“I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”—Isaiah 49:4
With something akin to total recall I remember the time, place, and the event quite vividly. It was November 1997 and I was at a junior high youth gathering in Bemidji, MN. Now, if you have ever attended such an event you know that sleep is only optional. Being a part of the youth organization board which hosted the event, after a few days I was beyond simple fatigue. Hence, the defenses were already down a bit, and the unsettled portions of my life bubbled to the surface.
About 1:30am I retired to my hotel room and had a few quiet moments to myself. Back home life in the parish I served wasn’t bad, it simply appeared that my calling there neared its end. The direction I thought we were headed together turned out to be vastly different from my expectations. The feeling was of complete failure. How could I misread things so badly? Why didn’t I do this or that differently? What about my leadership was so terrible?
At this period in my journey I knew God was stirring something new for me, and really, I didn’t like the sensation. The unknown, all that was uncertain, every bit of new possibility was filled with fear, not excitement. So, back in that hotel room I plopped down in a chair, grabbed my bible and prepared for a bit of devotion and prayer. In an oddly providential manner, the pages of the Holy Writ opened right here, Isaiah 49, and my eyes landed on verse 4. “I have labored in vain…”
Like the rush of a violent wind these words swept over me. You try so hard and yet there appear to be no fruit to your labor. So it often goes when working in the kingdom of God. As the sower in Jesus’ parable one can only cast the seeds of love, compassion and the Gospel’s power and then pray for the Holy Spirit’s work.
I re-learned this valuable lesson once again on a recent journey to Ethiopia. For the past five years our church connects with ministries in Addis Ababa. The first few years involved a difficult project in a government-owned orphanage. Challenges prove to be nearly insurmountable and may be unsolvable. However, our recent connection is with a child development group called Onesimus, working with street kids. Estimates are 100,000 children living in the streets. These talented and faithful workers get the kids off the streets, hook them up with family if possible or find other housing means, get them into school, and basically give them a better shot at life.
We first visited in May 2012 and saw some wonderful pieces of this ministry. Our congregation and its members now provide sponsorship dollars for the program and make personal connections with the children. What we witnessed this last month was miraculous—we are privileged to participate in a ministry that is truly fruitful and really works. What Christ does through this program is transformational and genuinely changes lives. It is humbling and rewarding to partner with Onesimus.
Once again God smacks me in the back of the head as if to say, “See, I told you so.” Surely, when our cause is with the Lord the rewards are manifold. One must trust the Spirit is at work, even when our human eyes see something different.
God is faithful, and that is enough. Maybe it’s just enough encouragement to keep this poor soul faithful, too.