I have been working on and off for the past few years on a new book. It is a real departure for me, working through how to face ministry disappointments, whether minor or major.
What happens when God’s servants face apathy, ingratitude, racism, psychological issues, physical ailments, lies, and other problems? Our solution is not to ignore our pain, but to “re-tell” our stories through the biblical lens, to ourselves, to others, to God.
We use the experiences of the apostle Paul on his missionary journey to Macedonia as the framework for understanding our own trials.
Enjoy! And I hope to see this in print before too long.
The disappointments in Christian ministry might feel like colliding with an iceberg!
When God’s servants crash into cold, hard reality
Excerpt from the INTRODUCTION
Collision, the North Atlantic, 1912
Two massive objects took intersecting paths. And they nearly missed each other – this word ‘nearly’ is key, since it was a glancing blow alone that turned fatal for 1500 people.
RMS Titanic was the dream of Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line, which planned to astonish the world with the biggest ocean liner ever built. It was ready with only hours to spare: the boarding passengers remarked on the smell of fresh paint. From concept to maiden voyage took four long years, and finally it sailed forth under the command of Captain Edward Smith.
Meanwhile, traveling from the north: The berg was ages older than this or any human ship, calved from a Greenland glacier that had taken thousands of years to form out of layered ice and snow. The massive piece of ice had broken off the previous summer, and it took a year to drift in the direction of Nova Scotia, ambling toward its date with history. On April 14, 11:40pm, it would have been moving at less than half a mile per hour. Later reports noted that it was the only large berg in the vicinity, that is, in theory it could easily have been missed.
And traveling from the east: the Titanic plowed ahead with geometrical accuracy, as if it had planned its deadly rendezvous with the help of satellite positioning. If only the great ship had been traveling one knot faster or slower; if it had steamed from port a few minutes earlier or later; if it had turned a fraction of a degree further south when the iceberg warnings came in. If only we could factor in one of these minute changes, the Titanic would have sailed on to New York and the berg would have floated by in the darkness, unseen and unremarked. The name Titanic would be as historically obscure as the names of its two sister ships, the Britannic (sunk in World War I) and the Olympic (after many years of service, sold for scrap). There are no movies about the Olympic; no Celine Dion songs about the Britannic!
A hundred vain ‘what-ifs’ – and we have had a century to wonder why this disaster came to this ship on that night.
Collision, Paul on his first Macedonian Tour
It was at roughly the midpoint of his ministry years when the apostle Paul launched a new operation, with what seemed like specific direction from God: Go to Macedonia, announce the good news of Jesus.
As it turned out, Paul ran into massive opposition there. To extend the Titanic image even further, Paul rammed into one iceberg, but did not sink; he then limped along and smashed into a second one; and again, and again, for a total of, by our count, eleven distinct collisions, any one of which could have finished him off. Although in theory Paul might have spent years in Macedonia, after this string of disasters he was unable to continue and had to retreat.
Part of Paul’s legacy is to help us interpret what it means to follow God’s lead, only to crash into cold, hard reality.
And for some of us, even one small iceberg is plenty to quash our ministry.
Collision in the Jungle
Tina always knew she’d be a missionary, ever since she saw the slides of South America in her church. She took a degree as a nurse practitioner and, overcoming her stage fright, spent a year raising her support. Finally, the big day came: her church officially commissioned her to go to Brazil as a medical missionary. She flew to São Paulo and spent a year studying basic Portuguese, which she managed as well as any of her fellow novice missionary. Her mission agency deployed her to a rural clinic. For six months she gave inoculations, comforted frightened children, gave talks to mothers about sanitation, and taught Bible studies to a group of Christian women. Tina was living her dream, she was serving in God’s army!
Until her dream was crushed by a tiny insect. It was rainy season, and malaria was breeding. A mosquito bit Tina on her forearm, leaving tiny microbes. A few weeks later, and she felt a headache coming on. During that night she started shivering. The next day, it turned into a full fever. Malaria is usually not serious, but Tina already had liver issues that led to complications. That crisis passed, but like many sufferers, she relapsed with malaria some months later, and had another alarming attack.
It fell to her field director to break the heart-wrenching news to her: the mission board had ruled that she was physically unable to continue her work; everyone was deeply sorry, but Tina would need to return home. For good.
What if? Tina mourned. What if she had sprayed herself a little more carefully with repellent? What if she had left her house a few seconds sooner instead of running out late for her meeting? What if she had worn the other blouse, the white one with the long sleeves? What if God had just kept the mosquito in a holding pattern until she had a chance to pass?
Collision, anywhere, anytime that God’s people seek to serve him
Full-time or part-time; children’s workers, youth leaders, pastors, missionaries, teachers, writers, church planters; and as we shall see in great detail, even the apostle Paul; any one of us might at any moment ram into cold, hard circumstances, leaving us to wonder where to find God in the dark of night.
When the crash tumbles us out of our uneventful journey, where do we turn?
Excerpt from the CONCLUSION
Paul walked away from eleven collisions on his first Macedonian tour, which was small portion of the dozens of hardships he faced. After evacuating Berea, he lived to write all his New Testament epistles, and his best fifteen years of ministry were still ahead of him. But even Paul was done in by his last ‘iceberg’, when he was beheaded by the Emperor Nero in the 60s.
Whether you turn out to be unsinkable, or long-lived like Paul; whether your first iceberg will turn out to be your last; whether your collision will be fatal to your life or terminate your ministry; none of this matters in the end. We can simply say, ‘I don’t fully know what this large chunk of ice is supposed to be, but I know who my God is, and if I focus on him, I will know his peace.’
‘”Iceberg Ahead!” – an excerpt,’ by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
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