Kessler Boulevard carves a scenic route through Indianapolis and through the neighborhood where I serve as a pastor. Almost five years ago, I rounded a corner on Kessler and beheld a ghastly scene: workers had cut down at least five dozen gorgeous trees that lined the street. I almost cried. The sturdy maple, ginkgo, and other species were victims of a project to finally install sewer service to our part of the city.
The trees were at least twenty years old. Many were over fifty years old, and some probably much older. I felt a profound sense of loss as I passed stump after stump, knowing that it would take twenty years and more to restore Kessler’s canopy. In that moment, my grandfather’s words came to mind: “It takes about twenty years to see faithfulness built into a person’s life.” He was quoting someone, but in his years of pastoral experience, he had seen the truth of the statement. Mature, steady, faithful people are a precious commodity. “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” asks Proverbs 20:6. I wrote this article reflecting on how, like the trees, it takes time, even twenty years, to develop people into faithful leaders.
The number twenty is a bit arbitrary, perhaps. But, we send our children out of the house after investing about twenty years of love, instruction, discipline, and prayer. In Scripture, we see that the Lord taught David under Saul’s heavy hand for many years before he was ready to be king. Paul apparently needed about seventeen years of training in the wilderness after his conversion before he began the heart of his ministry as an apostle (Galatians 1:5-2:2). Jesus learned obedience for thirty years before taking up his public ministry. Some, such as the disciples, were quickly commissioned, but, they had three years of intensive training with the Lord.
Yes, it takes years to see faithfulness develop. What are the lessons we ought to learn in light of this reality? Several come to mind:
- Give thanks for the faithful men and women God has placed around you. I had thanked God for the foliage on Kessler before, but not enough. Show your appreciation for those saints you can always count on. Glean from their wisdom and harvest the sweet fruit of their lives. Paul twice commended his fellow-laborer Tychicus as “faithful” as he sent him to Troas (Acts 2:4-5), Ephesus (Ephesians 6:21, 2 Timothy 4:12), Colossae (Colossians 4:7), and Crete (Titus 3:12). The faithful saints around you now will not be forever, so be grateful before they are transplanted or lopped off by death.
- Plant new seeds and nurture the next generation of saplings. Along Kessler, the city planted new trees after the sewer was installed. In Corinth, Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Individual mature trees will not last forever on this earth. Will there be a constant supply of “new” faithful souls? Only as we keep planting. Only as we keep watering. Where are you planting? Who are you watering? As we plant spiritually here in Indianapolis, I wondered five years ago who will comprise the next generation of faithful laborers when that stretch of Kessler is restored to its former beauty. The Lord is giving the answer.
- Patiently Persist. Remember that trees take time to grow. We cannot grab the top stem and pull upward to initiate growth. God causes the growth. We are called to nurture, fertilize, and water. It is a mark of faithfulness in laborers that they patently persist, even when some of the people they care for prove to have shallow roots and die off, or are choked out by weeds. Ministry is hard. The fact that so many do not stay the course proves that it takes years to build faithfulness. Patience requires that we stick with the weak, as Jesus does, and as Barnabas did with John Mark. Paul cast Mark aside in Acts 15:37-39. Thanks to Barnabas’ patience, Paul would write years later that Mark: “is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
- Pray. Psalm 144:12 leads us to pray: “So be our sons like plants, grown sturdy in their youth.” Our hope rests in God’s power to establish a generation of faithful laborers. If the Lord leads us to pray for it, he does so because he plans to answer. Kessler Boulevard is regaining its beauty. In his church, Jesus will establish “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).
Now, nearly five years after witnessing the carnage of Kessler’s canopy, I’ve seen five years of growth in the replacement trees that were planted. Week by week, as I’ve observed those saplings, I’ve prayed that God would raise up faithful laborers in our midst.
He has, and he is raising up oaks of righteousness. He has raised up and sent out pastoral interns that were not even with us in 2012 but were transplanted here. He has raised up new deacons in our midst who are serving well and are leading others to do the same. He is raising up men qualified to serve as elders. He has put missions on the heart of his people leading some to prepare to go to distant lands. He has sent young people into new careers and marriages here and elsewhere. He is maturing our children into godly youth. He has laid new ministries on the hearts of ordinary saints who have faithfully ministered in new ways. He has given saints a new passion for holiness. He has helped us learn to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. And in the midst of sending out maturing leaders, he is faithful to bring new souls to faith who need to be built up in all of these ways and more.
The progress in all of us is slow and is beset with various sins, trials, and disappointments. But the Lord is faithful, and we trust him to grow a generation of faithful servants.