When Dave and I bought our hobby farm, I was enamored with the fact that we would have a little wooded area in the corner of the property. I loved how my kids would have their very own woodland paradise twice the size of our entire suburban lot. I had this vision of children frolicking out there all day long. Building forts. Playing hide and seek. Pretending. Imagining fairies and woodland creatures. You know, totally the kind of stuff suburban kids armed with iPads and Netflix love to do.
Of course the reality turned out to be much different. The woods were thick with weeds and thistles … not to mention ticks and mosquitoes. My kids wanted no part of it. When forced to “GO OUT AND PLAY IN THE WOODS ALREADY!” by their serene mother, they elected to trespass on my neighbor’s property instead and play in the wooded area that had been properly cleared by a herd of cattle. Apparently they wanted to risk life and limb against a stampede or potentially being shot by hunters instead of playing in our little woods. Kids will be kids.
Last summer I hired a guy from Craigslist to clear the buckthorn from our property. After he came and assessed the project I learned that my “woods” was almost entirely mature buckthorn trees. We paid him his fee and he proceeded to chop them all down … and leave. He never came back and finished the job. He never returned our “hey where are you?” calls. He just took the money and ran.
For the past year Dave and I have hemmed and hawed over what to do with our woody area now. The entire woods has felled buckthorn spread throughout. We have multiple stacks of branches in the surrounding pasture. And brand spanking new buckthorn has sprouted up throughout the entire woods. Its a mess. Its overwhelming. And it wasn’t what we expected.
This past week Minnesota was ablaze with beautiful fall colors and perfect weather. I wanted an excuse to get outside so I decided to start in on hauling branches out of the woods. As I surveyed our woods I was again struck with what an overwhelming project this was. But I gathered up a batch of branches and hauled them out. Then I went back for another. And another. After two hours I was sweaty, covered in burrs, scratched up, itchy and annoyed I’d ruined my favorite fleece vest.
I scanned the area and assessed my progress. The woods seemed no more clear than when I’d started. The pile I’d been dragging branches to seemed no larger. I was cursing the guy who we PAID to do this. And, to punctuate the experience, my goats who I’d dragged up to the woods with me to eat buckthorn had meandered over to the neighbor’s field and were happily munching on grass. Worthless animals.
I wondered why I had even bothered.
Most of us who do any sort of Kingdom work start out with a vision. Like my idyllic picture of the kids playing merrily in the woods, we have hopes and dreams of how ministry will go. But it doesn’t take long for reality to set in. There are problems. There are unexpected obstacles. And, there are people. And just like my kids who weren’t interested in hanging out in the woods, nor were they up for helping me clear it, people don’t always share your enthusiasm.
It can be defeating to feel like you are working hard clearing branch after branch after branch. You might get scratched up, annoyed, and wounded. You might wish you had some help around here. You might stop and look around and feel like nothing is changing and wonder why you are even bothering. But God promises us that when we are working for Him, it is not in vain.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58
Oftentimes we get started in ministry and God slowly reveals each next step while we work. But you have to get started before that can happen. I realized that the very act of starting the project and working in the thick of the woods allowed me to more clearly see the problem at hand. I had to move certain branches first to get what was underneath. There were branches too big to be cleared alone. And I realized a chainsaw was going to be required. These are things I never would have known if I hadn’t entered into the woods and started clearing little branches at a time.
My woods clearing project also reminded me that sometimes what we see as stalled progress is actually God’s timing working in our favor. Last summer, after clearing and piling branches, we ran out of room in the pasture and had to stop. It occurred to me this weekend that waiting a year had allowed the wood to dry out and we were able to quickly burn all of the major piles in one day. In ministry, we have to trust God’s timing. He might be setting things in motion, preparing hearts, and clearing the way for progress while you are waiting.
We each have roles to play. On Saturday we worked as a family to drag and burn branches from the piles and throughout the woods. The kids hauled whatever size branches they could. My husband manned the chainsaw. My youngest thought his job was to eat Cheez-its on the tractor. Each role was important. (Ok maybe not the Cheez-it eating.) But your role matters so never feel like what you are doing is too small or unnoticeable. Whether you are volunteering at church or running an entire organization, your role matters to God. But don’t be afraid to grow, either. My oldest quickly realized she was stronger than she thought she was and gradually hauled bigger and bigger branches. Allow God to stretch and grow you as you work for him.
I could have just walked away from the problem. I mean, I live in the country. Who really gives a rip if my woods are full of buckthorn and fallen trees. It’s easy to feel that way about the world, too. There are big problems and it seems overwhelming to address them. Its tempting to dwell the comfort of complacency and let someone else deal with it. But God has called us to work in this messy world. And he promises to be there with us, molding us, teaching us, and encouraging every step of the way.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9