Dare to Give your Life Away: The Testimony of a Servant of Jesus
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the keynote message Tim gave at the 2022 Mid-Year Teachers’ Conference.
The moment Pastor Gary introduced “Focused Servanthood” as the theme for this year’s Mid-Year Conference, I knew what my part was to be. I
realized that one of the best ways to portray focused servanthood for this conference would be to share my testimony from this perspective of serving Jesus as my Master because I have identified as a servant of Jesus Christ from my youth. We'll use servanthood as the lens to look at my life starting around the time I gave my life away to Jesus. This is not to draw attention to myself in pride or to boast, and it's not to compare myself to others. Anyone who knows all about me knows that I was a horribly wicked person who deserved to die a slow, tortuous death. So no credit or glory goes to me at all for what God has done for me and with me. Read again Phil. 2:13: “for it is God which works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure”. God did it, let God be praised. God gave me the grace to embrace my identity as a servant of Jesus. Many of you could share a story like mine because you've done the same; you've given your life away to Jesus too and lived out the identity of a servant.
My purpose is to bear record and give a testimony to what I have heard and seen as a servant of Jesus, and to testify of the blessedness of giving our lives away to Jesus…Today I want to dare you to give your life away. I want to show you what that might turn out like if you do it. No one keeps their life, no one. Everyone spends it on something, they use it, they spend it, some throw it away.
Everyone gives their life away to something or someone; what's important is who or what you give it to.
I want to challenge you to give your life away to…Jesus Christ. So let me tell you about the day that I did.
The Day I Gave My Life Away
Pastor Randy Goldenberg, currently Pastor of Frederick Christian Fellowship, was pastor of Middletown Baptist Church in Middletown, Maryland when my family attended there back in the mid 1980's. He was not from a traditional Christian background, but from an inner-city gang background from Washington, D.C., and he came to the Lord, fell hopelessly in love with Jesus, and began serving the Lord zealously… One evening at our youth group meeting he came and explained to us young people that following Christ was more than praying the sinner’s prayer. He said it was a sell-out to Jesus, a total surrender of our will to Christ as our Lord, our Boss, if you will, that being a disciple of Jesus meant giving Him our life and agreeing to do whatever Jesus told us to do. I had prayed the sinner’s prayer often, sometimes several times a day, often when going to bed, since I was six years old. But I was still stuck living a Romans 7 experience, a slave to sin and miserable. Unknown to Randy, I went home and after a few days of counting the cost as he advised, I gave my life to Jesus Christ, surrendered to Him as Lord of my life, on my knees, by my bed in prayer.
I had no idea how seriously Jesus accepted my surrender and took my life from that point
Ballenger Creek, Frederick, MD: My High School Work Practicum:
I was not born into a farm family; I was born and raised in the city of Wilmington, Delaware. My dad worked at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission in downtown Wilmington. When I was eleven, Dad moved us to Frederick, Maryland where he became the Director of the Frederick Union Rescue Mission. Mom, Dad and the 8 of us children lived in a small townhouse for a few years and right before my mom could go crazy from the stress, God granted relief and moved us to a big Cape Cod style rental house on Ballenger Creek Pike. The big old house was surrounded by farm fields and full of mice in the winter.
Dad got us started in gardening the hard way. I had my first experience running a rototiller, putting enough chemical fertilizer on the beans to kill them, and pulling thorny red root pig weeds out of hard, dry, baked clay soil by hand. We raised some chickens on shares with another church family on their property and I had my first experience butchering chickens. You should have seen me jump when I whacked the head off of one, chucked it on the ground, and it squawked back at me with its head off, since it still had his windpipe and air in his lungs! In 1983 I got a part time job working on a start-up dairy farm in Thurmont, MD and got my first blisters running a steel digging bar trying to plant fence posts in Maryland red shale. How many of you have fought Maryland red shale and won? It divides between the men and the boys. I learned electric fencing, how to milk cows, throw hay bales, shuck corn, clean gutters, how not to get kicked when putting a milker on and to make sure the milk line hose was in the tank before I started milking. Anyone else ever milked a whole milking or part of one down the drain?
In 1984, Mom put us all in home school with Walkersville Christian Family Schools and I had
my first life changing interview with the school's founder and director, Mr. Gary Cox. I mentioned quitting my farm job, but no, he said to keep it and get high school credit for it as a work practicum. I was a junior in high school and I had never even heard there was such a thing as a work practicum, but it worked well for me. It would be hard to measure the impact of that one simple decision on my life. I would study in the morning and work in the afternoons. Others who knew me criticized my dairy farm job saying I should pursue being a doctor or lawyer instead, but by this time I had given my life away to Jesus Christ and He was guiding my steps right straight into a career in agriculture as a farmer…
A Note on Faithfulness
“He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” says Luke 16:10. The Biblical model for promotion is faithfulness-based, not greatness- based. It is based on God promoting the faithful, not on men promoting the great among themselves. It is based on trying to please God who sees the heart, not man who sees only the outward appearance. Faithfulness is based on God watching you work, not people. God wants to see faithful servants doing what He assigns them to do
and He wants to reward them. All faithfulness starts with a low place of service. God starts by
assigning us lowly, little things and watching how we do with it. He increases our work as we are able to handle it. This is great because it means anyone can get started. Faithfulness means to take the first little opportunity that God gives you and serve in those circumstances faithfully, till God gives you
the next thing to do. If you've been faithful, He will give you more responsibilities which come with more authority and privileges. If you've not been faithful, you'll have to repeat that course or He might take away responsibilities from you. Once you give your life to God, promotion is based on faithfulness. The skills, abilities and education to do what God calls you to do will be added to you as
you serve faithfully at your current assignment. God will assign you your tasks…
First Places of Faithfulness: The Home Garden Plot and Dairy Farm Job
My first task was a better home garden; it was quite small, but it was a start. Jack Cline, a
friend in the home school group befriended me and taught me the easy way to garden. He gave me books and taught me about wide row planting, raised beds, heirloom seeds, and organic gardening with mulch and compost. He helped us get a pick-up load of sheep manure, beautiful stuff and black as tar. We grabbed some old pallets and made a compost bin where we threw our food scraps to digest; only the mockingbird died from eating spoiled macaroni salad. No more baked clay soil and thorny red root pig weed to pull. I set up a brand-new garden in the back yard at Ballenger Creek and made raised beds with free limestone rocks from the blasting piles at the house construction sites that were springing up around us. My stonework is still there today. My gardening was more of a hobby; it didn't amount to much in terms of volume of food produced, but I was learning a better way to garden that I've used for the rest of my life all around the world.
My job at the dairy farm went well for the most part. I had agreed to work for three dollars an
hour, and at first, I got paid. Later the farm was struggling financially, and I didn't get my paycheck as regularly. Then one day I learned how to kill perfectly fine dairy cows. I was doing the morning milking by then and my boss' children did the evening one. I had finished the morning milking, turned out the cows, and left the feed room door open by mistake. The cows got in that afternoon and by the evening milking several had eaten themselves to death and several others could only be saved by expensive veterinarian intervention. It was awful, but I didn't get fired because the boss needed me. I finished working there in the summer of 1986, and never did get my back pay. I figured it was okay to try to help pay back for the cows that were lost.
So what did I gain working there? Not money, but experience, very valuable experience. But God saw that I was faithful with what I was given to do. I learned to enjoy hard work, not to be afraid of it or to despise it. With lots of good farming memories there, I said goodbye to that farm and the gardens at Ballenger Creek and went off to Bible School.
The Evangelical Institute: Campus Farm Beef Cattle Production
In the fall of 1986, I started going to bible school in Greenville, South Carolina at the Evangelical Institute (EI). We students did all the necessary work on campus to keep tuition costs down. When we first arrived the work supervisor asked us all to fill out three-by-five cards with the skills we had to determine suitable work assignments for us. I got assigned running the tractors, mowing the fields, running a chain saw, and working in the director's wife's organic garden. I got assigned the job of feeding the beef cows too. The school was built on a farm and there was land to raise beef for the cafeteria. It was good gras- fed beef. We had a Hobart meat grinder that could grind slabs of beef as big as your arm. I fed them their grain once a day and kept the hay in front of them in the winter. I got tired of chasing them up to the barn for their feed and trained them to come on call like I had seen my boss do at the farm in Thurmont. That gave me a moment of fame when the cows got out one morning and no one knew how to get them back in. I ran to the barn and got the grain can and started calling them and they all ran right back in the gate and down to the barn just like magic. The others thought that was great.
I worked to pay off my tuition, and when I left EI, I had some more experience but no money in my pocket. I had been faithful to what I was assigned to do, and God saw that. I made lots of good farm memories there too, but I left that farm and went home to my family. I was planning to go to Brazil as a missionary after Bible school, but my dad had passed away and we all realized that I needed to go home and serve my family, especially since I was the oldest boy. So God sent me home to serve.
Emmitsburg, MD: Ten-acre Mountain Homestead
God was promoting me from a garden patch to ten acres. I was the new manager of a ten-acre property with a rental house in Emmitsburg, MD, where my mom was living with most of my siblings. They had moved while I was away at Bible school and Dad had passed away in 1988 while they were renting this place on the mountainside. Remember, we were mostly city kids and didn't know much about farming. God was breaking us in slow and easy.
When I got home my brothers were trying to cut firewood with a chainsaw but didn't know to sharpen it and took ten minutes to make one cut. I went to town and got a file. Their eyes nearly popped out when they realized what the saw could do sharp and how hard they'd been working for nothing. We started developing that property, got some goats, and built some electric fence and some split rail fence from locust rails we harvested from the property. We thought about getting laying chickens. We checked out the whole chicken section of the library and read all the books. They talked so much about disease and parasites we gave up the idea till we realized it couldn't be all that bad. We got 50 Barred Rock chicks from Murray McMurray and raised them in a cage made from straightened nails and pallets. One day we decided to let them out to run around and when they started eating grass, we couldn't believe our eyes. Not one book had said one word about chickens eating grass!
There was a rock as big as a car in the only flat place for a garden so we built a bonfire on it, then poured water on it to crack it and dug it out of there. We were doing our best to use the resources around us. We picked up corn from the fields nearby and put it through a hand cranked meat grinder to crack it. There was a big flywheel in the shed that we hooked up to a bicycle to run the grinder. We took the things in our hands and applied them to the best of our ability to grow our food. We never made a dime, but we got lots of experience. God saw that we were being faithful. I really loved that homestead, but we left that place and went to Virginia.
Bath County, VA: Forty-acre Organic Farm
God was promoting me to be the manager of a farm in Burnsville, Virginia, from 10 acres to 40 acres. We set to fixing up the old place and started grass farming. We got a 200 mix/match chick deal for twenty bucks or so and got them started well on chick starter, then we turned them loose to free range and stopped feeding them. We figured if chickens eat grass, let them eat grass! In a few months there wasn't a bug on the whole forty acres, and when we butchered the seventy that survived, they were emaciated, skin and bones. It took ten of us all day to pluck seventy birds! God had mercy on us and Mr. Mike Banks, a home school friend from the Eastern Shore, MD, introduced us to Mr. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Swoope, VA, about an hour from where we lived. We found out chickens do eat grass, but only 30%; you do have to feed them grain too. That was the start of an organic farming adventure that none of us have gotten over yet. Mr. Salatin lovingly and continually mentored us how to do grass farming organically. He is another person whose impact on my life would be hard to measure. We learned how to butcher chickens faster too, up to two hundred/hour with six people.
For seven years I worked on that farm for room and board, didn't earn a penny, but all the things we learned to do would take several days to tell about. God taught us everything from raising beef, sheep, egg layers, broilers, ducks, geese, pheasants, turkey, honey bees, and maple syrup, to making cider and apple butter, building demolition, interior remodeling, cooking and making dairy products, forestry, old time post and peg barn construction, raised seam roofing, masonry, dry laid stone walls, pond building, orcharding, veggie gardening, electrical wiring, plumbing, shingles, chimneys, saw milling, raising oxen and draft powered equipment, and on and on. And more than that, God taught us how to get along with each other...at least He tried. And we transformed that farm into an organic show piece. People came from all over to see it. God saw that I was being faithful. I was living out my identity as a servant. I served my mom and my siblings. Was I a perfect servant? Perfect? No. God doesn't have any of those. He's only looking for faithful ones. He's not looking for perfect ones because there's only ever been one of those and He's sitting right beside Him in Heaven: Jesus. I didn't make any money, but got lots of amazing experience. I loved that farm too but I said goodbye to it and went off to get married. I was twenty- nine.
Opossum Twist Farms, Spring Hill, Virginia: Four-hundred-acre Dairy Heifer Farm
God was promoting me to be manager of my father-in-law's, Opossum Twist Farm, a four
hundred-acre dairy heifer operation. Naomi's father, Nathan, was seventy years old and still working full time. I was asked to take over his job feeding the cows, all seven hundred of them. I took the things I learned before about grass farming and set the whole farm up with water lines and rotational grazing lanes and fences. I set the winter barns up for composting with pigs. I learned about feeding silage and Total Mixed Rations. I raised my own garden, goats, and chickens. On the side I developed my own model of pastured poultry and raised and sold baby broiler chicks all over the country by mail order. I learned how to handle a business and finances. I developed my own line bred variety of broiler chicken called the Corndel Cross.
On my mom's farm we had lots of labor, manpower, for everything we needed to do. On my father-in-law's farm we had equipment. I had to learn to operate equipment...without tearing it up. (We Shell boys were famous for pushing tools beyond their limits, but boys learn not to break things by breaking some.) Every animal on the place was controlled by electric fence; my life revolved around maintaining six sectors of electric fence, each with its own charger. I carried a hundred-dollar fence tester on my belt 24/7. I learned to buy the calves and sell the springing heifers, doing the marketing alone. More learning! Naomi milked sixteen goats for the family table and became expert at making goat’s milk cheese. Together we learned and labored. God was watching and He saw that I was being faithful again. Not perfect, but faithful. Mistakes? Yes, I made mistakes! I made lots of those—that’s how we learn. Failure is not final; a mistake is just another step toward success. I went up lots of steps. I had lots of good opportunities to learn. Did I make a lot of money? Not much; I mostly gained experience. I have lots of really good farming memories there and I loved that farm, but I left it and went off to China when God called us to dairy farming on the opposite side of the planet.
China, MCD Ranch: One-thousand-acre Dairy Farm
God was promoting me to be manager and developer of a one-thousand-acre farm in
Northeast China. An international NGO was setting up a hundred cow dairy and needed a manager. We took that bull by the horns and set the whole dairy up from the ground up. It was swampy land that had to be drained with ditches and culverts. We built gravel roads, put up the fences, hung the gates, cleared the pastures, built the barns, put in the dairy parlor, set up the processing room to sell fresh packaged raw milk and dairy products like cheese, butter and yogurt. We learned Chinese and Korean cultures both at the same time, and I managed a work force of up to twenty people depending on the season.
During prime years of my life from thirty-six to forty-three, I poured heart and soul into that farm with all my might and main. The first year there I was walking around the farm and I said to God, “I don't know what to do with this farm!”, He said, “Just love it”. Boy, did I ever! I got real attached to that farm. There is a romantic aspect to farming. The Bible speaks of it in Isaiah 62:4-5, how the sons of Israel will marry the land, a cleaving, a bonding of heart to earth. It happens. It's not easy to leave a piece of land that you have touched, loved, sown and reaped the fullness of the earth from. God began to extract my heart from that farm, He was preparing me to move on. I was faithful with the resources God put in my hand, including the people. We developed close relationships working hard together. But we never made any money at it. I was promised that I'd have a share of the profits if any were made, but none were. I had my basic room and board again, but didn't put any money in the bank. “Tim! You were giving your life away, some of your best years!” That's right, but I gave them to God, not to men. I lived out my identity as a servant.
Some years after we left China, that farm was sold and the all the money stolen before the NGO could get it back. A total loss, but I got lots of great experience. Life is about loving and letting go, not about loving and holding on. In order to keep our life, we have to give it away. The safest place for it is to give it to God. I have lots of really good farming memories there and I loved that farm, but I left it and went off to Mongolia.
Darkhan, Mongolia: Our Own Twenty-five Acres
Now why in the world would you do that? Because God said I could. Agriculturally, I had a motive to go. Men are always looking for something big to conquer and I'm no different. In 2006 I had traveled to Inner Mongolia in China to buy sheep to start a flock at our MCD Ranch. I experienced a real, live, dust storm, a red wall of dust sweeping across the plain, hitting me and filling my ears, collar and teeth with dust. I had already tried my hand at healing grasslands on two farms in the US, my mom's and my father-in-law's, and one in China, all with a fair measure of success. I
hadn't made any money, but I had healed the land. One of my identities as a farmer is a healer of the land, a restorer of grasslands from abuse by over grazing and excess tillage. I was getting tired of the same old job; the job was too small and I wanted a bigger, harder job. I figured, that if I could use my skills to demonstrate how to heal the grasslands of Mongolia, we could stop the dust storms. I wanted to see if it would work in Mongolia; if it would work there it would work anywhere. All I wanted was a chance to try my hand and pour out all the skill and wisdom God had poured into me over a lifetime about agriculture, to pour it out on some of the most abused, over grazed lands in the world in Mongolia. I wanted to love some land in Mongolia…
Spiritually, there was a motive too. There were plenty of people in Mongolia to shepherd the
sheep, but not enough to shepherd the people. The gospel was new there and they needed mentors. One of the best ways to influence a nation for Christ is for a Christian family to move into one of their villages and just live the Christian life before them. Many nations have never seen a godly Christian family modeled, so they have a hard time comprehending how to do it.
When we got to Mongolia, for the first time since I gave my life away to Jesus, I was without a farm. My friend said, “You don't even have one chicken!” I said, “I know and I won't either till God says to!” I became a language student for two and a half years and I was determined not to get back into farming till God said so. Then in 2013, a Korean missionary who owned a 25-acre farm told us
we could live there and use it free of charge; we could have it as long as we didn't sell it. For the first time since I gave my life away to Jesus, I was going to have my own farm. Before, all the farms I worked on belonged to other people, not me. It was smaller, but it was a promotion to me—I was being promoted to my first own farm. Before, I was farming with other peoples’ money, now I was farming with my own. The Bible says in Luke 16:12 that before God gives you your own things to
manage you have to manage well what belongs to others.
It was the ugliest, most horrible looking wreck of an abandoned Russian army farm you ever
saw. But a farmer like me can see beyond the outward appearance; I was looking beyond what it was to what it could be. We took ourselves and moved there and took all our family savings and invested it in that farm over the next seven years. We worked really hard till 2020 when we came back to the US. Our staff and volunteers worked with us. Together we made huge investments there and tried faithfully, with all our might and main to put that chaotic place into proper agricultural order. We were faithful. But all our hard work came to nothing. We never made any money, we only put money in, never got any out, and don't know if we ever will. Now this is not at all unusual in farming. All the farms I ever worked on lost money on their operations but made money in land value so don't look at me like I'm worse than the average farmer. Profit in farming is a rare thing these days.
It's a hard place to farm in Mongolia with only six inches of rain a year and we made lots of
mistakes. On top of that God was putting us through a testing like He did Job and taking everything away, except it was agonizingly slow with us, not quick like with Job. God could see that we would worship Him when He gave to us; He wanted to see if we would worship Him when He took things away. It was only recently that I was finally able to worship God over that loss.
Will you serve God even if He takes everything away from you, the very things that He gave
you to love and care about? It's not easy! We sing the words in our songs, but will we worship when all we have left is Him? I have Lots of really good farming memories there and I loved that farm, but I left it and came back to the US.
Back to the US: Rest and Recovery
When we came back to the US in February 2020 to care for Naomi's sisters, we expected to return to Mongolia within three months. Then COVID changed everything, and we still don't know if we will be able to go back, or when. Everything is up in the air. What will happen with the farm? We don't know. Our faithful Christian brothers are running things while we are away.
Now I had determined in my heart that if I ever came back to the US I would devote myself to ministry full time, not to farming, because the greatest value of my life to America is in ministry, not in farming. There are plenty of people to do the farming, but who will share the gospel? I remain the servant of Jesus, I remain your servant, I remain the servant of my church, my mission organization, and my Mongolian brothers and sisters. God is free to add and take away from my life as He sees fit, but my identity as a servant remains, to faithfully steward, to keep, to bring into proper order whatever resources He puts in my hands.
So, there you have it; that's my story as a servant of Jesus. I gave my life away. What do I have to show for it? Nothing...in terms of money, nothing. So much hard work, decades of it, you can't imagine how hard I've worked in my lifetime, my family too, my siblings and my children.
I was a workaholic, just like my dad. But I walked away from all those farms, those places. Some would say, “Tim, you're a fool! Decades of hard work, huge investments and what do you have to show for it! Nothing!” If you measure it that way, I guess maybe I am a fool. But I don't think so. There are other ways to measure profit. It is not possible to hold onto the things in this life; sooner or later we have to let them all go. What if I invested my life in the right places after all? What if there is a reward later on, in heaven? What if I die and hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”? I'm happy with my choices, there are no regrets. There are blessings being a servant. I'