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!

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It has been a funny ol’ week.  Nothing has gone to plan… ahem, my plan.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I began my new job this week.  Well, at least I expected to.

What appeared to be an incredibly promising job opportunity teaching English to children was not quite all it was cracked up to be and I ended the first of a five-day training course by quitting.  The growing unease in my spirit plus wise insight from others helped me make a quick, sure decision on Thursday evening and I chose not to return to training the next day.

Having, then, unexpectedly regained my long weekend, I was excited to fill my days with activity, including attending church on Sunday morning.  Well, at least I expected to.

A series of unfortunate events caused a somewhat dramatic waste of time on Sunday.  I began the day by praying and asking God to do as He willed.  I was very specific in my prayer that morning as I had been reminded in the previous week’s sermon that, “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) So I asked Him to be Lord over every detail of that day and to direct my steps; that I may live that day within His will and purpose for my life.  Ah, if I only knew what was to come…

You see, I was ready to leave the house on time that morning, however, just as I was about to leave, I suffered terrible indigestion – the worst I’ve ever experienced – and I thought I was going to throw up.  As I paced back and forth it soon subsided, but I was now running a few minutes late.

I walked quickly to make up for lost time but, on arriving at the bus stop, I found the first ticket machine was out of order.  The second rejected my cash and a further three payment cards (It was around an attempt with card #2 that the bus arrived).  The third machine gratefully received my money and offered a ticket in return, but it was too late.  The bus had already left.

After stalling for a few minutes, hoping (praying!) another bus would arrive shortly, I admitted defeat and realised that if I still wanted to catch my train, I would have to run – yes, run – the mile to the station.  So off I went.  A skirt and boots were not optimal running gear for this quick dash, but ‘desperate times’ and all that…

Regularly checking my watch and praying for the train to be late (I knew this was a long-shot, it is Germany after all) I arrived just in time.  Just in time to watch the train pull away from the platform, that is.

Most normal people would have admitted defeat at this point.  But not me, oh, no!  I was determined to make it to church that morning.  I calculated that if I got the next train in an hour, I would arrive for the service only 30 minutes late.  I conceded that that was acceptable.  (Keeping in mind I had already purchased a day-ticket for 18€ and had not yet received any benefit from it whatsoever.)

So as I waited for the next train (and caught my breath), I asked God, “Why?”  Why had nothing gone to plan?  Why had seemingly insignificant details turned into such a (de)feat?  Did He not want me to go to church that morning?

I caught the next train an hour later.  But, needless to say, it arrived late, causing me to miss the bus connection and successfully sealing my fate on this failed venture.  I was then promptly attacked by a pigeon, lost my favourite earring in the station, and nearly missed the return train because, for some unknown reason, it just happened to leave from a different platform that afternoon.

Four hours of adventure and nothing to show for it.  Why?  Why?  I couldn’t make sense of it.  I still don’t quite know what to make of it.

But as I’ve prayed and reflected on the last seven days, God has taught me this:

  1. It’s OK to ask for help.  Whether that be insight into the local ‘way of things’, a request for information, or assistance in making an informed decision, perhaps some of these challenges could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so determined to do them alone.  I’ve been challenging myself on why I don’t ask for help; what are my motives?  I know a big reason for refraining from requesting the help of others is because I don’t want to be an inconvenience.  I genuinely don’t want to be considered a pest or drain their energy and resources.  I’m also fiercely independent – always have been – and that’s a hard habit to break, though necessary in a new country, a new culture and a new language.  But I also asked myself, is it pride?  Is pride stopping me from asking for help?  Yes, perhaps there is an element of that too.
  2. God establishes the content of each day.  I think, in many ways, this series of unfortunate events was a humorous illustration of God’s sovereignty in all things.  And what makes it even funnier is that I asked for it!  He coordinates the small things just as much as the big things and all are important in His plan.  This can be both an encouragement and a stark reminder that He is Lord over all, and our plans must work within His will, not the other way around.
  3. God lives on the wild side.  After my job opportunity fell through, I was confused.  I wasn’t disappointed, because I felt peace and relief having made the decision to opt out, but I did feel confused and, to be honest, my pride was dented a little.  I had excitedly told everyone about this job – the seemingly perfect fit for me, the provision of income, the future prospects it had promised – but it was not to be.  Why did God allow me to get as far as the training if He knew it wouldn’t work out? I had hardly pursued the job; if anything, it had pursued me!  This is the second ‘close shave’ I’ve experienced during my transition to Germany – the first being an apartment scam which I narrowly avoided.  And I think what remains true throughout is that God cares for us more than we know.  He knows every detail and has the ability to steer us in a new direction at any given moment.  But He occasionally allows us to wander just a little bit farther down the unsafe path in order to demonstrate His love, to test our faith, and to reveal to us what we are really made of.
  4. I don’t need to have all the answers.  Man, right now, I have none of the answers!  I don’t understand why the job didn’t work out.  I don’t know where I might now look for another work opportunity.  The much-anticipated promise of income has been snatched back.  And I have no idea why God could possibly have wanted me to miss church on Sunday..!  But, once again, it all comes down to trust.  Trust in God, and not my circumstances around me.  Trust in His goodness, His love, His faithfulness, and His provision.

This I know: I can be certain in the uncertainty.  I am certain of who God is.  He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He who has been so faithful in my past, is faithful today and He will continue to be faithful through my uncertain perspective of the days and weeks to come.  My job is to simply surrender every single (in)significant detail to Him.

His Plan or Mine?

I was challenged by the book of Jonah this week as I read of his response and subsequent actions following God’s call on his life.

You may know the story already – Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh and declare God’s judgment on the people for their sin, however Jonah chose instead to flee from God’s presence and board a ship headed for Tarshish.

While aboard, God causes a great storm to rise up around them, stirring up fear in the ship’s crew while Jonah sleeps below.  Eventually, upon waking, Jonah admits he’s the reason this storm has arisen and tells the crew to throw him overboard.  They reluctantly do so and the storm dies.

Following a 3-day appointment with a big fish, Jonah hears God’s voice a second time and this time heeds the call and travels to Nineveh to finally deliver God’s message to them.  The people of Nineveh believe God’s message instantly and repent.

“Phew! PTL! The people of Nineveh are saved!” Jonah should’ve shouted.  But instead he goes in the huff.

Can we be like Jonah sometimes?

First, Jonah tried to run away from God’s call on his life.  Why?  Was it too difficult for him?  Too scary?  Not exciting enough?  He just couldn’t be bothered?  The Bible doesn’t say exactly why but it does tell us what happened next…

As Jonah fled in the wrong direction, God sought his attention by raising up a storm around the boat he had found refuge on.  What interested me here was that the ship’s crew first drew Jonah’s attention to God’s part in this storm, not the prophet himself.  But this is exactly why the storm was necessary.

Some of the most significant God-moments in my life have been during or directly following difficult seasons.  It is in those sink-or-swim moments that I have called out in desperation for God to hear me, answer me, save me, direct me.  And He has.  He does.

Jonah had been fast asleep, remaining undisturbed by the wind and waves raging around him while the pagan crew feared the storm and the God who had sent it.  But Jonah can ignore the storm no longer and surrenders himself to the storm, to the big fish, to God.

Then the story appears to have a happy-ever-after ending – Jonah delivers God’s message to Nineveh, the people repent, God grants them deliverance from His wrath, and Jonah is as-happy-as-Larry.

Oh wait…

Following the peoples’ repentance, Jonah is not pleased that the lives of many are saved, he is angry at God for being too merciful!  Hypocritical, much?! God had shown Jonah mercy through his disobedience but he doesn’t now seem to think that Nineveh deserves the same.

I’m beginning to realise that the challenge of our faith is not always during the storm, but often after the storm.  We may surrender to God as the waves toss us to and fro but what happens to us once calm is restored?  Is our faith stronger or are we simply relieved that the danger has passed?  Are we more intentional in our relationship with God or do we return Him to our spiritual First Aid kit ready for the next emergency?

Jonah appears to have forgotten his repentant heart, evident in chapter 2 when he is in the belly of the fish, and returned to his arrogant self, disputing with God over the outcome of his mission.  Yet who are we to stipulate the outcome of God’s call on our lives?  We are simply called to hear and obey, and let God be god.

There’s no doubt about it, God is in the right job!  He knows it all, has power over it all, and has a love for us that we could never fully appreciate.  We may be disgusted at Jonah’s thoughts and actions – I know I was when I read it over – but he simply illustrates the attitudes we can all be guilty of at times.  So despite Jonah’s disobedience, his indifference, his selfish nature and judgemental attitude, God still used him to not only save the people of Nineveh, but the ship’s crew as well.

My point is this – God is God and He is infinitely better placed to navigate the outcomes of our every situation than we are.  He welcomes a dialogue with us, even the doubts, questions and concerns we hold, but then we must release it all into God’s hands and leave the storm, the struggle, the situation with Him.  If He asks us to do something, we obey because He is absolutely trustworthy.

I’ve lived in Germany for a week now; a good first week, no doubt about that.  It’s been surprisingly easy to settle in and feel at home (a reassuring sign that I have correctly heard and obeyed God’s call) but I have also had to regularly remind myself (already) that I am here for His purposes and not my own.  Having taken that initial step to move here, there are suddenly pressures to make plans for what comes next.

“How long are you here for?”

“Where will you work?”

“How long will you attend language school for?”

“Which church will you attend?”

The truth is I don’t yet know what God wants next.  I need to stop and ask Him.  I need to take one day at a time and allow Him to gently steer me as I exercise wisdom and discernment.  I could so easily start making long-term plans – it’s what comes easiest to me – but I must be careful to make plans in line with God’s will, not just implement my own good intentions and ideas.

I don’t feel like I am in the midst of a storm just now – far from it – but I must be careful to not let indifference creep back into my walk with God while I live in (and enjoy) this season on the mountain-top.  God has something to say in every season and I must choose to consistently surrender to Him.  At every junction in life; every trial, change or challenge, we are responsible for making decisions – all decisions have consequences – so lets make decisions based on God’s Word and His will for our lives, and trust Him with the outcomes, not carrying the God-sized responsibility ourselves.

No Longer a {Control} Freak

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’m a control-freak.  Well, at least I used to be.

My sanity revolved around carefully constructed plans, determined to the smallest detail, with every possible outcome weighed and accounted for.  And if not?  Fear reigned.

Because of this, I used to think that being so organised and reasoned in my thinking was a poor character trait.  But what I’ve since realised is that it is not the skill itself (indeed, a God-given gift) that is negative, but the attitude and reasoning behind it.

My motive for considering every detail had always been control, whether I had realised it or not.  I liked to be prepared so, naturally, I needed to examine every possible outcome so that I could prepare for it.  However, any deviation in my plan would render me stressed and anxious. That anxiety would manifest itself in a variety of ways – trouble sleeping; repeatedly playing out various scenarios over and over in my head; rehearsing conversations if I anticipated conflict and confrontation; tension in relationships… essentially, just driving myself crazy!

The funny thing was, I was never in control to begin with.  By desiring to control, I had essentially put myself in God’s role (no wonder I experienced so much anxiety!)  At the root of the desire to control I was simply stating, “my ways are better than God’s ways.”  Ouch.

My need to control situations – whether good or bad – was exhausting and sapped me of all my energy.  And it all came to a head in July last year.

For months I had been trying to control the various areas of my life – work, relationships, church – leaving me so drained that I was simply now running on maintenance mode and doing my best to avoid a crash.

I gave what I could at work, but I felt frustrated and ready to give up.

I was selfish in my relationships, only looking for what I could get out of them.

My attendance at church dropped, and I began to resent the ministries I was serving in.

The voices in my head condemned me for my failing attitudes and told me I was no longer good enough to serve God like I had once hoped I would.  I was now out-of-control, and I had never felt so anxious and lost.  But, thank God, He had not let go.  I had a weekend away booked – to Germany, as it happens – and He met me there in a very real way.

The weekend began like any other short break – laughs with friends, good food, a bit of sight-seeing, sitting in the sun – but what I really needed – rather, what my soul was craving – was time alone with God.

That Sunday afternoon, 3rd July 2016, I released my need to control and accepted something so much greater – the knowledge and true belief that God could be trusted.

As I sat and listened to worship music, journaled, read my Bible, and poured out my heart to God – the honest, vulnerable, uncensored cries – He began to overwhelm me with His acceptance and love.  As I reflected on the weeks and months past, I started to recognise answered prayers that I had been too blind and distracted to see at the time.  Despite feeling alone, I identified God’s quiet, consistent presence; His gentle hand steering me through some of my darkest days.  As I sat that day, staring up at the grey cloudy sky, I experienced real rest in His presence and the inner turmoil I’d felt in the preceding months began to melt away.

That summer I embarked on an exciting rediscovery of God’s kind nature – His love, forgiveness, acceptance, and faithfulness.  As I relinquished control of my own circumstances and simply sought to know my Heavenly Father more, my anxiety dissolved and my passion was reignited.

Prayer suddenly became my first line of defence, not a last resort.  I let go of my need to control because I knew the One who was truly sovereign over all things.  I knew He loved me more than I could ever imagine and therefore His plans for me were good and would not lead to disaster.

I no longer needed to feel prepared for whatever situations I faced – whether anticipated or not – because I trusted God to meet every need in every outcome.  I still had to be a good steward of what He gave me, and I reinstated disciplines to help me as I sought to be more Christ-like, but the best way to prepare for any outcome, I realised, is to consistently and entirely depend on God.

In the months since that revelation of true rest, my perspective has been completely transformed and His peace is what now guides me.  In relinquishing control I’ve experienced a new freedom; my once mundane and highly regimented daily routine is now viewed through the eyes of an Indiana-Jones-like adventurer, anticipating all the surprises God has in store for me every single day!  I have made it a priority to replicate often the atmosphere of that cloudy day in Germany so that my eyes remain fixed on Jesus, and not distracted by the circumstances around me.  I am still organised – yes.  I still make plans – of course.  But I am no longer seeking to control the outcomes of these plans like I once did because I rest assured in God’s sovereign purposes for my life and know that, no matter what I face, He is the answer that I need.