Making Way for Miracles

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to visit Montenegro as part of a short-term missions team.  My local church in Scotland was partnered with a church in the Montenegrin capital city, Podgorica, but our work was primarily with three Balkan refugee camps in the eastern town of Berane.  The first team that went out in 2010 were involved in installing a toilet block in one of the camps; that which we affectionately called ‘The Container Camp’ because the families there lived in metal shipping containers.

Upon their return, the team presented to the church all that they had done on their trip.    That particular night, I happened to be manning the Information Desk at the back of the church.  And that particular night I carried extra information about our Montenegro partnership, including a sign-up sheet for people interested in going on the next trip.

As the team shared their experience, they explained the different work initiatives they had been involved with in the camp, including work with the children, and maintenance work to improve the basic facilities that were available.  They told stories of a head-lice infestation amongst the young ones, and shared photos of team members knee-deep in sewage.  Then they called for volunteers to be part of the next team that would visit a few months later.

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly ‘high maintenance’ kinda gal, but I do appreciate my home comforts like my hair-straighteners.  Somehow, I didn’t think this was the kind of trip that had time (or need) for hair-straighteners, so I was ready to politely decline the team’s request.  But God had other ideas…

Nothing in me wanted to join that next team, yet something in me knew I had to.  My heartbeat quickened, my mind began to race, and everything around me swirled in slow motion.  I was terrified to volunteer, but it was an excited, expectant kind of fear.  It was like my hand had a mind of its own, and before the team’s presentation had even ended, the sign-up sheet lying on the desk in front of me already had my name scribbled at the top.

For the next three years I participated in the annual aid trips to those Montenegrin refugee camps.  I fell in love with the people and longed to make more of a difference in their lives.  I delighted in building relationships with the individuals, especially the children, in each camp, and endeavoured to learn just a few words through which we could communicate and play games together.

But that third return trip very nearly did not happen.  You see, my personal finances were a struggle that year and common sense told me I could not afford to go.  I had already agreed to co-lead the team, however, so the question was not if I was going, but how.  I had little more than the amount required for the first half instalment but I was worried about clearing out my bank account, leaving me broke for the remainder of the month.  Not to mention my concern over where the rest of the fees would come from when the second half instalment was due.

I pondered my predicament over lunch with a friend one day and explained the situation.  I did not want to miss out on being part of the trip but my circumstances had me feeling defeated.  Yet God is not defeated by circumstantial evidence.  If He wants something to happen, it will happen.

As the deadline for the first payment drew ever closer, I continued to pray and consider the best way to move forward.  Somewhat reluctantly, I decided to take a risk.  I recall journalling about it and stating, almost in diva-like fashion, that God would just have to come through for me.  He had put me in this predicament and therefore He would just have to get me out!  So, only a day ahead of the deadline,  I cleared out my bank account and paid the first half instalment.

And then the miracles began to tally.

The very next day, I received a cheque in the mail from the friend I had previously had lunch with.  She had spoken with her husband after we had met and they had felt compelled to give me a financial gift.  Its amount matched the first instalment I had paid not 24 hours before.

A week or two later, I was approached at the end of the church service by a member of the church finance team.  This was nothing particularly unusual, as his work would sometimes overlap with mine, but our conversation that day was not about business.

“Someone would like to give towards your Montenegro trip,” he told me,  “for the next three months, they will contribute towards the remainder of your fees.”

And they did just that.  To this day, I have no idea who that anonymous supporter was but I am incredibly grateful for their generous contribution which provided for me in ways beyond just financial.

I couldn’t believe it; my entire trip fees had been covered and God had proved Himself faithful once again.  But He was not done yet.

Around that same time, I came home one day to find an envelope had been slid under the front door of my apartment.  Ordinarily, my mail was posted through the main front door to the apartment block and I would pick it up from the lobby on my way past before I entered my own apartment.  But this envelope had clearly been personally delivered, right to my own front door. It only had my name hand-written on the front, with no mention of who or where it had come from.  And inside was a small sum of cash.  The mystery of that gift was never solved either.

Then shortly before we left the country, I received a final financial gift.  This gift covered the cost of my spending money and the petrol I needed to drive the 400km round-trip to the airport.  By the time I boarded the plane, I was better-off than the day I had taken a risk and paid that first instalment.  God had not only provided, but He had made available His abundant provision.  Those months and that experience completely transformed my understanding of God’s generous spirit and the ways in which He works.  It challenged me to be more generous and to be more readily available to walk in obedience to Him, trusting Him to provide all that I need along the way.

I personally experienced God come through for me in just a small way, but its lesson and impact on my life was huge.  Even now, years later, I often recall that testimony when I am faced with financial challenges.  I am reminded that when we walk in obedience and take a risk for God, He blesses us with far more than we ever sacrificed for Him.  We cannot anticipate or understand the ways through which He works, but we can be sure that He will surprise us.

That first risk; that first step of obedience to pay the first instalment; that first act demonstrated that I was willing to pay the price to follow God’s call.  That action became the catalyst for God’s blessing.  All too often we do not take that first step because we fear it will cost us too much, but when we give our all to God, He always returns with more.  Our obedience brings breakthrough and leads to blessing.

God knows what we need, when we need it, and how to provide it.  Sometimes, He gives differently to what we expect.  Sometimes, His provision is not financial but relational or circumstantial.  Sometimes, He withholds it for a little while to give us time to settle our eyes on Him first.  But He is not defeated by our needs, like we often feel we are.  Our needs are an opportunity for His miracles.

The Power of Position

Michael Apted’s movie, Amazing Grace, features the life and works of William Wilberforce,  an English politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.  Following his conversion to Evangelical Christianity in 1785, Wilberforce toyed with the notion of leaving politics and a life in the public eye.  He sought council from friends, including Prime Minister William Pitt, and Anglican clergyman John Newton, a former slave ship captain, best known for penning the hymn that the movie is named after.  In response to his dilemma, their on-screen counterparts state, “Mr Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God, or the work of a political activist.  We humbly suggest that you can do both.”

Wilberforce was an intelligent man with great passion and focus, but he was torn between living for God and living for justice.  It took some time, plus the insight of his friends (friends are great at bringing fresh perspective, are they not?) to realise that his privileged responsibility within parliament positioned him perfectly to carry out the unique role God had created him for.  He did not have to choose one cause or the other, they complimented one another perfectly.

How God has created us and where He has placed us is in exact keeping with how He will use us.  Yes, He might call some of us into full-time ministry, but more often than not, He is calling us to bring His light into our workplaces, our colleges, our schools, our families, our friendship groups, and our neighbourhoods.  He uses the skills and gifts that He has created us with to open doors of opportunity for us to serve Him and to build His Kingdom.

We need to own who He has created us to be, because, if we do not rise up to take our place in this world, we can be sure that the enemy will claim it.

You may look around and think to yourself, “why has someone not done anything about that?”  But is it possible that, in fact, you are that someone?  The world needs people who are ready to stand up and say, “This is my time.  This is my opportunity.”

In the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus threw a feast for all his kingdom officials and commanded his queen, Vashti, to join them so he could show off her beauty.  But upon her refusal, she lost her crown and the king’s aides suggested that virgins be presented to the king so that he could inspect them and select a new queen.

At that same time, Mordecai was a Jew living in Susa; a Benjaminite who’s people had been taken from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, 117 years earlier.  He had raised Hadassah, better known as Esther, his cousin, since her childhood, for her father and mother had died.

Esther was very beautiful and was brought into the palace to join the king’s harem with other virgins from the kingdom.  However, Modecai warned her not to make known to the palace her Jewish heritage.  Having then been subjected to 12 months of preparation,  as was the custom, Esther and the rest of the harem were presented, one by one, to the king.  When the king met Esther, she instantly won grace and favour in his sight, more than any of the other women he had already seen, so he duly crowned her his new queen.

Some time later, the king promoted a man called Haman to lead all the palace officials, and the people dutifully bowed down to their new leader and worshipped him.  However, Mordecai the Jew did not; he would bow to no-one but the one, true God.  This made Haman so furious that he set about plotting to destroy all Jews in the kingdom, not just Mordecai.

Haman was devious and presented to the king a decree to kill all the Jews throughout the kingdom and successfully tricked the king into officiating it with his royal seal, arguing that the Jewish subjects did not observe the king’s laws.  When Mordecai and the people of Susa heard about the decree, they tore their clothes, donned sackcloth and ashes, as was custom in the day during a period of mourning, and cried bitterly throughout the city.

I want to pause here for a moment, because what challenges me most in this part of the story is the emotional response displayed by the Jews when their authorities discriminated against them.  “Well of course they are upset,” you might be thinking, “they have been sentenced to death!”  But do we not also witness laws and decrees being passed in our world today that discriminate against nationality, faith, beliefs?  We watch our generation turn their backs on God, but a passive-aggressive post on social media is near the extent that most of us will rise to.  Why are we not moved to tears and mourning as our world rejects their Saviour?  Why have so many of us become immune to the injustice and persecution of God’s people all over the world?  We need to start taking these things personally.  I need to start taking these things personally.

So when Esther discovered what had happened, the queen was seized by fear, as she herself was also a Jew.  She sent clothes to Mordecai to encourage him to remove the sackcloth he was wearing, but he did not accept them.  Instead, Mordecai sent a copy of the decree to Esther and urged her to speak to the king to plead for the lives of her people.

This request, however, only increased the fear in Esther’s heart, for she knew that, unless the king summoned someone to himself, they were sure to be put to death when they approached him, unless the king held out his royal sceptre to them and spared their life.  Esther had not been summoned to the king for over a month.

Then Mordecai penned the words we all associate best with the Biblical account of Esther’s life: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:12-14)

For such a time as this.

Esther had been obedient to her uncle Mordecai when he had suggested she present herself to join the king’s harem.  Her beauty had won her the king’s affection and the crown.  Oblivious to the special role God had for her to fulfil, she was faithful with what was available to her.  But we can see that God had strategically placed her there to save His beloved Jewish people.  Was she ready to step up to the plate?  Was she willing to accept the role that she was created for; a role that no-one but she could fulfil?

Esther responded to Mordecai once more, asking him to gather all the Jews in Susa and to fast on her behalf, and informing him that she and her maids would do the same.  Then on the third day she would approach the king in the name of her people, “and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16b)

She stepped up to the plate.  She stepped forward, knowing it may even mean her end.  She stepped up for the greater good; to save a nation from injustice and persecution.  And God used her mightily in His great plan for His people.  We know about her story because she was faithful with what she had been given and what was made available to her.  She has a whole book of the Bible named after her, because she accepted the unique role that God had created her for.

Every experience that Esther had faced up until that moment – both the good and the bad – had prepared her and positioned her for success.  God knew that this moment would come so He had used her faith, her painful family history, her loyalty to her uncle to make sure that she was ready.  That didn’t make it easy, or comfortable, for her to approach the king uninvited – she still required courage to do what was being asked of her – but her obedience saved an entire nation from death.  How’s that for purpose?  Her adventure led her to the palace, right into the royal family, and perfectly positioned her for all that God had called her to do.

Voices all around us will constantly try to label us, influence us and put us in neat little boxes; the media, our bosses and teachers, politicians and professionals.  The only way to combat that is to draw close to the One who created us and ask Him who He has made us to be.  None of us were created to fit neatly into categories or boxes because we were all made to be different.  There is only one of you!  So find your own sphere of influence and do what only you can do.

When we give power to the voices around us, sometimes even well-meaning ones, confusion and stress begins to impress upon us.  We become so distracted trying to meet the expectations of others that we forget to listen out for the voice of God.  Your current position may not carry a title, or come with a fancy office, or include a big pay-check, but don’t doubt it’s significance.  God is always at work, leading His disciples to the right opportunities at the right time for the greater good.  Our obedience to His call guarantees us His best life.

The gifts and passions within each of us hold the potential for all that God wants to do on earth in the next 100 years; our response will determine how much of that potential becomes reality.  So now is the time to press into the future that God is calling us to.  We need to be brave, like Esther, and step into our destiny.  We were created, positioned and called, for such a time as this.

Rather You Than Me

I have lots of great memories from my childhood.  There was the day I became a big sister for the first time, or when I was told a third sibling was on the way.  I remember laughing until I cried on a family holiday a few years later as the three of us attempted to fool our parents into pushing back bedtime, or, some time later still, visiting Legoland during a thunderstorm and enjoying the vacant rides despite the downpour.

But other memories remain etched in my mind for the wrong reason; because they scarred me.  One of my most vivid memories of my childhood features a trip to the dentist.

I had never enjoyed visiting the dentist but I think it was this experience that turned my dislike into fear. As I began adolescence, I faced the problem that I had too many teeth for the space available in my top set, with some teeth overlapping others. The solution? To have eight teeth removed during one visit, with the promise of braces to follow.

I recall it vividly: sitting in the chair with fists clenched to stop my hands from shaking; the dentist explaining what he was about to do; coming closer and closer with the needle, ready to numb my gums… and I ran! I leapt up out of the dentist’s chair, raced along the corridor and locked myself in the bathroom. While I barricaded myself in there for the next ten minutes, the dentist agreed with my Mum that the best solution was for me to return another day and have the teeth extracted under general anaesthetic instead.

And so my fear of the dentist was established.

I could never understand people who were not phased by a trip to the dentist; I would have to psych myself up for days beforehand (I sometimes still do…) Why were others not as traumatised as I was? And why on earth would someone wish to become one?!

Well, I’m now finding out. My friend of 15yrs+ is currently studying dentistry and – get this – absolutely loving it. Say what?!

She enthusiastically tells me about the tasks she’s performing in the clinic. She sends me pictures of the dentures she has carefully crafted. She explains that she’s so tired because she barely slept during her week-long placement in a dental surgery; she was just so excited to be there. Her eager face even features on her dentistry school’s website.

I don’t even begin to understand why she has such a fascination with dentistry, but I’m glad that she does.  Her passion for something that holds so little importance or desire for me only demonstrates how necessary it is that she pursues that passion whole-heartedly.  For if no-one was passionate about dentistry, the oral health of the world would suffer.

As I’ve journeyed with my friend through her studies and often joked at how she could be so excited about something I fear, I actually awe at our contrasting passions and thank God for that.  It has highlighted for me, once again, the creativity of our Creator and how He designed us all so uniquely and perfectly.  But, even more so, how essential it is that we pursue those personal passions for His glory.

In 1 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul describes the global church as a body. He writes, “But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”” (1 Corinthians 12:18-21)

He reminds us, here, that we are called to work together as one, but to operate in our individual abilities, giftings, passions. It is no accident that we have been created with different skills and interests than that of our friends because God has much to accomplish through us! The very way we were created was intentionally aligned with the purpose that God calls us to.

So if you are unsure how God wants to use you, first consider how He has made you and what your heart burns for. That will be your first clue.

If you are feeling discouraged and caught comparing yourself to others, you can stop now.  Because God’s plan for you looks nothing like that of those around you. And that’s a good thing.

If your current passions do not align with the Word of God, then take some time out and seek God. As you draw closer to Him, He will heal your heart and swap destructive passions for those that will fuel His call on your life.

God calls each of us to walk the path that He has laid out before us.  That is why it is unrivaled; because no-one else can do what God has purposed for you to do.  You do not need to be concerned about someone else stealing what was intended for you, for God is sovereign over all things and gives and removes as He pleases for the greater good.  There is no use in seeking to copy the life or path of another, because yours won’t look like their’s.  Instead seek God in all things; trust Him with your whole heart and don’t depend on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct you (Prov. 3:5-6).

The only person capable of forfeiting your unrivaled road is you. The enemy seeks to derail us by distracting us with lies, comparison, disappointment, or condemning words of worthlessness, but instead we must press into God’s Word and allow His voice to speak louder.

When God calls us, He doesn’t call us alone. He promises to walk with us, every step of the way.  He positions people along our path to encourage us and build us up. He meets every need and equips us for the tasks He calls us to.  Our job is to remain close to Him and walk with courage and boldness.

This week, don’t fall into the world’s trap of comparison, but instead embrace your own passions, your unique opportunities, celebrate your gifts, talents, and abilities, and use them to glorify the One who carefully selected them and wrapped them all up in you.

 

 

A Modern Day Epidemic

In my late teens and early twenties, I was plagued with sickness after sickness.  Nothing serious, usually just the flu.  But I would catch it often, sometimes up to four times in one year.  These bouts would floor me and leave me with no energy, resulting in weeks off sick from work and, most disappointingly, forfeiting the chance to attend and serve in church.

But as the months and years went on, I began to notice a pattern: I would most often become sick around the same time I would accept ministry opportunities; opportunities to serve in my local church or help pioneer new initiatives.

Upon this realisation, I was then plagued by an even greater sickness: fear.  You see, now that I had identified a pattern, I began to anticipate when I might get sick as different opportunities arose.  And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

But it all came to a head in January 2011.  It was only one week into the new year; I had already been off sick from work for two weeks over the Christmas period, I had then recovered and returned to my staff role in church for just a few days when another feverish spell hit me during the Sunday morning service and I felt the energy drain out of me once more.  I was due to jump up onto the stage after the first worship set to enthusiastically welcome everyone to church and to provide a rundown of the events going on in church that week but I was struggling just to stand and sing.

As I battled my predicament in my mind, God intervened.  The Holy Spirit moved and the entire service shifted.  The Pastor called forth people who needed healing, as the worship team continued far beyond their planned set.  Shaking, I stood up from my front row seat, grateful that I did not need to walk far.  With tears streaming down my face – tears of frustration and exhaustion – I shared with the Pastor’s wife what had been previously running through my head and she began to pray for me.  Yes, she prayed for physical healing, but, most significantly, she prayed that the habit of fear would be broken.  And her words filtered through my fear like a ray of sunshine.  As we stood together praying at the front of the church, God gave me a vision of Him protecting me from the enemy and pointing to the clear path ahead.

In a matter of minutes, as the worship team played the final song in their extended set, the energy returned to my body and joy filled my heart.  I leapt onto the stage to welcome everyone to church, they being entirely unaware of the miracle that had just occurred in my heart.  The enemy had used my physical symptoms to distract me from the real weapon: fear.  But we had identified it, called it out, and conquered it in Jesus’ name, and it was no longer an issue for me.

Fear is the modern day epidemic that is stealing our dreams and opportunities.  As I observe the world around me: the rise in terror, turbulent politics, shocking media headlines, provocative posts on social media, conversations with my peers, it pains me to see the fear and anxiety that dominates humanity.

Society encourages us to worry about our own challenges, and then burdens us with further doom and gloom across all media genres.  Whether it is as trivial as the number on our bathroom scales or the devastating reports of war and terror across the world, we rarely receive good news.

The media has most of us thinking that we can no longer visit big cities for fear of terrorist attacks.  Or the lies and failed promises of politicians have us doubting whether we can trust anyone.

I believe we are now so immune to fear and anxiety, that we have also become blind to it’s effects on us.  Our increased heart rate and restless sleep, night after night, have become acceptable parts of modern-day life.

But these external influences do not have control over how we respond to situations that seek to scare us.  Anxiety is only present when we fail to trust God.

“While it looks like things are out of control, behind the scenes there is a God who has not surrendered His authority.”

A.W. Tozer

We are guilty of burdening ourselves with too much responsibility, and we try to solve the world’s problems – effectively trying to adopt the role of god – when we simply need to release them back into His hands.  God already has a plan, He has not given up His authority even in the midst of such atrocity, we just need to be quiet enough to listen for His instruction. (Read more here: Trust: Active or Passive?)

Fear declares that we do not trust that God is in control.  It tells the world that we count our own efforts to be more effective than His.  Worry is a waste of energy and time and achieves absolutely nothing.

Overcoming fear is less about us working harder or smarter to solve problems, and more about fighting in the strength that is only available at the feet of Jesus.  Imagine how different our world would be if we spent the same amount of time we spend worrying, in prayer instead?

No matter how big or small the concern is that we bear, we must stop immediately when anxiety begins to swell up within us and talk it through with God.  Just talk; it is not necessary to use any fancy language or even to sugar-coat your words, just tell God exactly how you are feeling.  Perhaps, after the first time you share the concern, nothing changes; you still feel tense and anxious.  So tell Him again.  And again.  And again… until peace begins to dawn in your heart.  God hears you and He will respond.  God loves His children and never grows sick and tired of hearing their worries and requests.  He is patient with us and it pains Him to see us live in a way that is anything but peaceful.

Now, do not misunderstand me; peaceful does not mean uneventful, or even easy.  We will all face challenges and difficulties, whether we follow God’s best for our life or not.  But depending on God, instead of our own understanding, will bring us peace in the midst of it.  He does not always immediately remove us from the trial, but He promises to be there with us in it.  Living at peace is only possible when we trust God entirely, believing Him to be the answer to every prayer.

In Matthew 14:22-33, we read an account of when Jesus’ disciples found themselves on a lake during a ferocious storm.  As the wind and waves tossed the boat back and forth throughout the night, Jesus approached them, walking on the water.

When they spotted Him, they were terrified and thought that He was a ghost.  But He called out to them and reassured them that it was He.

“Lord, if it’s really you,” said Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, “tell me to come to you, walking on the water.”

“Yes, come.” Jesus replied.

So Peter threw one leg over the side of the boat, then the other, and gingerly stepped out onto the sea.  But after a few steps, his eyes were distracted by the waves around him and he immediately began to sink.

“Lord, save me!” he cried to Jesus.

And Jesus reached down and grabbed Peter’s hand, pulling him to safely.

“Why did you doubt me?” Jesus asked him.  And as they climbed back into the boat, the wind and waves ceased and there was calm.

We can commend Peter for having the faith to step out of the boat and to begin walking on the water.  But after only a few steps, fear arose within him and his faith faltered.  Jesus’ power had not changed, but Peter’s focus did.  Only then was he overwhelmed by the circumstances around him.

Yet our peace is determined by our faith in God, not in our circumstances.  We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by our ever-changing situation, but instead choose to trust the One who remains ever constant.

So take your eyes off of the challenges surrounding you today, and fix them on the One who stands with you in the midst of them.  The wind and waves still respond to His voice.  He will see you through safely.