The ministry of being a seed – Part 2
“A source is generative like the seed of a tree. You can create a forest of a million trees from that one seed. Yet this will still not exhaust the generative power of that seed. A resource is like a branch of a tree. If you chop off that branch from its source, the branch will not be able to re generate itself.” – Anonymous
In my previous post I talked about our lives being sown as a seed into an eternal soil. When we have this perspective it takes away a lot of the striving to make an impact in this life. A seed is not ‘productive’ but it is ‘fruitful.’ Productivity is something that we strive after in this life but fruitfulness is something that is eternal, springing from the hidden depths and the hidden ‘death’ of a tiny seed in the earth.
I want to take some features from the life of someone who personified this. Someone who was virtually unknown, but whose life was planted as a seed by God, the fruit of which is still appearing.
How many readers are familiar with the name, Watchman Nee?
I suspect most people know who Watchman Nee was, he has become a household name in Christianity.
But how many people here are familiar with the name, ‘Margaret’ Barber?
I suspect very few people have ever heard of Margaret Barber.
Margaret Barber is mentioned quite frequently in the writings of Watchman Nee. He usually talks about her as ‘Miss Barber’ and sometimes anonymously as “one that I knew.”
Margaret Barber was a missionary from England and virtually unknown but something very significant has sprung out of the obscurity of her life. Margaret Barber was a seed which continues to generate spiritual life many years after she died.
Margaret Barber was a missionary but not like David Livingstone or Hudson Taylor. Her sphere of work was not large. It was mostly limited to an obscure village in a corner of China. It seems that she was a lonely traveller who quietly appeared on the earth. Out of this seed came Watchman Nee who was the most notable who was spiritually parented by her. The influence of Watchman Nee is growing continually even now in the Church worldwide. My feeling is that it is not too big a stretch to say that the thriving state of Christianity in China today has been spawned out of the spiritual seed of Margaret Barber.
Here are some facts about this unknown seed, Margaret Barber. I have adapted this from an article called Margaret E Barber – A Seed of the Divine Life in China by James Reetzke:
Miss Barber moved from Great Britain to China for the Lord’s interest. She deeply experienced the cross and learned to live by faith. She became a pattern to train younger believers. Note she did not ‘train’ them – she became a pattern. In other words, she allowed her life to be the ‘training manual.’ Paul the apostle did a similar thing when he said “be imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.” The human life, in which the Spirit of God has ‘wrought’ is the only authentic training manual for ministry.
In China, she lived in a suburb of Foochow, travelling little and receiving no publicity. She simply prayed for the moving of the Lord and helped those who sought her counsel in seeking after the Lord. Through Miss Barber, Watchman Nee obtained a foundation for his spiritual life. When the young Brother Nee would admire the eloquence, knowledge, ability, zeal, or natural power of persuasion shown by a Christian speaker, Miss Barber would point out that these things were neither life nor of the Spirit. They could stir people up but could never minister life to people. She paid more attention to life than work. She also warned the young brothers against doing a popular work, which would bring shipwreck to their spiritual life. By deliberately putting himself before Miss Barber’s instruction and ‘strict rebukes’, Brother Nee received much help. Margaret Barber was able to recognise what was life, and what was not life.
Miss Barber first went to China in 1899. She taught in a Church of England girls high school for seven years. Because she had the rich life in Christ overflowing in her excellent living, many students were attracted and desired her instruction. This made the principal jealous of her. The principal accused her of ten ‘illegal’ matters. While she was being carefully examined, she felt before the Lord, “If the thumb argues with the little finger, it only hurts the head; so I should just leave this school.” She quietly left the school. Even so, a list of her alleged crimes was sent to the headquarters of the British mission. At that time she learned to remain silent under the shadow of the cross. She would rather suffer misunderstanding than defend herself. She returned to England and continued to avoid vindicating herself until the leader of the mission charged her under authority to tell him the full facts and not hide anything. Then she told him what had happened. She was completely vindicated. She was fully vindicated before the mission board, and the decision was made to send her back to China. However, she resigned from the mission, considering that it was the right time to do so, even though she still had the burden to return to China for the Lord’s interest.
She stayed in England for two years and then returned to China, not under the auspices of any organisation. There was no mission to support her. She went back to China, under the leadership of the Lord and trusting in Him alone for provision. She was accompanied by her niece. She looked to the Lord through her travels and when the ship passed through the beautiful location of Pagoda Anchorage, she felt a sense to settle there. She lived there until her death. Pagoda anchorage was an obscure place near the sea, and there Miss Barber lived in a simple house.
Once someone asked her, “What are the requirements to work for the Lord?” She replied, “The requirement to work for the Lord is not to work.” Some of the Chinese young people who received help from her were worried about her. They wondered, “Why doesn’t she go out and establish meetings and work in a bigger city?” Instead, she lived in a small village where it seemed nothing was happening. It seemed that it was a waste for her to be there. One brother almost shouted at her, “No one knows the Lord as you do. You know the Bible in a most living way. Don’t you see the need around? Why don’t you go and accomplish something? You just sit here seemingly doing nothing. You are wasting your time, energy, and money; you are wasting everything!” Was there waste? After all these years, it is clear. She was a seed of life sown by God in China. This seed surely went through loneliness, humiliation, and seclusion. But, thank God, He made her blossom and bear fruit. Only God knows how many people received spiritual help from her directly and indirectly. The marvellous thing is this: God caused her to bear fruit abundantly. While she was still alive, God did not let her know this. She was buried in a little grave plot set aside for foreign missionaries. During the Cultural Revolution all the gravestones were smashed and the plot obscured. A man in Foochow whose father knew Miss Barber knows where the location of the grave is but the exact position has been lost.
A sister recalled, “The word she released was filled with light and life and caused people to leave all and follow the Lord their whole life. An older brother remembered, “The first time I met her, her eyes were like lightning, her hair was silver, and her face was shining like an angel’s. Her countenance was lovely, just like a mother’s. Her behaviour was holy, her dress was simple, and she was always smiling and kind.” Watchman Nee had met many leaders of the Body of Christ, but he thought she was the most mature Christian he had ever met.
Once Brother Nee testified, “I heard many brothers and sisters talk about being sanctified, so I began to study the doctrine of sanctification. I found approximately 200 verses concerning sanctification. I memorised them and put them in sequence. But what sanctification was, I was still not clear. I felt empty inside until one day I met this elderly sister. She was holy. On that day my eyes were opened. I saw what it was to be sanctified. The person I met was holy. I had a very strong impression of this.” He witnessed the incarnation, the embodiment of what he sought and he grew spiritually through that one meeting.
Miss Barber cared about spiritual principles. She wanted to live like the Israelites who gathered manna in the wilderness every day or like Elijah who stayed by the torrent Cherith (1 Kings 17:3) waiting for God to command ravens to feed him bread and meat. One day two brothers came from overseas to visit Miss Barber and her co-workers. These brothers were concerned about the co-workers’ living and finances and suggested that the co-workers do some business for the Lord’s sake such as mailing some Chinese green tea and embroidery to them. They would sell the tea and make a profit for the Lord’s work. Miss Barber, however, refused their suggestions. She was faithful to keep her spiritual principles.
Miss Barber was very much a person of prayer. She trusted that the Lord would supply not only her need but also the needs of the work. Both she and Miss Ballord (her niece) deeply felt how limited they were in their flesh. Some wondered what two women could do for the Lord. They were weak sisters without the support of a mission, but they were not weak in spiritual insight.
Once a brother named Dr. Mike visited Pagoda Anchorage from abroad. He went to see Miss Barber and contacted many of the dear co-workers. He was very happy and quite impressed with what he saw. Since the co-workers did not have a regular salary, he felt that their living must be hard. So he made a suggestion: “Why don’t you give your group a name? After I go back to my country, I can report to my mission. They will mail you money regularly. Then you can work without ever worrying about finances.” Miss Barber, however, stubbornly refused his suggestion. The way of faith is truly a lonely way.
She cared for Watchman Nee, Kwang-hsi Weigh, and Faithful Luke, taking them as her genuine children in the faith. Around 1922, there were seven young brothers meeting in Foochow every Friday for fellowship concerning church affairs. However, most of the time was spent in arguments between Brother Nee and another leader. This leading brother was five years older than Brother Nee. Each thought he was right and liked to criticise the other’s ideas. Sometimes Brother Nee lost his temper and did not want to apologise. He would go to Sister Barber to complain and to ask her to judge the situation. Sister Barber, however, rebuked Brother Nee and said, “The Bible says the younger should obey the elder. You should obey him.” Even when the older brother did something wrong that was another matter. She counselled Brother Nee to bear the cross. She said, “We always offer ourselves to the Lord but do not want Him to break us. No loaf which has been put in the Lord’s hand has been left unbroken.”
The help she gave to others was more profitable than many conferences and messages. Later, it proved to be the most effective and permanent kind of help, since it supplied the receiver throughout their whole life.
Sister Barber helped to raise up churches in Chantung and Lian-chiang County. In obedience to the Lord’s word she helped them only in spiritual things. She would not touch anything concerning church administration.
Why did the Lord so use Sister Barber? What was the secret of her work? Clearly her ministry corresponded to her life. The Lord’s work is only the outflow of life. She could work for the Lord because she allowed the Lord to work on her. She had a heart to love the Lord and to live unto Him. Once she was facing a situation that was difficult because the price it demanded involved everything she had. In this situation she lifted up her eyes with tears and said, “Lord! In order to satisfy Your heart, I am willing to have my heart broken.” She once said, “The secret to understanding the will of God is that 95% is a matter of submitting to the will of God, and only 5% is a matter of understanding.
Sister Barber was rich and deep in the Lord, both in objective knowledge and in subjective experience.” She knew the Scriptures extremely well but her subjective experience was rich and full. She had good health, and by God’s grace she retained her youthfulness. She advocated being healed by God believing that God’s wonders and signs would follow us. She would not see a doctor or take medicine when sick, believing that every sickness was to be healed by God to testify that He is Almighty God. In daily living, Sister Barber learned to watch for God’s provision in very small things, even in one bar of soap or one hair clip. Her hair was blond, so it didn’t match her black hair clip, which was made in China. She prayed concerning this. Not long after, she received a blond hair clip from abroad.
Her last words on earth were shouting, ‘Life, life!’
These anecdotes from the life of Margaret Barber are quoted from James Reetzke: Margaret E Barber – A Seed of the Divine Life in China.
What I have just quoted is about as much as we known about Margaret Barber, apart from the scattered references to her spiritual potency in the writings of Watchman Nee. You see, the life of Margaret Barber did not amount to much on this earth, but the ramifications of her seemingly insignificant life are eternal. The ripples have spread and continue to spread far and wide.
Paul the apostle said that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then we are of all men the most miserable, and that our faith is futile. Christianity can only really be experienced on resurrection ground, beyond the death of something.
All life in the cosmos is seed-life. In Genesis 1:12, God sowed seed and every seed brought forth fruit according to its kind. In 1 Corinthians 15: 35-49, Paul points out that we humans are also seeds who are sown by God into a deep soil, in order that fruit according to the kind of the seed will in future spring forth. What is sown will spring up. But sowing involves a burial in darkness. Seeds are comfortable with being sown. Seeds do not resist being sown into the moist earth, to lie dormant for a while until the Spring comes.
Contemporary Christianity has lost the idea of being ‘from generation to generation.’ In orphan-ness there is no generation; no continuity from the distant past through the present to the future.
All Abraham needed to inherit the land of promise was a grave-plot. All he needed to have offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand of the sea shore was a child. Go outside tonight and, if you can, look up at the stars in the sky. That is your seed too. You are an eternal being, living in an eternal cosmic reality.
You are not alone. You are not the beginning nor the end. You are part of a family whose Father is the Creator of the Universe, beyond time and space.