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“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
Grace for Each Moment
Ten years of service at Frontline Fellowship has caused me to reflect on the mercies of God over my life. Although many experiences in Missions have been inconvenient and painful, the Lord has granted me grace for every thorny and tempting situation I have faced. Below is a list of ten lessons God has taught me over the period of ten years in Missions.
Going on my first cross-border mission was thrilling. I was given the opportunity to travel to a distant land, serve God in the toughest environment, have my life radically reshaped, maybe even see a revival (so I thought). What I was not looking forward to was public speaking. It was something I could do when forced to, but if I could not make a joke out of the whole thing. I simply could not handle the pressure of so many people looking expectantly at me.
My first two missions involved a whole lot of public speaking. I had to be prepared to preach the Gospel in villages, lecture in leadership seminars, preach in churches and even speak on national television! I can remember waking up every morning during those missions hoping that our ministry would be cancelled, or that our conference would go overtime and my session would have to get cut, or that no one would show up to the meeting. Well, that hardly ever happened.
Instead, I would learn to spend lots and lots of time in prayer and preparation. I knew that even if I was a useless orator, God’s Word had power. If growing up in the Pentecostal church taught me anything, it was to rely on the power of the Spirit to work in the lives of people even if you, as the minister, are inadequate.
Red faced and monotone, I would stand in front of a foreign crowd who wondered what a small boy like me had to teach them. The elderly men and women who could not understand a word that I was saying (I used an interpreter) fell asleep within minutes of me talking. I would say what I had to say as quickly as I could say it, sit down and avoid eye contact with anyone. Over time, I improved. I was able to keep people awake, but the nerves and the blushing, I think, remain to this day.
More than simply getting over my fear of public speaking was getting over my fear of man in general. My messages went from simple Gospel presentations, or generic messages about prayer, to more controversial teachings. I would soon begin teaching on subjects like Repentance, Discernment and Biblical Leadership. It was the Discernment messages, which caused the greatest controversy. I spoke about the danger of false prophets, false teachers, dangerous practices within the church, unbiblical manifestations of the “Spirit” and other sensitive matters. At first, the difficulty was standing in front of people and presenting a message I knew they would not like. Later the difficulty became dealing calmly and graciously with the hostile responses evoked from my messages.
The simple conviction that God’s Word is true and clear on these issues helped settle the matter in my heart. If God said it, all I need to do is remind people about what God said. If they get angry with me, I do not need to take it personally. I am simply a messenger.
My first mission into Zambia was to a totally underdeveloped tribe, living in the floodplains of the Zambezi River. They had little crops, wore rags, drank dirty water and literally lived in the dirt. Our task involved some relief aid, but our main priority was to train local churches to reach out to this tribe with the Gospel. As a fresh 20-year-old, it was the first time I had to preach in the open air, speak through an interpreter, or minister across cultural barriers. It was uncomfortable, hot, tiresome and embarrassing as I was not accustomed to public speaking and often acted awkwardly in the spotlight.
My focus was mostly on myself and what I was doing. I became aware of this because a seasoned missionary later asked me whether, or not, I had experienced any culture shock. I responded that I had not endured any culture shock and I could not explain why. I know the real answer now. I was apparently indifferent to this tribe’s suffering and physical condition. Granted, they were not dying in front of me and the older ones were living lives that they had mostly chosen, but I only really cared about my own discomfort in the moment and not about the hardships of life these people faced living in the Zambezi Valley.
Over time, my love for people grew. My understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God shaped my understanding of others. The Holy Spirit awakened me to my own selfishness. I started to perceive the way Christ treated the downcast and neglected. But, more than anything else, I became a parent. I do not know if anything has softened my heart toward others as much as parenthood has. Perhaps it is because caring for a loud, needy, disarmed baby makes you inoculated toward your own needs and desires. It could be that I kept seeing small children suffering, wondering how I would feel if that were my little boy. I am not sure. But it seems that something magical happened when I became a father and my mercy toward others dramatically increased.
Teaching across cultural and linguistic divides carries with it a ream of challenges. The greatest challenge is communicating so simply that anyone can understand you, without being exceptionally boring. This taught me how to say a lot with a few words and how to summarise concepts in a short phrase, or acted out sentence. It would be a useful skill when I went to study fulltime for two years.
When I was in Bible College, I quickly made friends with African pastors who had a shallow understanding of English. They would frequently use me to interpret what other students, or even the teacher, said, even though we were all talking English! These providential relationships taught me the value of prioritising my time wisely.
My African pastor friends soon learned that I was getting good grades and that I could proofread. The result was hours and hours of me proof reading their assignments before they submitted them. I would sit with one pastor from Ethiopia who struggled to verbalise his thoughts. I would pick up on the essence of what he was saying and reword it in a more Theological and obvious way. He would sit there, smile and give a long groan: yeeeeesss … Joooohn! It made me laugh every time.
The trouble was that I was running out of time to do my own assignments. On top of helping other students, I spent hours working at the school to clean the grounds, help the secretary with the school’s Facebook page and participate in events and so on. In fact, I got so frustrated with all the things that I needed to do that I purposefully moaned about being one of the only students who does as much as I do, loudly enough, so that some of the school leaders could overhear me. I felt ashamed afterward. If you are going to do something, do it cheerfully, or do not do it at all!
These frustrations taught me two valuable lessons about prioritising. First, people are important. People are ministry. People are more valuable than my own perceived success. Befriending a foreigner in my home country by helping him with his papers was far more important than an extra five percent on my assignment that I would have achieved by spending that time on “my own” work. This has been invaluable in missions, as a leader, as a husband and as a father. The second lesson is: do away with distractions and say no to timewasters! Most of the things that consume our time are not people, or assignments, it is entertainment, unnecessary sleep, conversations that could have ended long ago and browsing the internet. Sometimes, however, people and ministry can actually be time wasters in and of themselves. Certain people are not interested in being helped. They simply want to be pitied. Some ministry is actually more about our own kingdom than God’s Kingdom. I am still learning (and I think will always be learning) how to distinguish between the importance of people and the distraction of people.
The first time I ministered in a Bible college in Zimbabwe, I was nervous. I was inexperienced, had no formal Theological training and I thought the students would be scrutinizing, well disciplined, master Theologians! I found that they were indeed scrutinizing, but I was too generous with the rest of my assumptions. In fact, I was often depressed as I spent a week lecturing, teaching and worshiping with these theological students. I was downcast over the fact that these young men were the future leaders of the church in Zimbabwe.
The students were late every single day. Many were mostly absent and popped in on occasion to hear only part of a presentation. They lacked Biblical knowledge on some rather basic issues, although they possessed just enough information to stir up controversy at every opportunity. They were deceptive in some cases. The worst was their constant arguing and their blind affirmation of prosperity preachers and even blatant heretics!
These students taught me two important lessons, which shaped my life. The first was the necessity of hard work. You can be in an institution that is literally designed to transform you into a Theologian but remain a spiritual baby if you do not take the opportunity to learn. Unless you take ownership of what you are doing and do it for God, you are going to fail – even if you get a certified degree at the end of your course.
The second lesson was that not many should become teachers because we will be judged with greater strictness. Something happened within me during that time at the Bible College. Observing both the students and myself, I felt the very heavy weight of responsibility of teaching God’s Word. If I was going to make my life’s priority preaching the Truth, I had better labour to understand the Truth!
This experience launched me deeper into a careful self-evaluation. I realised that I was a lazy person. I had spent most of my life doing as little as possible and taking credit for as much as possible. To this day, I still have no idea how I got through high school, considering that I never did any work. Over the next few years, I would learn the value of labour and the reward of hard work. I would discipline myself to stay up late until assignments were finished – and done properly. I would take ownership of my own laziness and work extra hours to make up for my own dawdling. If I found myself dragging my feet, I would ask myself whether, or not, I was truly taking ownership of my work and performing it as unto the Lord. Most importantly, I found that when I was negligent in my private life, my quiet times and my communication, negligence would flow into the rest of my life.
“I could be visiting prostitutes and no one would even know!” I can remember sitting in a student lounge thinking those words. I was hit with the shocking reality that there were some areas of my life where I was struggling spiritually and no one knew about it. No one asked about it! No one seemed to care about it. I could be sniffing coke every day and I would still be given pulpits to preach behind on Sunday mornings! Thankfully, I was neither promiscuous, nor intoxicated, but I did lack accountability at college.
I longed for someone to ask me: “How is your walk with the Lord?”, “Are you praying?”, “What major sin are you fighting right now?” I began to feel rather sorry for myself because I needed more interrogation from a loving mentor, but felt that I had none. Truth be told, I had many. I simply was not using them.
Being the slow processor that I am, it would take about a year before I actually began inviting more mature men into my life in order to ask me difficult questions about purity and piety. I am indebted to these dear friends and leaders for investing in my personal growth and holiness.
It is one thing to teach about repentance. It is quite another thing to call people to repentance. One informs, the other demands action. In the same way, it is one thing to know about repentance, but quite another to actually repent. This was, in many cases, my problem. I knew a lot about repentance, but I was blissfully unconcerned about my past sins and present sins which I continued to commit.
While I had repented of my sinful rebellion, manifest in particular sins such as drunkenness and lust and filthy language, there were many aspects of my past sins I had failed to properly deal with. I was not committing those sins anymore, but I was hiding away from those sins, in prideful shame. I had neglected to confess my sins to those whom my sin had affected. Not only so, but I had slowly grown into the kind of person who never apologised to others. The two problems were not unrelated. There were people affected by my sinful rebellion in the past, whom I never apologised to. In addition, when I sinned against people in the present, I was very slow, if not totally neglectful, in asking for forgiveness from them.
Several years ago, the Holy Spirit began working on my heart. He directed me toward the past and present destruction in my life. It was like I was standing in front a motor vehicle accident on the side of the road and there were no emergency personnel to assist. I saw overwhelming chaos and degradation before me and I was helpless. I had things to deal with and I needed grace. It was much like John Newton’s hymn, I asked the Lord:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and ev’ry grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face …
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
However, God does not leave us in a mess. In fact, what seems to be a mess is part of His plan to glorify Himself and work all things together for our good. Revealing sin in our lives is never for the sake of condemnation. Exposing sin is God’s loving discipline that produces humility, righteousness and deeper appreciation for Christ.
If Africa can do anything to a man, it is bring emotional instability to the surface. If you are a Western missionary traveling around rural Africa you will be exposed the following: extreme heat, African children constantly laughing at you, everyone always staring at you, you are never alone, you never sleep, you are always in demand, you represent money to every corrupt policeman you encounter, you are often sick, churches are loud, mosquitos love you, rats explore you at night, you can never eat what you want and you always eat what you really don’t want. Ready to be a missionary yet?
I am someone who is quite prone toward irritation, especially when I am tired or hungry. I remember one mission when I spoke to a senior missionary about being angry. For whatever reason, I had woken up angry for two days in a row and I did not know what to do about it. I was under the impression that in order for me to not be angry, I had to force my anger away, something I just could not do. The advice that he gave me was so helpful and so Biblical that it changed my outlook on emotions forever. “You don’t have to stop your emotions. You just need to take control of your actions”.
My emotions do not control me. Whether they stem from something mental, spiritual, or physiological, they do not control me. I can speak, think and act in any way I chose. Now, this is not a reason to ignore emotions; rather, it is a platform to evaluate one’s emotions, recognise the source of the emotions and chose a Biblical course of action.
When I would later go to Sudan and suffer from physical sickness, preach under the crippling heat and have people wake me up by speaking a foreign language every morning, knowing how to deal with my emotions would come in handy!
Go to Lusaka, Zambia. I will introduce you to a preacher whose servants bring him food, water and everything he needs. He cannot straighten his own suit or tuck in his own shirt. He does not wipe the sweat off his own brow. He is a delicate piece of property, which his minions have to constantly preserve. The worst is, he is not alone. There are many out there just like him. There are some who are worse and others who are more discrete. Some men want to sit in literal thrones and be physically carried everywhere, others are spiritual bullies who simply want big paychecks. Self-serving leaders are not hard to find.
Go slightly east of Lusaka to Chongwe. I will introduce you to a well-known radio presenter, church-planter and respected community leader. I will have to introduce him to you because you will not know who he is from a distance. Nothing about his appearance or manner screams for attention or demands that you call him bishop. He is gracious in his speech. He respects his elders. He wakes up at 4am every day to cultivate his land. He surrounds himself with humble young men who want to learn how to be a godly man, a faithful husband and a humble Evangelist. He prays with everyone he meets. His family loves him. He is not afraid to serve and do the “dirty” jobs in his community, like visit the sick, cultivate land and serve guests at his home.
I want to be like the farmer from Chongwe because that man reminds me of Jesus. Our Lord was servant of all and calls us to be the same.
Being a husband is a calling. Being a father is a calling. Being a missionary is a calling. So often, all these callings can seem to demand you go in opposite directions all at the same time. Traveling, staying out late, working at home, work-related stress and pressure that gets brought into the home, have all made me feel like I have failed my family at some point or another. At the same time, staying at home with sick children, or coming home early from work to help a crazy situation at home, have made me feel like I was neglecting some responsibility at work, or in ministry.
How can I disciple the nations if I cannot disciple my own home? How can I teach others to fear God if my own children do not fear God? How can my children respect me if I do not respect and love their mother? To ask the questions is to answer them, but in practice, this can be a difficult set of knives to juggle.
I said that being a father and a husband is a calling. That is true. I have always known this, but I never likened it to my missionary calling until recently. God has called me into full-time, hard-core, no-stopping-me missionary life. I have always been willing to do just about anything to fulfil this calling and always made a plan to overcome any obstacle in my path. If being a family man was a calling like this, I never took it seriously for the first year, maybe even the first two years.
But, being a husband and a father is a calling much like any other. It is a God-appointed destiny with the necessary gifts to accomplish it. But, it is not a calling like using spiritual gifts to equip the church. It is more offensive than that. My family is one of my greatest weapons in fighting against the onslaught of apostasy in the church and cultural decadence in society. My children are arrows in my quiver. My relationship with my wife demonstrates to the world that we are image-bearers of God: a dominion-taking force to be reckoned with! My marriage serves to point me, Rachel, our children and all onlookers to the self-sacrificing relationship that Christ has with His bride. It is, perhaps, the most sanctifying long-term experience that God will put me through and I am up for the challenge.
Since this is the case, I have learned that sometimes reading my two-year-old that same book for the nine hundredth time is the most productive way for me to spend my afternoon. Staying up and talking with my wife is what God delights to see. Making my family my first priority is the best way for me to disciple the nations. All that I do in my family should be what I want to export to the nations of the world.
10. The Bible is the Greatest Foundation
The most important lesson I have learned in the past ten years, is that the Bible is a rock-solid foundation. I have been in the mission field so many times when questions were posed to me or one of the other missionaries and we have been able to answer by opening up chapter and verse from the Scriptures. It ends all arguments, shuts the mouths of all opponents and encourages all who are weary.
“What do I do when my husband’s second wife treats me badly?”, asked a distressed older woman. This was the first time I heard a missionary use the Bible to answer a culturally complex question straight from the Bible and watch the whole crowd sit in complete silence, as God spoke to them through His Word. “Can a false prophet use his prophetic gift after he gets saved?”; “What if someone commits adultery just before they die, will they still go to heaven?”; “Why does God allow the Arabs to drop bombs on us?”; All these questions have been answered with the Word of God.
I have learned this in my own life. When I am struggling with sin, guilt, lack of guidance, the Bible is my only foundation. I have been prone to legalism, but the Bible has set me straight. I have struggled with sin and then struggled with condemnation. The Bible has been the perfect cure for my troubled soul. I have wrestled with doctrines and church practices and found the Bible to be crystal clear in its guidance.
The Psalmist was correct, who said that God’s Word is more to be desired than gold (Psalm 19:10).
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All Authority has been given to Me in Heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Rev. John Clifford
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
Tel: 021 689 4480
Ten Highlights, Ten Lessons and Ten Most Helpful Books from Ten Years in the Field video and audio.
Frontline Marks Ten Years of Missionary Service by Rev. John Clifford