Sometimes you get tired of doing small things, seeing little fruit, and working hard in obscurity. Sometimes it’s just hard to be faithful. And sometimes God gives striking reminders of why we shouldn’t give up.
In the December 2007 DesiringGod newsletter, Executive Director Jon Bloom tells the moving story of Olive and Arnie Nelson. Olive and Arnie ran the tape ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church from 1978 to 1994 — 17 years. John Piper was preaching at Bethlehem for 14 of those years. Every week Arnie copied the previous Sunday’s sermon using the tape duplicator and kept the hundreds of original tapes organized in cardboard boxes in a small room behind the sanctuary. Every week Olive manually typed 150-200 individual tape labels along with hand-typing every mailing label for the subscriptions. Every week the Nelsons together packaged and mailed sermon tapes to people around the world. Arnie died several years ago and Olive died just last month at 94 years old, but 30 long years after the Nelsons began serving in their church’s tape ministry, the DesiringGod website is stocked with 2,500 free audio files, at least half of which were preserved through the Nelson’s faithfulness. The DesiringGod ministry is now widespread and powerful as God has used the preaching and writing of John Piper to inspire and uphold what is no doubt millions when you consider the ripple effect. The sub-title of Jon Bloom’s article: “Sow Faithfully. The Harvest Will Be Larger than You Think.”
Then several days ago, a good friend finished our brief email correspondence about beginning-of-the-semester logistics by sharing a similarly precious story about his Christmas Break:
This might seem a little random, but I thought I would share this blessing from tonight with you about seeds being planted in our hearts.
The weekend before Christmas our family went and watched a Christmas play. It was the same play that we watched once before at the church were I played baseball growing up (we used the fields on the church’s property). I was about 12 when I saw it so I wasn’t a believer (it was probably one of a handful of times I went to church in the twenty years before I got saved), but I remembered that play being very good even back then.
This year when I watched it though it was an extra special blessing because of the real meaning Christmas has now. But, one thing that I remember was the way that the play seemed to be the exact same story of Jesus’ birth that I saw when I was 12. I don’t know if that was the first seed that was planted or not, but I know that it came to sprout a couple of years ago, and it was from a little play like that one. I was so thankful for the work the people put into doing such a good job of acting out the parts that I wanted to tell them what happened to me those couple of years ago, and the part their play played in that, but I felt pretty awkward with all of the people around and didn’t do it. I remembered before leaving thanking the Lord in my heart over and over, and even hoping that I might see the one man who was the lead in the play around the city sometime so that I could thank him. Well, tonight I was grateful when we were at the movie theater and I looked over at a man in the lobby, the only one there with his family, and it was the same lead man from the play. This time I went up to him as he was walking out and told him the blessing that it was to get to see him in that play again, and the rest of that story. To say the least I was thankful and thought that I might share that with you, because when I thought of the seeds that may have been planted in Judah’s heart this year, I do pray that they get planted well.
This friend of mine, in his early twenties and saved only two years ago, is now one of the most tender-hearted, others-centered, exemplary young men I know. You would think he’s been a believer for a decade. Like the title of Jon Bloom’s article, “You Never Know What God Is Growing.” Bloom’s conclusion: “We never know what God might be growing in the fields of obscurity we are tending. What might God do through the child whose diaper you’re changing, or the grandchild of the boy in your Sunday school class, or the bored teen in your small church, or the coworker who currently mocks your faith in Jesus, or the hardened inmate who looks impossible to reach? We can be confident of this: he is doing more than we can see. He always is. Someday we will be amazed.”
But there is one unifying problem with both of these stories: they end in sight, at least for us. We can see (and enjoy!) the fruit of Olive and Arnie Nelson’s labor. We can see at least one of the fruits of the faithfulness of the man whose Christmas play planted a seed in my friend’s heart. This is a wonderful encouragement. But it is also a problem. Because we are called to labor even when we can’t see what God is building and watering and planting.
So what are these stories good for? They give us footsteps to follow even when the road is narrow, encouragement to walk even when our feet are heavy, and strength to work even when weariness is all we can see. They cannot show us the fruit of our own lives or the impact of the church in our generation, but they can give us a glimpse of what we will see one day. They peel back one small corner of the curtain of eternity so that for one precious moment, we can see one small corner of the harvest. Promises are not meant mainly to be seen but to be trusted. Which is why seeing even a fringe of fulfillment can be so precious.
Yesterday I went running on my familiar trail — up the street, down the dry riverbed, up the horse trail, through upper campus, along the hills, around the cross, up to the street, past the condos, down the hill, and back home. Mid-way through as I was running along the hills I noticed two young Hispanic guys sitting on bikes next to the cross on the hill overlooking The Master’s College campus. I didn’t think much of it as I ran toward them, but as I got closer, I thought I would stop and say hi and see if I could muster up enough Spanish to ask them if they understood the significance of the cross. I took two years of Spanish in early high school and then another elementary year in junior college, but I can only communicate at a basic level.
We talked for 15 minutes, about a lot of basic things. I heard twice as many words that I didn’t know as ones I did know. I asked them if they understood the importance of the cross, knowing that I couldn’t explain it to them either way. They said not really and asked a couple things I couldn’t answer. They asked if I was “Catholico.” “Christiano,” I said. They asked if I attended a church. I said yes and pointed toward Placerita Baptist, just a half-mile away down the hill. They nodded. I said that Jesus Christ died on the cross, but didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them why. They had to help me with the verb “die.” I told them I had a good friend who’s started a Spanish-speaking church not far away; he could explain it to them much better. They said I spoke good Spanish, probably because white people around here never address Hispanic people in their own language, or in any language. We’re not very good hosts, Christians being no exception. “Como estas” and a smile would’ve impressed them. I told them I wanted to learn more Spanish, and asked if they wanted to learn more English. They did. I told them that my friend also teaches English lessons. After awhile I told them goodbye, somewhat abruptly since I didn’t know how to lead into it. I finished my run, took a shower, and started studying again.
I knew as I ran up to my new friends that I wouldn’t be able to say much to them or learn much about them or explain the significance of the cross that stood next to them with the Greek word tetelestai (“It is finished”) engraved at its base. When I was 30 feet away running toward them I remember consciously thinking, “I just want to tell them whatever I can tell them because God can plant a seed even through this.” And I was thinking this precisely because the desire to be faithful had been watered in my heart during the past week through the stories of Arnie and Olive Nelson and the Christmas play my friend saw ten years ago.
I’m not saying that I did something special or heroic or that I do things like this all the time. This story just seems to show the front end of the two above without showing any of the ending, which is what most of our stories are like. I don’t do things like this all the time. I don’t do things like this half the times I think about doing them. And I don’t do things like this one-tenth of the times that I should. But two young men were standing under a cross, and I was running toward them with the explanation and two recent reminders that the harvest will be larger than we think.
Their names are Miguel and Alejandro. And you never know what God is growing.