I THANK GOD
This is a talk given by Ajith Fernando at a service of thanksgiving for Ajith and for his successor Leonard Fernando held at People’s Church Assembly of God, Colombo on 2nd September 2011. The talk was given in Sinhala and translated into Tamil with an English translation relayed through headphones. This version has included portions that were left out during the delivery owing to time constraints.
I. I THANK GOD FOR JESUS CHRIST
II. I THANK GOD FOR MY FAMILY
III. I THANK GOD FOR CALLING ME TO YOUTH FOR CHRIST
IV. I THANK GOD FOR THE BODY OF CHRIST—THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH
V. I THANK GOD FOR THE LOCAL CHURCH
VI. I THANK GOD FOR LEONARD FERNANDO
VII. I WANT TO MAKE TWO REQUESTS OF YOU
I want to thank the YFC staff for the wonderful programme that they have arranged and all of you for encouraging us with your presence.
I have waited five years to give this talk, as I had planned to step down earlier than I did. In five years you accumulate a lot of material, so I must cut down my material and quickly go to my contents immediately.
I want to use this talk to thank God for his kindness to me and to testify to his goodness.
I. I THANK GOD FOR JESUS CHRIST
1. I am an unworthy recipient of grace. What I have given God is my sin, my unfaithfulness and my helplessness. And he has given me his glorious salvation. And on top of that he has called me to the ministry.
I want to introduce you to my favourite verse in the Bible: 1 Timothy 1:17. It is my favourite because of what precedes it. In 1 Timothy 1:12 Paul mentions that he has been appointed to God’s service. And this was after he had been a terrible sinner (1:13). But God’s grace overflowed to him (1:14). This was possible because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which he was the chief (1:15). But, he says, the chief sinner received mercy so as to show that there is hope for everyone (1:16). This is how I feel about myself. I am a sinner to whom grace overflowed, and—wonder of wonders—who has been called to be a minister of Jesus Christ. And when I think of that, I want to shout out like Paul, “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen (1:17).
That is how I feel about life. I want to scream out for joy that God has been wonderful to me. I am an unworthy servant, but God has called me to his ministry. And my only qualification for ministry is the mercy of God (2 Cor. 4:1).
2. If I am an unworthy recipient of grace, everything I get is a bonus. Then I cannot be angry about not being recognised, or accepted or promoted to a position I desired. Sometimes when someone I disciple gives his testimony, I am eagerly waiting for my name to be mentioned. But he completes his testimony without mentioning me!! But soon I have to tell God, “Thank you, Father; if a desire for recognition took over me, I would have lost my anointing. And without the anointing I am useless.”
It is a waste of time to be looking for recognition here on earth and a denial of the fact that everything we get is a bonus which we don’t deserve. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-16 suggests that by looking for an earthly reward we may be depriving ourselves of our heavenly reward. What folly that would be!
3. Over the years I have constantly had to give up my personal plans because of the needs of YFC and of others. Often I cannot do things I like to do, because of some need somewhere. But the greatest and most valuable thing in my life is not touched. God is with me; and that is my greatest joy. So there is no problem.
There is an advertisement for a Sinhala film these days where an actor says, “Being a Member of Parliament is good. But being a Cabinet Minister is GOOD! (said with excitement and feeling). Well, I want to say that getting what I desire is good. But Jesus is GOOD! He satisfied my deepest longings. That is enough.
Actually, I cannot legitimately feel sorry for myself, because though I have had to drop most of my plans; most of my dreams have been fulfilled. Sometimes they are fulfilled five to ten years later than I had planned. But often I get the sense that the end product is better than if I had fulfilled the dream at the time I had planned.
I like to think that I have sacrificed a lot for God. But I know that serving Christ is no sacrifice at all. I have Jesus with me, and he is my all; he completely satisfies. How could I call that a sacrifice?
4. Last week, when I heard that my wife Nelun had cancer, I was in Northern Ireland, and it was 20 minutes before I went to speak. It was a shock. But deep down there was that sense that God is with us, and he will look after Nelun and me. Now I had a job to do for God; I must go and do it. I was able to preach with much anointing, and I think most of the time I was preaching to myself.
I stayed three days after that and preached three more times before leaving for Sri Lanka. The hardest thing for me was going to sleep at night. How I longed to be near my beloved; so that we can share our pain together. But I knew that Jesus was with me and also with her. I had a deep sense of union with Jesus and with Nelun. Here I sensed a new kind of sweetness in my joy in Christ amidst the tears. When Jesus comes to us and comforts us in times of deep distress, our joy is tinged with a unique and tender sweetness.
How wonderful it is to have a God who is closest to us when we suffer. Jesus is sufficient! He satisfies.
5. Therefore every day we get up and say, “Lord, what do you want me to surrender today? Your thoughts are not my thoughts. I am unwise; so I will surrender to you what is not your will.” And when something happens that we had not planned, we gladly give up our plans to do his will. We know that that is the best thing, because we have committed our day to him and he will lead us along the best possible path.
So nothing can take away our joy in him. We know that God will never allow anything to happen to us which he will not turn to good.
6. If God is so good to me, then there is a huge scandal in my life. I have failed this good God so often. I have been careless; I have been selfish; I have pursued my pleasure even when it displeased him. Yet still he forgives me, restores me and uses me.
Can you see why I cannot feel let down or unfairly treated? I deserve hell; and he has given me eternal life, amazing joy and the privilege of being his minister.
So I thank God for Jesus Christ. He is sufficient.
II. I THANK GOD FOR MY FAMILY
Those whom God uses who are from seriously scarred families can thank God that grace helped overcome their wounds. On the other hand, I thank God that he used my Christian family to mediate his grace to my life.
1. I thank God for my Mother. She taught her children the Bible from the time we were little children. It was she who led me to a personal commitment to Christ when I was about fourteen years old. She is not only my physical mother; she is also my spiritual mother. I like to think of myself as a Bible teacher, but I readily acknowledge that my mother is the most important Bible teacher in my life.
My mother and her mother were women of prayer. I remember when I used to stay at my grandmother’s home; sometimes I used to get up early morning, before the light has come, to go to the bathroom. I used to pass her bed, and she would not be in her bed. She would be behind her bed kneeling and praying. I soon realised that the most important work I do on earth is praying.
2. My Father taught us the value of hard work. Like a true Methodist, he made use of every minute. He was committed to excellence and inspired us also not to be satisfied with anything but the best in what we do for God. My father was a voracious reader. And it was he who introduced me to the value of reading Christian books. He had a large library and I would read books from that library which began to shape my thinking especially regarding the value of Bible exposition.
3. My eldest brother Kumar is to me the example of what it means to be a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). He gave up a bright future in medicine in the USA to come to Sri Lanka and serve our people. There are two of us brothers in the ministry, but there are some who say that the best Christian in the family is the doctor. This makes me immensely glad.
4. My next brother Duleep is a pastor. I do not think I would have had the courage to face the challenges he has faced. But our work depends on the local church to which we direct those converted to Christ. Without good local churches we would be at a loss not knowing what to do. So we rejoice when we find good pastors. And my brother is such a pastor. Not only that, he had a major role to play in the amazing renewal that has taken place in our denomination.
Yet what I appreciate him most for is that he treated me with respect and honour when I was a child and felt that I was going to be the disappointment of the family. It is not easy to be part of a highly motivated family and feel that your abilities don’t measure up to their standards. I felt I was the one in my family without any significant abilities. Duleep seemed to think that I was a person who needed to be treated with honour.
5. My younger brother Priyan is in the world of business. We need Christians to go to this sphere and maintain their Christian witness. We are so glad that he has done this. But I am personally also grateful because he has cared for us as a family. He helped us financially during our children’s education, their weddings and when members of our family were hospitalised.
6. My sister Anusha is a prayer warrior. Whenever I have a need, I tell my wife to inform her, so that she can pray. We both love to hear her praying. Now, if prayer is the most powerful work that one can do on earth, then perhaps she may be the most influential member of our family.
7. I cannot understand why, after giving me so many wonderful blessings in life, God also gave me such a wonderful wife. I know that with every privilege comes also a responsibility. So we have taken this blessing of a happy marriage as bringing a call to devote ourselves to helping other families to experience joy.
a) Nelun was willing to pay the price for me to do my ministry. Both travel and writing are hard on the family. When I’m travelling she has to sleep alone. And when I am at home, I often come to bed at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning. Sometimes I go to sleep at the same time that she is getting up. All she wants to know is that what I am doing is needed for the work of God’s kingdom. If she is convinced of that, she will release me to do that work. Of course, I need to talk to her often about the projects so that she continues to be excited about them despite the cost.
If she thinks that something is for fame or publicity or position then she would want me to have nothing to do with it. I have always asserted that these should never be motivations to do anything. But sometimes we also can get carried away and move in that direction. Nelun is my antidote to that malady.
b) We decided to adopt a simple lifestyle. Our salaries were paid through the gifts of poor people. We did not feel we should live above the standards of an average Christian worker in Sri Lanka. But I did have access to a lot of funds through my books and preaching honoraria. Those funds were given to YFC. When I went abroad I often brought nothing back for the family. You cannot buy foreign gifts on a local salary.
Yet Nelun never complained about my ministry in front of the children. If she had concerns about something, she would tell me personally, but she would not complain in front of the children. The result is that we have had a happy home. I believe that happiness is the greatest wealth a family can have. By that measure we are billionaires.
If Nelun complained, the children would have been upset with the one whose was responsible for giving me this work: God. I believe her attitude to the ministry is a major reason why my children had positive attitudes toward the ministry. Both of them work for YFC, not as big shots in the ministry but as ordinary staff. They have responded to God’s call to youth ministry.
c. Nelun is my shock absorber. She stayed away from matters relating to the running of YFC. This has been very helpful. If our staff are going to own the ministry, they need to express their anger when they are upset about something. YFC leadership team meetings have a lot of heated debate. I don’t think they would have been too free to express their anger with me and with the way things were being run if she was there to hear it. So her being out of the administration of YFC was helpful.
But it hurts me to hear people speak in such a heated manner. I have always tried to speak kindly and politely to everyone. When people speak unkindly or harshly, I get very hurt, even when they speak like that to another person. What can I do when I am hurt in this way?
i) If I take revenge, I would disobey God. That would be sheer folly. I would also lose my spiritual power and become ineffective in ministry. But more seriously, I would bring dishonour to God. That is the greatest crime a Christian could commit. This is why it would be an idiotic act of folly for a Christian to take revenge against anyone.
ii) If I express my hurt publicly, it would divide the body. People are encouraged to take sides when a personal hurt is aired in public. Leaders must talk personally to the people who hurt them, but they must not air their grievances to the whole group.
iii) If I bottle it up all inside, I will become a bitter person. Then I would use my anointing, and love will leave me. When love leaves, joy leaves. We make a lot of sacrifices when we serve God. We don’t make a lot of money, and we have to work so hard that it is very tiring. But the joy we have makes it worthwhile and gives us the strength to go on. Without joy, ministry becomes a huge burden.
iv) The answer is for God to heal our wounds. And Nelun has been the medium God used most in bringing his healing to me.
Nelun has been my shock absorber.
How wonderful it is to know that after the rigours of ministry, I can come home to an affirming and loving friend who will take all the time that is needed to listen to me sympathetically. I have always said that the best part of travel is coming home. For me that is coming home to Nelun. This is why I have been encouraging my song-writer son to write old-fashioned love songs (in contemporary style). We need to convince the world again that monogamy is truly romantic.
8. How I thank God for my children! In God’s sight all vocations are important and equally significant. But for a youth worker to have both his children working for Youth for Christ is an unbelievable thrill. From the time they were born we prayed that God would give our children godly and believing spouses. We have got more than we asked for. My daughter Nirmali married a YFC worker. Refuge became my son in the faith before becoming my son-in-law. So you can imagine my joy when I found he was going to marry my daughter. He is a Tamil and I am a Sinhalese, but that never even figured as an issue when it came to their marriage. Cheryl is a key volunteer in our work, and what an asset she is to Asiri’s ministry!
I love theology, but because God has called me to minister primarily among first generation Christians, many of whom have minimal education, I do not have many places in my ministry to talk theology. What a joy it is now to have a son and son-in-law who also love theology and to have long discussions with them on theological issues.
My children are now my advisors. They have been my advisors on what I should wear (or more accurately, on vetoing what I should not wear) for a long time. But earlier I used to often tell them, “Do this,” and “Don’t do this.” Now they tell me these same things. When the two couples get together, it sounds like a Youth for Christ riot. There is so much noise in the house, joyous noise; that sometimes keep the parents awake at night, but joyfully awake.
III. I THANK GOD FOR CALLING ME TO YOUTH FOR CHRIST
1. Let me first say that what we have done during these thirty-five years has been to build on the foundation laid by Sam Sherrard. His basic idea of reaching youth and discipling them and letting ministry strategy spring from the Bible is what we have followed all these years. When I think of my ministry, I cannot forget Sam Sherrard.
2. What an honour and privilege it is to be able to help young people to find eternal salvation. And these are youth from unexpected backgrounds, from backgrounds which have little opportunity to come within the sound of the gospel. Now my greatest ambition is to go to heaven. Of course, I have more work to do here, and I will try to do that as long as I can. But what I look forward to most in life is going to heaven. First and foremost, of course, I long to see the face of the one who died for me. But I also look forward to seeing some of the people there who have been reached through the ministry of YFC. What a joyous surprise it would be to see someone who caused us great heartache and almost seemed impossible to disciple and to tell him, “You are also here?!” As we go on discovering more and more people—I can’t imagine the thrill that will be. We have a Sinhala song called, “Uncle Johnson’s Jubilee Party.” And when I hear that song, I think of heaven. What a ecstatic party that will be!
3. But let me say something to the Youth for Christ family: Don’t take the easy road! Our calling is to evangelise unreached youth; youth who will not have a chance to go to church.
- We may do some training in youth evangelism, especially in churches. But that must not be our main work.
- Organising programmes for Christians is not our main work.
- Concentrating on youth who are easy to reach is not our main work. It is easier to disciple people who have some background in Christian values. Whereas the people we are called to reach are so difficult to disciple. This is hard work. You are going to see a lot of disappointment. But our calling is to go to the margins; to hurt and rejected people, many of whom will hurt us in return.
People sometimes ask me, “What has happened to YFC? We don’t see those rallies like earlier on.” Christians don’t see us when we are doing ministry; because we are doing ministry in places where Christians are not found. This makes it difficult for us to raise funds for our ministry. But that is our call! Don’t give up. Some day you will see the fruit of your labours.
3. When I came in as National Director, we had a leadership team of four other people, three of whom were older than me: Brian Blacker, Richard Brohier, Tony Senewiratne and Suri Williams. What wonderful fellowship we had. What a lovely team we made. Brian had acted as National Director for two years before I came. How conscientiously he worked to prepare YFC for my arrival. And when I came, what a joy it was for me to work with him. Something impossible in YFC happened in my relationship with Brian. We never had a fight in all those years that we worked together!
This was my first job. I did not know much about ministry. They taught me about ministry and I taught them the Bible. And this became my model for leadership from that point on. Leadership is enabling others to do ministry. We help open doors for them and then move aside and let them use their gifts.
4. My biggest weakness was in the fields of administration and finance. But over the years God gave us some wonderful people to lead us in this sphere. The basic structure of our finance and administration was devised by Chandran Williams while he was a volunteer in the business world. The latest person who has come to us is Timothy de Alwis, who has been a long time Board member of YFC.
When it comes to administration and finance, I think here, my successor Leonard is also like me. Our desire is to give wings to creative people to enable them to fly and achieve their dreams. When people come and share their crazy ideas, we say, “Let’s give it a try.” In a movement like YFC people have to keep trying crazy, outrageous things. And it is our joy as leaders to encourage these creative people.
Administrators help make sure that this work is done responsibly. The encourager helps creative people to press the accelerator. The administrator helps them hold the brakes. The encourager helps ensure that growth takes place through creative new ventures. The administrator ensures that this growth takes place responsibly. Without the restraint of an administrator, movements go astray. And we have seen that happening in the history of the Church.
5. What a wonderful group of staff and volunteers God has given us. If I achieved anything in ministry, a key to that is the support I got from our staff team. As leader they kept me propped up so that despite my weaknesses I could continue to lead YFC and go to the public arenas and proclaim God’s message.
At my farewell talk to the staff I told them that they are my heroes. I cannot mention all of them here because there are too many to mention. But I must mention one person who has been with me for about 20 years. I can honestly say that I would not have had the ministry I have been having if not for Timothy Godwin. He has protected me and done whatever is necessary to enable me to do my ministry. I am proud to be able to say like Paul in 1 Tim. 1:18, “Timothy, my son!”
6. Let me say something about the security of being under a body. A travelling public ministry brings with it a lot of challenges and temptations. But all my travel is done as part of YFC. I handle a lot of money when I travel, but I give an account for all of my expenses to YFC, even for a cup of tea. I do this for my protection.
Our Board helps us to be responsible as an organisation and gives its wisdom to tricky situations.
My accountability group ensures that my life is in kept in shape. We have been friends for between 30 and 45 years! How grateful I am to Brian Blacker, Chandran Williams, Suri Williams, Satchithanandakumar and Balakrishnan, who is now with the Lord. Travel brings with it big temptations, and I have been given rules for my travel by this group. I report on how I did when I return. And if I have broken a rule, the group disciplines me. What a help this has been to me!
Those whom I have discipled have also ministered to me. They have helped me remain fresh in my spiritual life. Sometimes they confess to sins and temptations that I am also struggling with. I cannot continue to lead them if I do not put my life into shape in those areas. So they have really helped me along the pathway to holiness.
IV. I THANK GOD FOR THE BODY OF CHRIST—THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH
People in youth movements can tend to look critically at the rest of the body of Christ. This was a particularly strong temptation during our early years when we struggled to find good churches to send our youth to. I found this critical attitude difficult to maintain because people outside YFC had a big part to play in a lot of my growth.
First, of course, was my own family. Then there were the four people I think of as my spiritual fathers. Sam Sherrard taught me the first principles of ministry and modelled what discipling is all about. He, of course, was in YFC. But before that my minister, Irish Methodist Missionary George Good, showed me, through his life, what Jesus was like and also demonstrated to me the glory of ministry and of great preaching. He also introduced me to John Wesley who has mentored me over the years through his writings. My teacher at Asbury Theological Seminary, Robert Coleman, introduced me to the lifestyle and theological orientation which I was to adopt and follow for the rest of my life. My mentor at Fuller Theological Seminary taught me to be careful when observing and coming to conclusions which influenced the way I approach the Bible and writing for the rest of my life. Many of my seminary teachers had a huge impact on my life.
These are but a few of the members of the body of Christ, the Church universal: my body. I am sometimes tempted to look at the Church in a critical fashion. But I soon realise that I cannot reject a member of my own body? If I see something wrong, I must do all I can to correct it. I must talk to the people concerned. I must preach and teach alternate teachings to the wrong teaching which are being taught. But I cannot reject members of my own body. That would be like the thumb saying that it rejects the middle finger. I choose rather to get in where God calls me to get in, to learn from brothers and sisters from other groups and try to influence them in the ways that I think are biblical.
In light of this how sad it is that we are so prone to find satisfaction in sharing gossip about the misdeeds of Christian leaders. These should make us cry and pray. O may God free us from the malady of Christian gossip.
Despite all its weaknesses, the body is such a rich organism. It is the body of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. How could I reject it? And how much I would have missed if I rejected it! I have been so enriched through participation with other Christians in a few groups like the Navodaya Movement, Colombo Theological Seminary and the National Prayer Initiative. How much I have learned from fellow members in those groups! Internationally, I am so grateful to have been introduced to some of the giants of our time through the Lausanne Movement and other groups. And one of the thrills of a travelling ministry is having rich fellowship and learning from the Christians I meet.
The overriding theme that governs my attitude to the body of Christ is summed up in Psalm 16:3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.”
V. I THANK GOD FOR THE LOCAL CHURCH
The local church is the basic structure of the Church universal. Para-church groups will come and go after they have fulfilled their role. The local church will go on until Christ returns. YFC desperately needs the local church. Our success is when people are settled in local churches. So we depend on local churches to give a home to the people converted in our ministry.
I must ask the pastors to be patient when some young people who met Christ in YFC join you. Some make the church their primary place of service right away. Others would like to serve in YFC for a time. Please be understanding of this. The ideal we look for is for the local churches to view our volunteers as their missionaries who are reaching unreached youth.
In a few years time, they will be fully involved in the church. The hundreds of people converted in YFC who are leaders in churches in Sri Lanka are evidence of this. Actually, it is necessary for some to leave YFC after a few years. After a time they are bored with the crazy things we do, the loud music and the high energy activities. But they are respected elders in the ministry. If they stay on, their attitude of boredom could be a great source of discouragement to the younger ones.
As for me, I thank God for the local church in which I have been involved for the past 32 years. Now my primary grassroots ministry will be there.
VI. I THANK GOD FOR LEONARD FERNANDO
A few days ago, someone asked me, “What was the happiest thing that happened to you in your thirty-five years in YFC.” I could mention a lot of things about my personal life, like the weddings of my two children. But I was hard-pressed to come up with one thing in the ministry. There were so many things. Finally, I told him that the most recent joyful event I can think of is the day our Board accepted Leonard Fernando as my successor. And why am I so happy?
- I believe Leonard is the right person for the job.
- He is a holy and humble person who wants to please God. If I have one criticism of this programme it is that Leonard was not given enough prominence at this programme. But the organisers told me that they were frustrated in their efforts to do that because he simply wanted stay out of the limelight.
- He is a person who wants to please God and whose personal goals are high on Jesus and concern for other people. He has demonstrated his willingness to give up his personal desires for the sake of YFC and other people.
- He has a good track record in grassroots ministry. In fact he has spearheaded our very vibrant sports ministry, himself once being a first division club football player.
- He has a passion for the mission of YFC, and I am confident that he help will keep the vision for ministry burning in the staff and volunteers. They have paid a great price for this involvement so far. I am confident that this will continue.
- He has a wonderful wife, Usha who loves God and the ministry.
- He is a person I would be delighted to call, “My boss.”
VII. I WANT TO MAKE TWO REQUESTS OF YOU
First, will you help Leonard to be a great leader? Please give him all the help and encouragement that he needs in his role.
Second, will you consider helping YFC financially? We are not a foreign-sponsored organisation. We do not get financial support from Youth for Christ International. We have a few churches and individuals abroad that help us, and we are extremely grateful that the international bodies of YFC in different countries that collect contributions for our work.
I travel most often to preach and teach and I am not able to do fund-raising during those times. Whatever I am paid for the preaching is given to YFC. But when I go to poorer countries, sometimes YFC has to pay for some of my expenses.
We have been able to apply to Foundations and receive funding for major projects like the purchase of vehicles, and the purchase of property and construction costs for our centres. Though they help us with the initial expenditure, they do not help with the running costs.
For our running costs we must depend primarily on Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka and abroad. Will you consider helping us in some way?
I have devoted myself to raise funds for YFC as long as I am physically able and hopefully even after that, if my books continue to sell. Everything I earn from speaking and writing will go to YFC. I believe in this ministry. I want to commend it to you also.
Thank you again for being here.