Do you get it yet?!

I’ve always found it funny the way that the Lord sometimes takes the opportunity to beat a truth into my head repeatedly over a few days in different ways. Perhaps I’m just proper thick, but it seems to be that often, when I really need to learn a lesson, the Lord really hits me with it a few times in a short space of time.

That’s been the case for me over the last week or so. As I’ve pointed out a couple of times recently, the slog of church planting in an ‘average place‘ can feel like walking on through the drizzle. The temptation to lose heart can be strong. To get down about the slowness of the work, or the lack of quality, or perceived effect, of my preaching. The temptation to want to be anywhere but plodding along in the never-ending rain. To look for joy elsewhere than in daily denying myself, taking up my cross, and following Jesus. To dream of sitting in the sun with a book and a glass of Hoegaarden. Even to wonder very (very!) briefly if teaching really was that bad after all. (It is, by the way!)

But the Lord knows what he’s doing…

Last Wednesday I sat and listened to Andy Prime’s banging sermon on 2 Corinthians 4 at the FIEC Leaders Conference. Andy reminded us that while there are many reasons to lose heart in gospel ministry, there are more reasons in Christ to keep going. To keep trusting in Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection. To keep finding joy, in the midst of difficulty, in God’s mercy and the beauty of his glory displayed in the face of Jesus Christ. To minister on, to plod on, in the all surpassing power of God, which is ours in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Spirit. To be reminded that the slog is not to be despised but is the normal pattern of ministry, because then God is glorified, not us. All stuff I knew, right? But summat I was in danger of forgetting as the rain seeped into my shoes…

Then, as I got back into real life last Thursday, I came across Luke 10.20 in my personal Bible reading. It hit me like a train. The reason the slog of ministry so often drags us down and steals our joy is because we’re trying to find our joy in it, rather than in Jesus. We lose heart because we rejoice that our ministry is awesome, or that we’re amazing preachers, or that God is using us to save people, or grow Christians to be ‘super-awesome effective disciples-making disciples’. But the problem comes that in the slog and the drizzle those things aren’t always happening. And because my joy is invested in those things being true, when they’re not I’m gutted. But Jesus reminds me, like he reminded the disciples, that joy is only found in him and his gospel, in the love the Father has lavished on us in him, through the Spirit uniting us to him. Whatever happens that ain’t going to change. Again, it’s not like I don’t know that. I preach it to our folks pretty much every week, in and out of the pulpit. But just perhaps the rain was in danger of washing my clarity on it away…

And then I turned up the passage for Sunday. Guess what? Psalm 131. Read it. Go on. Take some time and luxuriate in it. I’ll wait… Can you see why I laughed as I read it?! Why I told the Lord, ‘Enough. I get it!’ It’s not my job to know why ministry and life is great, or why it’s pants. It’s not my job to know why so few people have joined us. It’s only my pride that makes me think I can look down on the situations the Lord has given me for my eternal good, and the extension of his kingdom. It’s simply my job to rest in the hope I have in Jesus. To trust my heavenly Father and enjoy his embrace, as I rest in his goodness to me in Jesus, like that weaned child with its mother. To find my joy in the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, as the Spirit shows him to me. And to call others to find this same joy as they hope in Jesus, both now and forevermore.

Perhaps you’re not the same as me. Perhaps this obvious lesson doesn’t need beating in to your head every day. If so, congratulations. But I reckon, for most of us, especially those in full time ministry, this is a lesson we need to learn afresh every day. To confess before the Lord, every day, that we have lost heart because we are proud, haughty, and think we deserve to know everything. Because we have failed to trust the Lord and find our rest in him. Because we have invested our joy in the spirits (or our church members, or unbelievers, or the culture) submitting to us, and therefore throw a pity party when they don’t. Because we’ve failed to delight in the glory of God in the face of Christ, failed to depend on the Spirit to empower us. Perhaps you, like me, need to repent of that, every day, and come afresh to the cross of Jesus. And ask the Spirit to give us afresh the joy of our Father in the face of his Son. And then, to get off our knees, and out into the world to show them a joy that cannot be defeated. Because Jesus really, truly, is alive…

Just keep swimming…

The other day I spent a good day in the company of some mates, who are all at different stages of planting churches in similar contexts to us. It was great to catch up and hear encouragements. But it was also great to be able to be honest together about the struggles of planting churches in places like Cleck.

You see we’re two years in now, having launched in September 2017. And the Lord has been good to us. We’ve seen a few people join us from our previous church. We’ve seen a guy who’s recently moved back into the area show real interest in joining us. We’re spending time at the minute trying to help a very new believer navigate all sorts of issues. We’ve built relationships with people from all sorts of backgrounds in the town and valley. We’ve seen some of them show interest in the gospel, and one or two even join us regularly on a Sunday. God has been really good.

But we’ve also seen people break our hearts as well. People who have shown interest in the gospel, and seem to want to know more, only for circumstances or a negative reaction to gospel truth to take them away again. We’ve seen a few Christians show interest in joining us, and then be driven away when they realise we do actually believe and seek to live out what’s in our statement of faith. We’ve worked hard to build relationships with people in the town, only for stuff beyond our control to cut them off at source. We set up each Sunday knowing that, humanly speaking, there’ll be around 15 of us again. And, in it all, the Lord is still sovereign and still good.

So far, so ‘that’s just ministry life’, right?! True…

But our town doesn’t get a new influx of young, energetic people every September. And people don’t move into our town for work. (That little dot there is a full stop folks. No caveats here) And two years in, the dissatisfied Christians travelling out of the town for good reformed ministry, that everybody told us would be here, haven’t exactly been beating our door down. Largely, I reckon, because they don’t exist. And those young, zealous, free & mobile professionals who are desperate to move round the country to help little church plants (so loved of church planting literature)? Well, I’m sure they exist. I’ve just never met many of them maybe…. We also don’t have a long history in the town, or dechurched people looking to return to church, or friendships going back over years…

Which could all sound like a moan, couldn’t it? And perhaps some of it is. Poor little us. It’s alright for you lot in your big churches with your new buildings, and your 15 staff, and your excellent ministry, and your [insert stereotype here]… I’m aware enough to see that in my own heart. But it’s also more than that. It’s not even just yet another appeal for more workers to come and help us.

Because I reckon I’ve seen enough of Uk evangelicalism to know that most of those calls fall on deaf ears. I’ve got enough mates who’ve made them, and I’ve made enough myself, to see that most people act all concerned and prayerful, and then get on with their day. Now I know the Lord can do wonders, and I’m praying he will. But as I tell our folks regularly, we can pray and ask as much as we like. And the Lord might even send us some workers. But the cavalry aren’t coming. They don’t exist. But we’re here. Now. And that’s because the Lord has placed us here. Now. For his glory and the extension of the kingdom.

And so the call of God’s word to us, and to folks in contexts like ours, maybe even to you, is to trust the Lord, and (like Dory) to just keep swimming. We’re here, you’re there. Now. So keep plodding on in gospel ministry. Keep speaking of Jesus to one another. Keep loving one another beyond our capability to do so, as the Lord enables us. To keep building friendships and telling people the gospel. To start new friendships when old ones break down, even through the pain that brings. To pray, and pray, and pray, even when it feels like they’re bouncing off the ceiling. To remember that the Lord never gets the wrong address or the wrong people. To trust him when it seems the end of the road is a long, long way ahead.

My wife and I were discussing the weather the other day (we know how to live!). And how sometimes planting in our context never seems to be too sunny, or too stormy. Nothing too horrendous just at the minute, nothing too exciting either. But how, often it just feels like trudging along in the never-ending drizzle. And being from West Yorkshire, you think we’d be used to that! But it still grinds you down in the end. No coat’s waterproof for that long. No trainers will keep the wet out for ever. But the call of the gospel is to keep going. To just walk on through the rain…

Because at the end of the day we’re not listening for a lark, but, one day, we will stand under the light of the Son of Righteousness. And we’ll rejoice in seeing the glory of God fully in his face. We will be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And maybe, just maybe, the Lord will be gracious enough that we’ll be stood there next to some people from Cleck that we never even met here. But who heard the gospel in the future because, by God’s grace, we kept trudging through the drizzle now. I reckon that’d make it worth getting a bit wet. And if you’d like to come and join us in that, we’d be delighted for some fellow travellers! Bring a brolly!

But, for now, whatever happens, we keep looking to that day and to Jesus. And we keep trudging on. Slowly, squelching and dripping as we go, but ever onward. Maybe that’s you just like it is us. Keep going brothers and sisters. Because Jesus is worth it. And Jesus is Lord. And he is coming. Soon