'What happened Jo? You out of all people, how did you end up in the ministry?'
It was a fair enough question! I think it is true to say that my behaviour and attitude back then was pretty challenging. I had come into a church youth group from a totally non-church background, and I guess I didn't 'fall into line' all that easily!
'You kept people at arm's length, you kept church at arm's length and you kept God at arm's length ...'
Two out of the three agreed upon.
Yes, I kept people at arm's length. I had come in from a totally different environment from that experienced and encouraged at church and I found it very difficult to develop a relationship of openness and trust with people. I built extremely effective barriers around me that I hoped would protect me from hurt. After all if you don't let people in, they can't hurt you, right?
Yes, I kept church at arm's length. I loved being at youth group and I loved being at church. But I felt such a fraud. Who was I to be joining in with all these people who seemed to have actually read the whole Bible and have their own hot-line to God? I could never pray with such passion, feel comfortable lifting my hands in worship, or slip a triumphant 'praise the Lord' or 'Hallelujah' into a sentence. I just didn't fit in. The safest solution to feeling like an outsider was to act like one.
But God? Did I keep God at arm's length?
When I gave my life to Jesus it was a well thought out and lifetime decision. It was a no turning back commitment. I knew my life would be totally different from now on, and I felt as though I had so much catching up to do! So, in the quietness and safety of my own room, I threw myself into working out what this new relationship with God was all about. I read and studied the Bible every day without fail. I prayed - lots - in fact, I think I knew what it was to 'pray without ceasing' better then than I do now. I had such a lot to learn and put into action.
Looking back, I think I found it all a bit overwhelming. It found it so hard to accept that God, the creator of the universe, would want to have a relationship with me. I felt I had really messed up. I felt unlovable and unworthy. And yet I knew the Bible spoke of a God who loves without condition; a God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for me so I didn't have to be worthy! It was a lot to take in.
And perhaps because of this, I struggled to externalise what was going on. But this didn't mean I kept God at arm's length; I worked hard at ensuring this wasn't the case. I had made a commitment to follow Jesus, it just seemed as though this commitment looked different to that of the other young people in the youth group.
The (understandable) assumption that I kept God at arm's length back then really unsettled me. If fact, I lay awake that night thinking it over. Was my behaviour that bad? Was I really such an invisible Christian?
Had my character or behaviour not changed at all? Did I not display any of the 'signs' of being a Christian? The fruit of the Spirit?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Ok, perhaps I lacked most of them back then (working on them now!), but if faithfulness is to be defined as being 'loyal and steadfast' - I was faithful. Admittedly, a lot of this faithfulness took place in the safety of my own room, but publicly I was faithful in my attendance - events, programmes, services, prayer meetings ... I would be there!
So, why wasn't this particular fruit recognised in the same way as love, or goodness, or self-control might have been?
What a lesson this has taught me as a leader! What do I look for in others? Do I look for the obvious? Do I look for the well-known, easily spotted, common fruits? What if nothing is seen at first, or even second glance? Do I disregard the 'tree' and assume it bears nothing?
As leaders, I believe we need to look beyond the obvious, and ask God to show us what he sees. There are nine different fruits of the Spirit, and each one of these can display itself in a myriad of ways.
Will you allow your eyes, ears, heart and mind to be open to the diversity that being in a relationship with the Creator God brings, and recognise and encourage the existence of all fruits, even those that seem small and insignificant at first?
“Fruit is always the miraculous, the created; it is never the result of willing, but always a growth. The fruit of the Spirit is a gift of God, and only He can produce it. They who bear it know as little about it as the tree knows of its fruit. They know only the power of Him on whom their life depends” Dietrich Bonhoeffer