One of the most exciting things about moving from apartment living into a home in SC was the opportunity to begin gardening. As a high schooler, I spent summers with my friends as landscape artists (*ahem*, read “mulch throwers and weed-eaters.” Our preferred term for ourselves was “grass maggots”). I had some experience planting flowers and trees, and I’d mowed like ten thousand lawns in my short life.
All that being said, it was fitting that my forays into gardening and gospel ministry began at the same time–four years ago. In many ways, I have come to see my successes (read “failures”) in the garden to mirror my successes (read “failures”) in gospel ministry. I can see my garden from my office window at the church. It’s funny how my struggles in that garden have been a kind of parable of how things have gone in my first four years pastoring at College Street Baptist Church.
Hands to the work–even when it doesn’t ‘work’.
I had no idea what I was doing. That statement is as true of gardening as of pastoring. We had a bare patch behind the house that didn’t have any weeds or grass or anything growing in it–any easy place to till up and start a garden, right? It didn’t strike me until later that there was a reason nothing was growing out of that soil. Yeesh.
Needless to say, that first year was…fruitless. I sprouted seeds inside which was exciting, until I transplanted them–at which point they promptly all died because the soil didn’t hold water and everything was scorched by our hot Mexican Sun (sorry, Buster Bluth reference there).
So, the next year I conscripted a couple of unsuspecting college students to help me build a raised bed, having decided the original soil was beyond help. I even tried to get advice from some gardeners I knew who had a lot of success. The problem was that they had very conflicting advice, and the gardening attendant at Lowe’s added a third opinion. It was all very confusing.
Again, things sprouted, and they stayed alive, but they were stunted. I didn’t know why. Looking back, I’m sure it was partly due to sterile soil and a lack of rich nutrients. It was quite humbling all summer to have members pull in behind the house and walk past this brand-new raised bed full of embarrassingly small sprouts–and absolutely no fruit.
Which brings us to this year. I have high hopes. I discovered too late last summer that adding Black Kow seemed to solve all of my problems. Since, I’ve dumped bags of the stuff in hopes that it will improve the soil quality.
In many ways, nothing has changed from year to year. Gardening is four things: seeds, soil, water, and sun. I know the elements required. And yet thus far, my work has proved relatively fruitless. But I trust in my garden as in my ministry that there is spiritual fruit to be harvested from doing work that from all appearances seems not to be working.
Frustration and Hope.
I would be lying to you if I said I haven’t had my fair share of frustration. I’ve been tempted to give up–both in the garden and in the church. But it seems every year I’ve seen a glimpse of what could be. Even when everything was dying in the garden, even when everything was falling apart at church, the Lord still provided fleeting glimmers of hope.
Prayers have been poured out on my garden, begging for the Lord to just give me some kind of fruit. More prayers have been poured out in my study, begging for the same at CSBC. In all of it, I’ve realized just how helpless we are in forcing organic growth. It is solely the work of the Lord, and we must have the patience to trust him. Yes, we plant the seeds, we try our best to amend the soil and to water, but ultimately organic growth from start to finish comes from God.
It reminds me of Ephesians 2. So often we pay lip-service to the fact that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8), and yet get frustrated and angry when our efforts do not immediately produce faith and fruit. The years of fruitlessness have shown me that if fruit comes, it will only be by the grace of God–not because of my herculean efforts.
It’s almost laughable the amount of setbacks I’ve dealt with. When we re-landscaped the front of my house, I kid you not, two mornings later, I came out to find that the neighborhood deer had treated my flower beds like an all night buffet. They were also kind enough to eat the few blooms and sunflowers I had in my garden (On an unrelated note: I hate deer). I had blight and disease. I dealt with poor soil drainage. I dealt with intense summer heat. It felt like I was watching the garden wilt by the hour from my office window.
I’ve had even more setbacks at church. Members dying. Members leaving. Families visiting and choosing not to stay. Lack of leaders. Personality conflicts. Stress. Uncertainty in knowing how to lead or when. Ministries not catching on.
However, through it all, I’ve refused to capitulate. The only thing that has kept me sane has been my confidence in the message of the Gospel of Jesus to do the work. In the midst of setbacks, I’ve maintained a constant focus on the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4). I’ve come to a greater understanding of the centrality of the work of the Spirit in building the church, even as we seek to continue to walk the path the Father has laid out before us in following Jesus.
As far as I’m concerned, if the church cannot grow and prosper through total confidence in the Gospel and dependence on the Word and prayer–then I don’t want to succeed.
In the spring of 2014, I bought these two hydrangea bushes and planted them outside. Ignorant as I was, I didn’t realize I had purchased a patio variety–and needless to say, one good afternoon of laser hot sun was all it took to torch them.
I moved them to a shady location, but they looked dead all summer. The next spring, however, new green showed up. But it was so wimpy. Every afternoon, I was rushing to the rescue with the hose, trying to revive the tiny, flowerless little plants back from the brink. This year, the bushes put forth beautiful new leaves, and started to bud. It had been so long since we’d seen flowers on them that I asked my wife if she could remember what color they would be–she couldn’t! No more intense watering is needed, and after three years it looks like these babies are back for good.
In many ways, this has mirrored my ministry as a pastor. More and more, it seems I’m less necessary to put out every fire. I’m beginning to see members take initiative. It’s nothing big or voluminous. But it is beautiful–just like those tiny hydrangeas behind the house. The church of Christ is resilient. After four years of a constant diet of God’s Word, of growth together in fervent prayer, of reliance on the work of the Spirit, and of taking baby steps forward in Kingdom effort, by God’s grace his church is seeing small, beautiful, new life.
It all starts with seeds.
This year, the seeds I sprouted came from my father who now works for Park Seed. I like the symbolism. Certainly the man I am today, the father I am today, and the pastor I am today is the result of the seeds my father planted. May we never underestimate what God will do with the Gospel seeds we plant. Sow them far and wide. Plant the gospel in the lives of your children, the members at your church, students, and neighbors.
There is no telling where or when the Lord will produce growth. He has promised:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
And remember: as in gardening, so in gospel ministry, growth comes only after you put up with a lot of…