When God breaks your stuff

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart…

(Broken...I was pleased to receive this thoughtful story for the blog.)

‘I was such a good missionary. I had given up so much. Surely God would respect that. Right?’

A cross-cultural worker writes of her experience of paring down her worldly goods ready for a simple life among people much poorer than herself, and then finding that within her first 12 months the precious things she had taken from home were mostly broken or damaged by visitors to her home.

She describes her pain and anger with God, followed by brokenness at the recognition of her resentment; the resulting surrender to God and the realisation ‘that people are always more important than things. Always.’

The title grabbed my attention because I too have pondered over similar issues. Not that I have lost crockery or ornaments. Having never been much attached to goods and chattels, I would have difficulty filling two plastic barrels, let alone the 20 that this lady writes of! But that doesn’t mean that other things don’t become precious to me…

Looking back over more than 35 years in mission I have thrown myself into my work, seeking always to honour God, to build up and encourage others. By and large I have enjoyed the ministries God has led me into. These have been for the most part low-profile, with the occasional up-front speaking engagement. I have long recognised God-given leadership gifts and have often been aware of my own insecurities in this role. At the same time, aspirations and ambitions have at times risen to the surface and have had to be laid before God. In asking Him to ‘rank me with whom You will,’ I have frequently been surprised at where He has taken me.

The vision fades

For me, the breaking has come in a different way. I look back over two periods of my life when as part of a leadership team I have given of my best, often going beyond the call of duty, to get a team to the ‘performing’ stage.

In the first case, decisions began to be taken that unwound the changes we had led. Had we failed to communicate the new vision adequately? Or had people simply gone along with it at the time for the sake of peace? Slowly we watched the ministry drift, lose personnel, and forget the original vision.

In the second instance, I stepped down and the new leadership team that took over proved to be overstretched with other responsibilities. That led to dissatisfaction and drift and eventually new leaders were appointed. But they proved to be an unhappy choice, failing to gain the support of the staff.

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart is painful – doubly so when it happens the second time! As a former leader I felt I couldn’t interfere. There were days when I had to work hard to avoid adding my comments to the critical voices around me (to my shame I have to say, not always successfully.) As I struggled with my feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment at those who appear to be making poor decisions and ultimately at God Himself for allowing this to happen, I could only watch and pray and ponder…

Did I as a leader miss something significant? Where did I/ we go wrong? Could I have done more to prevent things falling apart? Have other parties been at fault? (Don’t we all want to place the blame at someone else’s door?) This was my life’s work – what is there to show for it? Have I wasted my days building a house of hay and straw, only for it all to come tumbling down? And then, of course, the big question: Where is God in all of this?

The God Question has been the easiest to answer. Over and over again He continues to reveal His love and His grace. He is the unchanging One and in those ongoing revelations of grace I have been reminded that God is loving and kind and altogether on my side! He tests the motives of our hearts and takes us through the refining fire. It is after all His work, not mine, and who am I to argue with Him? It is He who permits ‘men to ride over our heads’. As time has gone on Psalm 66:10-12 has enabled me to put things in perspective. I can only conclude that God has been there all along and continues to work out His purposes, even when the walls come tumbling down.

At the end of the day He will be glorified.

The same psalm speaks of God bringing us to ‘a place of abundance.’ This too is part of my story. Not only have I discovered afresh the love and faithfulness of a Heavenly Father, but I am surrounded these days by people who are choosing to follow Jesus. Playing a small part in their discipleship and practical support is an incredible privilege, with its own joys and sorrows. Through difficult days God has indeed brought me to a place of abundance.

Complain a lot, but praise a little too

The rights of God’s children

88960025When we’re trying not to be beaten senseless by our own thoughts, I like the way the Psalms do it.

Roughly:

  1. Complain all you like but always praise some.
  2. Sometimes just praise.

This is great! And it’s in the Bible:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 NIVUK)

But then you have to praise.

It’s like when two of you have had a row, but one of you decides to say a slightly kind thing. Just that slightly kind thing can start to dismantle the situation. Before long you’re friends again. In the same way, a little willingness to praise starts to cap the gush of self-pity.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6 NIVUK)

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1

 

6 tips for surviving hospitals

Slow healing (10)

Injured Teddy Bear

Here’s the problem:

  1. Take a completely healthy person. Put them in a humiliating hospital gown. Insert a cannula in each wrist, a blood-pressure cuff to their arm and a blood-oxygen monitor on their finger,
  2. Every few hours, send someone round to hurt them, perhaps by sticking a needle in them, putting stickers on them and then ripping them off or (for maximum fun) inserting and then removing a catheter into their urinary tract.
  3. Move them to a new bed at random times, even midnight.
  4. Keep them near the nurses’ station so they don’t sleep.
  5. Make sure they are in a ward with other stressed people, some who are calling out constantly, some who fight the nurses, some who are deaf, some who don’t speak English, and some who soil their bedclothes. Arrange for one or two to die if possible.
  6. Only answer the call bell sometimes.
  7. Give them food they don’t like at times they aren’t hungry.
  8. Hold them for an indefinite time.
  9. Have a consultant visit once per day for five minutes and issue contradictory messages about when they will be allowed to go home.

I suggest that after a week of this treatment, even a healthy person would  be demoralized, perhaps really ill, and would need days to recover.

_________

At the moment I have some close relatives and friends in hospital and I am reminded of the awfulness of it. Despite the best efforts of dedicated staff and family and friends. Just like anyone who has spent some weeks in hospital, I have seen all of the above.

You have to learn to survive. Anyone who has managed some months in a hospital ward will be an expert in this. My tips — linked to Christian notions of healing — are these.

  1. See Christ beyond all of this. Trust him. Lean into him. Thank him. Believe in him and never let him go. He is good, really good, and his power and purposes will prevail in my life. Say that over and over. Work it out in your mind. Never give up on it. Never.
  2. Give him your pain, and the pain you see in your loved one’s faces. It’s too hard to hold it yourself.
  3. Make up your mind to keep your humanity in this place. Thank the people who injure you. Smile. Ask them their name. Give them yours. Be courteous and kind. They are under pressure too. You will find other patients and medical staff who, in all the inhumanity, are trying to be human like you. Spark off each other. When your loved ones visit, thank them, appreciate them, serve them: make their visit as happy as you can. Give them your best. You may fail in all of this, often, badly, but at least try.
  4. Understand this is a season of suffering and you need to endure it. Endure it rather than rage against it.
  5. Find ways of being happy: a nice meal, a good film, a kind friend.
  6. Through the night, thank God for everything you can think of and pray his blessing on everyone you can think of.

The real problem with praying to God for healing: he has an agenda

We might not like the medicine

You probably know the old joke about a person who fell off a cliff but managed to grab hold of a branch halfway down. As he swung, he called into the mists below him, ‘Is there anybody there? Can you help me?’

A voice came from the mist. ‘Trust me, and let go the branch.’

The person thought about it and then said, ‘Noted. Is there anybody else down there?’

Involving God in our healing exposes us to the risk that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways.

We may come to him with the hope of a quick fix to a medical problem. But in coming, we open ourselves to the fact that God may have a view on what is really wrong with us and what needs to be put right.  

We may point out the mote in God’s eye (he let me suffer toothache!), he points out the plank in ours. We bring our agenda to him; he brings his agenda to us. It is like when you have to speak to your wife about something.  It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what avalanche will be unleashed as you remove the first boulder. 

Unfortunately I know of no way round this. Once we bring our problems to God we are in the same position as the king with an army of 10,000 discovering that the opposing king has an army of 20,000.  By the end of the day there will only be one king left standing. One agenda will survive the meetup. And it won’t be ours.

Our options at this point are limited. We could take the ‘Henry V’ option (‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’) Or, since it is God we are now facing, God and his agenda for us, we could take our army to one side and say, ‘Lads, it’s like this. We either face certain death in battle or we surrender and hope for the best.’ We come to him: we submit to him. We want his touch; the only thing offered is his outstretched arms, his deep embrace. It’s all or nothing, all of him or nothing.

Our only way out of this dilemma is to take our medicine as soon as possible. We want healing if possible please; if so, we first need to surrender ourselves, body, mind and schedule, heart and soul and hopes, to the Healer.

 

A business leader ponders commitment to Christ 

Is 51% control enough for God?

‘… It was if my life had shares and God wanted 100 percent control of it. A divine tug-of-war ensued. Why would God want all of me? Could there be a joint venture? Could I carve out a special deal to suit me? What about a partnership? Was 50/50 not a good arrangement. It became clear that true freedom was to be found in full surrender to the love of God. It did not come to me easily, nor at once. I got there in stages. I recall praying that God would take 51 percent of my life–control but not whole ownership. I remember the churning an d the heated deliberation within myself as this plan did not seem to achieve the desired objective. I saw then, and recognize now more fully, the arrogance of negotiating with God and the foolishness in believing I had anything to offer God. I recall praying: “Lord have all of me. Only don’t abandon me.” In that moment, I realized that the God who loved the entire world also loved mean and would stay faithful to me, even when I was not faithful to him, as has sadly often been the case.

‘What struck me at once was the immediate change in every area of my life…’

Ken Costa, banker, in his helpful book God at Work.

In praise of dogged

We all know people like this: unfailingly courteous. Hard-working. Persistently kind. Steady. Thorough. They are like pillars who hold up the organizations we work in.

Somewhere else in the building is the rodent scurrying of chatter, gossip, five-year-plans, radical upheaval, ambition, people making their mark, all passing by with the lifespan of hamsters while the pillars go on holding up the roof.

Our labrador Mabel, who died recently after 14 wonderfully dogged years just being a dog.

(I saw a quote: ‘Reform! Reform! Aren’t things bad enough already?’)

The odd thing about the steady people is that they don’t feel they’ve achieved anything. All they did was go to work, raise their families, pay their bills; nothing spectacular or charismatic or epoch-making or history-shaping or world-changing.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. George Elliot, Middlemarch (with which the book ends).

‘They did not wait for his plans to unfold’

Bad, very bad.

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Psalm 106: vv 12-13:

‘Then they believed his promises

and sang his praise

‘But they soon forgot what he had done

And did not wait for his plans to unfold.’
Enough said.

Rowing a boat alone across a lake

Behold the terror and the joy

 

Lonely BoatingImagine rowing a boat on your own across a lake. The fears and joys are yours alone.

We are always alone. People may sit by our fireplaces–as it were–over many wonderful evenings and years. They may hug us and hold us, accepting each other as completely as two humans can.

But no-one knows us quite fully or quite truthfully. There are always veils. We are not entirely as we present ourselves, even to those we love the most.

Thanks to faith in Christ, though, I’ve discovered I’m never alone.

When I’m rowing alone across a lake, also known as living, Christ knows with me all the terror and the joy. Other loves may kindly watch, from the shore or other boats. Other loves may cheer and blow kisses. But he knows it all and we share it together.

 

A touch of the hand-done

Creation is a bit bodged together

A biologist friend of mine, a Christian, was telling me that what he saw through his microscope was … well … a bit ramshackle. It was a challenge, he said, to the idea of a Creator.

You would think a Creator would do something altogether more slick and wonderful. And of course, many biologists peer down their microscopes and do see shades of the beautiful and even the elegant. Perhaps biology is both wonderful … and a bit Heath-Robinson.

My friend and I were talking in our local Anglican church.  And when I think of the words “bodged together” and “still a bit wonderful” the words “Church of England” follow quite naturally. The C of E did not spring, intricate, interlocking, gently humming with purpose, from its Maker’s hand, like an expensive watch. Nor, it appears, did Life.

We serve the God of cuckoo clocks.

Day #3: KerPlunk marble tube and CD dominoes

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Here’s my comic novel Paradise, which takes the themes of “redemption” and “ramshackle” to new heights, or possibly, depths. Free on Kindle as a gateway drug to the next ones in the series.