Don’t Avoid The Stretch

Two years ago today we were packing up our lives in Sydney, freaking out about selling our car (or at least trying not to freak out in a faith-filled way), facing saying goodbye to friends and church family, grieving a little bit but excited to see family in Europe too.

As I look back on the last two years, I realise what a huge amount has taken place, much of it completely unexpected. We have been stretched in every way possible. Stretched til we didn’t think we could possibly stretch any more. Stretched to breaking point, without quite breaking.

We have faced our three children learning a new language and a new culture, taking buses by themselves, making new friends, sitting exams in a language they cannot yet speak fluently, bravely facing fears and anxieties with tears and nervous smiles.

We have faced employment stress where everyone on the team quit all at once and we didn’t know how the job would get done. There has been managers shouting in the office, massive stress, ways of behaviour we have never come across before, confrontational meetings and lines that had to be drawn.

There have been literally months spent in the hospital, MRIs, scans, blood tests, nasal drains, catheters, ECGs, canulas, five operations, multiple visited to the emergency department.

There have been car sale scares, car break downs, large unexpected bills, overpayments, underpayments, desperate rental searches, lost bank cards, blocked bank cards, broken washing machines, TVs, internet, absurd amounts of frustrating paperwork, many many hours spent waiting for buses, the challenge of overcoming driving fears.

And yet… we have survived it all!

I think if you had told me what would happen in two years before we moved I probably wouldn’t have bought the plane tickets. We would still be in Australia. And I’m not sure I would have had the courage to sign up to church plant.

These things have stretched us beyond what we found have imagined but mixed in there have been fantastic days exploring one of the loveliest parts of France, many much loved visitors, soooo many answers to desperate prayers, incredible favour on our girls inn their school work, a growth in resilience in all of us, better family habits.

Jesus never said we wouldn’t face challenges but he did promise that he already won the victory for us and that he would give us overwhelming peace. Sometimes its been a fierce battle to find and keep that peace but we have had it in the end.

As I look back on the last two years you might think that we could feel depressed and negative but the overwhelming impression and memory is one of joy and laughter. We are slowly finding our roots here, making friends, making good memories, winning battles.

How can this be possible?

I’ve been reading the book of John in a different way recently, really wanting to find out who Jesus was, what the cross and the resurrection mean.

In John 1: 16 ((NIV) says Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.

The word fullness in the original Greek text means “abundance” and the original Greek for grace is charis which means joy, sweetness, delight, pleasure, loving kindness. So that means that what Jesus have us out of the abundance of what was in him was…

Joy upon joy already given

Delight upon delight

Sweetness upon sweetness

Pleasure upon pleasure

Loving kindness upon loving kindness.

This is what we have experienced this year. Despite the stretch, the unpleasant, the stressful, the anxious, the fear, Jesus had given us personally victory over it all and we have come through it with a feeling of joy upon joy.

The other day I drove Amelie to her friend’s house. By myself. To a place I had never been before. Further than I had driven before. On French roads. In a manual car. In narrow roads. With some blimmin’ crazy drivers cutting me up.

It was a big stretch for me but I knew I had to do it. On the way home, the sense of euphoria from the victory over what had been a quite paralyzing, life-limiting fear, was extraordinary.

From his abundance comes joy upon joy. He enables us to do what we never dreamed we could do, to face the unfaceable and come through, not just scraping by, but with joy genuine joy and laughter

John 16:31 Jesus answered them…. I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”

If the worst were to happen…

Even though I was on my own in the hospital room, the awkward silence between God and I was palpable.

Would you still love me, still worship me, still respond to my calling if you had the operation and had a stoma bag and not the miracle?

I felt that hard gulp and a reluctant heavy silence settle in my chest. I didn’t want God to be asking me that question and I didn’t really want to reply.

My first yes was sullen.

My second yes was resigned.

My third yes was repentant. Yes of course I would love and serve Jesus even if my worst case scenario came about. Yes of course I would still respond to his call for us in Marseille.

I was about a month in to a two month in and out hospital hokey cokey stint. A physical manifestation of hell where my body, suffering from acute ulcerative colitis was being battered by severe bleeding, dehydration, weight loss, constant blood tests, canulas, pic lines, colonoscopies, antibiotics, immuno-suppressant drugs, steroids, IV nutrition and other various unmentionables.

My urgent prayer was for miraculous healing as clearly the doctors didn’t have much sway with my body but they were starting to talk about last chance drugs and then surgery.

What do you do, what do you think when you believe that God heals, when you believe that he says You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it (John 14:13)?

How do you hold the sovereignity of God (his right and place to be King of your life and to have the final say) and his giving you and I authority and the right to reign and rule over our circumstances (Luke 10:19)?

My new friend Shelley shared with me something that came as a revelation.

Sometimes we can love the miracle we are asking for more than we love Jesus. We forsake our first love.

It’s that gulp moment where we surrender to the will of God and lay down our deepest desire, risking that we may not get it.

I don’t know why this happened to me but I do know that God has been with me in the whole thing.

I know that he gave me a specific reassuring word that it was going to be ok a week before the superbad stuff happened.

I know that I had the top surgeons doing the two emergency procedures I had to have done and I was being monitored by the head professor who overseas the whole region’s gastro-enterology surgeons.

I know that this experience allowed to me to pray several times over the phone with a nominal Christian who was going through her own big operation and we were able to have a deeper connection.

I know that despite the grotty circumstances, God allowed our eldest daughter to shine at school against all the odds.

I know that God put amazing support people in place who were there at exactly the right time and that those arrangements took place up to 9 months beforehand.

I know that since this experience I have experienced a shift in faith and authority.

It’s difficult as Christians to know how to deal with the unexpected and unpleasant. We swing between resignation to suffering and not having faith that God has victory for us and the position where we deny and rebuke any kind of suffering or hardship.

Neither are correct.

Jesus said we would have trials and trouble in this world but that we weren’t to fear, he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We’re not guaranteed a trouble free life just because we believe in Jesus, but we are promised his presence and overwhelming victory over those situations that come to challenge us.

Paul, who had more than his fair share of trials and sufferings, said in Romans 8:17 that we inherit glory with Jesus but if we share in his glory then we also share in his sufferings. Glory and suffering. We must go through suffering but we also get his glory on the other side.

And the psalmist writes in Ps 139 that even in the depths of hell, God’s spirit is still there with us (v8), he never abandons us, and that even darkness is light to him (v12). There were several times when I felt like I was in a physcial version of hell.

My world got very dark for a while and at times I couldn’t see past the next five minutes or the next hour or the next day. Knowing that God has infra-red vision, that darkness is as light for him, that he knows our end from our beginning, he knows what the next five minutes will hold is comforting. Even if you can’t see in the dark, he can.

I don’t know what the answers to the big questions are – why does God allow people to suffer – I do know though that in all of the suffering, he didn’t abandon me. He was there at all the key times, comforting me, providing for me in advance and helping me go though these things.

At one point in my journey I was lying in an operating theatre having a pic line inserted in my arm so that they could feed me by IV as I had lost so much weight. My left arm was stretched out perpendicular to my body and it reminded me of Jesus on the cross.

Normally with a pic line they give you a local anaesthetic – this time there was none.

Normally with a pic line they find your vein the first time – it’s painful but it only happens once. Not this time, it took three very painful goes.

As I lay there on the operating table crying my heart out, it struck me that this was less than nothing compared to what Jesus went through on the cross.

All I could say was Jesus, I’m so sorry that you had to go through that hell just for me.

It was a profondly sobering moment.

He is with you in your situation too if you’ll stop and listen for him. Even if you don’t yet believe in him. It says Christ died for us even while we were still in sin (Rom 5:8). He didn’t wait until we were repentant before he died for us. He did it anyway regardless trusting that one day we’d recognise him and what he did. Pretty amazing.

Kicking the Post Fairy Tale Blues

I was so looking forward to the Royal Wedding this last weekend but in the flurry of welcoming bbq guests and malfunctioning wifi I missed the first 50 minutes of the event of the year.

I did just make the walk down the aisle, The Kiss, the exit from the church beautifully framed by foresty arch.

Later that afternoon i caught up on the highlights: the Bishop’s message that had everyone talking, the dress and cake details etc. But that evening I felt strangely deflated and a little bit sad.

Watching a wedding, Royal or commoner, and watching a romcom movie often makes me feel this way and I always need a moment to come back from disappointment to contentment.

There’s something about seeing someone else’s “happily ever after” that makes you long to stay in that moment forever. A certain dissatisfaction with not knowing every detail of what happens next. You feel like you were a part of happiness and that they left for their party or honeymoon when you would have liked to come along too. You want to know the next part of the story.

It’s very likely that behind the scenes the Bride and Groom were exhausted from putting on polite smiles for the papparazzi, the page boys and bridesmaids probably had epic meltdowns in the corridor right before they stepped into public view and the pastry chef probably is comatose from the stress of making sure the cake was faultless.

We don’t see that though. We don’t imagine the tears and stress behind the scenes or what it emotionally cost people to get to the final post.

All we see is the fairy tale and we are insatiable in our appetite for more. There’s never an end to our desire for our fix of first love.

Maybe that’s why we are so focussed on celeb lives and what the rich and famous are doing. We want endless fantasies of happy endings and exciting adventures.

Coming down from the romance fix though involves recognising that:

  1. Our lives are just as valuable as celebs. More so, because they belong to us. We cannot live someone else’s life. We only have this one precious one given to us and we need to make it count.
  2. Envy, comparison, escapism, fantasy are not satisfying ways to live. They are not even truly living. There is so much to enjoy in this real life that we are living that we miss out on if we abide, dwell or linger in those places. And what a shame and a waste that would be. I have to remind myself to be glad for the happy couple, bless them, move on and appreciate my own life.
  3. Love, true love, is the kind that lasts long after we have lost any looks we once had or any butterflies our partner once gave us. Truly beautiful love is the kind that holds the bucket for you when you vomit, that strokes your hair back and tells you its going to be ok. Truly beautiful love never gives up on you even when you disappoint them again and again. The most precious love forgives, honours, encourages, protects, lifts up, considers. Romantic love in its first flush is wonderful but it’s not the most valuable. Sometimes we are tempted to throw away or to not cherish and guard the valuable love that we possess in order to recreate and live permanently in those exciting first feelings. What a mistake and a bad bargain that would be.

As I think about First Love, I’m reminded that God longs for us to return to our First Love for him, that he is jealous when we turn away to a new First Love. It deeply and keenly hurts him to be rejected like that just as it hurts us. And his love is of a higher, purer, infinitely more wonderful love than our tiny minds can comprehend. The kicker is that whatever love we trade his in for it is so much inferior that when we see it with clarity, we realise just what a terrible trade in it really is.

Now that I’ve written that I feel quite content again. I’ve written this mostly for me and not really for you at all!

Redemption Dog

Percy arrived with us five months ago. We found him on the local equivalent of ebay being given away for free because he is a hunting dog and his owner couldn’t take him hunting any longer. Or so he said.

We met him loved him and took him home straight away.

Percy is our Redemption Dog. He is a living parable of what our relationship with God is like and what our behaviour is like. It’s pretty uncanny!

Several years ago at Presence Conference, Ps Phil Pringle shared The Parable of the Dog which was a hugely powerful message for me personally. I guess my reflections here take that message even further.

Percy when he came to us was called Touky which in French seems to be the equivalent of calling your dog “Little Doggy”. It seemed so impersonal, so uncared for. So the kids renamed him Percy which sounded enough like his old name for him to respond to but it had character and personality.

When we come to Jesus he actually gives us a new identity. The Bible says we become a new creation, the old has gone the new has come. We are still the same person but we have a new identity when we are adopted into the family of God. We become sons and daughters, heirs and co-heirs with Christ.

I find myself wincing every time the girls think its fun to call him by his old name to see if he responds. When we have a new identity we no longer want to go back to the old one.

When Percy arrived he wore a raggedy broken collar and his previous owner have us a ripped and re-stitched canvas car cover that he said he liked because it had his smell on it. Actually Percy never took the least bit of notice of it.

When we come to Jesus we are clothed in his life, his purity, his innocence, his love. He gives us clothes of praise instead of despair. That raggedy collar and blanket spoke to me of a pitiful former life of despair. They had to go. We put a new collar on him, gave him a new blanket.

He immediately ripped the new blanket thinking it was a good game of tug. Isn’t that just what we do with some of the good gifts God gives us? We misuse them and rip them until we understand what they’re for?

We don’t know much about Percy’s former life but he seems to be starved of affection so he wants to be with us all the time.

When we come to Jesus we often haven’t known what pure unconditional love looks like and we can’t believe how good, how sweet his company is. We want to be in it all the time.

The only time Percy barks is when he wants to come inside and be with us. If we go upstairs where he isn’t allowed to be he will sit at the top of the stairs with his head and paws poking through the banisters whining and talking to us until we come down. Wherever we are in the house he wants to be at our feet or with a paw touching us. He won’t go for a wee I the garden unless we come with him and when we go back in he follows us.

When we meet God, this is also how it is. We want to be with him, in his presence all the time.

Much of my time is spent training Percy at the moment. He came to us with no discipline at all. On walks he pulled our arms off, never just walking calmly along beside us. Greeting us he jumped and scratched and knocked us over in his excitement. He pooped on the gravel at night. He was frightened of strangers, particularly tall men, which made us think he might have been abused. He didn’t seem to have been socialised with other dogs as he seemed to be scared of even the tiniest ones. He didn’t know how to sit or stay or come. He was afraid of coming into new places and he would jump at loud noises (very strange for a hunting dog).

And he is curious to the point of being feckless with no sense of danger. In the five months we have had him he has run across a motorway, licked a poisonous caterpillar and almost died, taken a bite out of a large toad (also poisonous), and been bitten by a viper. We have seen 3 different vets already!

When we first come to Jesus, we too are a bit wild, insecure, traumatised perhaps from past experiences or relationships. Our tongue will say whatever the heck it likes and we cower in fear at certain things. We get into trouble that can be potentially very serious until we learn to listen to the wise counsel of the Holy Spirit. We don’t always know how to relate well to other people.

And the comparisons are endless. As we journey on this new relationship with Jesus listening and responding to his love and discipline our lives become calmer, more peaceful, more ordered, more pleasant, more productive and we get more wisdom in tricky situations.

Recently God has been speaking to me about times of restraint and times of really going for it. As I train Percy to walk calmly beside me and compare it to when I let him off leash to run as fast as he can, I can hear the voice of the Spirit of the Father saying This is what it’s like with you.

There is a magnificent beauty in seeing Percy run as fast as he can possibly run. His tongue lollops out like a slice of ham flapping in the wind, his ears flop and he gallops at an incredible speed for the sheer joy of it until his whole body heaves out of breath. He comes back looking so happy!

We are made equally magnificently to do the things that God has planned and purposed for us to do. And when God gives us the go ahead and lets us off leash saying It’s time! He delights to see us run full tilt. And at other times he tells us it’s time to walk, to rest, to eat, to drink.

Oh and with dogs, there’s always poo.

We need to regularly empty our bag of all the crappy stuff that we carry around otherwise we get spiritual toxic poisoning. God has a safe place and a safe time for us to do that where it’s not going to get in other people’s way or stick in their shoe.

We need to listen to him as to where we do that. In the neighbour’s yard is not the place. And like Percy, when we see other people’s business out in public we need to know its gross to lick it, eat in it ir roll (revel) in it. We’ll only come back stinking of the same thing.

2017: What a year!

You crown the year with a bountiful harvest; even the hard pathways overflow with abundance.
Psalms 65:11 NLT

December is almost here and in the northern hemisphere the days are getting shorter, the mornings and evenings are darker, the year is literally winding up.

As I look back over the year it seems to be the craziest one we’ve had in a while yet I know that God hasn’t sprung this year on us. He’s been preparing us for it slowly, inexorably.

Almost exactly six months go we flew out from Australia, hearts in our mouths, heads in a whirl, petrified yet knowing we couldn’t say no to what we felt God had put on our hearts to do.

I had a dream in March this year, one month before we found out we were moving, two months before we flew. At the time I knew it was significant and about church planting but over the year i can see just how true a picture it has been.

I dreamt I was being asked to return transportation for a rental company. I knew the destination was far away but i didn’t know where exactly. I showed up at the door of a warehouse and the owner took me to see the transportation.

I thought I would be taking a big ferry somewhere because he told me it was a very long boat. However when we got down to the water, it was night and I could just see an double length tinny (a tin fishing boat, very basic) with a motor in the water. It was zooming around aimlessly on the water, motor running, driverless and the ow ever of the business was just waiting for it to pass the shore so he could grab it and hold it still for me to get in.

I realised that the water was a horrible brown swamp, it was very dark and there were lots of trees surrounding the swamp with giant crocodiles I the water, some of them bigger than the boat.

I told the owner that there was no way i was getting in that boat. I kept telling him I didn’t know how to drive a boat, I had never driven one before and I didn’t have a license. I told him there was no way i was getting in a tinny in swampy crocodile infested waters at night with no idea how to navigate.

The owner kept telling me is be fine and whenever I asked where I was going and how I would find my way there, he avoided answering me directly. He just said “you’ve got your GPS on your phone haven’t you?”

Finally, as I was putting a life jacket on he told me I would be delivering the boat to Mike Pence’s house. I said “Mike Pence? THE Mike Pence?” And he said “yes and hell be bringing you home in his Alpha Romeo Speedboat”.

At this point the motor on the tinny cut out and it capsized. The owner started bringing out a spare motor to put on the boat – it was covered in a blanket and seemed dodgy at best.

I asked ” why can’t Mike Pence just come in his Alpha Romeo Speedboat and tow the tinny back himself?”

He answered “He can’t. We’ve got to take it to him.”

While all this was going on, large crocodiles kept getting out of the water and charging the owner and I and he would casually pull me out of the way or I would jump and the croc would go between my legs. In the dark you couldn’t easily see them coming.

I could see the twinkling lights of houses on the coast in the distance and for some reason i agreed to do the trip anyway He told me to follow the coast and on the compass to keep certain numbers and words in sight. The word GREEN written in green and the numbers 23 and 8. I didn’t know if my phone battery would last so i wrote it on my hand in pen.

Not knowing how far down the coast I’d have to travel or how I’d know when I’d got to my destination, I woke up as I was preparing to get into the boat.

When I woke up my heart was going like the clappers and my first thought was that’s exactly how church planting feels to me.

You are going into a situation that is dodgy at best, fraught with danger, you have no idea where you’re going to, how long for or how you will get there.

Everybody thinks you’re crazy, even yourself but because Jesus ask you to you do it anyway. He gives you the GPS of his word and wise counsel to steer you.

My dream postscript as i fell back to sleep was that I knew in my heart that the owner Jesus was going in the boat with me. And in church planting he does that. He asks us to step off the safety of land and the known, into the unknown but he comes with us and he knows where he is going.

So here we are at the end of a crazy year full of close calls and charging crocodiles, safely pulled out of harm’s way by our King of kings. He is crowning the year with his bountiful harvest and even the hard pathways we have travelled are blessed with abundance.

He is good. He is faithful. He has been working on our hearts more than he has ever worked on them before and we are agog to see what he will do next year!

God moved into the neighbourhood

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
(John 1:14 MSG Bible)

I’ve had the words of this verse ringing in my ears these last few days.

As we have moved into this French neighbourhood so God moved into our neighbourhood 2000+ years ago and into my personal neighbourhood 25 years or so ago.

When you move into a neighbourhood or you have new neighbours move in next door to you, things change.

For us we start exploring the world around us. I drop the 7yo off at school, I nod and wave to the teachers at the gate or maybe ask them a question. I walk to the bakery and pharmacy saying “Bonjour” to everyone I meet on the way, smiling as widely as I can. Mostly I get a smile and a bonjour back!

I’m starting to recognise the same mum who has her toddler with her as she walks her preschooler to school. The toddler smiled at me and gave me a high five the other day. Her poor mum sighed and reckoned she’d be back home by dinner time so slowly they were going.

The pharmacist and bakery girls are friendly and beginning to recognise me and the owner of the local fruit and veg shop has a child in my class.

As I walk I see the doctor parking her car ready for work, she recognises me and smiles hello.

I’m pretty sure we stand out as different if nothing else by our accents and our constant need for advice.

When someone new moves into a neighbourhood relationship dynamics change, the flavour changes.

Jesus had to move into the neighbourhood for things to change.

The invisible God knew that we needed to see him, to touch him, to talk with him and find out what he was like. Our limited human brains couldn’t grasp what God was like so we needed to see a visible demonstration of his generosity, his love, his holiness, his purity, his kindness, his joie de vivre.

It wasn’t just Jesus’s death and resurrection that was important, he showed us what God was really like and how we were always meant to live.

The scary mind blowing thing is that with all our sin and our stuff ups, Jesus says to us who believe in him,

Right! Off you go and do like I did. Move into the neighbourhood, be salt and light to your neighbours. I’m living in you now so I’ll help you. Just keep checking in with me and I’ll let you know what to do next.

Geez he’s trusting. I’m not sure I would be.

But that’s the beauty of the Church, the body of Christ. For all its awful stuff ups there are also many more glorious good things and the church is God’s plan to move into neighbourhoods right round the world so that people who don’t know him can see and touch him.

Every person who believes in Jesus carries God into their neighbourhood in one form or another. And it doesn’t really matter what neighbourhood you live in. They all need Jesus!

Sometimes I beat myself up because I don’t think I’m carrying Jesus well. How wonderful is the thought that Jesus is able to eclipse my idiocies and when I’m about to really do something off the charts crazy he’s able to stop me or take me out of action. How comforting!

As I walk around our suburb I’m praying and believing that God is bringing change, bringing peace, bringing blessing one friendly smile and one Bonjour at a time. All I have to do is show up and wait.

This journey

This last month had been hairy to say the least. I’m not sure what I thought church planting would be but whatever it was it wasn’t this.

Every day has brought a new challenge we didn’t know how we would get over. And every day has brought new answers to prayer we could never have imagined.

I’ve been a Christian all my life and never has the Bible been more raw and literal than right now.

In all of this churning soup of events and emotions God had been with us every step of the way, picking me up off the floor, encouraging us, teaching us learn not to panic but to trust him.

Never has it been more obvious to us that without him we can do nothing.

Literally nothing.

Every single thing depends on God’s grace and mercy to us, on his decision to move on our behalf.

I find myself wondering… If this is a surprise and a new revelation of an old truth how did we get to such a comfortable point in life as to believe that we could do anything without him?

God has a very cheeky sense of the ridiculous. I find he often says things to me things that “good Christians” wouldn’t approve of. He also had a tendency to use absolutely anything. Almost nothing is sacred. Or with him, I should say everything is!

French people just let their dogs poop on the pavement and one day this week while walking past a canine turd, I felt God to me “Look up” and the subtext that went with it was

Look up from the crap you’re going through, there are beauty and gifts all around you and they dwarf the crap.

When God talks it sometimes makes me gulp. He’s such a gentleman that he can reprimand you in the most gentle subtle of ways but you are in no doubt as to what you need to change. No condo bondo (bondage to condemnation) as our friend Rob would say but certainly a knowledge that you need to pull your socks up quick smart.

There have been several moments like that recently and I’m so grateful for them. They bring life and peace and joy. They make the unbearable bearable.

One of my favourite chapters in the Bible says

My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts says the Lord . And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55: 8&9)

I have quite possibly lost track of the number of times I’ve told God he’s doing it all wrong. It’s a completely futile exercise though because he does it his way anyway and I might as well make it easier on myself by listening to him and enjoying the ride.

What are you have you been fighting God on and need to hand over to him to do his way?