I grew up in Wisconsin, a part of the U.S. that doesn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s a beautiful, fruitful area. There are farms, gardens, orchards and, of course, dairy cows. My first job was working on an apple orchard when I was 14.
The harvest was my favorite time, when people came out to buy bushels of fresh apples. It took years to develop the trees to get that fruit. And then it took continual care to keep the apples coming. But as every farmer knows, you can only do what you can do — there are limits.
Ministry is like farming, too.
Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6, NIV). Paul assumed the people he was talking to understood farming — they understood there were limits to what they could do and what they couldn’t. He helped them see that this applied to ministry as well.
The ministry that Compassion does around the world is development. And, just as in farming, we do what we do for the outcomes — the fruit — not for the activities themselves. A farmer doesn’t grow trees because it’s good to grow trees; he grows trees in order to get the apples. At Compassion, we don’t busy ourselves with activities because the activities are good, but because we want to see an outcome of our labor — good fruit.
John 15:8 (NIV) says, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Disciples bear fruit, and we want to bear much fruit.
In order to do this, we need to know what we are growing, what it takes to grow good fruit, and how we evaluate good fruit. We don’t want to just have fruit that looks good. Think of a Red Delicious apple. They’re beautiful from the outside, but sometimes when you bite in to one, you find it’s not all that good.
The fruit we hope to see in the children we minister to are that they would know Jesus, that they would be healthy, that they would be able to get a job or create income for themselves, and that they would be able to relate well to others and have an appropriate attitude about themselves. This fruit may look different in every child, just as every seed grows up to look so different.
But as with farming, we know that we can’t control every element in a child’s life. It’s a lot easier to garden in Wisconsin than it is here in Colorado. I used to garden with my mother, and it was so fun to watch the seeds sprout and the tender plants push through the rich black soil. I wanted my kids to have that same experience here, so we planted gardens. But the soil, the sun, the wind, the hail and the drought of Colorado made that much more difficult than in Wisconsin.
Colorado is a harsh environment in which to grow vegetables, just as much of the world is a harsh environment in which to raise children. Many of these young people with amazing potential are growing up in the harshest of environments. The conditions of our world and the conditions of our souls hold us in bondage. God’s children are shackled by the chains of disease and a world that underestimates them. They are in bondage to the shallow dreams of those who walk before them telling stories about the limits of life.
We could get discouraged. What chance do these kids have? The fruit we want to see in these children seems impossible! But God is the God of impossible. Many do make it against amazing odds, clinging to life, blooming in inhospitable places. Our job is to make that more likely.
But in our excitement about bearing fruit, I have a warning. Our goals are ambitious. Our dreams are visionary. But our expectations have to be tempered with some realism. We must be careful in our zeal to see children released in marvelous ways that we not place unrealistic expectations on them. They are unique human beings with their own set of potentials and gifts and their own set of struggles and problems. Our job is to love them and to help them and to let them grow.
It makes me think of one of my favorite children’s movies, Mary Poppins. Do you remember the scene in which Mary Poppins pulls out her measuring tape to see how the kids measure up? Michael was “extremely stubborn and suspicious,” while Jane was “rather inclined to giggle.” Mary Poppins was, of course, “Practically perfect in every way.”
Sometimes I think we expect the kids in our programs to measure up to the Mary Poppins standard. Just as Jane and Michael Banks didn’t measure up, neither will our kids at various times. As we watch them grow, we have to set reasonable targets. And even as they are leaving the program, we need to remember that they are adolescents — at a most vulnerable and chaotic stage of life. These are young people figuring out their way in the world. They make mistakes; they have a journey to travel. Many of them are becoming more and more like Jesus, but they’re not quite there yet. Just like you and me!
So we continue to plant, and we continue to water. We know what fruit we want to see in the children we minister to, but we also know that God is the one who will make it grow.