As some of you reading this post are aware, I left the ministry that I had been involved in for seven and a half years at the end of August. I look back on that time in my life with great fondness and thankfulness to God, even though I had come to the point of moving on because of certain personal struggles and weaknesses that I have not enjoyed being forced to face. It will suffice it to say that I have learned all sorts of things about myself and others in the process of leaving.
In God’s kindness, between the point of saying goodbye and the point of actually leaving, I spent a whole university semester with the people I had been ministering to. It was a great blessing in many ways, but I was struck by one thing in particular: saying goodbye fundamentally changes our perspective. Why is it that we stop and give thanks when we are about to lose something? In the space of three months I received more letters and words of thanks and encouragement than during the other seven years put together. Of course, this could be the perfect opportunity to stop and put the boot into the ‘thanklessness’ of modern culture, but what was too painfully clear to me was that I was just as guilty as everyone else. As people came and said thank you, I was struck by my own lack of thankfulness to God and to others—thankfulness for the opportunity to work in a place where people regularly came to faith in Jesus—thankfulness for seeing colleagues and parishioners, who were more like brothers and sisters in Christ, sacrificially giving up their lives for him—thankfulness that people were hearing the word of God, and wrestling with sin and the world and the devil. The list could go on, but I am sure that you get the idea. In the midst of it all, I learned three main things:
- For all of my preaching about God’s sovereignty to others, I need to work out how to preach it to myself. My thinking is far too mechanistic. I am tempted to avoid attributing any pain to God (even though I know that he is sovereign over it all), and so I end up putting the good down to the luck of the draw. I realized with some horror that I was much more fatalistic in my thinking than I was in my theology. I need to work out how to keep preaching God’s is sovereignty in all of life to myself.
- I saw more clearly that I don’t think rightly about my own actions in the world. This was revealed to me by my prayer life. I found it so much easier to pray about the future of the ministry after I left. Why? Because it was no longer up to me! I was able to look forward to and pray for God’s sovereign provision because I wasn’t responsible any more. For some strange (and sinful) reason, there lurks deep in my heart the thought that while I am responsible, I’d better be responsible. I have to do what I have to do, and God looks after the bits beyond that. I need to keep remembering the apostle’s constant injunctions to work with God’s strength, looking to God for the growth. He is in control, whether I can do anything about it or not. God doesn’t just look after the things that I can’t get to, he is working in all things for his glory and the good of his people.
- I learned that Christian fellowship was greatly facilitated by the honest thanksgiving of my brothers and sisters. As people wrote me letters and spoke personally to me about how their lives were affected by the words that God had spoken through me, I was truly humbled and encouraged. It really was (and is) a symptom of my human pride and lack of understanding of God’s sovereignty again. If I knew who I really was in the world, I’m sure I would be acknowledging to God every wonderful piece of his work in the world. I am sure, too, that I would have been more likely to encourage others with words of thanksgiving. How exciting is it to be told by others how they see God working in you!
All this reminded me of the Mike and Mechanics 80s anthem, ‘The living years’. For those who can’t remember (or weren’t there), it was a song about a guy looking back after his father’s death, and realizing that he wished he’d said more to his dad while he was still alive. Why is it that we are so self-centred—that we only stop to give thanks when something is being taken away from us? Maybe we need to have a farewell for each member of our congregation once every couple of years, even when they aren’t leaving. Or maybe we just need to learn to see the world through God’s eyes more and more. Thankfully, God is taking care of eternity, and so there just might be time to say some more stuff after we die. But in the meantime, I have been challenged to be more thankful, and to tell God and others about my thankfulness.