask in the glory of God…forever.
But then it’s over.
And what awaits you is an inbox full of requests, enquiries, invitations, complaints, criticism, and decisions. And that’s just on your phone. When you get to your study there are sermons you need to prepare that will never sound as good as the ones you just heard. There are books on your desk that you will never get time to read, and books in your mind you will never get to write. There are committee meetings, family commitments, denominational obligations, and that lingering prescription from your doctor that you take a longer vacation, get daily exercise, and a full night’s sleep every night.
Here is the hope: we can take the mountaintop home with us.
How? The answer lies in a fascinating comment Peter made years after his glimpse of glory on the mount of transfiguration.
2 Peter 1:16-20 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.
Did you get that? Peter is saying, (if you allow me license to paraphrase), “Yes I saw the majestic glory of Jesus with my own eyes that day, and yes I heard the voice of God audibly, that day, and yes it is impossible to describe to you how that felt, but you and I have something way better: the Bible in your lap!”
It is in the Scriptures where we can experience the glory of God in Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1; 2 Cor 3:18). We have the more sure word. The word is more sure than an experience, more lasting, more objective. And you can revisit it when you want, as much as you desire, for as long as you need it.
This year I was not able to attend the Shepherds’ Conference. Oh, I milked the live stream and I’ll obsess over the audio files, but I know it’s not the same.
But that is fine with me, because I have the Bible and that is no consolation prize, it’s the first prize, the trophy of the grace of God.
My hope for those who did attend is that they will not descend the mountaintop with trepidation for what awaits them, but with renewed vigor and passion for what they get to be part of, and that they will know they are complete and equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).