Ever had a ministry cut off from under you?
The divine vinedresser prunes every fruitful branch.b Twigs with great potential are lopped off. That way, God’s life and our attention are channeled into those parts that will ultimately achieve the most. For months the vine seems cruelly maimed. But what seems a senseless waste produces better fruit.
On the steps of an opera house, gifted vocalist Peter Cameron Scott yielded to his Lord. In 1890, he set sail for the wilds of Africa.141 Cricketer, C. T. Studd was rich and famous in his home country. His reputation alone could draw a large crowd. Yet Christ inspired him to dispense of his wealth and trek to China, where he was neither rich nor famous. An irresponsible waste? Perhaps – if the Supreme Being were a celestial talent scout.
The Almighty is not frantically scouring the planet for someone with the natural ability to fill a particular role. Nor is he obligated to use our every skill. He is as capable of by-passing native talent as he is of supernaturally giving us new abilities.
Yet you are tenderly pruned with boundless wisdom. If a part of your life is thrown in the fire, another branch will bud, bearing bigger fruit.
Though groomed for it from his infancy, Ezekiel was barred by divine law from entering the priesthood until his thirtieth year. Finally, the day arrived. Can you see him, as excited as a flea at a cat show? Then you don’t know Ezekiel. In exile, Ezekiel was a priest without a temple. That’s like being a sailor without a ship, a painter without a brush, a carpenter without wood. Poor man. Instead of ministering rituals to his tiny nation he had to be content with shaking the entire world for millennia as a powerful prophet.
Brooks’ failure as a school teacher was so complete that he had to quit the profession forever. And the headmaster was as comforting as sandpaper. He informed the shattered man that he had ‘never known anyone who had failed as a schoolmaster to succeed in any other calling.’ The pain intensified. Utterly devastated, he intended spending the rest of his life as a recluse. Little did he know that one day someone would write, ‘What a blessing it was that Phillips Brooks was not permitted to be successful’ as a school teacher. Otherwise, ‘the brilliant, soul-winning, character-building minister might have been lost to the world.’142
The Vinedresser is always right. And he still saves the best vintage until last.a Disappointments are divine appointments to a later, richer harvest.
Perhaps you incorrectly discerned heaven’s call. (You thought it was heaven but it turned out to be a local call, not long-distance.) If so, quitting is no failure. You have given it your best and grown in the process. There is no shame in changing direction when that change aligns you closer to the perfect will of God.
One of the greatest preachers ever, Alexander Maclaren, has retained his influence for generations because he shunned what we consider the usual duties of a pastor to concentrate on sermon preparation.143 He would spend up to sixty hours preparing a single message. ‘He did more by doing less,’ concluded one biographer.144 I am reminded of the early apostles who offloaded responsibilities they had originally assumed, to limit themselves to prayer and preaching.b Should this principle be applied to your ministry?
Some of us either get involved in too many things at once or flit from one activity to another before getting established in any. We’re shooting out in all directions and wonder why we produce so little fruit. Welcome the pruning hook.
The Danger of Preconceptions
Some of the hostile forces arrayed against us are locked within our own minds.
Our lives could be shadowed with disappointment because our preconceptions have fogged God’s call.
Young Samuel initially failed to respond to God’s voice.c It sounded too ordinary. He probably expected God to thunder his commands with booming voice and technicolor vision.
God often breathes through thoughts, desires, circumstances or human agencies. If we are looking for something more spectacular, we might not recognize his call.
Yet we can just as easily err in the opposite direction, missing the Spirit’s leading, not because it seems too ordinary, but because it seems too bizarre.
Earlier, we skimmed the mad-cap exploits of Spirit-intoxicated saints. We didn’t so much as mention such star performers as Elisha who made the weirdest UFO claim ever concocted, whacked a river with his coat, threw salt in the town’s water supply, lay on a corpse, and urged followers to eat poison.a So obviously we’ve left untold the antics of lesser-known oddballs like Agabus, who tied himself in knots.b But despite this book being shorter than the Bible, I hope I’ve squashed any illusion that your ministry will be ‘normal’, because everyone else will expect it of you.
It was hard to rate a mention in the Bible unless you made a laughing stock of yourself. God hasn’t changed. You can be as conservative as God allows, but that will not be nearly as innocuous as the world, the flesh and half the church want you to be.
It’s scary being different. We’d rather hide, trying to clone someone else’s ministry. But there’s simply no demand for more impersonators. There is, however, a demand for your unique contribution.
Resist the pressure to conform. You may die of embarrassment, but you’ll live in glory. The world needs your distinctive ministry.
CHAPTER 13: FEAR
‘You’re a real spiritual dynamo,’ said the devil.
‘Well thank you!’ I gushed, surprised to find the enemy in such a good mood. ‘A dynamo, eh?’
‘Yeah, I get a charge out of seeing you go around in circles!’
If I say so myself, my plans are executed brilliantly – by unseen assassins. Just when life seems all peaches and cream, I have to go on a low cholesterol diet.
‘It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.’ A book of quotations ascribes those words to Thomas Fuller, but it didn’t say what planet he lived on. You need only see a Warner Brothers cartoon to know it’s always darkest just before a large falling object flattens you.
The occasional disaster aside, things go almost perfectly. I almost marry. I almost get a better job. I almost catch my notes before they fall into the shredder. My car almost starts.
‘It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.’ A book of quotations ascribes those words to Thomas Fuller, but it didn’t say what planet he lived on. You only have to see a Warner Brothers cartoon to know it’s always darkest just before a large falling object flattens you.
I tried my hand at rowing on a sea inlet in Kangaroo Island. I rowed furiously and got nowhere. I couldn’t figure it out. I later learnt that the tide is particularly strong in that area. (At another place my father had a similar rowing experience. He found pulling up the anchor helped considerably.) Years later I received a word from the Lord. I had been rowing against the tide, it said, but the tide would turn. Me? Rowing against the tide? Everything I do works like a charm – hangs around my neck and achieves nothing. My idea of a record year is being needled as I go around in circles. Murphy’s laws are parts of my autobiography that slipped out before I could copyright them. Why does my bread always fall butter-side down? Why are the lights always red? Oh, no! My pen’s run dry. (Really!)
Now, where was I? O yes – why does everything go wrong for me? Why do my hopes die with their legs in the air? Why would people rather read a soap wrapper than something I’ve written? I begin to wax eloquent and the wax sets. I try to witness and my mind goes blank. I try to sleep and my mind fills up. It’s a miracle. I know when the rapture will occur – ten minutes after I make the final payment on a prepaid funeral. Just call me the Aluminum Kid – foiled again. I have more problems than a chiropractor with a waiting-room full of giraffes. Another day another bother.
I wasn’t aware of doing anything wrong. In fact, I was told the tide would change, not that I would change. Why would God allow these frustrations?
All I know is that rowing against the tide builds muscles and stamina. Imagine how I’ll power through the waves when the tide turns.
George Müller seems to have suffered from tide problems, too. Though he enjoyed God’s miraculous provision daily for more than sixty years, the life of faith never grew easy for him. Even in his latter years when he gained international fame, he still had to pray in every penny, often having to economies and wait virtually to the death knock before it arrived. The Lord so believed in Müller and so cared for his continued spiritual development that he kept the tests coming for sixty years until finally granting him a financially easier life when Müller entered his late eighties.145
I started writing this book using the services of a typist. This was a wonderful answer to prayer. Not only was Lorraine willing to type without charge, she had a computer ideally suited to my needs. (The way I write – faster than a speeding eraser; more change than a thousand piggy banks; able to spell a single word in a hundred ways – a computer is essential.)
Weighed down by past failures, I had little faith to pay a typist big money for work that might end up with my dust-covered previous efforts. For the same reason, I was loath to buy my own equipment and I was convinced I’d type like a one-armed sloth with arthritis.
Suddenly, Lorraine was unable to complete the work. Another ministry attempt bites the dust. No! Surely the Lord provided her! What’s going on?
The typing already done enabled others to view samples of my work. Their response nerved me to buy a computer and learn new ways to lose data. My writing soared. Never again would I want to be dependent upon a typist, no matter how willing, available and skilled. What seemed an inexplicable obstacle has propelled me into a new realm of efficiency.
Those contrary winds are not as fickle as they seem.