Prior to 1992, I’d never been to Vermont. To this mostly Midwestern guy, the small northeastern state might as well have been a foreign country, for all I knew of it, which was almost nothing. But in July of that year, I received and accepted the call to pastor First Baptist Church in Shelburne, a community of nearly 5,000 (at that time) on Lake Champlain, about 5 miles south of Burlington—Vermont’s largest city of around 35,000. Driving north on US Route 7 for the first time, I immediately fell in love with our new home. The natural beauty was stunning; the rural environment, peaceful and welcoming.
Our family lived in Vermont for eight years, leaving in 2000 to return to the Midwest for another ministry opportunity. We left with a sense of sorrow that, in my heart at least, turned to a bit of regret. This is where my theology of a sovereign, wise God kicked in and carried me through, trusting in His larger purposes that transcended my temporary malaise. Anyway, we left Vermont, but Vermont never left us. In the past 18 years, we’ve returned on average every other year. Not often enough, but better than having the place, people, and experiences fade into distant memories.
We enjoy returning in Autumn, hoping for the good fortune of catching some part of leaf season where the Green Mountains are transformed into a panoply of color: red, gold, orange, yellow, shades of green, deep burgundy—all vibrantly alive on the hillsides unspoiled by billboards, factories, and crass development.
On these autumnal trips, our favorite activity is to hop in the car mid-morning to wander through the day, going wherever the roads take us. We start off in a general direction of where we want to go, perhaps heading toward a town we want to end up in at the end of the day to get dinner in a restaurant featured in Vermont Life or Vermont magazines. But that’s about it as far as definite plans. We learned when we lived there that the best way to find beautiful spots is to wander…find an interesting road, preferably unpaved, and head down it to see where it takes us. Some of the most interesting and awesome sights met us around a bend, over a hill, beyond a mountain.
On one of these uncharted excursions a couple years ago, we were driving along a dirt road, came up over a hill, and were struck by a stunning, colorful pastoral landscape off to our left. I pulled to the shoulder of the road, shut off the car, and we set off for a few minutes to explore. And discovered the scene above—an inviting, peaceful, serene setting that begged an artist with canvas and oils. Well, that’s not me, but I could capture it with my Nikon. I’ve since enlarged, mounted, and framed a print that hangs on our dining room wall. Sometimes when I have a quiet moment, I’ll focus on the captured scene and consider what it says.
It sounds a great deal like what Jesus said in a couple places. To a throng of harried, burdened and defeated religiously minded people he offered an invitation. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” [Matt. 11:28-29] On another occasion, Jesus and his closest followers, the twelve, had been very busy, engaged in a great deal of interaction with crowds of people, and Jesus called them aside and directed, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.” [Mark 6:31]. I could hear the invitations coming from this scene. But then I notice something else. The bench is empty. The scene is inviting; it’s calling every harried passerby to stop, come apart, and rest awhile. But the bench is empty. And thinking back to that day, I didn’t occupy it either…even for a moment.
Which isn’t new, is it? Looking back at the context of Jesus’ invitations, it seems the bench is empty. It doesn’t appear that many, if any, from the crowd took him up on his offer and accepted his yoke—and found rest. And the disciples? Well, they went to the desolate place, but the crowds followed, and rest was elusive.
May I encourage you to look at the picture and have a seat. Accept Jesus’ invitation to find rest for your sin-weary soul…and to rest your tired, frazzled body.