“Could you take a workshop at our church camp? The speaker who was supposed to do it can’t make it.”
The request came from a community that meant a lot to us. And the camp was nearby, in Johor Bahru. We normally would have said yes barring any divine guidance to the contrary. There was only one problem. The date of the camp meant we would be exhausted. We would have just come back from trips to Melbourne and Toronto and from taking a camp in Malacca. But the people were dear to us and the topic was spiritual friendship. I have spoken on that many times and I thought, well, I’d just recycle my usual material with some new applications for this new audience.
And so we went for our trips — one son’s wedding in Melbourne, another son’s graduation in Peterborough, a town just outside Toronto. These were joyful but physically and emotionally draining trips. On our return to Singapore, we were off to take a church camp in Malacca. And then there was this workshop for the other church camp. The night before the workshop, I wanted to look at my notes on spiritual friendship. But I suddenly had the conviction that I wasn’t meant to use my old notes. I was meant to speak on spiritual friendship from the Gospel of John, chapter 15 to be exact. This would be a completely new talk for me.
I read through the chapter. I hunted down my favourite commentaries on John. I spent the whole evening thinking and praying through what the Lord wanted to say through John 15. The evening was not a relaxing one. I wasn’t reviewing old notes. I was struggling with a biblical text for a new sermon, struggling to see what message the Lord had for this church through this passage.
The next morning we drove up to the hotel where the camp was held. Bernice drove so I could meditate on my talk and conserve my energies. When we reached the hotel, I felt sick. My stomach was bloated. I felt faint. Nauseous. Perhaps I was just tired. Perhaps it was something more. Even if it was an attack of the enemy, I had to proceed in faith. When I stood up to preach, all feelings of discomfort disappeared. Significant ministry happened. Lives were touched. The presence of the Lord was palpable. Later, I found out that the ministry staff tasked with writing the devotions for the camp was also led to John 15. Clearly, God had something to say through that portion of Scripture.
Looking back on this episode, I was reminded again of a basic principle of ministry — the need to listen before we speak. This was one of the key lessons I learnt from the late Dr Klaus Bockmuehl in my time at Regent College. He often pointed us to Isaiah 50:4.
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
(Isaiah 50:4 NIV)
To be able to speak a word in season, a word that is able to give life and “sustain the weary”, depends on our listening to the Lord. Commenting on this verse, Bockmuehl writes:
The hope is that, following the example of Isaiah, all who call themselves believers would regularly listen to God first thing in the day, keeping in mind the people around them and seeking how best to sustain them. Then they would also come to know what Isaiah experienced: that “the Lord . . . is wonderful in counsel and excellent in guidance” (Isa. 28:29). (Klaus Bockmuehl, Listening to the God Who Speaks, [Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1990])
We live in a time of great need. More than ever, we need to hear from the Lord for the issues of the day. But we are also living in a time of many loud voices, all seeking to tell us what is right and wrong. More than ever we need open ears and submissive hearts to listen to He who has the words of life, to the God who is not silent but who speaks to us morning by morning.