The Power of Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For such a time as this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Modern Day Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.W. Tozer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, come.” Jesus replied.

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

“Lord, save me!” he cried to Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

The Repeat Examination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mathematics of Generosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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