The Hidden Door

In J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale, The Hobbit, a company of dwarves led by Thorin, the heir to the throne, embark on a quest to reclaim their home in the vast caves of the Lonely Mountain. Now housing a greedy dragon, the dwarves have little hope of re-entering the mountain and defeating the dragon unless they enter by a secret door. The problem is, however, the door can only be found by the last light of Durin’s Day.

It is a race against time, and against a pursuing horde of enemy orcs, to reach the mountain and find the door, ready to open it as the last light of Durin’s Day falls.

But as the sun sets, and the golden beams illuminate the hidden doorway, panic and frustration arise as the dwarves search franticly for the keyhole amongst the rough stone mountain-face. The impatient dwarves resort to kicking, tapping, and shouting orders to one another in an effort to force the entrance open as the light fades behind the surrounding hills.

“Break it down!” Thorin commands, in a last-hope attempt to unseal the mysterious gateway, as his comrades begin hacking at the rock with their plethora of weapons.

As the sky grows dark, and hope fades, Thorin re-reads the words inscribed upon the map that led them this far, but failed to lead them to success. “What did we miss?” he asks, rhetorically. “What did we miss?”

Discouraged and dismayed, the dwarves begin their slow descent back down the rock face, but Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely hero in the Hobbit tale, remains behind and ponders the instructions on the map for a moment longer. Meanwhile, the moon appears from behind a cloud, reflecting the lost sunlight, and shines upon the rock-face, revealing the much-sought-after door.

Once illuminated, the keyhole is quickly found, the entrance unlocked, and the door swings open with ease.

I’ve watched the Hobbit movie trilogy a number of times, and have also read the acclaimed novel, but this scene really struck me as I watched it again, recently.

We are all on a quest for a hidden door, are we not? Not a magical door on the side of a mountain, perhaps, but what about a door of opportunity, or a door of provision? Maybe one of breakthrough, or revelation, or freedom? But these doors often seem hidden to us.

Our journey towards these doors can sometimes feel long, treacherous, even endless. And when we finally reach what we perceive to be the end, we grow weary and anxious at yet another hurdle. We, too, may echo the words of Thorin; “What did we miss?”

Sometimes we wait for doors into promises that we have waited for for a long time. On occasion they are doors that God has spoken about clearly and with conviction. We know they will open, but frustrations and impatience arise when the light begins to fade and we feel like we are running out of time.

Have you attempted to break down a door or two? Have you spent far too much time wondering what you must have missed for the door to remain closed? I have.

But know this: God does not lead us to despair.

When the last light fades and the shadows grow long, this is when our faith is tested the most. Hope dissipates, and we may succumb to desperation or resignation. But, let me say it again: God does not lead us to despair.

Are we to be found amongst the dwarves; we perceive failure, having engaged our own limited efforts, and walk away distraught and discouraged, accepting defeat?

Or do we count ourselves within the minority; those who hold on to belief even when our own understanding assumes defeat? Do we hang on just a little longer, believing that our journey of faith counted for something? Are we humble enough to recognise that God’s mind far exceeds anything we could even begin to imagine or understand? These are the few who witness God opening doors that no man could ever prise ajar.

God’s timing is perfect (Ecclesiastes 3:11). His words do not fail (Isaiah 55:11). The instructions He sets out before us are not false (Numbers 23:19). He does not seek to fool us or cause us to stumble (Romans 10:11). He simply asks us to trust Him (Proverbs 3:5-6).

The Bible reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

The doors that God opens for us are surrounded in mystery, and intrigue, and surprise. They cannot be forced open, or ‘figured out’, or opened prematurely. But be assured of this: at the right time, under the right circumstances, the door will swing open, and all we have to do is walk through it.

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.

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.

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.