We went out-of-town not sure if the tomato plants were going to live or die. About three months ago we put in a 5’ x 10’ raised bed garden in the backyard in which we unknowingly planted enough seeds to raise food for an army. A month or so later I was discouraged to see a few watermelon sprouts, a couple puny tomato plants, and absolutely nothing (but a few weeds) on the side where we planted squash, peppers, and onions.
We wanted the perfectly balanced garden, and we wanted it to be abundant.
We turned a blind eye to the tomato plants as they grew up and started choking each other to death, and we weeded, and prayed, and watered and nurtured the “empty half” of the garden bed, sincerely convinced that sooner or later we’d start to see our other veggies pop their heads above the soil.
Our garden was not turning out as we expected.
Last month I started rearranging the watermelon vines so we could still cut the grass in the yard, but then finally gave up and decided that watermelons were much more important than a well-manicured lawn. We also realized that if the tomatoes were flourishing and the onion and pepper seeds were just fertilizing the dirt, then perhaps it was time to give up our ideal and roll with what was producing fruit. That’s when we transplanted the tomatoes.
We came back from out-of-town up to our knees in young watermelons and little green tomatoes. I even started to get scared thinking of how in the world we were going to eat that much or give it all away. We came back to joyful abundance, even though the abundance wasn’t exactly WHAT we wanted or WHERE we wanted it. It was still beautiful. It still makes us smile, and it will still satisfy the hungry who feed from it.
It’s a little like what we are doing here.
We came to Uruguay for the first time 10 years ago, with a passion to share Christ’s love and watch lives be radically changed by that love. We KNEW that home cell groups would take off—they didn’t. We KNEW that one-on-one Bible studies through the book of John would see people mosh-diving into the Kingdom of God—they didn’t.
What we have learned over the years is that genuine love, heartfelt prayer, authentic friendship, and consistent service to the needy touch Uruguayan hearts and inspire them to look toward God, whether or not they come to our church, join our movement, or become “proselytes” to our ideology.
So I am looking at the “garden” of ministry now, seeing the little shoots come up where I didn’t initially expect them: in an international church and in ministry to children. I see them now and it is hard to believe that they could ever fill up to overflowing. And then I look at the barren ground of my unfulfilled expectations, of slow results, of other slow-going, seemingly ineffective outreach attempts, and I wonder, “What needs to happen to see fruitful, life-giving faith communities spring up in the barren areas where people could care less?”
What about all our friends and neighbors who have “enough”? They have just enough food to keep them from being hungry; just enough work to keep them from having to admit being a ‘third world’ nation; just enough leisure time to recharge them to return to their grueling existence; just enough friendship to keep them being lonely; just enough intellect to help them dismiss theistic explanations for our existence; and just enough pride to keep them from depending on an Outsider to improve their lot.
I wonder, are our current approaches–those little shoots I see growing up–enough? I wonder: are they really going to turn into plants or are they going to turn into fertilizer?
I wonder if we need to plant other approaches. I wonder if I need to “leave” vocational ministry and minister more effectively through a secular job as a translator, a teacher, or an entrepeneur… I wonder about the coffee shop/bookstore/boutique idea I have had burning up my heart ever since we first came to Uruguay ten years ago.
Is there space in the garden of my ministry expectations for that? Are those the seeds God wants us to use? Is that the kind of approach that would yield great fruit for the Kingdom and the world?
I don’t know.
Those aren’t fun words to say. They don’t resolve. They don’t turn to a rousing exclamation of faith. They don’t make a nice script for a fundraising promotional video. Maybe it would be good for a whiny Michael Moore type documentary or a depressed, navel-gazing Charlie Kaufman film.
But perhaps they do something even greater: they push me to depend on God for answers. They push me outward to ask these questions with close friends, counselors, mentors, my wife, my colleagues. I suppose (or maybe just hope) that the discomfort those words bring might indicate the death of ineffective paradigms and the birth pains of new types of looking at myself, God, and the world that will lead to Kingdom reality pushing and stretching and yawning and thriving in places where right now it doesn’t.
That’s what I hope, anyway.