Burn the plough, or build the platform?

Nothing is wasted when God is the one who is directing our path. That is a high truth, and a deep consolation, and it really makes sense of seemingly inconsequential things. Looking back over almost two decades of full time ministry I can see the ways in which God has used seemingly marginal experiences to help me to serve him in my weakness. One of those paths which I can trace is with regard to education.

Coming from a boys high school background I fell into the idea of going to university when I moved to a local grammar school for my A-levels. Before I knew it, I was enrolled for a degree in English literature. I had chosen this pathway for one reason – I loved (and still love) books. By the time my four years of study were drawing to a close I had some fundamental questions nagging at me – what had been the point of my studies? As a young man who increasingly realised the call of God on my life, how could studying secular literature serve any real purpose for me or for God’s kingdom? Had I wasted my time and effort pouring myself into my studies?

Consequently, at the age of 22 I decided that my lifelong love of English literature was over. I was contemplating the commencement of training for pastoral ministry, and bidding adieu to literature seemed like a good thing to do – a kind of Elisha-burns-the-plough moment, a mortification of what I loved in favour of what I loved more, or perhaps a tacit admission that I had wasted my time as an undergraduate and postgraduate. In any case, that was that.

Only, it wasn’t. Insistently and incessantly the English language in written form kept rearing it’s lovely head. My early sermons were minimalistic, both in terms of biblical content and creative intent, and yet the spectre of my liberal arts education was always present and ready for duty. I hadn’t taken a hermeneutics class at this point in my ministry, and yet engaging with literature had taught me to read – contextually, critically, appreciatively. I hadn’t any training in homiletics under my belt and yet I had gathered from my studies the need to organise my thinking, rationalise my reading, and present my writing so that it made sense to my reader, and did due dignity to the text in hand.

And then there were the actual words which made up sentences and paragraphs and sermons. My first couple of years of preaching were basically a death or glory battle with my nerves. I went into the pulpit literally shaking with fear, and left it burning with annoyance that I hadn’t said what I had meant to. I would use passion in the pulpit to cover a lack of precision in my mind, and would ride the flume of adrenalin rather than bringing the distilled thought that comes from careful reflection and articulation.

Through the patient counsel of people wiser than me I came to recognise the sheer weight of composition that a sermon demands, the linguistic tightrope that it can be to speak biblically, theologically, and coherently. Words were the basic unit of currency in all of this, and weighing them, weaving them, working them, really mattered. I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and came to realise, alongside her main character John Ames, that while the sermon is much more than a piece of writing, it is certainly not anything less. In my preaching I began to see the difference that the tone and shade of an individual word can make to my explanation, and to people’s apprehension.

Slowly I began to recognise that my love for English literature had not been given to me as something to be burned up on an altar, but as the materials for building and strengthening a platform for declaring the whole counsel of God. With the Apostle Paul I still wanted to eschew any reliance on human wisdom to embellish Christ or the cross, but I also realised that in his providence God had given me a love for language, and that language is one of the chief vehicles at the preacher’s disposal for proclaiming his glory and his gospel.

I write this, not as an elegy to English, or a love letter to literature – there is much that I was exposed to in the arts which I really wish I hadn’t been – but as an encouragement to you about God’s grace in giving us materials to serve him with that we are unconscious of. English seemed like a childish thing to be put away when I came into ministry, and yet it was much more than that, it was a providence of God to prepare me for the task of (weakly and weekly) teaching others what his Word says.

And it might just be that God would use your incidental experiences and exposures to glorify his name too. That seemingly meaningless period of study, or employment, or unemployment which you view as a sad little gap in your CV, might be the very course that God has enrolled you on to prepare you for service, for actively bringing glory to him. The seemingly arbitrary practical or academic skills that you have accumulated over the years may be materially important to how God will use you now, or in future days. For me the key was realising that my short term decisions, my immediate following of God’s guidance was working towards a goal that I hadn’t set and couldn’t see. I could trust God with what looked like a cul-de-sac in terms of learning and training, because the big lesson from literary studies wasn’t what I would take from the lecture theatre, but what I would take to the lectern when it came time to teach the Bible.

So your administrative treadmill, or your health and social care caseload, or your hectic life working in the home, or the pressures of grafting as a skilled labourer, or your redundancy, or your illness, or your failed exams, or your abstract arts degree, are the processes and pathways which God has laid out for you. He is using you in this, in ways that you are necessarily unconscious to, and He will use these things, either explicitly or implicitly in your future. So don’t feel that you necessarily need to burn the plough for God to use you, he might just build a platform from the inanities and seeming incongruities of the life he has given you. And that is a gracious blessing.

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