Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The impatient gardener

Our society today is far from Jesus’ agrarian-based culture. If we want tomatoes any time of year, we go to the store and buy them. We don’t have to wait for fruit to be in season because it gets shipped to us from places that are always warm. Our thankfulness for food is limited to being thankful that we had money to buy it, but we really don’t give thanks for the process by which it was grown.

But I’ve been gardening for the past three summers, and I have discovered that fruit doesn’t come immediately like it does at the store – it takes a lot longer. And I have learned that I am not a very hopeful gardener. I plant fearfully, praying every year, “Lord, please make something grow from this.” And every year that fruit comes, I know that it’s not because I have a green thumb. Somehow when the seeds are released from the confines of their packet, when the dirt covers them and the water hits and the sun warms, they grow, and they sprout, and fruit comes. And it always amazes me because I was not sure anything was going to happen.

Not only am I not a hopeful gardener, I’m also an impatient gardener. For me gardening is not about the process, it’s about the fruit. I plant tomato plants because I want tomatoes. I plant cucumbers because I want to eat cucumbers. And so I get really impatient with my garden. I wonder why the plants aren’t growing faster, why there aren’t flowers on them yet, if they are growing at all because they don’t look any taller than they did the day before. Did I plant them right? Am I giving them enough water? Have I messed up this time?

And summer after summer it happens. Over time, the plants grow. Flowers come. And fruit follows. I can take no credit for it, and I cannot speed up the process one bit.

Recently as I was fretting over my garden and wondering if this was the year that my lack of ability was going to doom all my plants, the Lord spoke to me about my impatience. He said, “Son, you do this same thing with the people that you minister to. You think that your job is to make them grow, and you think that if you just find the right verse or if you push them more, they are going to show fruit faster. You are an impatient spiritual gardener with misplaced hope.”

When I am an impatient gardener, my hope is in me and my ability to make things grow. But John 15:1 tells us that there is already a spiritual gardener, God the Father. Jesus said, “ I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.”

This is why Jesus uses gardening so much in talking about the kingdom of God - He is teaching us about hope. We sow seed in people’s lives and then we entrust it to God’s hand because only God makes it grow. Beneath the surface, where we can’t see, God is at work, whether we are awake or asleep. And our trust and hope is in the Father, who is growing His kingdom and wants to see fruit even more than I do, yet who also delights in the growth process.

My work as a disciple is learning to be a patient, hopeful gardener, enjoying the growth process and knowing more fully the One who brings fruit.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The real work of ministry

It’s been hitting me lately that my job is not to run ministry projects or make “ministry happen.” My job is not to make sure that every Sunday there is a place called Grace Community Church for people to come to. My job is not to be the person that you can bring your belligerent non-Christian friend to and I will have all the right answers. My direct influence on the world outside the walls of Grace is very limited.

Yet there are hundreds of ministers who come to Grace every Sunday, who spend less than 3 hours each week at our church. They don’t get their paycheck from a non-profit. They are not leading Bible studies all day or preaching from a pulpit. But they are the hands and feet of Jesus all over  Greensboro. They are teachers and business owner, nurses and landscapers. They are moms and siblings, neighbors and friends. And they have been called by God to honor Jesus in each relationship and each moment of the day, whether that is filling out an expense report, fixing an after-school snack, or mopping a floor.

My role as a pastor is to point these ministers to Jesus, to help them know His love and presence in their lives. My role is to equip them to know His voice and to act on what He speaks. To teach them how to study the Scripture and how to give a good reason for the hope that they have. To remind them that they are Christ’s ambassadors from the cul-de-sac to the boardroom. It’s easy to forget that God is present in the mundane things of life and that their coworkers are more than their coworkers – they are people whom God loves very much and to whom the ministers of my church are being sent every day from 9-5.

As a pastor, I am an arrow pointed to heaven, reminding my co-laborers in the gospel to look up and remember the One that loves us, the One we serve at all times.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tears in prayer

She came to our church in need of financial assistance for rent. Unfortunately the best we could do was to refer her to a couple of local agencies that had fund to help. As she sat in the hall with her four year old, my heart went out to her. I didn’t know how she got in the situation she was in, but I knew that it must be a scary and difficult place; maybe it was her first time in need, maybe this was all too familiar. I was on my way out the door, but God prompted me to stop and pray with her, and His heart for her beautiful. It was to bless and encourage, to speak life into dark places, to remind her of hope. And when we were finished, tears were trickling down her cheeks.

This happens fairly often when I get to pray with people coming in for assistance (though I am not led to pray with every person who comes), and I have wondered at their tears since many of them are not actively pursuing a relationship with God, not involved in a church. Yet when we pray, something in them is reminded that they are not alone. Something at their core resonates with a God who loves and cares for them even more deeply than their physical needs, though He does care for those needs as well. Moments of crisis in life tend to open our spiritual ears and eyes and remind us of our need for God.

What is curious to me is that most times, those who are so moved in God’s presence during prayer don’t actively follow up on knowing that presence more deeply. We certainly offer ways for that to happen, things like Sunday worship and small groups for women, especially for those who we have relationship with through one of our ministries at church. But usually we are not taken up on those offers. I wonder if they don’t feel worthy to know the Lord intimately on their own, or if they perceive that they might not be well-received by a “rich white church.” Or, like many of us, their moments of spiritual clarity are quickly swallowed up by the cares of this world, the worries of life, and the desire for other things (Mark 4:1-20).

I hope this woman pays attention to her tears, pays attention to her longing for love and for the Lord, and that she will follow through to know Him more. He certainly knows and loves her.