Ajith Fernando

The Good Pastor: A Man Who Changed My Life

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

I grew up in a mixed denomination in Sri Lanka and was often exposed to liberal preaching. But my mother, a convert to Christianity, drilled into her five children the dangers of unorthodox teaching and how important God’s word was to life. All five remain committed evangelical Christians today. And thankfully God has provided a much stronger evangelical witness in the denomination today than when I was a boy.

When I was thirteen, we got a new pastor, the Reverend George Good, a missionary from Northern Ireland. The first Sunday that he preached, we went to church nervously, wondering whether he held evangelical convictions. My mother later said that when we sang a particular hymn early in the service, she knew her prayers were answered. The hymn was Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, the Name High over All.”

My parents were very active in church, and naturally we got to know the Rev. Good, whom we affectionately called “Uncle George.” I received an impression then that remains with me even to this day: this is the most Christlike man I have met. Little by little as I watched him, two convictions grew in me: First, my most important goal in life should be to be like Jesus. And second, the most vicious battle I have in life is with my sinful nature, which hinders my being like Jesus. Despite numerous failings, this remains my desire and battle today.

Favorite Day of the Week

Soon Sunday became my favorite day of the week. I came to see worship as something glorious. Uncle George introduced us to the great hymns of the faith, which celebrated the great doctrines of the faith. Aided by music, the language of the heart, the lyrics triggered joy and praise within me. It was later that I was able to articulate this experience verbally with the expression “the joy of truth,” which gradually became a key theme of my life and theology. Hymns are bearers of truth, and truth is one of the happiest things in life. Even today, I begin my time with God almost daily by singing a hymn.

Sunday was also special because our pastor offered a feast of biblical preaching each week. Rev. Good was a busy man, giving himself to the rigors of pastoral work. But rumor had it that he would be up into the night preparing his sermons. Preaching is such a great work, reflecting the honor of God and his word, that it needed to be done well. And George Good did it well.

Each Sunday, we would come to church eager to hear what gems he had mined from the word. I was exposed to the example of a man who tirelessly worked with people but also conscientiously studied the word and prepared good expository sermons. This is hard and tiring work.

“Hymns are bearers of truth, and truth is one of the happiest things in life.”

Most ministers are called to do a lot of things and strive to do them all well. The result is tiredness. As far as I know, the Bible never calls tiredness a sin. It is wrong not to delegate responsibilities to others. It is wrong not to take a Sabbath rest. It is wrong to be always complaining and unhappy about how hard we have to work. George Good was an example of a happy man who worked very hard with pastoral care and the ministry of the word. I had a model to follow.

My Hunger to Preach

I was about fourteen years old when I committed myself fully to Christ. I suppose seeing the glory of ministry in my church made it attractive to me too. Soon I became convinced that God had called me to the ministry. But there was a problem. I was extremely shy and hardly opened my mouth in public. I dared not tell anyone that I wanted to be a preacher! I also felt that I was the mediocre member of a very capable family. I thought I would amount to nothing significant. How could I ever hope to be a minister of the glorious gospel?

When I was fifteen years old, I followed the confirmation classes at church with the Rev. Good. As part of the course, he had personal appointments alone with each of the youth. I think he wanted to make sure that all those he was going to confirm had been born again. When I met with him, he asked me a question that astounded me: “Ajith, have you considered going into the ministry?” Someone really did think that this mediocre, tongue-tied, shy boy could possibly be a preacher! I don’t remember what answer I gave, but I was encouraged to keep thinking about the call to ministry.

Sunday after Sunday, I heard inspiring, faithful preaching. Over time, this awakened and fostered my own hunger to preach. Thus began an exciting journey into the study and proclamation of the word. Later in my father’s library, I found books of Bible exposition by men like F.B. Meyer, G. Campbell Morgan, and John Stott. I devoured these books. My real introduction to the supernatural power of preaching, though, was still what I heard each Sunday in my local church.

When Youth Become Pastors

After finishing my university studies, I went to the United States to study at Asbury Theological Seminary. I had hoped to return and work with Youth for Christ, the movement I served in before leaving Sri Lanka. While in seminary, however, almost everyone I respected told me that I could be making a big mistake doing parachurch ministry. The church or a seminary was the place for a person with my gifts, they said. I was confused and wrote to my parents for wisdom.

“A pastor’s calling is not to be famous; it is to tend the flock God has entrusted to him.”

George Good had returned to Sri Lanka at that time on an assignment. My parents told him about my struggle. His response was not what one would expect from a churchman. He said, “Let him work for Youth for Christ. God can use him to send many young people into the church.” So, I ended up working for Youth for Christ and have now been on staff for 47 years. I believe what George Good said happened.

Through our ministry, hundreds of unchurched youths have found their permanent home in churches. About a hundred have become pastors. Considering that the Protestant population in Sri Lanka is about 300,000, that is a significant figure.

Faithfulness and Fame

Uncle George taught me through his hard work, his faithful preaching, and his wise counsel. He also taught me through suffering. Shortly before he and his wife Eileen left for Sri Lanka, the educational policies here changed, making it impossible for their teenage daughters, Valerie and Joan, to come with them. Their family sacrificed so much for our people. What a relief to know that, despite the huge price they paid, both daughters are vibrant Christians today.

Here was a man whose Christlike character I could never come close to matching. Here was a man whose all-around capability in ministry I could never imitate. But I am known fairly widely, whereas George Good is known only in Britain and Sri Lanka. From a worldly viewpoint, that seems unfair.

But I do not think that would be a problem for George Good. His values were not derived from this world. A pastor’s calling is not to be famous; it is to tend the flock God has entrusted to him. That he did. In terms of qualification for service, a pastor needed to be Christlike and to perform his duties conscientiously, to the best of his ability. That he did, with distinction, even though it did not make him famous over a wide sphere. He surely heard a resounding “Well done” when he met his Master. That is reward enough!

And here on earth, he demonstrated the beauty of Jesus and the glory of pastoral ministry, qualities that won me as a boy and young man. Today, many features that characterize my ministry, and that of my minister brother Duleep, were first learned by watching George Good.

Embracing Suffering in Ministry: Lessons from Romans 8 – Part 2

The Holy Spirit groans with us. He intercedes for us in our helplessness. And not only that, we know that God is going to turn everything into good. And if he’s sovereign, then we have hope. And if we have hope, we have patience. We work in the midst of hardship, in the midst of difficulty. But not only do we have patience, but we also have the love of God to help us which nothing can separate us from. We are people in love. Guard that relationship. That love is more precious than all the pain that your ministry will bring. It gives you the strength to embrace the pain of ministry.

We’ve been making our way through the second half of Romans 8, and have gone over the first three of six words: frustration, groaning, and fellowship. We now come to the fourth word: sovereignty. And that’s in verse 28. “We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good.” God is in control. He’s sovereign, and he works even the greatest tragedies into something good.
In verse 37, after listing a huge set of problems in the previous verses, he says, ‘In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ So this is another reason why we are not bitter in the midst of our suffering: he’s turning it for good. We accept that in faith. So when the apostles heard that their task was made illegal, the first thing they did was to get to their group of friends. And the friends got together and they prayed. But their prayer is most interesting. They made just two short requests: consider their threats, and help us to proclaim your word with boldness, and demonstrate your power with signs and wonders. Those are the two short requests they made. The rest of the prayer is an affirmation of the sovereignty of God—of how God worked through history, how people rose up against the Lord and his anointed, and then finally, how everybody who was somebody in Jerusalem—the Jews, the Gentiles, the Romans, the Pharisees—everybody got together, and they killed Jesus. But what they did was what God had already predestined to take place, so that the greatest tragedy became the greatest triumph in the history of the world.
So we believe that God is sovereign, and you know in 1983, when we had the big riot that started off the war in Sri Lanka, this is the passage that God gave me that sustained me through total confusion that we are going through in our country. We knew that God will work through us in the midst of this, therefore we have to keep working. That’s why after reflecting on the sovereignty of God, the disciples requested and said that they wanted to continue to do their work to proclaim the word with boldness.
This brings us to the fifth word: patience. And we go back a little bit. If God is sovereign, we look at life with hope. Even hope is faith in the dark times when things are not going well. But because we know that things are going to be well, we have hope. And if we have hope we have patience. Verse 25, ‘If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’
In the Bible, the word patience, there are two words for patients, macrothumia, which has more to do with people being patient with people, and hupomone, which is often translated as endurance, which has more to do with circumstances. Hupomone is used here. Now, hupomone is an active word. It’s a word that is almost one of triumphant fortitude. It’s a word that Leon Morris in his commentary says is used on the battlefield. When things are going tough, we try to see what we should do. How can we get out of this situation? How can we solve our problems? It’s an active word, it comes from the battlefield, where Christians are working. You see God is working. We don’t defeat ourselves and adopt an attitude of resignation: what can we do, this is God’s will. Or as people say, this is my karma. No, that’s not what we say. We say God is working for good. Therefore, we have hope. Therefore, we must join him, dressed by hope, and we work.
There was a Japanese professor, who in the middle of his career, went blind with a detached retina. And when he was getting blind, he wanted to find out the mystery: why did this happen to him at the peak of his life? He could not agree with what his religion said, that he was suffering for things he had done in his previous life. So he started looking for an answer. Somebody encouraged him to look at the Christian answer. And he began to read the gospel. And he came to the place in John, where the disciples asked why a man had been born blind. And Jesus said, “It was not because his parents sinned, or because he had sinned, but he had been born blind so that the works of God may be revealed.” And he said, “Could the works of God be manifested through my blindness? Then that is the answer. I will use this blindness.” And he became a Christian. He became an evangelist, and later went to Scotland, did his theological studies, and became a theological professor at Kobe Theological college. That’s Christian patience. God is working, and I will work knowing without giving up: triumphant fortitude in the midst of difficulty. So, that’s our fifth word.
So we have frustration, groaning, fellowship with the Holy Spirit, sovereignty, and because God is sovereign, patience.
Now I want to tell you one more word. And that is the word love. That’s our great source of joy.
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Embracing Suffering in Ministry: Lessons from Romans 8—Part 1

We can weep, we can be angry over wrongs, we can be upset about situations. But we can’t be bitter. And of course, if we are bitter, we end up hurting people. How can we not be bitter? Because God, Jesus is walking with us through the pain. And we have comfort and strength.

The topic given to me is, ‘Embracing suffering in ministry,’ and I want to take the second half of Romans 8, and present to you six words that will help us to be joyful in the midst of the suffering that we encounter in ministry. So, if you read the passage, you come to verse 20, which says, “The whole creation, for the creation, was subjected to futility. Not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope.” That’s the first-word, “futility,” or, as other translations put it, frustration. Things don’t work out as we expect them to all the time. Because of the fall, the world lost its equilibrium. And things happen that we don’t plan or desire. And of course, the pandemic has made it even more marked, as our plans have to be constantly changed because of the situation around us.
Of course, Jesus himself had to face frustration. We know that Jesus had a disciple Judas, who used to steal. I mean, the all-knowing Savior of the world, had the treasurer of his group, steal from him, take money from the common purse. He prayed, “Let this cup pass away from me,” but it was not fulfilled. That prayer was frustrated because God had a greater plan. According to that, Jesus came to serve incarnationally, and incarnational ministry means he had to be one with humanity and one with humanity as they suffer. So, Jesus suffered as people suffered, and we too must suffer. Our plans, ambitious, sometimes are dashed because of problems. Even while preparing for this talk, I found event after event because of the needs of people coming in to stop me from doing the preparation I wanted to do. This happens to us often as we are servants of people. Their plans sometimes supersede ours, so that our preparation has to be done with great difficulty like financial problems. I’m sure many pastors would be encountering financial problems during this pandemic. That’s what many are facing in Sri Lanka, as people are not working, and they cannot send their normal tithes to the church because some have lost their jobs. There are problems with the weather, lockdowns, sickness, and sometimes even death, unpleasant relationships at home, sometimes with spouses, problems that we encounter. And these are all coming under the rubric of frustration. So that’s the first word, frustration.
The second word is groaning. Verse 22, says, “The whole creation is groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” Of course, childbirth means there is hope something wonderful is going to come, that is that the creation is going to be redeemed. But even while we have this hope, we groan. Because now there is pain. And not only does the creation groan, but verse 23 says, “We who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” We have the first fruits of the Spirit. In other words, we have experienced God. We know he’s with us. We know our eternal destiny. We have had a taste of heaven already. But now, we experience pain and frustration. And so we groan. We have been given the freedom to groan by God, to express our pain.
Now groaning is different from grumbling. Grumbling is done by those who are disobedient, who are rebelling against God’s will. Groaning in the Bible is the groaning of the obedient, who have been faithful to God, and in spite of their faithfulness, they are experiencing problems, troubles, difficulties, and deprivation. The Old Testament Psalms give many laments, maybe 60 out of the 150, depending on whose classification you follow, are laments. And one of the most famous ones is Psalm 22, which starts with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And Jesus took those words and made them his own. So we can weep. We can question God, like the psalmist questions God. We can express our pain in words, in sighs. We don’t have to bottle up our pain and our questions. That will make us depressed, and even bitter. God has given us the freedom to weep. In fact, I would say that groaning is the alternative to quitting. Some people don’t know how to groan, can’t handle the frustration, and in their frustration, they quit. We don’t quit, we groan. We express our pain to our colleagues, to God, and mainly to God. We express our pain. So that’s the second word, groaning.
Now we come to the third word, which is fellowship, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The first part of verse 26 says, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Though God is strong, still, while we live on Earth, we have weaknesses. Here, the particular weakness mentioned is that we do not know what to pray for, as we ought. I’m sure many of you have felt that with this pandemic that we are going through. We feel helpless. We don’t know what to pray for, we don’t know what we should pray about. Many of us, because we are leaders, ask God, “Lord, help us, help me, help me to say the right prayer to direct these people right in prayer.” There are so many situations that we cannot control, and we feel weak.
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