Plowing the Hard Ground for Change (again) in 2018
As we face a new year, I wonder how many of us made new year’s resolutions that are in some way dependent on others. So many of the places we long to grow are often connected to community: A healthier marriage. More intimacy with friends. Spirit infused decisions in our teams and churches. Adaptation to a new generation in our organizations.
The truth is, changing a system whether it’s a marriage, team, school, church, workplace, or organization, is very difficult. And the larger the system, the more variables to contend with because there are more people, dynamics, traditions, policies.
Systemic change means someone has to plough hard ground. Imagine being dropped to work a field of dense, hard-packed earth. Long held traditions or methods have packed the ground into well-worn pathways. Breaking new ground means disrupting those pathways. Others don’t usually appreciate the disruption. Change takes takes time, energy, and conflict.
Systemic change is always preceded by forerunners. The forerunners are the ones who hold God’s heart for health, integrity, justice, or holiness. They are prophets, catalyzers, and challengers (blessed be the 8’s on the enneagram). They may be strong personalities or gentle stubborn types, but they are committed rock the boat in their marriages, teams, and institutions.
They are real life John the Baptists– living in the wilderness (emotionally, spiritually, relationally), preaching the hard message, and risking being labeled as a lunatic. A handful may join their ranks, but the establishment is usually on the sidelines, just like the Pharisees, discounting their message by focusing on side issues– their tone, their methods, or their timing.
God has made these plowmen and women strong. And they are plowing the old-fashioned way– with a pick axe, one swing at a time, over and over attempting to break up the hard packed ground. They have each been appointed to a specific field, carrying a message of jealous love from God’s heart– “There’s more to be had! We were made for more than this!”
But there is a cost to their calling. Over time, the plowmen and women get battered and bruised. The resistance in the physical and spiritual realm bears marks in their lives through relational and emotional wounds. It can be wearying to always feel like the lone voice of dissent, of feeling misunderstood and subtly punished. Often there is a battle raging around them in the spiritual realm. There is a cost to carry God’s passion.
This fall I had the privilege of sitting with a man who is plowing hard ground to create new pathways of support for women in his organization. This man has taken some knocks relationally and vocationally for where he’s attempting to move the organization. At one point I stopped our conversation to acknowledge his hard work and the emotional bruises. I don’t often make men cry, but this guy immediately teared up. Plowing new ground can be painful, lonely work.
It takes divine discernment to know when to move on. The nagging questions always arise for the plowmen and women: Should I just give up? Will the system ever change? At what point am I casting the pearls of my gifting into a system that does not treasure them?
That is a question only God can answer for you.
I know some who are called to stay, plowing for decades. Their leaders may never respond to the invitation to grow, but God calls them to continue to invest. They may always be one of a handful of voices in the system, serving as a beacon of hope for others.
One woman I know came to faith through a dramatic healing in a charismatic framework. She has spent most of her life, however, in a conservative church. Her heart is moved by the people around her who are missing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. So she has spent decades mentoring women, tilling hard ground, relationship by relationship, teaching them how to access God’s Spirit. Every few years she asks the Lord to be released from her plowing, but so far, God has led her to stay.
Other times, God leads people to take their gifts to another field and their season of back-breaking labor finally comes to an end. Perhaps, the environment is not just slow or closed to change, but crosses over into something toxic and damaging. God in His mercy releases them from working in that field any longer.
And truthfully, at times there may be a genuine mismatch– the seed the plower longs to be sown in that field is not a part of the church/organization’s vision, so God leads him/her to take her labors elsewhere.
A few thoughts today for those PLOWING hard ground in a system, culture, or organization:
You are seen. God sees the hard work you doing, as you attempt to bring change into your family, church, workplace, or organization. Thank you. Your labor will NOT be in vain.
You have everything you need to walk this out available to you in the spiritual realm. God always equips us when He has called us. Don’t be tempted to grab on to tactics of the world to bring about change. Take your instructions from Jesus– His ways are infinitely higher than anything the world offers. Ours is a God who brings walls down with trumpets, throws armies into chaos through breaking glass, and ushers in His Kingdom through love not violence. Expect for God to do some crazy things to break open your fields!
You will need to develop a thicker skin. Just like we build healthy calluses on our hands when we’ve been working with a shovel, you will need to build healthy calluses around your heart. Much of the resistance is not personal. God often told the Old Testament prophets, “They are not rejecting you, they are rejecting ME.”
You are bearing the cross of your calling and of the broken world. Offer your struggle and battle wounds to Jesus– they are precious to Him. Not one moment of your pain will be wasted, even when it seems that you are making no difference.
You do not need to take up victimhood as a mantle. And of course, there will be some wounds that are personal. You will experience injustice at times in the battle for truth. Period. We can acknowledge we have been a victim without taking on a spirit of victimhood. Victimhood is linked to self-pity, fear, blame, and bitterness. We often see victimhood when the system begins to change but someone (sometimes even the plougher) refuses to forgive and move forward into the new. Beware of taking on victimhood as a part of your identity.
Do the work to address your issues. The more unhealed wounding you have mixed in with your message, the more difficult it will be for people to hear you. You can be speaking truth all day long, but when it’s tainted with bitterness, entitlement, arrogance, and judgement, you will not be heard. Learning to speak the truth in love is a skill that many of us have to learn.
Be prepared for the finger to be pointed back at you… and usually there is truth mixed in. Do the hard work of owning your stuff, pursuing healing, and forgiving those you need to forgive. Over time, as you get more healing, your message becomes even more powerful.
A most dynamic set of African-American sisters came through our house recently who had each attended a predominantly white, evangelical college. Talk about plowing hard ground! What I loved most about each of these women was their determination to fight racism from a clean heart. In order to faithfully embrace God’s call to their campuses, they had to do a LOT of internal work. They needed safe people and places to process. They needed wisdom to know when to speak up and when to let it go. They needed to forgive blatant ignorance and denial, again and again. But there is no doubt they have left a mark on many people’s lives.
You may not get to see the harvest of your hard work. Remember that forerunners may not actually see fulfillment. When I began walking our organization through change around women in leadership, the verse the Lord gave me was, “I sent you to harvest a field that you did not sow.” Other women before me had put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to prepare the soil for change, and only a few of them were left to reap the rewards. (Don’t forget to thank the plowers!)
It is a grace to be a plower AND reaper, but that does not often happen. Forerunners must work in obedience and faith, trusting God will bring about the change in His time.
A Blessing for the Forerunners of Change
May God grant you discernment in this new year to know exactly which fields to plow.
May God’s Spirit go before you like the flood softening the ground for change.
May God bind up your wounds and infuse you with His strength to pick up the axe again.
May you anchor yourself in the truth that “He who called you is faithful, He will do it.”
May we look back on 2018 as a ground-breaking year for God’s Kingdom to be released in every field to which we have been appointed.