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 Depth of a Hug

In 2014, I participated in a four-month Internship with Metro World Child in New York City.  The experience was one of the most challenging, exhausting, but rewarding of my life thus far.  But one instance, one moment left a crack in my heart like no other during those months.

Every Saturday I rode Bus 19 to bring kids to and from Metro Christian Center for Indoor Sunday School.  The ride was short but chaotic with up to 60 kids ranging from 3 years to 13 years old, all scrambling for attention.  I have to admit it was not a time I particularly looked forward to in my week.

And every week a young girl, around eleven years old, got on our bus looking sour-faced and edgy.  Without fail I would utter the same instructions to her multiple times every bus ride: “sit back in your seat”, “stop screaming”, “back away from [insert child’s name here]” and so on.  And without fail, I received the same responses: she argued back, she stomped her feet, she folded her arms tightly as she threw herself aggressively back into her seat.

That particular day was no different.  If anything, she was even tenser.  She clearly struggled to manage her anger and the slightest thing could set her off; I believe that day she was triggered because someone else had sat next to her.  Regardless, we had the same verbal to-and-fro all the way to Sunday School.  But I knew that the same offensive strategy would continue to produce the same results so, on the journey home, I decided it was time to switch my approach.

She had just been told off for the umpteenth time and had done the obligatory cross-armed throw-back into her seat.  But this time she began punching the seat she was sitting on and I knew it was only a matter of time before her fists moved from upholstery  to flesh.

I quietly walked towards her, put my hand on her back, and said in her ear, “gimme a hug.”

It could have gone either way, really; I wasn’t sure how she’d react.  She could have made me her punching bag instead.  But, as hoped, she lowered her arms and allowed me to hug her.  I held her tightly for a couple of seconds then let her go, patted her on the back, and took a step back, thinking disaster had been averted.

But almost immediately, the other girl seated behind her who had been previously taunting her started up again.  And so did the Rambo routine.

I bravely tried my new strategy again.  More confident, this time, when I asked and, sure enough, she allowed me to hug her once more.  This time I pulled her closer, hugged her tighter, and waited longer.  After a few seconds I felt her whole body relax in my arms and when I released her she had a huge smile on her face.  In the five weeks I had ridden the bus with her to and from church I had never seen her smile.  But this wasn’t just a weak curve in her mouth; a wide grin broke across her face like a ray of sunshine piercing through the clouds on a stormy day.

We spent the remaining three minutes of the bus ride playing a game which she thoroughly enjoyed beating me at.  It was a simple game but it provided her with an escape; having momentarily been able to bring down the defences that who-knows-what had caused her to put them up in the first place.

As she left the bus, I opened my arms for a final hug and she leapt into them and gave me a good squeeze.

As I reflected on this experience, I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:1. It says, “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  This young girl was not interested in anything I had to say because she had heard it all before. But when I softened my heart and approached her with love (instead of frustration or anger; emotions she was likely very familiar with) she was confronted with something different and her response changed also.

Though I easily communicated in English in New York (though not always with the desired effect), this verse has taken on a whole new meaning for me here in Germany. I often feel so ineffective and frustrated in my endeavours as I continue to battle with the language, but the Bible speaks of something far greater than words. We can talk, and declare, and announce until our voice breaks, but if our heart’s attitude does not reinforce our words, they will be fruitless. I may not speak the language well, but I can show love.

A smile.  A polite gesture.  An offer of hospitality or to help meet a need.  These are tokens of love recognised the world over.

So let’s all take a moment this week to consider: Where could I show love where words have previously failed me? How could I serve someone this week by showing love? What attitude needs to change in me in order for my heart to be softened?

Love is the universal language that everyone understands and a small act of love can make a big difference.  I didn’t know that young girl’s story.  I didn’t know what she faced at home.  I didn’t even know her name.  But I do know that a simple demonstration of love made a significant impact on her that day.

The Ache of Unrequited Love

I’m sure we’ve all been there at one time or another; we fall hopelessly for a man or woman who does not share the same feelings for us.  We lose time day-dreaming about them and imagining a life together, making all sorts of plans for the future, while they live their lives without us in it.

Or perhaps we are the recipients of such love; we enjoy the attention, the chase, flirting with the idea of commitment but never actually willing to enter into it.  Maybe we enjoy the ‘perks’ of the pursuit but run as soon as something is required of us in return.

To love someone demands something of us; the giving of ourselves for the benefit of the other person. It can be a wonderful thing to enter into with another person and share that respect, that care, that sacrifice with one another. That is why unrequited love is all the more painful, for we enter into it alone, never sure of any reciprocation.

And yet that is what we are called to do.

In 1 John 4:7-12, we read, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”

God is only too familiar with unrequited love.  From the very beginning, He has loved every one of us; He has dreamt of a future with us; given of Himself to save us, protect us, and care for us.  He loves us, dotes on us, reaches out to us, and pursues us… and still we often show little interest in response.

We may appreciate His love when we reap the benefits, but we run away if He requires something of us or if something of the world seems more attractive to us. Perhaps we enjoy the gifts He gives us when they meet our own desires, but reject His good gifts of discipline, or sacrifice, or abstinence that benefit us the most.

God knows and understands the ache of unrequited love. He experiences it every single day as He lovingly pursues humanity and we respond selectively, selfishly, only when it suits us. Perhaps we lead Him on and enjoy the thrill of a new relationship, but flee as soon as things get difficult.

The Bible tells us that the Lord God is a jealous God.  He longs for us to renounce the idols we allow to come between Him and us; gods of comfort, and comparison, and marital status.  He desires for us to resist the expectations the world places on us and to commit fully to Him.

The early-20th Century evangelist, Oswald Chambers, said, “Get into the habit of saying, “Speak, Lord,” and life will become a romance.”  We all know that the foundation of any good relationship is communication, so rather than viewing our relationship with God as anything different, we can begin by inviting His presence into our lives and quietening our spirit enough to listen to the words of encouragement, and worth, and purpose that He delights in speaking over us.

When we truly know the love of God, we are free to love others, regardless of their response, because we are secure in the love of the Father. The love of Jesus is the most fulfilling, the most rewarding, the most steadfast love that we can receive and share with others. When we are consumed by His love, it overflows into the hearts of everyone around us and there is no room for the ache of unrequited love, for we are safe in the love of our Saviour.

So, no matter what our current relationship status is, let’s first sort out our relationship with The One who has loved us and pursued us and cherished us for millennia. Let’s not shrug off His advances or resist commitment, but give of ourselves to Him who gave us everything when He sent His Son to die on a wooden cross to save us from eternal death and separation from Him. He loves us so much, and the ache in His heart for us is real.

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

 

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint

The life and death of Jim Elliot has always been a great source of inspiration for me.  Indeed, it was his biography, ‘In the Shadow of the Almighty’, written by his wife Elisabeth, that played an instrumental role in confirming my call to Germany.

Jim and Elisabeth, along with four other missionary couples, were positioned by God deep in the Ecuadorian jungle in the mid-1950s, called to reach the savage Auca tribe with the Gospel.  But on January 8th 1956, as Jim Elliot, Nate Saint (a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship), Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully attempted to make personal contact with the Auca tribe after weeks of friendly interactions and gift exchanges via Nate’s plane, they were killed by the very people they were trying to reach for Christ.

Yet it was not Jim’s resolve to do as his Heavenly Father required of him, though inspiring, or his willingness to die for the sake of the Gospel, though incredibly challenging, but his readiness to act in obedience to God, one step at a time, that spoke most significantly to me.

As evidenced by his personal journals, Jim spent much time through his teens and twenties seeking God regarding his calling and where God might be leading him to.  For a while, he was torn between India and Ecuador, both of which he had formed connections with and felt his heart stir for.  However, through His quiet, persistent whisper, God eventually confirmed Jim’s call to Ecuador.  And though he still held many questions and was uncertain of his specific purpose in that country, Jim and his friend Pete Fleming arrived in Ecuador in February 1952, just four months later.

For the next three and a half years, Jim worked on learning Spanish, and then using that foundation to familiarise himself with the unwritten tribal languages.  He used the time to build relationships with locals, with other missionaries, and with friendly tribe members.  The growing missionary team set about building homes, schools, and various landing strips for Nate Saint and his plane.  There was plenty to do, but all the while the greater question rung in Jim’s mind: why am I here?

In her book, ‘Through Gates of Splendor’, in which Elisabeth Elliot details Operation Auca (as the missionary five called it), she describes the stark reality of missionary life; “A missionary plods through the first year or two, thinking that things will be different when he speaks the language. He is baffled to find, frequently, that they are not. He is stripped of all that may be called “romance”. Life has fallen more or less into a pattern. Day follows day in unbroken succession; there are no crises, no mass conversions, sometimes not even one or two to whom he can point and say: “There is a transformed life. If I had not come, he would never have known Christ.””

It was not until October 1955 that God confirmed to the missionary five that their purpose in the Ecuadorian jungle was to reach out to the primitive Aucas.

Step by step, God had led Jim to the right people, the right places, the right experiences, and the right opportunities, all building towards something greater.  But that does not mean that those early years were wasted; not at all!  Jim’s Unrivaled Road was a journey, not a single destination.

And so, here I am in Germany; nearly a year has gone by since I first touched down in Darmstadt.  I arrived with such great expectations and an estimated timeline in mind: I’d be fluent in the language within 9 months and then move to another part of the country to begin ministering (and I had some specific ideas of what that might look like too).

But almost 12 months have passed and, at first glance, my life looks much the same as it did on that first day; 3rd April 2017.  What progress has been made?  I still don’t know exactly why God has called me here.  And yet… I have a wealth of experiences, and lessons, and relationships, and opportunities to testify of.  I’m quickly realising that this journey is a marathon, not a sprint.

Yet God, in His grace, allows me to glimpse His mighty hand at work on a daily basis as He carefully leads me forward, one step at a time.  Every week; another piece of the puzzle falls into place and I am amazed at the bigger picture He is fabricating before my eyes.

We can become disheartened, can’t we, when we are anxious to reach the next milestone?  But God is less interested in the noteworthy moments that we place so much value on, and more invested in our moment-by-moment trust, our step-by-step obedience, and our day-by-day growth.  It is just as important that we are prepared and ready when we ‘arrive’ as it is that we ‘arrive’ at all.

So resist putting a timeline on God.  Take your eyes off that speck in the distance that represents the next milestone or the finish line.  Learn to enjoy the journey.  Appreciate every conversation, every opportunity, every blessing as a gift from God and accept that His plans and ways are fuelled by love for you.  Don’t let the uncertainty of tomorrow distract you from what He is doing in your life today.  He is a good Father and can be trusted to outwork His purposes in your life in the best way and in the best time.

Trust: Active or Passive?

At the turn of the year I decided it was time to switch my daily Bible readings from English to German.  By that time, I had had nine months of language study under my belt and I was spurred on by my desire and goal to begin ministering in German this year.  Progress has been slow and I regularly require a dictionary, but the act of reading text so familiar yet in another language has shone a new light on God’s Word for me and opened up a realm of new insights.

Deciding that starting with a ‘story’ book might be an easier introduction, I began working through the narrative of one of my all-time favourite Biblical heroes: Moses.

I think the reason Moses’ story captivates me so much is because we have the opportunity to track his journey from start to finish.  We read about all his highs and lows, successes and failures, doubts and faith; we are reassured that he was just like you and me.

But God had a huge calling on Moses’ life, as He does for each of us.  And through time, circumstances, challenge, and a growing relationship with God, Moses was prepared for and propelled into his calling.  No experience or lesson learned or ‘coincidence’ was wasted in leading Moses along his Unrivaled Road.

The unique purpose that God had placed on Moses’ life was to safely lead His people, the Israelites, out of captivity in Egypt and on the path to the land that God had promised to them (it was not, however, Moses’ job to lead them into the Promised Land, for that purpose would become part of someone else’s Unrivaled Road).  The purpose may have been clear, but the process, on the other hand, was anything but straight forward.

After a series of confrontations with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and a number of plagues that exercised God’s power, Moses led his people safely out of Egypt and into the desert. Then Israel began their long trek toward the Promised Land.

But unbeknown to them, God had caused Pharaoh to change his mind about releasing the Israelite nation, and he ordered his chariots to pursue his departing slave-force and return them to Egypt.  As the dust rose from beneath the hooves of the thundering horses, the Israelites panicked.  They were faced with the Red Sea ahead of them and Pharaoh’s angry horde behind them.

Then Moses turned to the people and announced, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

Until not so long ago, this would be as far through the passage as I would have read (or, at least, be willing to comprehend) and it quickly became my favourite Bible verse.  You see, I have always been a problem solver and a doer, therefore finding solutions to challenges is what comes most natural to me.  But that was not what God wanted of me.  Fighting challenges in my own strength only led to exhaustion, frustration, and usually, failure.  So reading Exodus 14:14 came like a breath of fresh air to me, thinking that, instead of frantic activity, I was to, instead, literally do nothing and wait for God to act. Yet that wasn’t quite what God wanted of me either.

If we read on, the next verse says, “The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground.”” (Exodus 14:15-16)

I always thought that that was a funny thing for God to ask; “why do you cry to me?”  Surely He wants us to call upon Him, does He not? But God was reminding Moses that He had already provided the means for a miracle.  God had been preparing Moses for years and building up his faith so that he would be ready to act in the face of such impossible circumstances.

“Don’t stop.  Don’t stand still.  Keep moving forward,” God told them. “Trust me, but be active in your trust. Do as I say and you will be saved.”

It is true, what Moses says in verses 13-14: We do not need to be afraid; we can stand firm on our trust; God does fight for us. But when He asks us to act, we must partner with Him and trust that He has a good plan.

So where are we on the trust spectrum?  At one end, we are so distracted by self-propelled activity that we neglect to trust God altogether, whether believing He cannot or will not help us, thinking that the matter is too inconsequential to bother the Almighty with, or simply forgetting that He is present and ready to act on our behalf.  And yet sometimes, in His grace, He acts anyway.

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At the other end, we may find ourselves playing the damsel in distress.  Here, we wait and we wait and we wait for God to intervene in our circumstances and become discouraged when He fails to do what we expect Him to do.  We sit – doing nothing and saying nothing, perhaps even pretending our problems don’t exist – expecting Him to act alone.  We kid ourselves that He is to blame, not us, for the circumstances we find ourselves in.  And yet sometimes, in His grace, He acts anyway.

But what Exodus 14:13-16 teaches us is that we are called to live in the tension between the two: activity and trust.  When we are engaged in active trust we recognise that God is the One who saves us and acts on our behalf, in His way and in His timing.  But He also calls on us to act with courage; to use the skills and gifts He has instilled in us, to exercise the faith that He has developed in us throughout our journey so far, and to respond in obedience to whatever it is He asks us to do.  Sometimes He will just ask us to wait on Him, and that’s OK.  Don’t fill the time with activity just because you see no progress.  But, equally, do not sit and twiddle your thumbs when He has called you to act.  Active trust means walking in obedience to God’s will.  Sometimes it will require activity, other times it will require you to wait and trust that God is acting on your behalf.  The key is to draw close to Him and to listen for His voice.

Moses exercised active trust. As he and the Israelites faced an impossible situation, he lifted his eyes to Heaven. He listened to God and obeyed His instruction, God brought His mighty power, and the people of Israel walked through the parted Red Sea to safety.  Why was it so easy for Moses to hear and obey God when He asked him to hold his hand out over the sea?  A body of water does not simply part if you wave your hand over it!  But Moses had seen God do it before.  He had already experienced God’s power and seen evidence of God’s miraculous ability.  And with every step forward, his faith grew, as did His knowledge of the God of Israel.

We may not yet have the faith to hold our hands over the sea and believe that God will part it, but we do have the faith for what God is asking us to do next.  Whatever that may be, big or small, muster up the courage and step out in faith.  Remind yourself of what He has already done in you and through you.  Recall to mind the countless times you have seen His faithful answers to prayer or miraculous intervention in your difficulties.  Strengthen yourself in the Lord and believe that He will act again, even if your circumstances say otherwise.  Then walk confidently forward, further along your Unrivaled Road.

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.