When I was four-years-old, my family moved to a large house on a dirt road in a small province in the Philippines.
The leaves of mango trees were glossy green, and coconut trees reached their branches for the clouds. On the hot days of the dry season, we felt the sweat trickle down our necks as we sat in front of electric fans. Wet season brought with it daily rain and regular typhoons, the kind that blew trees and electric lines down. Our basement would flood, and we had an assembly line passing buckets along until we emptied it.
We told the tricycle drivers to take us to Guadalupe, and directed them after a fork in the road to go right, down a slight hill, and stop at the rusted brown gate on the right. Like most houses in the Philippines, there was a tall wall all around the property. At the top of the wall, broken glass pieces had been embedded into the cement when the wall was built, a supposed deterrent to robbers and drug addicts scaling it at night.
To the left was our neighbour Ka Loreng who had a sari-sari store (literal translation, “variety of things” store) where people bought shampoo in sachets, candy, corn bits in little orange bags and on the hottest day of the year my mother would take us there to buy soda, which Ka Loreng poured into plastic bags. We sipped it out of straws while we walked down the road.
Across the street was Evie and her three kids, a bit further down the road was her sister-in-law Jubi and her kids. There was a large field next to Evie’s house with corn crops and sometimes, sugar cane.
To the right of our our house was a plot of land, and three families lived there in several ramshackle huts, in the Philippines they were called squatters. I remember the women, Nanay Ange and Teri, and a girl a little older than me, Leah. The walls were flimsy pieces of cardboard-like wood nailed together, the roofs, corrugated metal. There were no ceilings, some of the floors were long pieces of bamboo patched together, some of the floors were the earth of the ground, flattened slightly. Each hut was one room, mothers, fathers, children all lived together. There was no electricity and no running water.
When February starts, I feel a deep settling in, a sense of, “Here we go.” They say our birthday is the day we entered the world, but I think our lifetimes mark days when we are reborn. February holds most of my beginnings.
On February 4, 2009 I boarded an EasyJet flight from London to Geneva, Switzerland. I was in the middle of my trip around the world and about to head into the one part of the trip that was totally unknown. Most people who travel do it for the sense of adventure, the longing to see new places and meet new people, being in an unknown European city would be a dream, but I still don’t know why I did it. I’m a homebody and an introvert, and I had no interest in Switzerland. If I was going somewhere in Europe, I would have gone to Italy, Greece or Spain, the places that fascinated me from my history textbooks.
My bank account was running low, and the Australian dollar was crashing, and I didn’t want to have to figure things out for myself. I wanted to be somewhere where someone else was taking care of me and telling me what to do.
So why was I in Geneva? The answer is one of those awkward “Christianese” responses, but it is the truth. God told me to go.
When I share this story, most people fixate on the God telling me part. How? They ask. That is amazing, they exclaim, How did you know for sure?
But for me the fascinating part isn’t that God told me. It is that I went. And to unwind that story, I have to take you back to Northwest Arkansas in 2003 and my friend Amber.
She has brown hair and brown eyes, and in those early university years, something was happening to her. What I remember her talking about was how God would talk to her, in prayer, through the Bible, but also just prompt her to pull over and talk to the person walking on the road and other things. She wasn’t telling me about who God had told her to marry or what she was going to do with her life. She told me about the person she stopped to encourage, the moments when she sensed she was supposed to go and do something that didn’t make sense and the conviction in her spirit of the things that she was supposed to do differently.
Maybe it was because she was a “dependable” Southern Baptist and not a “crazy” Pentecostal that I trusted what was happening in her life, maybe it was because I knew her and loved her and could see first hand the transformation. Listening led to obedience, hearing led to action, and I witnessed a slow deepening of love in her heart for the things of God, it unlatched freedom in her life, and I watched, captivated by the life of adventure unfolding in her life.
I knew I wanted what she had.
After Christmas break in the drive back to my townhouse room, I decided 2003 was the year I was going to start listening to God. I didn’t set an alarm and depended on the Holy Spirit to wake me up for class (he didn’t, I started setting an alarm again). I could tell you lots of crazy stories, clothing I threw out, music I deleted from my computer, and the many other zealous signs of youthful passion. I could tell you about reading Isaiah 61 and memorising those words, Beauty for ashes, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair, oak of righteousness a planting of God, and holding on to those promises to get me out of a period of depression.
Maybe you smiled, maybe you rolled your eyes, but I can tell you that 2003 is the year when God became my friend, it was the year the words in my Bible started to live inside of me. There was a trust unfolding in my soul as we talked through each day, the knowledge that God would never leave and that I could expect his hand to be faithful.
It is difficult to obey someone you don’t trust, but the more I listened, the stronger his voice grew, the more familiar it sounded. It called me home, slowly redefining my identity, shaping my beliefs, creating a space in my life that was both terrifying and tender, sacred and funny. And slowly obedience became easier.
So much easier that when it made no sense at all to fly to a small town in Switzerland, I did it.
I often wonder what I would say about Geneva if I never met the man who became my husband five days into that two-week February visit.
I think I would say that learning to listen to God and do what he says has been one of the sweetest, most frightening experiences of my life; that you cannot predict how it will go; that obedience is both painful and lovely; that you will wonder if you hear right and you will question yourself; that there is grace abundant for each moment and each day.
For the girl wandering around Lake Geneva in a coat that wasn’t warm enough and for you today, I would say, You can trust him, and it is worth it. You will never regret saying yes to God.
I’m linking up with Amy Peterson today with this story. Amy wrote a beautiful book, Dangerous Territory. I read this memoir in a few days, the writing is solid and meaningful, the story is compelling. For anyone who works overseas in a ministry context, this book will give you language for the many stressors and complexities of missionary work. For anyone in a western country, this book will give you words for your own desire for a meaningful life and the broken ways we can create that for ourselves. I highly recommend it.
Two weeks ago, Husband was away for less than 48 hours, and I lay in my bed at 2:30am and could not sleep because I was terrified at every creak and noise I heard.
My best friend starts a a new job in the centre of the city, and I wonder about a terrorist attack.
Many people dear to me live in Germany and Sweden, and day after day I’ve scanned headlines about shootings, bombs and stabbings and wondered, where next?
I watch conventions and read tweets and fear washes over me wave after wave after wave.
Fear shows me my expectations, it unveils my entitlements. Fear highlights where I place my confidence. If my expectations are security and safety, anyone who threatens it causes fear. If I am entitled to a stable society where I can retain the privileges of my life, someone who aims to take it away or adjust it gives me reason to be afraid. If my confidence is in the way I look, my accomplishments or the contents of my bank account, the loss of any of these elements causes insecurity and uncertainty.
Our fears grow out of the grief and pain of not having the life we want. It blossoms when we believe something we deserve is being taken away from us, and our fears are then exploited by the people and systems who have something to gain from our fear.
But we have a better hope.
Hope that is stronger than fear.
Hope that is beautiful.Hope that is eternal. Hope that cannot be taken away.
Hope that will not disappoint us, hope that will not put us to shame.
What role is fear playing in your life today? If its voice is louder than than anything else, maybe these truths will give you strength for today.
We think our minds are enlightened, we read, ponder and debate the opinions of pundits and pastors, and we find lifelines in their ideas. But it is your spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Jesus that we need. You truth brings life to our soul, your breath forms our bones.The eyes of our heart need your enlightening, we need to know, experience and believe the hope to which you have called us. (Ephesians 1:15-18)
We feel small and lonely, like there’s a huge army of people out there who believe differently, who hate us, who want us dead. We feel like our territory is shrinking, stolen a meter at a time by laws or bombs or people. We think we deserve to be in power because we are right. Our eyes are full of the dirt of the world, our ears are full of pride. Wash our eyes, cleanse our ears. We forgot that the only power worth having is your immeasurably great power, the power that walked Lazarus out of the grave, the same power that lifted Jesus out of the tomb, and this power is for the working of good, it is not to keep giving us the life we think we deserve. Your power is for the raising of the dead. Send us out to raise the dead in our world. Take us to the wounded, to the one who cowers in terror and let your power restore. Remind us that the word of truth we heard, the gospel came to us not because of our racial superiority or our inherent worthiness. We received it through grace, we did not deserve it. We did nothing to earn it. And this same gospel is in the whole world, and it is bearing fruit and growing because it is alive, and God is patient, not wanting any to perish but all to come to eternal life. (Colossians 1:3-6, Ephesians 1:15-23, 2 Peter 3:9)
We confess that the thought of physical and emotional hardship and injustice terrifies us. When we suffer, we want to find whom we can blame. We want to vote away the anguish in our minds, we will buy our way out of our pain, we will follow the one who promises to take our suffering away. We will do everything except receive that it may be from you, and that we could even rejoice in it. The strongman is not the answer because we already have the answer. It is Christ in us, the hope of glory. You are alive in us, nothing can harm us. No one can promise us glory or safety or freedom that you have not first already put in us. (Colossians 1:24-27)
We believed irreverent, silly myths—that our worth and value came from our marital status or that how we parents determines our children’s faith or that we have undue political influence—we believed that it is our work that produces faith in people, we lived like every success of our family had something to do with us. We needed a stable marriage, well-behaved kids and the trappings of a well presented life to feel like we succeeded. Retrain us, God. Retrain us for godliness, and show us that we toil and strive not for something on earth but because our hope is set on a living God. Help us set aside our weak and useless rules and draw us closer to you through the better hope you offer us in Jesus. (1 Timothy 4:10, Hebrews 7:19)
We want to believe that the life we had was a good one, that we were essentially good, nice people, making decisions that benefited people. We shared, we gave, we were good. But we know better now, that the life we had without God was foolish, we were disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures. Remember our hearts? We hated, we envied, we thought horribly of other people. But goodness and loving kindness rained down on us, God appeared. He saved us. We were entitled to nothing in and of ourselves, we were entitled to nothing in our society, but he washed us, he renewed us, he made us right by his grace, and instead of our passport or the flag to which we pledge our allegiance, we became royalty. Heirs of a kingdom that cannot be moved, altered or shaken, according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)
Our confidence is not our access to people who are important or information that no-one else has. Our confidence cannot be found in the strength of our might, our ability to outwit terrorists, or the wisdom of our economists and policy makers. Our confidence is that we can walk into a new and living way, opened for us by the blood of Jesus. We can draw near with a true heart, believing that our hearts and bodies have been washed clean, there can be no greater confidence than this, that God has done everything for us to be with him. Being with him is better than being safe, being with him is better than being secure, being with him is better than being right. Hold fast to the confession of your hope. He promised. He is faithful. (Hebrews 10: 19-23)
Holding on to our hope is the only way to walk through fearful days. When the darkness closes in, we know there is a light shining in the darkness for the darkness cannot be light to Him. When the world shakes, we know we have a precious cornerstone, and He cannot be moved. When we feel robbed of the life we think we deserve, we recognise that our inheritance is not written in a constitution or an amendment, our inheritance is not held in a bank, a tax code or a will. God gives us a living hope, and our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1 Peter 1:3-9). It will last forever.
Our hope is in the finished work of God, it is not in our circumstances, in our own transformation, or in the state of affairs in our communities and nations. Nails and a cross gave you and I free access to God in three days he gave us power over sin and death. Jesus’ act of love on the cross means we are accepted as we are. The trying can stop. The performing has no place. Fear is impotent and irrelevant. When faced with the truth that God himself loves us, died for us, rose again and will one day return, only hope can live.
The hope that what our eyes see is not the full story.
The hope that the fear assaulting me is empty.
The hope that the ending is good because of his innate goodness.
The hope that the cross has the final word, the empty grave is the final answer.
I rolled over the other day, and said to Husband, I miss Sweden. Only a few words, but this was more than homesickness. It’s the sadness that follows me around even though life in Australia has been more than good. Sadness that cannot be shaken, not by gratitude or numbering my blessings or coffees or warm weather. Fatigue can wash over me in the middle of the day, and I’m still surprised with the overwhelm when it comes to making simple decisions, the energy I do not seem to have for connecting with people.
I am 34 now, and I have two boys under five in tow. You could say that life on the move, all that carrying on, caught up with me.
I tell myself that this move to Melbourne should be easy, the easiest I’ve made in my life. I have family and friends here, a support system is in place. I can read, speak and write in English. I can make a bank transfer again. I know where everything is. People are helpful and friendly, white-sand beaches are less than a 30-minute drive away, cafes and delicious food are everywhere.
But there are emotions, events and fears I picked up from carrying on, and I was carrying them everywhere.
I started 2016 on a personal retreat, and I took Soulkeeping by John Ortberg with me. Toward the end of the book there is a chapter about rest. He writes about the Christian life, how it is not easy and is not supposed to be easy. We know this, don’t we? We’ve read the book about holiness and not happiness, we know to expect suffering, even to rejoice in suffering.
You know this. You are mothers, fathers, brothers, sons, daughters, friends, sisters in far flung places, fighting your daily battles. You’ve argued with with your boss, studied for exams, wrestled children who don’t listen. There’s an illness in your family with no diagnosis. You wonder how much longer you can live paycheck-to-paycheck. You’re walking out a difficult marriage day after day. Or maybe you’re just unsettled wherever you are in the life that you have and there is no explanation.
You know that God has not called you to easy.
I never expected my life to be easy. When it comes to hard work or the incoming “hard” thing, I’ve always thought, This is from God. But Ortberg continued.
The Bible uses the word easy only once. It came from Jesus. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
‘Easy’ is a soul word, not a circumstance word. The soul was not made for an easy life. The soul was made for an easy yoke.
We have the punishing voice of productivity saying, “Do more. Be more” and the distressed words of anxiety on the other, “It will not work out. It will all fail.” And this is the heavy, hard yoke that was not meant for our shoulders.
Pentecost was last weekend, and it rolls in my mind ever since. The upper room where disciples huddled waiting. For what? I suppose they had no idea. Men, women, likely some children. Days before they ate with Jesus, and he tells them, Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised… They could not have known that the windows would shake, the flames would come, and the life of solitary religion would be gone in an instant as they are dunked, drenched and soaked in the fullness of divinity.
My parents left a few days ago, and as a parting gift, my dad gave us 70 bulbs of tulips, daffodils, freesias and ranunculus. I have no gardening abilities, but it sounded easy enough. It hinges on one thing, though. The bulbs have to be planted by the end of May. This is the season.
We bought it at the Tesselaar garden store, home of the famous Tulip Festival. The bins were almost all empty when we arrived, and the only bulbs remaining were in a few paper bags and burlap sacks in the warehouse. The time to plant bulbs is coming to an end, wait for much longer, the flowers will not grow.
Grandpa and his grandsons dug up pockets of earth in the ground Friday afternoon, and we buried bulbs, one at a time. Patches of future daffodils and tulips, all a mess of brown dirt.
It is the cold ground of winter that the bulbs need to produce life. This must be one of those divine fingerprints on earth, God puts a piece of himself into the DNA of a flower.
Some things must die before they can truly live. Death gives way to life. In the losing of life, we find it.
A perfect God man hangs on the cross and takes his last breath, descends into hell carrying the sins of the world on his back, is laid in a tomb. And then. He lives.
A bulb that looks like a forgotten, sick onion goes into the ground when it is cold and grey. The earth becomes its tomb. Or its womb? And somehow as it gets colder, life will grow. The roots will travel into the soil. Nourishment will flow in. The shoot, which is in the bulb before it ever goes into the ground, presses through the bulb and then the soil. With time, sunshine and water, brilliant flowers bloom.
Burying the bulbs in the ground felt like the holy work of faith, I think of the prayers I’ve buried for years in winter’s ground, the ones that remain unanswered, the ones that were a solid, No, and everything in between. I think of the Peter and James and Mary and John and every person waiting in that upper room wondering.
What are we waiting for? Will it be like Him? Will it be enough? He came back to life, but what about us? What about the life we must life now in Jerusalem, Judea, and the ends of the earth? How are we going to live it without You?
But they waited on because they knew their need. The aching, pressing, all consuming need for the one who had pulled them out of the pit. The one who had hung on a cross. The one they had seen live again.
If there is any marker for a life with God, this is the only one I know: Need. The confession of our lips is simple, We cannot do it without you, we cannot survive it without you, we are nothing without you.
There is a wait yet for all of us. Maybe you are waiting with people around you, maybe you are waiting alone. But how you wait isn’t as important as whom you wait for.
He’s the flame in the bush, pillars of smoke and fire surrounding his people. He comes in the terrible and glorious golden ark. He draws near as a tiny baby, an ugly carpenter, a broken Saviour, a coming King, and He is coming for you.
The wind will blow again through the walls of your life, and it will shake the unnecessary away. You will speak anew in a holy tongue. Your heart will burn for his desires. The roots will grow into the soil, the shoot will push through. Your flower will bloom again.
So we pray, O God, for rain, we ask you now for our food, and we wait for fire.