“Your Labor is not in Vain”
Closing Reflections on a Ministry
John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical account of the Christian life. It’s regarded by many to be the single most important piece of religious writing in the history of the English language. It tells the story of a dream that a man named Christian had about a long journey from his home in the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City” of heaven that he undertook to find relief from a heavy burden that he was carrying. And as he crossed over the final river, John Bunyan said that the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
I cross a river this week – not the final river, mind you – but a river nonetheless. I received my call to ministry in 1965 when I was 12 years old. I had my first paying ministry job in the summer of 1972. I was ordained to ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1979, and I have been in vocational ministry every day ever since. But this week, things change. I’ll still be a minister, but I will not be the minister of a church for the first time in four decades, five if you count the ministry jobs I had before I was ordained. And while I suspect that there will be other kinds of ministries in my future, come this Tuesday morning I will not be a minister in the way that I have always been a minister before. I will cross over a river, but unlike Christian in A Pilgrim’s Progress, I don’t hear any trumpets.
In the last days of every ministry that I’ve ever had, my heart has returned to a prayer that I found a long time ago in a prayer book for ministers. “Lord God, merciful and mighty: Help those whom I have neglected to help,” it begins…
Set aright those whom I have caused to stumble;
Visit those whom I have neglected to visit;
Bring back those whom I have led astray;
Cheer the hearts of those whom I have made sad;
Draw with the cords of thy love those for whom my love has grown cold.
Save them all, O Lord, and have mercy upon me, the chief of sinners…
I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality’s “wintry” soul, but it has always been so much easier for me to see how, and when, and where I’ve come up short, or missed the mark altogether, in my ministry than it is for me to fall prey to easy self-congratulation and feelings of self-satisfaction. This is not a bad thing. In fact, just like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” I’ve found that my wintry soul has actually served to keep me consciously tethered to God’s grace, and entirely dependent upon the promise of God’s power being made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The preacher at the church I attended in high school used to say that he would rather go into the pulpit in his underwear than to try to minister without the assurance of God’s promise to use our weakness to His glory (2 Corinthians 4:7-12). And one of the ways that this promise has been kept at the forefront of my consciousness as a minister across the years of my ministry has been the experience of ministry itself. This week I am acutely aware of four great truths about my work for the Lord as a vocational minister, and about your work for the Lord as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and about our work for the Lord together as a church – (1) it’s always imperfect; (2) it’s always unfinished; (3) it’s quite often hidden; but (4) it’s never in vain.
- Our work for the Lord is always imperfect.
When I was a kid they used to show a cartoon version of Charles Tazewell’s classic Christmas story The Littlest Angel every December in school. Theologically, it’s a mess of a story. But spiritually, I have found encouragement in this story of a little boy who dies and goes to heaven as the “littlest angel” and who doesn’t quite fit in. The littlest angel was such a disruption to the peace of heaven that he was finally sent to the angel of peace to straighten him out. And when the angel of peace asked the littlest angel what he could do to make his adjustment to heaven smoother, the littlest angel told him about a crude wooden box under his bed back home that was filled with treasures – a butterfly’s wing, a blue egg, a couple of ordinary white stones, and a well-worn dog collar. If he could just have that rough wooden box with its strange assortment of treasure in it, the littlest angel told the angel of peace, then surely he would be happy in his new heavenly home. And so the angel of peace made arrangements to get it for him, and things quickly improved for the littlest angel. And then the day came for Jesus, the Son of God, to be born to Mary, in Bethlehem, and every angel in heaven prepared a special gift to celebrate the miracle. But what did the littlest angel have that would please the holy infant? And then he remembered his box filled with all of those wonderful things that even the Son of God would surely treasure. And so on the day of days the littlest angel added his small, rough, unsightly wooden box to all of the glorious gifts from the other angels of paradise, but seeing the rare and radiant splendor of the other angels’ gifts, the littlest angel felt deeply ashamed. Compared to the glory of their gifts, his crude wooden box filled with such ordinary things looked shabby, worthless, even insulting. And so the littlest angel tried to take it back, but it was too late, the hand of God was already moving slowly over that bright array of shining gifts until it finally rested over the littlest angel’s lowly gift. The littlest angel cowered in a dark corner as the Heavenly Father opened the rough wooden box and looked at the odd assortment of worthless objects inside. And then to the surprise of the heavenly host, God said, “Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that it’s this small ordinary box that pleases me most… its contents are of earth and men, and my Son, who is born to be King of both… These are the things that my Son will know and love too,” and with that the rough, unsightly wooden box filled with the ordinary treasures of the littlest angel began to glow and rise from its place before the throne of God to become the star over the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Now, for all that’s wrong with this story theologically, here’s what it got exactly right spiritually – God takes what we have to offer Him, ordinary and imperfect though they are, and God transforms them into something powerful and glorious. Even our best work for the Lord is flawed, but it’s through the cracks of those flaws that the grace of God shines forth.
- Our work for the Lord is always unfinished.
I keep a prayer that was written in memory of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, in a place where I will come across it regularly.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
When it was time after 40 years of ministry for Dr. Henry to step away, Northway wasn’t finished. When it was time after 20 years of ministry for Dr. McKenzie to step away, Northway wasn’t finished. And now that it’s time after 20 years of my ministry for me to step away, Northway still isn’t finished, and that’s okay because “we’re all prophets of a future not our own.”
- Our work for the Lord is quite often hidden.
Al Mohler told a gathering of preachers that “product envy” is something of a vocational hazard for ministers.
We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It’s because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. But they get to see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? …We would love to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We wish that we could statistically mark the kind of impact that our sermons have. But, we do not have that sight. The work we do is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident.
And so Paul told Timothy to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), when you can see the results, and when you can’t. As a church historian, Carl Trueman is often asked about how the church should respond to the difficulties and decline that it faces in the west these days. And he says –
As long as I live I will still be baptizing people, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. …The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides. …In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ… and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The tomb is still empty…
- And so, while our work for the Lord both as Christians and as a church is always going to be imperfect and unfinished, and quite often hidden, it is never going to be done in vain.
The word “vain” means worthless, wasted, of little or no consequence. In I Corinthians 15 Paul talked about how some thought that the Gospel’s offer of salvation was vain (2), and that his preaching of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was in vain (14), and that their faith in it was vain (14). And then in verse 58, at the climax of Paul’s whole argument in I Corinthians, he said that their work for the Lord, seemingly so compromised and insignificant, was nevertheless not in vain because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and the future is in His hands. He who has begun this good work in you – and through you – will bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).
Recently I heard a preacher reference a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf by Niggle.” “Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one,” it begins.
“He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of the dewdrops on its edges. [And] Yet Niggle wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.” He tried to paint this tree, but it always seemed to him to be “wholly unsatisfactory.” And then one day, before his painting of his tree was finished, Niggle was called away. He was gone for years. And when the decision was being made about his return someone in authority said, “He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own. He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake.” When Niggle was finally allowed to go home again, he found his bicycle right where he’d left it when he’d been called away, and he rode it down the old path to where his home had always been. Rounding a familiar corner, an unfamiliar shadow came between Niggle and the sun. “Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished… all the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had the time… [all of them] exquisite leaves… [And] Niggle gazed at the tree, and then he slowly lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift! He said.”
And so it is…