Ministry In The Tough Times

Harvest3bMinistry is usually challenging. Sometimes it can be brutal.  What do we need for ministry in the tough times?

I have found help from an unlikely source – the book of Ruth.  Nestled after the book of Judges, Ruth is a four chapter gem that is intensely relevant for our lives today.  Why? First, because Ruth is not a story of kings, warriors and prophets – it is a story of very normal people, just like us.  Second, because Ruth is set in a time where the culture around was marked by a growing ungodliness, just like ours.  Third, because in Ruth we don’t see God working in spectacular and sensational miracles, and there are times in our lives when we don’t see God being as obvious as we’d like Him to be. Ruth is a story of God quietly at work in the lives of ordinary people during very challenging times, and therefore it is a story for us.

The book of Ruth is really the story of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Naomi suffers extreme devastation in the first verses. Her family moved away from the Promised Land to Moab, and there her husband died, followed by her two sons.  She was left devastated and somehow responsible for her two Moabite daughters-in-law.

The darkness for Naomi was overwhelming. She faced two great problems. One was immediate, the other long-term.  The immediate problem was that without a husband or sons to protect and provide, how would she eat?  The longer-term problem was that of life purpose. In that culture her role was to bear sons and continue the family line. She had borne sons, but now they were dead. An overwhelming sense of shame, failure and hopelessness must have nagged at her.

Naomi’s journey is really the journey of humanity.  In the darkness of life’s circumstances, we live under the cloud resulting from the Fall of Genesis. We have been born into a world that believes the lie that God is not good and He cannot be trusted.  Even as Christian leaders, when life hits us hard we can get to where Naomi was, struggling to trust in the goodness of God.  Her journey is the journey of history, and it is a journey many of us will have to make – a journey of rediscovery of the goodness of God.

In chapter 1 Naomi is so devastated that all she can muster, by way of explanation of her situation, is that the LORD, the Almighty, has brought her back empty, He has dealt bitterly with her. She cannot say that God is good, all she can muster is that God is . . . God.  Maybe you are there right now. Maybe you will be one day.

Praise God that He does not discard us when we struggle to trust in His goodness.  Instead He works, typically quietly and behind the scenes, to tune our hearts to recognize His ongoing steadfast and loyal love for us.  In chapter 1 we see the stunning speech of Ruth.  Sometimes our radar for God’s kindness will be helped by those around us whose commitment to God is a testimony to us in our own struggle.

The rest of the book demonstrates God’s persistent love for Naomi and Ruth in response to the two great needs that overwhelmed Naomi in chapter 1. The immediate need for food is addressed in chapter 2.  At the start of the day Ruth speaks of the possibility of finding favour (receiving grace) from someone that day.  Naomi sat at home with that ringing in her ears until evening.  Then she discovered that God had showered Ruth with grace through Boaz.  Ruth staggered home with a huge amount of barley, and leftovers from her own lunch. And it all began with Ruth “luckily” landing in the field of Boaz.  God was at work, and Naomi started to trust again.

In the next chapters we see Naomi starting to plan for a future legacy via Boaz and Ruth. God had better plans than hers. Boaz turned out to be incredibly godly and he made sure that he followed through with appropriate wedding plans. As the book ends we see a kinsman sitting on the lap of Naomi, provided by God.  The kinsman was Obed, the grandfather of David.

Ruth is the story of Naomi’s journey from ‘God is God,’ to ‘how good is God!?’  It is the story of God persistently and quietly working behind the scenes to help Naomi see His character again. He provided protection and food, and He provided honour in the place of shame, a legacy that would go down through the generations to the great king David . . . and to David’s greater son, Jesus.

Maybe you are facing overwhelming darkness in ministry right now.  Maybe all you can muster is a declaration that God is God.  He’s in charge, but He has dealt bitterly with you.  If that is not the case today, it very well may be one day. How will we come through such times?

The book of Ruth teaches us that in such times God is still at work, even when we don’t see it.  It teaches us that there will be times when it will be the faith of a Ruth, or the godliness of a Boaz, that will preach hope into our hearts.  It teaches us that God will work quietly, but persistently, to not only provide for us, but also to bring about His greater plans of which we are a part.

When the darkness descends we can easily feel like our life and ministry amounts to nothing.  If we are part of God’s great plan at all, then our ministry is just a couple of black threads in a tapestry we cannot see.  But God still has His big picture, and our lives are still part of it.  Naomi could never have guessed that God’s plan in her suffering was really about bringing Ruth from Moab to Bethlehem so she could be in the line of the Messiah.  So we don’t know the bigger picture.

The book of Ruth lifts our hearts to believe that one day, when God reveals the great tapestry of human history, we will see how it all fit.  We will see how our few threads, even the darkest ones, were part of a glorious picture that only God’s goodness could have achieved.

Pray for God to stir your heart to trust His goodness.  Maybe through the faith and godliness of others.  Maybe through the “lucky” circumstances of life.  Maybe through suffering that doesn’t make sense.  One day it will.  And for now prayerfully look to see where God is quietly at work in your life, in your family, in your ministry.  God does not have to be sensational and spectacular to convince us of His goodness, but He is persistently good!

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Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 5

This week I have been getting my head and heart in gear to prepare messages from the book of Ruth.  I’ve pondered issues of contextual unawareness, perceived irrelevance and the challenges of application.  I am not saying any of this should come before issues of study and interpretation, but before the messages can be prepared, these issues have to be faced.  I’d like to raise one more issue:

What is my strategy for preaching through the book?I have four sessions to preach through Ruth.  Slam dunk, decision made, right?  Four weeks, four chapters.  Voila!  Perhaps.  But I’m not a fan of instant obvious decisions.  I want to think through it first.

1. Preaching a narrative means preaching multiple scenes, not multiple chapters.  It may be that there are four scenes in four chapters, but I need to check that first.  Going with chapter breaks is lazy and sometimes naive.

2. How do I keep the unity in mind?  Ruth wasn’t written to be read over four sittings in four weeks.  It was written to be heard in one sweep.  I have to ponder that.  Should I preach the whole narrative in one go?  I could do that week 1, but then what?  I could take three weeks to revisit the text and zero in on specific aspects of the story.  Or I could review the whole narrative at the end.  Or I could let it build week by week, as if people don’t know what is coming.

3. And what about other options given by four weeks?  Maybe I need to take a week on the opening verses and engage the complexity of divine providence, suffering and life as experienced by most people.  Perhaps there are a couple of chapters that could flow together.  Perhaps the ending that points forward to David is worthy of a wrap-up message on its own.  So many options.

Simply splitting it into four roughly equal chunks with a big number at the start does seem a bit too hasty at this point.  I need to spend some more time in the text of Ruth, and be prayerfully considering what would be most helpful to our congregation.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 4

So I am preparing to preach Ruth.  I know that all preachers are tempted to overcome the perceived lack of relevance by multiplying applications from the details of the story.  Yesterday I suggested that the details are there for the sake of the plot, rather than as automatic teaching points. But there is more to be said on this matter of applying the text.

Furthermore, (2) I have to remember that narratives were not given to us merely to instruct our conduct.  It is not just conduct that matters in facing the horrors life can throw at us (Ruth 1), it is also truths applied at the level of personal belief, and even affection.  Ruth didn’t cling to Naomi, and give up everything to go with her, based on knowledge of “the right things to do in this situation.”  She did it all because of the God that had gripped her heart.

I don’t want my listeners to have lists of behavioural applications, but untouched hearts.  That would make a mockery of the force of Ruth.  Relevance doesn’t have to be just a to-do list.  Relevance is more to do with the impact of the text on the heart of the listener so that they leave the service as a changed person.

Finally (although not definitively), (3) I need to recognize that the relevance in the text is not on a merely human level.  It is tempting to look at people interacting with people and consider applications that can come straight over into our seen world.  But all biblical narratives are about the seen intersecting with the unseen.  There is a God alive and yet often not seen.  The narrative is about lives lived under the constant question of trust or non-trust in the Word of God.  If my listeners finish with great insight into an ancient narrative, but without a greater sense of God (both then and now), then I have failed to be truly relevant.

Tomorrow I’ll ponder another practical issue in preparation…

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 3

I am preparing to preach a series from the book of Ruth.  This week I’ve been thinking out loud about aspects I need to keep in mind as I head into the preparations.  I’ve thought about the unfamiliarity of the context for the listeners, as well as their perception of the irrelevance of something so far removed from today.

Today I’m pondering a temptation I know I’ll face in preaching the narrative genre.

It is always tempting to multiply applications.  I suppose this is a response to yesterday’s concern with apparent irrelevance.  The preacher can fall into the trap of turning every detail of the text into a point of application.  “Look, Ruth isn’t an irrelevant book, we are only five verses in and here are four principles for keeping your family together!”  Oops.

As a preacher with a desire to be relevant to the listeners, I have to guard against illegitimate application of details in the narrative.  Just because a character demonstrates it, doesn’t make it an instruction for the reader.  Just because it happened, doesn’t mean it should.

As a general approach, perhaps I should put it this way – (1) my effort in preparation should go into grasping the thrust of the whole passage, and then seeking to clearly apply that main thrust.  And there will be ways to multiply the applications of that main thrust.  This will be better than multiplied mini-thrusts based on particular details plucked out of their unique role in the passage as a whole.

That is, all the details matter, but not all the details need to be applied.  Every detail in a narrative is working together to make the whole plot work.  But not every detail is there as a teaching point.  The plot as a whole (either the whole plot, or the plot of a scene if I preach it section by section), the plot as a whole carries a certain thrust that we would do well to open our hearts to and be changed by.

Tomorrow I’ll add a couple more thoughts on applying the narrative.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 2

Yesterday I pondered the challenges of unfamiliarity of context.  When we preach from the Old Testament, if our listeners are more used to the New Testament, then this will be a challenge.  We thought about the canonical context, as well as the historical context.  There’s another challenge:

Low expectation of relevance.  I have to remember that by the time I come to preach from Ruth, I will have spent many hours in studying it.  It will have taken root in my heart again and God will have stirred me through His Word.  This will not be the case for the listeners.

They will be coming into the meeting with minds and hearts on all sorts of things.  They will be thinking of anything but pre-monarchical Israelite history.  So if I start into the message with an assumption that Ruth is a motivating destination, I may well be starting into my message alone.  I’d much rather take folks with me.  How can I do that?  A couple of thoughts:

1. Introduce with relevance.  I have written this before, but I’ll reiterate because it is important.  It is not dishonouring the text to start with an introduction before reading it.  I think the text can be dishonoured by reading it before people care to hear what it says.  So one approach is to craft an introduction that overtly seeks to connect the listeners and their current state of disequilibrium with the text as relevant to them.  This is not to “pander” to felt needs, but to recognize the reality of life and what it is to be a listener.  Getting relevance into the introduction makes all the sense in the world.  The listeners need an early appreciation of the fact that the preacher is relevant, the message is relevant and the text itself is relevant.

2. Let the narrative bite quickly.  This does not necessarily contradict with the previous point.  With a narrative the preacher has the advantage of the inherently gripping nature of the genre.  TV show producers know that there is a better way to grip viewers than a long series of opening credits with promises of big name actors and actresses (as they did thirty years ago!)  The best way is to let the narrative begin and bite quickly.  Once bitten, viewers will then tolerate the 40 seconds of opening credits (sometimes several minutes into the show).  This illustrates what I am saying here.  The listeners should be gripped if the first three or four verses of Ruth are presented effectively.  Maybe it would be worth getting into the tension of the plot before pulling back to make sense of context, etc.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative

I am preparing a series of messages from the book of Ruth.  Consequently I am processing some of the challenges that come with preaching through an Old Testament narrative.  Perhaps some of the thinking might be helpful, or at least there can be a sense of conversing together about this important subject.  As ever, no claim here to being exhaustive, but hopefully mildly provocative in a good way.

In our church it is fair to say that the majority of messages, from both in-house and visiting speakers, come from the New Testament.  This means that the Old Testament is much less familiar turf. As I prepare to preach Ruth, then, I must take that into account.

Less familiar literary context – I have to be careful not to assume anything here.  Ruth comes in a period of about four centuries covered by the bleak book of Judges.  Here is the jewel on the dark velvet.  But I can’t assume folks understand the book of Judges.  For some it will be a collection of children’s stories (where protagonist is always portrayed as a full-on hero, whatever the text may hint).  For others it will mean nothing at all.  So I need to think through how to make sense of the fact that “In the days when the judges judged” is the opening line of Ruth.

At some point I might think about showing where Ruth came in the Hebrew ordering of the canon.  Not after Judges (in the former prophets), but after Proverbs (in the writings).  Specifically, after Proverbs 31 . . . a wife of noble character, who can find?  Again, I can’t just drop that in without confusing people.  It will need a bit of explanation, perhaps I might use a powerpoint slide to help visualize the difference.  Perhaps.

Less familiar historical context – Not only is the Judges context unfamiliar, so is the culture of this time frame.  It is considerably further removed from today than the more familiar world of the New Testament.  This is pre-monarchy.  This is before the prophets and their impact on the nation of Israel.  I don’t want to preach it with assumptions, and have some listeners envisioning the action in the context of the Roman occupation, or whatever.

I need to think through what is pertinent about the context, the culture, the politics of the day, etc.  And I need to think through how to communicate that in the messages.