When your tank is running dry

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It’s only just past 10 in the morning, and already I have found myself looking up at the sky many times today. What started out as blue skies has gradually been covered with ever darkening clouds. The wind is strong from the north and the temperature was already over 25°C at 8am. The humidity is well up and I am dripping. But what I am hoping for still hasn’t arrived. What has been promised by the weather bureau so many times may just pass us by again.

RAIN!

As we near the official end of summer, we are feeling the effects of very minimal rain over the last two months. The grass is a dry grey-brown and some plants are looking very much worse for wear. Even the weeds are dying! Being reliant on our rain tanks, we have had to pay for water to be trucked in.

Please let it rain today!

Perhaps you can relate to this - those feelings of disappointment about hopes that seem to never materialise and maybe you even feel as though disappointment has been a recurring theme in your life?

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Back at Christmas, I was reminded anew of this struggle between hope and delivery.

In many ways, Christmas can be fraught with unmet hopes and disappointments. However, this year I was reminded of the depth and reality of hopes actually being met at that first Christmas.

In the lead up to Christmas, I experienced a number of disappointments. So I was really not feeling very celebratory at all and trying desperately to find some meaning in all the festivities. 

Finally, on the morning of Christmas Eve in church I had my own little epiphany. I am not sure why - I am not aware of anything especially different being said, and the Christmas carols we sang were not unusual. But somewhere in the midst of the singing, I found myself reflecting "this really did happen". Jesus really was born to real people who experienced those things we are told about. Mary really had an encounter with the Holy Spirit, Joseph really had those struggles and those dreams. The shepherds really had an angelic encounter. Anna and Simeon were real people who finally saw their hopes birthed in Jesus. It really all happened

Don't get me wrong. I hadn't been having a faith crisis or anything. This was simply a new level of 'knowing'. It was as though it almost became my own memory. Think of the Israelites, who told their stories over and over and other cultures where stories of the past are told - it becomes part of their cultural memory. It wasn't just a story that happened to someone else at some other time. It happened to their family.

It's a bit like the ownership we start to take of our ancestors when we find out more about them. Even if we never knew them, their story becomes part of our DNA. I have been sensing this particularly with members of my family tree who were involved in Christian ministry or mission - there is a greater level of affinity. (Although, I am not sure what this says about a large proportion of Australian people who would like to find they had convicts in their ancestry!)

Back to my own journey, this experience was not simply an anomaly or blip along the way. It tied in well with another insight I sensed from God around the same time.

This was to do with hope. I was reminded again of my own story and the realisation there are two ways to hope in God.

One is the belief that it is all about our ability. The belief that if we can cling tightly enough to God, we will get to the places and circumstances He has for us; we will be ok. But we have to do the work to cling to Him, to press further into Him. I recall the picture He gave me some time ago of how I had been when my first marriage ended, where I was like a little child being taught to float in the pool. Even as I was told, "lay back and relax, I've got you, I won't let go", I was clinging so tightly that I wasn't even in the water! My fear of the unknown, the future was preventing me trusting that God had it all under control.

What I sensed Him reminding me was that hope is not all about us. It is not even about our ability to hope.

Hope is about rest.

If we hope in God, it is not vain hope. It is hope at rest. We know He is good, we know He is able.

The alternative to hope is hopelessness, which can lead to despair. When we make hope all about our workings, then when those things we would like to see come about don't, we quickly fall into feeling powerless in our ability to do anything. Which, really, is the whole point of faith and prayer. It is the recognition that we are powerless to make God do anything, to change many circumstances we find ourselves in. 

As I was doing my Lenten readings the other day, I didn’t get past the first few words of one of the Scriptures. As I read it, I just wanted to stop there and soak deeply in what God showed me. It was so freeing! The reading was from Isaiah 9:6-7

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders…Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

It is Jesus who shoulders the responsibility of the governments and the governance of every aspect of our world, human as well as all the physical, chemical and biological laws and so on. 
So often, we feel as though we have to do something to change the world, we despair of where it is all heading and live in fear of the future. This reminded me that Jesus knows and has already done something about it

We are not the answer. He is. 

We can work hard at all sorts of solutions, but unless He is in the midst of them, unless they are His ideas, they will be temporary fixes at best. True transformation – of individuals, of communities, of our world – only comes through encounter with the risen Christ, encounter with the Kingdom of Heaven. 

For me, this has become a resounding hope. I can look around at what is going on in our world: millions of refugees; another mass shooting; the effect of pornography, drugs and a permissive culture on our young people – on it goes, and find it easy to despair and wonder how it can change. However, two words keep resounding in my mind: 

“BUT GOD…” 

It doesn’t matter how big the problem or need, God is way bigger and He can change everything in an instant. We just have to connect with that close relative of hope, and TRUST His impeccable timing and His perfect ways to bring it all about!

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Meanwhile, I’m off to hang the washing out.

"And this hope is not a disappointing fantasy, because we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who lives in us!" 

(Romans 5:5, Passion)

Are you a gold digger?

As we were chatting about our lives the other day, a friend told me that God had been encouraging her to “dig for the gold”. As I thought about what this meant at a deeper level - it challenged me too - several thoughts came to mind.

One of them was from her comment:

“Sometimes you’ve got to look past an awful lot of dirt”.

I am painfully aware at times of my proclivity toward seeing dirt. And I don’t think I am alone here, either! It is so easy to see what is wrong with others, what is wrong with circumstances, what is wrong in our relationships and lives. And we can tend to think that, “If only there was not SO MUCH dirt, it would be so much easier to focus on that gold”.

And of course, gold has that intrinsic worth and value. It seems so desirable - not just for its beauty, but for what it can do for us, the doors it might open.

Many years ago, back in the very early 80’s when it was a bit of a craze, my dad hired a metal detector and took my brothers and me out around Castlemaine, to an area covered in old gold mines. It was to be a bit of fun on a Saturday, not to mention the need to get five kids out of the house so my mother could sleep after her night duty as a nurse.

It was not nice bushland particularly, being dry, rocky and scrubby. There was nowhere to rest or just enjoy the view, no amenities. And of course, only one person could use the detector at a time. The others spent time deciding on where would be a good place to look, where we would find the illusive gold.

Although in many ways I found this quite a boring day, one thing kept us going – the hope that we would strike gold. Not because we wanted to be rich or were thinking of all we could do with the money from gold (well, ok, maybe there was a little of that), but because that was our goal. We were there to find gold and that was the unspoken promise from the machine: this will help you find gold!

But why is gold so valuable? Why is it a commodity that so much else is traded on? I always remember the verse (from the Larry Norman song, “I wish we’d all been ready”) about a loaf of bread being able to buy a bag of gold in the end times, at a time when food, when basic necessities would be so scarce that they would more valuable than “riches”.

As I sit here typing, I am looking out across a beautiful bay, with the wind chasing alternate rain and sunshine across my view. Rainbows come and go in amongst them, a sight that often brings to mind the fabled “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. But a rainbow is also a promise.

Like the symbol of the rainbow – the promise of gold, the promise of hope - perhaps life is very much about continuing the chase for that gold. But, if we only ever see all the dirt (and there is an awful lot of dirt), if we keep focussing on just how much dirt there is, we do lose faith; we lose the hope for something different, for something precious to come out of that dirt.

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul shares about how we “face death all day long”, and the idea that this is opportunity for the life of Christ to be shown in us. He goes on to say (v17, 18),

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

What is in your life at the moment where God is calling you to look past the dirt to find the gold, to even hope for the gold? Is it a work stiuation, or a relationship – that person who is frustrating you or just unhelpful; maybe it is another circumstance where all you can see is the rain and wind and what is not.

Maybe He is calling you to see that this is the place where rainbows - with all their promise and hope dwell.

We each have a choice, moment by moment, through our lives: will I choose to focus on the problem, on what is not? Or will I choose to hold on to hope for the gold that God has promised and just keeping digging?

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Is this really how the dream ends?

Our Good Friday celebration was an interactive "Stations of the Cross" experience. It was challenging, meaningful and at times deeply moving. At Station #11, we were encouraged to reflect on what Jesus' disciples must have felt as they watched Him die, as they laid Him in the tomb. This poem by Cheryl Laurie was shared to help:

You think this is what’s best for us?
They humiliated you on a cross.
And we’re humiliated too, because we put our trust in you.
No wonder Peter denied you.
Maybe it wasn’t out of fear, but out of sheer, bloody rage
that this is how the dream ended.
How can you think this is what’s best for us?
We put everything we had into you.
Our trust.

Our belief that you were the one who could save us.
You offered us a taste of welcome,
a hint of grace,
a touch of freedom.
For a moment we glimpsed a new world,
and you promised an eternity of that.
And we trusted you.
We’re left wondering which is worse
– that it ended like this
or that you knew it would end like this
and you took us with you anyway.

Of course, we know that the disciples mourning turned to joy a few days later. The story didn't end there. I can't help but wonder, though, if this poem doesn't resonate deeper with many of us. It certainly did with me.

There is a level at which we can struggle in this walk with Jesus. Sure, we have had an encounter with Him at some point. Maybe there are a number of points at which we have encountered Him in a deeply meaningful and personal way, where He has touched our hearts and transformed us, turned our lives upside down, to the place where we think we will never be the same again, where we sing for joy, where we leap and dance in our freedom.

However now, right now we walk in a place where it feels as though the sun will never shine, where we feel like the breakthrough will never come, where we can feel like death has won the victory, and we have nothing left; that we put all we had into this walk, into this relationship with God, but somehow, at some point, He has let us down. He hasn't come through with 'the goods' as we were expecting, that we would like. He hasn't done what we thought He should. And it hurts. 

It might be with our marriage, our kids, our workplace or career. It may be our health, or the health of a loved one. We have put all our hope in Him being our breakthrough, and it hasn't happened. We feel the dream has died and we are left like a child holding the empty string of our popped balloon, feeling dismal and disappointed.

Where are you now, God?

So what do we do with these feelings?

For many of us, we hold onto hope. Maybe it is only really public hope - we put on our "Sunday-go-to-meetin'" faces, giving the expected appearance of a "good Christian", but at home, we take it out on the cat, the dog or anyone else available. Or we hold it all inside, quietly dying; day by day our soul shrivelling and drying up.

For others, we do the opposite. Our hurt and betrayal are so complete that we display them for all the world to see. We either reject the notion of God altogether, or we paint Him as a tyrant  or megalomaniac, out to cause us maximum pain, or just plain powerless and useless, like the Wizard of Oz.

There is no easy answer for this space. However, on Saturday I experienced a parallel in the physical as we went mountain climbing.

The route we took up to Sugarloaf Peak in the Cathedral Ranges was the harder one, with many a rock climb. At several points, we had to squeeze through the crevice between two rocks while climbing near vertical rock faces, without ropes or other climbing equipment. The one in the photo was such an example to me of the difficulties and despair we feel in some of our circumstances. As I looked up where we needed to get to, all I could see were huge boulders, sheer rock face and difficulty, with a pin point of light at the end. I presumed we could get up there, because others had been before us. Whether I could do it...well, let's just say I was hoping determination would get me nine tenths of the way. The other tenth I wasn't so sure about and did my best to ignore. 

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Looking up at the way ahead, I could not see at all how I was going to get up there, where the footholds would be, or what position I would need to be in. There was no obvious way up. I just had to guess that when I got to that next bit, I would be able to see, or I would work it out. And at some points, it took me a few tries to get into a position where I could actually lift myself, so I could inch my way forward. There were times that I wasn't sure I could keep going; that I would make it through, but I knew it would be at least as difficult going back, and if we went back, I would miss getting to the summit.

Even when we got through that massive crevice, there were still more almost impossible climbs up vertical walls and another crack between two rocks where we had to lever off both walls again, with few foot and hand holds.

But when we got to the top!

The sense of accomplishment, coupled with the 360 degree view was almost overwhelming. I just wanted to stay there. I could completely relate to the disciples, when they were on that mountain with Jesus and they wanted to set up camp there - although perhaps they were just like me amd secretly concerned whether they had the energy and strength to go back down! 

The point of this story is that we can look at our situations and not see a way ahead. We can feel as though that pinpoint of light (or hope) is too small, or is non-existent. We can wonder if we have the strength or stamina to get through it, to make the journey, or if we even want to.

What kept me going this day? Well, I did have a trusty companion with me, who gave me the occasional hand or leg up as well as verbal encouragement. I was not alone. I also knew that many others had gone before me and had survived, had made it to the top. Some of them I had even heard up ahead, and some, as we came to the last climb, were up the top cheering us on. Knowing that these walks are open to the public, I had faith in our parks management not to allow people to go ways that were too dangerous or impossible.

I think these are valid points for us as we face trials and struggles not of our choosing (or that we'd rather not be facing). We need others with us who can give us a hand sometimes. We need to come out of isolation on our journey and find others to share it. We also need to look to the stories of those who have gone before us, who have had similar experiences, and maybe even learn a little from their experience. And we need to trust that when we get there, we will find the next step, the next position to enable us to keep moving forward, to trust that God will provide a way, even when all we can see ahead are boulders, blockages and darkness. When we find ourselves in that dark and impossible place it helps to stop and remember: 

it may look like Friday, but Sunday will surely come! Just hold on and take the next step forward. And I will stand with you in hope, faith and a little experience that what we get to see at the end is worth it all.

 

 

Take a big breath, we're going deeper

When I was a kid, we had the joy of a backyard swimming pool. After learning to dive, my next favourite activity was seeing how far I could get underwater. However, I quickly realised that if I was too close to the surface I would pop up out of the water, limiting the distance I went. I could get much further by diving deeper, even though it was scary being too deep when you really needed to breathe!

Fast forward to more recent times...

One of my favourite songs of late has been Oceans (Where feet may fail), by Hillsong United. Singing this recently, though, I was confronted by the limitations I had put on what I would like this deeper to look like.

In many ways, my experience and faith have grown deeper. Doors of opportunity have opened and 2016 had many moments of joy and excitement; the blessing of being part of ministry to others where we saw God powerfully changing lives, bringing much healing and freedom. It looks as though this will keep expanding in 2017. (Hence my lack of presence here!)

However, in our personal life at home, there are a number of fronts where it seems that the breakthrough will never come. Some things just don't seem to want to shift. We keep hoping, keep seeing signs, and then...nothing.

As I have been seeking out what I need to be doing in this space and what the way forward is, I have been challenged anew by Father God. 

A friend had written that at the beginning of the year, she likes to seek God for a word that might be significant for the year to come. I thought that this would be an interesting activity, and as I wondered what word might come up for me, the word "Resilience" popped into my mind. 

I knew it was from God, as it was not something I had been thinking. And besides, I really didn't have a particularly happy response to it. After all, resilience has high association with difficulty and struggle, with hardship. I feel like we have been going through this in a few aspects for a number of years, and, quite frankly, something like fruitfulness or acceleration would have been more to my liking - can't we move on from resilience yet?

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As I have reflected further, as usual more has been revealed. Looking up the dictionary and word origin, resilience comes from Latin meaning "to spring back" or "rebound". The picture I have with that is the idea of bouncing on a trampoline - even as you fall back on a trampoline, you can use it to bounce higher, to go further. I sense that this is what God is challenging me with: rather than just holding on, or remaining upright, to use those situations that come up in life to press back into Him, so He can 'bounce' me out further.

Which brings me back to the challenge from "Oceans". Even as I talked with God about those things in our life that are not moving at the speed I would like, He explained to me that my disappointed hope was because I was placing parameters around events that were not His. I was setting time frames and outcomes that I wanted, that didn't quite match up with what He had in mind. Hence my disappointment and weariness. 

So, as I sang those words, "Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, where my faith will be made stronger", I felt a gentle nudge.

"What if going deeper is not all about 'exciting, life-changing stuff', but just about normal, everyday life, even the harder aspects of life? What if that is the deeper I want to take you?"

Gulp. Not the direction I was looking for. 

But I do have a sneaking suspicion, that as with all the paths Father God takes us down, it is one that is important, necessary for my growth and development, and perhaps even survival. Resilience, the ability to bounce forward, in tough situations enables us to continue to move ahead even in the worst scenario. Just like my ability to travel underwater without taking a breath increased with practice, maybe He is calling me to practice greater resilience in life.

In further reading*, I came across two pointers for the way ahead. The first was the idea that if God asks me to do more than I can (or feel I can), when I feel like I am at the end of my strength, He steps in. The example was used of Ezekiel (from Ez 1-2). When Ezekiel was confronted with the glory of the Lord, he found himself face down on the ground. He had no strength to rise. In the midst of this, God told him to stand on his feet. He had no ability to do this, but at the same time, the Spirit came and lifted him to his feet. I am to have confidence in His enabling, His grace me to get through.

The second pointer is closely aligned. The idea is that we are often so focussed on the final outcome we would like that we miss the seed that is being planted and growing. We are so hungry to see the whole result at once (and yes, sometimes that does happen!), that anything less is a disappointment. Instead of being grateful for seeing the beginning of the process of change, we complain or get bitter about what is not.

If I had set my goal in the pool as three laps underwater from the start and given up because I didn't even make one, I would never have gone any further. By celebrating the little signs of growth or change, I gained confidence and was energised to keep doing more.

How much more would we be encouraged if we focussed on the growth and change that is happening, rather than our failures and struggles?  

Staying safe and comfortable won't stretch me to grow, won't increase my ability. Re-framing my understanding of the struggles into growth means I change my attitude to what is going on. Going deeper into Father God can be scary if I am trying to hold on to me and my wants. I have to let go of my desire to breath on my own, if I want to get closer to Him. The goal and pleasure is that the deeper I am found in Him, the safer I am, the stronger I get and the further I can go. Time to take a big breath and dive in!

* Experience the Impossible, by Bill Johnson - I highly recommend it!