For those who are interested, over the next couple of days I hope to do some "live-blogging" on this year's Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. The conference theme is "How Must a Pastor Die?" and the keynote speaker is Ajith Fernando, direction of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka.
Session One was last night and John Piper began with a powerful quotation of William Tyndale which said, (my paraphrase): If you are at sea and God promises to bring you safely to land, expect to go through a storm. Because God wants to test the genuineness of your faith and demonstrate the reality of his faithfulness. A spirited season of worship through song followed. Then Ajith's first message: The Call to Ministry: Joy & Pain, Colossians 1:24-29. Ajith began by reflecting on how suffering and the blessings of suffering are always linked together in Scripture and that one of the primary blessings of suffering is joy. "We rejoice in suffering." More than 18x the New Testament connects joy and suffering. But the problem in our world, especially in the west, is that we have lost the taste for joy. We trade true joy for less satisfying satisfactions - like success, sexual conquest, and material wealth. Western Christians do not know the "joyfulness of joy," and with that we have a "defective theology of suffering." We think it is strange when we suffer and thus make our suffering worse with the frustration we experience from not being prepared for suffering and the disillusionment to which it leads. We talk about escape from suffering, and coping with suffering, but there is very little heard about actually rejoicing in suffering (my note: John Piper is a refreshing exception to this rule).
Fernando's specific application to pastors and ministers was helpful. He talked about how we must learn to preach to ourselves through our suffering (this is true for all believers) so that we will not stay discouraged. And he believes that one of our primary challenges as pastors is to help people believe that God will look after them through suffering. Further, it is through the fellowship of Christ's sufferings that we ourselves become more like Christ and experience communion with him.
The great strengths of Fernando's message were, in my opinion, three: (1) This brother radiates the joy of the Lord. Sometimes you can tell that a man really walks with God. You can tell with Ajith Fernando. (2) Based upon some of the personal experiences he shared, it is evident that Ajith is acquainted with suffering. His ministry has not always been easy. He related how he had grown discouraged and the Lord had sustained him through several trials. This brought an extra note of authenticity to his message. (3) He also illustrated his message with probably a couple of dozen stories and quotations from other believers who have suffered. Many of these I had never heard before and they were quite effective. So, this was a great message and I'm looking forward to more this morning.