Holding on to Hope

For months now, I’ve held a strong sense of anticipation that God is up to something big. Between the far-reaching promises He declared over me in January, the ever-growing wisdom and influence He has gifted me with, and the significant open-heart surgery He has been conducting in the secret place, my anticipation of a new season and new opportunities has gently but exponentially grown since April.

However, anticipation, or hope, often comes with it a fear that what we want or expect to happen, will not happen. There is a constant tension between the anticipation of what we believe God has spoken and the fear of hearing Him or understanding Him incorrectly.

In this battle, we must be diligent in the focus of our hope. Are we placing our hope in a particular outcome, or are we hoping in the One who holds all outcomes in His hands, and promises to be faithful?

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:1-5

In this holding-pattern of hope, I’ve been pondering the testimony of Naaman (2 Kings 5). He was a commander in the king’s army; well-respected and powerful. However, Naaman had leprosy.

His young Israelite servant girl suggested that he travel to her homeland, believing that the God of Israel would heal her master. Naaman dared to hope; he began his journey, believing that it would end in his healing.

The commander first visited the king of Israel, laden with great riches and a letter from his own king demanding healing from his leprosy, but the king of Israel was angry and distraught, concluding that the Syrian king was simply picking a fight with him by making such a ridiculous request.

No doubt, as Naaman left the presence of the king – the most powerful man in the land – his hope dwindled.

But the prophet Elisha heard of what was going on in the king’s palace and invited Naaman to visit him at his home. Once again, the army commander arrived with his great caravan of pomp and riches in tow, with his own expectations of how his meeting with the prophet might go down. But Elisha was absent, sending a messenger instead.

Now faced with a servant, instead of a prophet or king, Naaman’s anticipation ebbed further.

“Wash in the river Jordan seven times and you will be healed,” the messenger told Naaman.

Eh, what?

The little expectation that remained in Naaman’s heart vanished. This was not at all what he had imagined when he had left his home, holding on to hope and expecting a miracle.

Naaman had expected healing. He was willing to hope for it. But when faced with the circumstances that would eventually lead him to it, he wasn’t so sure…

“Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.”

2 Kings 5:11-12

He had expected a king to help him. He had hoped that the prophet would make a great spectacle as he called upon God for healing. And, as none of these expectations were met, Naaman reasoned that, at the very least, he could choose a cleaner river than the Jordan to bathe in.

But that was not where healing was to be found. Naaman had allowed his own expectations to distract him, even blind him, to the work that God was seeking to do; to the journey that God was leading him on. For this journey was not just about physical healing, but included lessons in humility and obedience too. There was far more in play than just Naaman’s own desired end product.

We, as Christians, are called to hope (Ephesians 1). It is good to anticipate and believe for all that we believe God has spoken over us. But that does not guarantee us the easy or most straight-forward route there. Are we willing to trust Him anyway? Are we willing to be patient? Are we willing to lay aside our pride? Are we ready to be obedient, even when it feels foolish? Are we going to dare to keep hoping, keep believing, keep anticipating, even when the journey looks nothing like we expect it to?

Eventually, Naaman discarded his pride and obeyed the messenger’s instructions to dip in the Jordan river seven times, receiving the longed-for healing and complete restoration of his skin. He saw the manifestation of his anticipation, but not before God had drawn Naaman’s eyes to see the true Provider, and prepared his heart to receive it.

I expected to see the manifestation of my anticipation in July, however two months later I am still waiting, still journeying, still trusting that I will see it one day soon. Though the timing, the pace, the route are not what I expected, still my anticipation remains. I see the lessons I have continued to learn in the time since. I see the careful placement and positioning of people and circumstances that God lovingly orchestrates for my good. I endeavour to repeatedly re-focus my eyes on the Provider, trusting His timing and His process. I see progress, even when it has been a struggle, at times, to keep hoping.

But Naaman’s journey, the pilgrimage of the Israelites to the Promised Land, Joseph’s story from dreamer to diplomat, and so many other Biblical examples all illustrate the same message: a detour or a delay does not mean denial.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

Hebrews 10:23

Dare to keep trusting, keep hoping, keep anticipating. Breakthrough is coming.

A Tale of Two Tests

As I reflected over the Easter period, I was struck by two different perspectives of the well-known Easter narrative. Each describe a test of faith, and each have relevance in our own faith journeys two millennia later.

The first, is that of Jesus Christ, Himself. A.W. Tozer said, “True obedience is the refusal to compromise in any regard our relationship with God, regardless of the consequences.”

When I think of the cross, I think of Jesus’ determined obedience to His Father. He knew what was ahead; He knew what God was asking of Him; He knew the pain and suffering He would have to endure. He fully understood the consequences of His obedience. But He did it anyway.

He did it because He loved the Father, and because He loved us, but ultimately He did it because of His obedience. Just before He was arrested, He uttered this prayer, “Abba, my Father, all things are possible for you. Please – don’t allow me to drink this cup of suffering! Yet what I want is not important, for I only desire to fulfill your plan for me.” {Mark 14:36 TPT}

I find this incredibly humbling, for I know that there have been many times (I don’t need to think too far back) when I have either hesitated in my obedience, or flat-out disobeyed the prompt of the Holy Spirit because I have been afraid of the possible consequences of my obedience; whether it be awkwardness, rejection, or something worse (and let’s face it, in the western world, we are rarely faced with much worse).

Often there will be pain, or discomfort, or rejection, as a result of our obedience. Jesus experienced that too (on a much greater scale). But this momentary suffering led to something exponentially greater, with eternal consequences.

When commanded by God, we must seek to look beyond our own discomfort and fear, and trust His bigger plan; His sovereign perspective. If Christ had thought only of His own impending suffering, He could have chosen to save Himself from His agonising crucifixion. But He trusted God’s greater plan. He recognised that God was outworking something far greater than just His own destiny. His obedience made way for the redemption of mankind!

Just as I shared in a previous post, Humility: Redefined, we need to resist being distracted by our own interests, and instead consider the impact of our obedience on others. Don’t allow your fear to steal breakthrough for someone else.

The second perspective I have been pondering on is that of Jesus’ followers, specifically in the hours after his death. They had spent three years listening to the teachings of Christ and witnessing His miracles. They had hoped that He was the much-anticipated Messiah, but it now appeared that their hopes had died with Him.

As He breathed His last, they wept; they mourned; they felt broken, empty, disorientated. They were not only faced with the emotional grief of losing a loved one, but also with the devastation of lost hope.

Slowly, one by one, they turned their faces away from the cross and began to imagine a life without their friend, their teacher, their Saviour.

The disciples had held a vision of what the manifestation of God’s Messiah might be like, but when their current circumstances didn’t match their expectations, all hope was seemingly lost.

They had never anticipated Christ’s resurrection. And yet, Christ had spoken of it (Matthew 27:63). His disciples, too, would have known the writings of Isaiah and the other prophets, and the promises that God had made to the Israelite nation. God’s Promises had not been broken, they had simply been received through the microscope of human understanding.

Proverbs 3:5 reminds us that we cannot depend on our own understanding. We cannot depend on what we think the end product of God’s guidance is going to look like. Rather, we need to depend on what God says and then simply trust Him.

Despite the panic, despite the confusion, despite the fear, despite the tears amongst the believers at the foot of the cross, God knew what He was doing. No moment or outcome was a surprise to Him. Everything played out the way He wanted and expected it to. And the greatest sadness unfolded into victory!

God had a perfect plan to redeem us through His Son, Jesus Christ. His love and foresight aligned everything up perfectly so that, at just the right time, Christ went to the cross and paid the price for the sin of the world; our sin. His blood bought our freedom; freedom from punishment and death, freedom from fear, freedom from isolation and loneliness apart from Him. Christ became the bridge that connected us directly to God, and made a way for us to be in relationship with Him again.

How do we respond when the expectations that we have seem to die before us? Do we lose hope? Do we allow panic, confusion, and fear to consume us? Do we turn our faces away from Jesus, concluding that our hope, our anticipation, our trust was in vain?

When we look back on the Easter story, perhaps we know that the disciples only had to wait until the third day to see the glorious end to their perceived tragedy. But when you are still waiting – when you are in the midst of hopelessness – it can feel like the consuming darkness is endless.

Here’s the simple, yet challenging truth: It is not our responsibility (or even a possibility) to dictate the outcome of our current circumstances. It is our job, however, to trust God in those silent moments and not to allow confusion or doubt to fuel those fears that threaten us.

One of the most freeing lessons I’ve learnt in the last 12 months is to resist spiralling into doubt and depression in the dark hours that follow an unexpected turn of events. In an effort to self-protect, I would have always sought to think through every possible outcome and begin actioning thoughts or plans in an effort to protect my heart from further disappointment. Then God began to reveal to me a pattern of behaviour in myself that actually made the experience for me worse, not better. The enemy played on my vulnerability and fed my fears with lies and gleefully watched me spiral into misery. But as I learned to identify those lies, I began to resist them rather than partnering with them, and rather chose to hope. I chose to trust. I chose to wait with expectation to see what God would do next. He held the final word. I only needed to patiently and courageously (and it does take courageous) walk it out, one hour, one day at a time.

What I found was that God would often reveal Truth within 24 hours of my disappointment. Now, this is not a hard and fast rule, I don’t believe, and not every experience fits this timeline, but these experiences taught me to always wait a little longer, hope a little longer, trust a little longer, and allow God time to outwork what He had planned and purposed for me in a particular trial. And let me tell you, I saved myself a whole lot of tears in the process!

The grace that God offers us is sufficient for every challenge that we face (2 Corinthians 12:9). In difficult times, His peace buoys us up in the midst of the waves. We may try to jump to conclusions or guess what will happen next in an effort to self-protect, but God does not ask that of us. He asks us to trust Him.

There will be many times in our lives when it appears that hope or promises are lost, and yet God has the ability to raise them back to life. He will finish what He starts; He will bring His work to completion, but He determines what that completed work looks like, not us.

The recount of Christ’s death and resurrection reminds us that no matter how bleak our circumstances look, God has a bigger plan. We may not recognise it immediately. We may need to blindly trust Him in some of our darkest moments. But we can trust Him to allow His plan to unfold in the way it should – no delays, no absences, no detours – simply the best way.

The Catalyst for Answered Prayer

I returned from New York City in December 2014, just days before Christmas, having completed a four-month internship programme with Metro World Child.  I arrived back in my home city with little idea of what would happen next; having felt that the season I was in was not yet over.

Having been asked to be bridesmaid for my friend in the following March, I decided that remaining in Scotland until then seemed sensible, so I turned down an opportunity to return immediately to New York and instead accepted a ministry job at home on one condition: that it was understood that I was only committing to stay for six months.  After all, I still felt I had unfinished business with the States and, therefore, expected to return later that year.

But months ticked by and I was no closer to returning Stateside.  I kept a keen eye out for different opportunities and made several inquiries into different ministries but every door shut before me.

Meanwhile, doors for ministry and work were opening effortlessly for me in Scotland.  In my fourth month, I felt a burden to begin a childrens’ ministry in the local community where I was working.  I did not want to begin something if I was only going to be present for a couple more months so I committed to a further year in employment; the duration of the next full academic year.

Throughout that year I lived with a short-term mentality.  Every commitment I made had the disclaimer, “if I’m still here, then I will….” or, “if I’m not gone by then, perhaps…”  I sought not to distance myself from everyone and everything so much as I did not want to commit to anything I would not see through until the end.  But by the following Spring, having faced challenges and frustrations both professionally and personally, I decided that living with this short-term mentality was unhelpful for both myself and my colleagues.  I stopped using disclaimers and decided to be fully present in the season that God had placed me in.

“Ok, God,” I reasoned, “if this is where You have me for now, I will be all here.  I will stop living in limbo; neither fully in the present, nor fully in the next season.  I will resist trying to make the next step happen, so it is up to You to act when that right time comes.  I’m committing to ‘here’ until You move me ‘there’.”

I began putting down roots again and, most significantly, decided to put my apartment up for sale.  If I was to remain in my home city for the foreseeable future, then I would invest in a larger place that I could be comfortable in.

But time passed and my apartment attracted very little interest.  A number of people viewed it, there were even some promising conversations about follow-up actions and further negotiation, but my apartment didn’t move.  However, God did…

It was only once my attitude had changed and I had surrendered my desires, my expectations, and my timing to God, that He began to act.  My recent actions had reflected my changed focus and I no longer sought to second-guess God’s timetable, but, instead, to fully embrace my present circumstances.  I realised that God had not forgotten me or overlooked me; He had placed me there for that time and with purpose, therefore I should make best use of the time with those people, in that job, living in that city.  My change in attitude changed my whole demeanour, and my remaining months there became far more pleasant and enjoyable.

Then, on the last day of that academic year, I flew to Germany to visit a friend for a much-needed weekend break.  It was my first time stepping foot on German soil (admittedly, a country well down my travel bucket-list) but it was a cheap weekend break and a greatly anticipated reunion with my friend.  There was nothing special about the particular weekend that I had chosen, other than that it being the most convenient for each of our schedules, but I also don’t believe that it is any coincidence that it coincided with the last day of the school year.  It was there that God began to nudge me forward once again.

My change in attitude had been the catalyst for God to move in me once again.  I changed my priorities and how I spent my time; I chose to invest in myself instead of wasting time daydreaming about what I wanted and sulking because I didn’t have it yet.  I became intentional about my own spiritual growth.  I fasted TV and movies that summer (a time-consuming hobby of mine) so that I could better invest that time.  I dived into God’s Word, I read faith-inspired books packed full of wisdom and personal testimonies.  I told God everything that I had been feeling: my hopes, my dreams, my doubts, my disappointments, my failures, and my regrets.  God reminded me of the purposes He had created me for but I knew that I was not yet ready to enter into them.  So becoming ready became my new goal.

Without rushing ahead or trying to second guess or take control, I simply began asking God, “what next?” And in the meantime, I continued to serve in my existing situation as best as I could.

In the months that followed, God actually used the non-sale of my apartment to direct me further and to finally confirm that a new season was imminent.  Though I had initially envisioned this ‘meantime’ season would only last 6 months, it did, in fact, last a little over two years.  Neither, of course, did it lead me back to America, but overseas to mainland Europe.  The growth and preparation I experienced in that time was absolutely essential in allowing me to step into all that God had prepared for me in Germany.  I am unspeakably grateful for that meantime.

In times of waiting, it can be easy to slip into a dreamlike state where your body is firmly in the present, but your mind and heart have gone ahead and are endeavouring to live prematurely in your Promised Land.  But we must guard our minds and not allow ourselves to drift too far into the future, that we miss out on the present.

God is less worried about our circumstances and more interested in the state of our heart.  Are we making demands of God for the things that we want, or do we trust Him to lead us into His best?  Do we throw a tantrum if our expectations aren’t met, or do we surrender our own ideals and ask Him to act as He chooses, when He chooses?  I believe that our attitude is very often the gateway to seeing our prayers become a reality.

Until we truly know God and trust His heart towards us, we will be fearful or resentful of His instructions.  But as we prioritise knowing Him, rather than simply seeking His ways, trusting Him will become easier, and following His path for our lives will become a delight.

Even while we wait for God’s promises, there is a life to be fully embraced and lived out every single day.  Be fully present wherever you are right now.  It may not be where you want to be, or what you would like to be doing, but when we walk in obedience to where God has placed us at this moment instead of always wishing each day away, we learn to see God in the mundane and life becomes an adventure!

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.

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.

The Repeat Examination

Since moving to Germany last year, money has been tight.  It has been one of the greatest tests of my faith, yet the provision of such has been at the heart of the majority of my testimonies.

I wrote about a particularly challenging need in August of last year (you can read about it in Um, Where’s my Miracle?) when I allowed fear and doubt to overwhelm me as I failed to see how God would or could come through. And yet He did, in incredible ways (you can read about that in Um, Where’s my Miracle? (Part 2): The Overflow), topping it all off by providing me with a part-time job the very next day.

Following this, there was the temporary loss of that same job and that newly-acquired income just a few weeks later, yet God worked wonders once again and never failed to meet a need (you can read about that in Facing the Flame).

So it should come as no surprise that when I faced difficulties over the past few weeks, God was right there by my side every step of the way.

My last German course ended mid-February so, for the past six weeks, I have felt a bit aimless and discouraged.  I recognised God’s hand in my circumstances, even if I could not always understand what He was up to, and continued doing all I knew to do: work, serve in church, and revise the German I had learnt previously, but I was praying for direction and opportunity.  My plan had been to continue with further language courses but they were proving too expensive so instead I began looking for more work.

Then last week I was invited to interview for a Learning Support Assistant vacancy in an International School in a town just north of where I currently live.  In my mind, it ticked all the boxes of what I was looking for except for one; the start date.  The post had been advertised for the new school year, beginning in August, but I was ready to begin work now and hoped for an opportunity to start sooner.

Echoing my circumstances of last August, I began the week with €4 in my purse and just  €0,89 in my bank account.  I had already moved a small amount from my German account into my UK account to help cover an expense on my property in Scotland so that account was lying empty too.  I really needed that job.

On the morning of my interview I bought my travel ticket with my credit card, knowing I didn’t have the cash to cover it but believing it would be a worthy investment.  I was also due to meet a friend afterwards and I wondered how I would fund the lunch that would inevitably follow.

As I was shown around the school and participated in the short interview, I found the warmth of the staff and atmosphere in the school so inviting.  I concluded that I really wanted that job… only one issue remained: the start date.

“Do you have any questions for us?” they asked. Hmm… well, yes, I did. But dare I ask?

“The post was advertised for the new school year,” I began, “is that the case, or…”

But before I had even had the chance to ask the question that I was so hesitant to voice, I was informed that there was paternity leave to cover from the beginning of May, therefore the new post would begin then.  This was an answer to prayer.  This was the job.

As I thanked my interviewers for their time, the Deputy Head Teacher said he would walk me back to the reception area (as he was walking that way anyway, carrying a crate of small bags).  As we approached the exit, he said, “I don’t normally do this,” taking a bag from the crate and offering it to me, “but would you like a school packed lunch to take with you?”

I couldn’t believe it.  I smiled at God’s creativity, opportunity, and provision. That was another answer to prayer.

As I headed to meet my friend, still grinning widely at God’s clear hand in my morning so far, I walked by a woman not much older than me, sitting begging and wrapped tightly in a blanket against the biting wind.  I smiled again at God’s provision; this packed lunch was not intended for me, but for her.  And I handed it to her without hesitation.

That, of course, left me once again without lunch, but I was confident that God would provide.  In His grace, He prompted my friend to treat me to lunch that afternoon and we enjoyed valuable time together.  She had no idea of my needs that day (she’ll read about them here, no doubt) but demonstrated generosity (which is one of her many great qualities) and it met a significant need in my present circumstances.

In the days that followed, God continued to stir the hearts of various individuals who responded in obedience and blessed me in incredible ways.  By the end of the week I had the promise of full-time employment doing something I love, I had been encouraged by the kind words and support of many, and I had received overwhelming financial provision that not only met my current needs, but that will assist in supporting me until I begin work in May.

As I reflect on this past week, I see so many parallels between it and that difficult week in August last year.  Each time I had no money, each time I had no idea what was just around the corner for me, yet the evolution of my faith is glaringly evident.  Last week I experienced no anxiety, no illness, no doubt; I had seen God do it before and I knew He would do it again.  Yet just like last time, His provision extended far beyond money; He provided supportive people, timely opportunities, financial provision, and the ‘perfect’ job.

I would not have chosen to be placed in the same set of circumstances that I had experienced before and responded so poorly to, but it illustrates so clearly my own growth over the past year and the many, many, many ways in which God has worked; sometimes in obvious, for-the-world-to-see ways, and other times in the quiet, behind-the-scenes, gift-wrapped-just-for-me kinda ways.

As I celebrate my first anniversary living in Germany in just a few days time, I sense the dawn of a new season but I am so very grateful for the desperate circumstances I encountered that demanded a miracle, for without those desperate times, I would not have had the opportunity for a front-row seat to displays of God’s infinite glory and power.

The Mathematics of Generosity

I recently FaceTimed my youngest brother and we were chatting, as we often do, about our next steps and what God is calling each of us to next.  At the time of the phone call, I was facing a number of challenges myself and was a little preoccupied by them as we spoke.  But then my brother began sharing about some of the questions and uncertainty he was battling and it became apparent that we were facing similar issues.

Soon, the lessons that God had been teaching me and the struggles of recent weeks became the fuel I used to encourage and help direct my brother.  Together, we declared faith in each of our circumstances and believed God for great things in our coming days.

God blesses us with so much, every single day, but perhaps at first glance it does not all appear good.  How can a challenge or a struggle be considered a blessing?

Romans 5:3-5 says, “we can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.”

All that we receive is for our good and is given by God out of love.  The Apostle Paul later wrote, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28)

He calls us to a purpose and He uses all things to prepare us for that purpose.

But more than that, He multiplies all that He has blessed us with when we return it and use it for His glory.  The multiplication of our generosity is not only applicable to money, though of course He does that too, but it is about so much more.  God calls us to use all that He has given us; finances, resources, talents, experiences, testimonies, opportunities, time, love, relationships.  When we shift our perspective and allow God to work in all things, He can multiply what little we have to reach far beyond our own limited means.

I could have chosen to respond to my own struggles in bitterness, and therefore have nothing to share with my brother.

I could have decided not to share my own challenges with him for fear of seeming weak or being shamed.

I could have waited until my own prayers had been answered before sharing the testimony with him.

But, instead, I allowed God to use my own vulnerability and doubt to partner with my brother so that we could encourage one another with previous testimonies of God’s goodness and timing, and to spur one another on in our faith.  The impact of the lessons we were learning and the testimonies we had experienced were multiplied as we shared them with one another.

Back in January, I FaceTimed a friend in Canada and was sharing with her some of the challenges I was facing, including financial struggles.  Just before we ended the call, she asked if you could pray for me.  As part of her prayer, she asked the Holy Spirit to prompt the right people to help meet my financial needs, then we said our goodbyes and hung up.  Less than 20 minutes later, I received a text message from a friend in the UK stating that they had felt prompted to send me a gift and had transferred money directly into my bank account there and then.

The money that I received was needed and much appreciated, and I praised God for His provision.  But this story was not just my testimony.  It was now that of my Canadian friend as well.  She had partnered with me in that challenge and had offered her prayers and encouragement.  When I shared the testimony with her later that night, she was so excited and encouraged that God had used her in that moment to work a miracle in my life.  He had multiplied the impact of this miracle and all three participators had a testimony to share, for she was as much part of meeting that answer to prayer as the giver was.

The Bible tells the story of a young boy who offered his meagre lunch of five bread rolls and two fish to Jesus, in the hope that his small contribution might at least feed the tired Teacher and perhaps some of his companions.  What the boy could never have anticipated was Jesus, having given thanks to God for this provision, proceeding to feed over 5000 people with the food and still have plenty leftover.  That is how the mathematics of generosity work.

In It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint, I introduced Jim Elliot and his missionary companions who were killed in their efforts to reach a primitive tribe for Jesus.

For Jim, his Unrivaled Road led him to the Aucas but also to death, as he perished that Sunday afternoon on a sand bank along the Curaray river in Ecuador. And though we could view his premature death as a great tragedy, it created vast opportunity for the Gospel.

As the story was retold across the world’s media, testimonies of how their tale of bravery and obedience had positively impacted lives for Christ began to flood in.

A once forgotten tribe deep in the heart of the Ecuadorian jungle was now known and prayed for by thousands around the globe.

Only months after their death, the widows of the five men personally illustrated God’s love and forgiveness by continuing the work that their husbands had begun.  To this, the Aucas responded positively, and many in the tribe were, indeed, won for Christ.

Even now, decades later, the story of the five American missionaries who were slain for the Gospel continues to challenge, convict, and inspire many.  For them, they were simply obeying God’s call on their lives, yet through them, God reached many, many more than just the Auca tribe the men had reached out to.

Their sacrifice, perhaps much more than any of us would be willing to give, was magnified and multiplied far beyond what any of them or their wives could have foreseen.  They simply gave back to God what He had given them.

We cannot underestimate what God wishes to do with our giving, whatever form that may take.  Don’t hold back because you consider your offering to be too small or insignificant.  It is not.  He is in the business of multiplication; when placed into the hands of God, your giving will reach farther and impact many more than you could ever imagine.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

I was sat comfortably, as it happened, in my economy seat onboard the British Airways aircraft that would take me back to Germany after a fortnight of reunions and precious time with family in Aberdeen over the Christmas period.  The flight roster was quiet, gifting me an entire row of seats to myself.

The safety video full of famous British faces had ended and the lights dimmed as we prepared for take-off.  I had shortly before been sent on my way by 75% of my immediate family and had had no trouble putting on a brave face as we said our goodbyes.  I rarely get teary at farewells, instead typically approaching the occasion all too matter-of-factly, and eager to get on my way.  But as the plane sped along the runway and the nose lifted off the ground, I was overwhelmed with a flood of emotions and they began leaking down my face.

As the granite city grew ever smaller below me, I stared purposefully out of the window.  The winter sun bounced off the fluffy clouds surrounding the plane as I reflected on the incredible time I had spent in my homeland; of the valuable time I had had with so many special friends; of the quality time enjoyed with my extended family; of the ease of spending two weeks at my family home where food and electricity and transport was not my concern.  I reflected on two incredible weeks; two weeks spent entirely within my Comfort Zone.

I had never really considered my life to have been lived in my Comfort Zone before, but from the moment I stepped foot in Germany it became glaringly obvious that I had left it far behind me.  It had been my choice to respond positively to God’s call, and one that I would not change for the world, but it has been a journey full of challenge, and earnest prayers in the face of great fear.  Back in April 2017, I boarded my one-way flight with great excitement and intrigue, expecting adventure and opportunity for the miraculous.  And it has been all those things.  But having settled comfortably for two weeks back into very little worry or concern or responsibility, the reality of what I was returning to in this second instance was viewed with stark clarity.  I had pushed all German matters comfortably to the back of my mind and left them there for 14 days of bliss.  But as I started the return journey, I could ignore them no longer.

I remembered that I had big decisions to make upon my return.

I remembered that the ease with which I had enjoyed relationships in Scotland was not yet available across the language barrier.

I remembered that I was returning to face huge financial challenges.

I remembered the great unknown that 2018 held.

I remembered that every day would be a test of my faith.  But that it was sure to bring even greater testimony.

As the plane flew south over snow-capped hills and winding rivers, I grieved the life I was once again leaving behind.  I silently handed all my friends and family members over to God for His safe-keeping.  As we crossed the border and entered English airspace, I declared all the concerns and fears that I knew I would face upon my return, but recognising that my God, who had been faithful throughout 2017, was the same God who returned with me as I looked ahead into 2018.

It was not until I stepped out of my Comfort Zone that I recognised just how comfortable I had become living inside of it.  Yet the growth and development of my faith that I saw in 2017 would not have been possible if I had remained there.  The miracles I have witnessed and the characteristics of God that I had only ever read about became a reality for me when I left comfort behind.  The God I have come to know and the closeness I have experienced with Him was previously hindered by my comfy, cosy Comfort Zone.

As I consider 2018 and all that this new year will bring, I recognise that the concerns, responsibilities and fear that I carry may be great, but my God is far greater!  The challenges I face only set the stage for God to accomplish infinitely more than I could ever ask or imagine!  And knowing Him and experiencing Him in new ways every single day is a far more exciting and rewarding way to live than settling for comfort and ease.

Though I more reluctantly left my Comfort Zone this time around,  the truth is that our Comfort Zone is where our faith becomes stagnant.  If we have all that (we think) we need, we have no reason to engage our faith and to trust God for His guidance and provision.  Are we not all guilty of drifting a little from God when things are going well?  Yet when circumstances around us get tough, we draw close to Him again and ask for His intervention in matters we cannot ‘fix’ ourselves, do we not?  Instead, let us seek to continually draw close to God this year, no matter what we face.  Let us endeavour to remain just as close to Him through the good times as we do through the struggles.  May our faith in the Almighty God be where we find our greatest comfort.

I have been back in Germany for just under two weeks now and God has overwhelmed me with His goodness once again.  His presence brings me peace, and the evidence of His hand in the detail of my life never eases to amaze me and bring me to tears of pure joy!  Thank God for His personalised love and interest in each one of our lives!  His love reaches far beyond our realms of understanding; so far, in fact, that He sent His only Son, Jesus, to carry the punishment for our sins and die in place of us.  That is real love!

“We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 1 John 3:16 (NLT)

So let’s not remain in our comfy armchairs, watching life go by.  Let’s live the full and abundant life that Jesus bought for us on the cross!  I would encourage us all to push forward in this new year into all that God has for us.  His purposes will always take us outside of our Comfort Zone and require us to lean more heavily on Him, but the reward of knowing Him more intimately, experiencing His miracles first hand, and receiving the freedom and peace that He brings far outweighs anything we leave behind.

How about we just start small: what is it that God is asking you to do today?  Perhaps, like me, the problem is not figuring out what that is, but simply having the courage to do it!  I spent hours yesterday arguing with God over an issue that was settled weeks ago, but in my fear I sought to make excuses and delay my obedience.  Yet as I surrendered to His plan, mustered up the courage and acted in faith, He met me exactly where I was and led me graciously, step-by-step.  In just a few short hours, I am already a witness to His blessing, for when we act in obedience, blessing will always follow.

I hope that 2018 will be a year full of surprises, opportunities, miracles, and fresh encounters with God for each of us.  Together, let’s leave behind what is comfortable and put on a brave face, stepping boldly into the fullness of what God wants to do in us and through us this year.