By Dwight Sandoz
Nadine and I just finished spending two days in Akegera National Park in Rwanda with our son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters. We experienced many game sightings including close views of giraffes, zebras, baboons, monkeys, waterbuck, impalas, hippos, topi, crocodiles, elephants (a bit too close when a large male blocked the road and aggressively swung his trunk), and a lion lying on the road immediately in front of us earlier in the day. More distant views of eland, white rhinoceros, warthogs, and cape buffalo added to the delightful experience. Our son and daughter-in-law observed, “We saw more animals up-close than in eight previous visits to the park.” They had only sighted elephants in five of their visits and never the number we saw, noting the unusual blessing of closely viewing so many animals. The location of our final picnic lunch, where a large grass-filled meadow joined the savannah, found sizable groups of topi, cape buffalo, giraffe, zebra, impala, and two ambling warthogs. Over two days, the drives through the park gave a wonderful and relaxing environment, viewing God’s amazing creation and experiencing His refreshment.
We do not know why we experienced such a blessing of seeing so many animals up close, but we thank the Lord for such a wonderful and refreshing time. It followed a season of what seemed like weeks of work crammed into the final days before our departure. Life compressed a great deal of labor as we graded master’s level theses, concluded an interim pastorate, promoted Trinity at a district council, and then drove a distance to catch the flight to Rwanda. The sheer volume of work left us physically and emotionally exhausted. Life’s seasons can include both harrowing amounts of work and wonderful times of refreshing from the Lord. Rural ministry may seem more difficult than refreshing if we do not continually look for blessings. We often find either fulfillment or disappointment in where we place our focus.
When writing his joyous epistle from a Roman prison, the Apostle Paul reminds the church in Philippi about the necessity of focusing our thoughts and hopes in the right places. “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things (Phil. 4:8).” The joy in rural ministry comes from embracing Paul’s encouragement on the placement of our focus and what we choose to remember.
Nadine and I recently recalled a difficult season of negative events early in our marriage. In a matter of months, our first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, Nadine’s 14-year-old brother died in an auto accident, and her parents’ separation turned into divorce. If these challenging events had become the focus of our lives and a centerpiece in our memories, we could have continually recounted the pain and challenge, instead of the dream of launching into a life of ministry. David G. Benner (2002, 53) challenged, “Praying we can know God’s presence in difficult circumstances is praying for new eyes to see where He is, not where we expect him to be.” God’s promise of His continual presence includes times of difficulty and joy. We often find the beauty of His presence in places we did not expect.
Several seasons of ministry have included occasions that required extra dependence on God’s strength and power (Zech. 4:6). Our experiences in walking through the valley of the shadow of death represent companionship with the Good Shepherd in hardship and His presence in green pastures and still waters (Ps. 23). We now temper those early disappointments with hundreds of positive memories of raising seven children, 17 amazing grandchildren, four decades of wonderful friendships, and a rich, full life of ministry. The early seasons of pain cannot compare to the joy from years of positive ministry.
Paul Davidson taught Bible classes at Trinity Bible College, which we attended four decades ago. He mastered profound, yet simple communication that brought biblical truth to practical living. He would often say, “Remember ‘it came to pass,’ it didn’t come to stay,” taking an often-stated phrase in scripture a bit out of context to make a point. Life’s temporary difficulties do not represent all that we will face. The challenges become a minor inconvenience when keeping eternity in focus because they “came to pass,” and do not compare to the joys that follow (Heb. 12:20).
Rural ministry brings challenges and hardship that can either cloud our thoughts or provide an opportunity to see the goodness, mercy, and grace God continually extends. When focusing on the true, noble, just, pure, lovely, good reports, virtuous, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8), ministry yields a myriad of experiences that produce great joy. Meditating on these things allows the joy of life’s journey to reflect the goodness of God through every circumstance. The temporary experiences of this life do not compare to the good God brings, both in this life and the life to come.
Benner, David G. 2002. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction. Downer Grove: VIP Publishers.