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Sowing and Reaping

January 28, 2008

This article was written by Scott Dean, a graduate of Fairhaven Baptist College, who is serving in Ulanbaatar, Mongolia.  I also know many of the missionary examples he uses in this article and was encouraged by it myself.  I made a few adjustments to it to help it fit our WordPress blog.

It is said that David Livingstone only had the privilege of directly leading one African to our Savior, Jesus Christ. But the seeds he planted continue to grow today. A friend recently passed on to me a reference to Marvin Olasky’s article, “Fear God, work hard” in the November 10, 2007 issue of WORLD Magazine. In it Olasky points out that although Livingstone only saw one convert personally, the land of Zambia over which he traveled invites Christian missionaries to come to their country and has been a stable democracy for decades. Livingstone himself wrote in his journal, “Future missionaries will see conversions following every sermon. We prepared the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom with few cheering days except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work a glorious future which we are not destined to see.” ((Marvin Olasky, “Fear God, work hard,” WORLD Magazine, November 10, 2007.
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His quote reminds me of Jesus’ words to His disciples after His meeting with the woman at the well, “I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured and you are entered into their labours.” ((John 4:38))  Several years later His disciples would preach and see thousands added to the church. They certainly reaped a great harvest. But how many others had a part in sowing? We often take that verse as an encouragement to labor because we never know when we might reap. However, the verse is also an encouragement to labor because although we may never reap, others will reap where we have sown. Edward Judson made this observation about his father’s life, “The sacrifices of my father’s life were more fruitful than his labors. If you succeed without sacrifice, someone has sacrificed before you. If you sacrifice without success, someone will succeed after you.”

I have friends in Cambodia, and the reports that I hear from there are simply incredible: people being saved every week, churches of hundreds, new towns being reached. Even more amazing, Cambodia has been “safe” for Western missionaries for less time than Mongolia. So what is the difference between Cambodia and Mongolia? Who can say exactly why God pours out his blessing on one place and not on another?

Interestingly enough, I have had the opportunity to observe two missionaries sent out by the same church at about the same time using the same methods. Although I do not know the missionary in Cambodia as well as I know the missionary in Mongolia, I can say that the missionary in Mongolia is probably the hardest working, most prayerful missionary in Mongolia. He has a church that runs in the twenties. His counterpart in Cambodia whom I assume is also hard-working and prayerful has a church of hundreds. Same amount of time, similar methods, same God-honoring character – why is one reaching tens while the other is reaching hundreds?

What most people in the United States have forgotten was that there was a Christian witness, seemingly fruitless Christian witness, in Cambodia in the 60’s before Pol Pot turned Cambodia into a killing field. There were those who were preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified and distributing Bibles and Gospel literature. Another missionary whom I know in Cambodia shared with me that when he visited a home for the first time an elderly lady pulled out a dirty, used copy of a Bible portion in Cambodian and told him how her family had hid it for years during the terror of Pol Pot. Now she was overwhelmingly grateful for someone to come and teach her more about the Bible. She was wondrously saved!

But what about the missionary who left that Bible portion with her family. He goes unremarked and unremembered … except to God: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” ((Hebrews 6:10))  As Olasky put it in his article, “Missionary work is more often a lonely twilight struggle against principalities and powers.”  But God remembers those servants of His who have worked willingly and labored long and prayed passionately and yet only left behind the seeds that someone else would reap as fruit.

A good military metaphor for what I am describing comes from the D-Day invasion. The 29th Division, 116th Regiment, Company A was assigned to assault Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The only problem was that the defenses on Omaha Beach were well-designed with interlocking fields of fire, pre-positioned artillery, and concrete bunkers. A further problem occurred when ocean currents carried two companies that were intended to land next to Company A a kilometer east leaving Company A an isolated company, completely exposed on the beach to all the firepower the Germans could bring to bear. Stephen Ambrose records Sgt. Thomas Valance’s experience of the assault:

“As we came down the ramp [from the landing craft], we were in water about knee-high and started to do what we were trained to do, that is, move forward and then crouch and fire. One problem was we didn’t quite know what to fire at. I saw some tracers coming from a concrete emplacement which, to me, looked mammoth. I never anticipated any gun emplacements being that big. I shot at it but there was no way I was going to knock out a German concrete emplacement with a .30-caliber rifle. I abandoned my equipment, which was dragging me down in the water. It became evident rather quickly that we weren’t going to accomplish very much. I remember floundering in the water with my hand up in the air, trying to get my balance, when I was first shot through the palm of my hand, then through the knuckle. Private Henry Witt was rolling over toward me. I remember him saying, ‘Sergeant, they’re leaving us here to die like rats. Just to die like rats.’  [I] staggered up against the seawall and sort of collapsed there and, as a matter of fact, spent the whole day in that same position. Essentially my part in the invasion had ended by being wiped out as most of my company was. The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore and I was the one live body in amongst so many friends, all of whom were dead, in many cases very severely blown to pieces.” ((Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. 328-329))

Besides being hit in the hand twice Valance also was shot in the left thigh by a bullet that broke his hip bone. He also took two additional flesh words, the chin strap on his helmet was severed by a bullet, and his pack was hit twice. As he said, all he did was abandon his equipment, crawl up on the beach, and hide behind the seawall. Certainly, Sgt. Valance is not our idea of the valiant soldier who overcomes all odds to suceed in a dangerous mission. ((ibid))

The historian summed up Company A’s work this way:

“Company A had hardly fired a weapon. Almost certainly it had not killed any Germans. It had expected to move up the Vierville draw and be on top of the bluff by 0730, but at 0730 its handful of survivors were huddled up against the seawall, virtually without weapons. It had lost 96 percent of its effective strength.” ((ibid p. 331))

At that point in history, huddled against the seawall with the survivors one would be tempted to characterize the attack as a failure. But listen to the historian’s assessment with the advantage of hindsight:

“But its sacrifice was not in vain. The men had brought in rifles, BARs [Browning Automatic Rifles], grenades, TNT charges, machine guns, mortars and mortar rounds, flamethrowers, rations, and other equipment. This was now strewn across the sand at Dog Green [the codename for Company A’s landing]. The weapons and equipment would make a life-or-death difference to the following waves of infantry, coming in at higher tide and having to abandon everything to make their way to shore.” ((ibid))

What is significant about this history? It is a reminder that sometimes events that appear to be failures may really be God’s way of planting seeds. It is all too easy to concentrate on the revivals and mass conversions that occur around the world. We like the good news, the excitement, the victory of hearing about hundreds or even thousands saved. I once asked a missionary in Mongolia if he thought his pastor would come to visit Mongolia one day. His response was something like this, “Yes, if we were baptizing a bunch of people. He would come. But as long as there are only have a handful of people, he is unlikely to come.”

And yet it is the missionary who has invested his life in a country only to see a “handful” of people come to Christ who needs the most encouragement. After watching missionaries come and go in Mongolia, I am convinced that it is not difficult for the missionary who is seeing hundreds saved to persevere in a foreign land. One of the missionaries I know in Cambodia lost his wife in a tragic accident, took a brief furlough, and returned to Cambodia. It is the missionary who sows and sows and sows and sows and is not blessed to reap that needs to be encouraged, strengthened, perhaps even challenged not to become half-hearted or complacent.

This is not a plea for my sake. Yes, our work here is slow but we are seeing people saved, we are baptizing people. This is a plea to note the ones who are only sowing. Everybody knows the names of the missionary who has planted multiple churches and trained scores of preachers. This is a call to hold up the hands of those who labor and sow but do not reap. One day, by God’s grace, someone else may come along who will reap the fruit of the seeds that he has sown. Another missionary will arrive at the beach and find it strewn with the equipment the one “who failed” left behind. He will be noticed, be hailed, be honored.

I will close with another thought from a missionary biographer.

One has sown, another watered, but God gave the increase. There is a tendency to judge the life’s work of missionaries by human attainments of others and the feats they have achieved. It is true we have had outstanding missionaries the world over, but to judge all by the achievements of some is using the human yardstick alone, and discounting the calling and appointing of God to missionary service. Truly, none of the early Church missionaries may have been as outstanding as Paul, but none were appointed to special tasks that Paul was appointed to – an apostle to the Gentiles. Peter and others accomplished outstanding missionary labours, but the Holy Spirit did not choose, in recording their life’s work, to throw the spotlight on their work with the same brightness as He did on Paul’s. Some of our missionaries have laboured in almost total obscurity for years with meager result to show for their labour, while others have laboured successfully in the limelight of known achievement and the applause of men. Yet, God has called and appointed both. ((from Memoirs of An Indian Whiteman))

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