Category Archives: Surviving Tough Times

Leaning

 

As my eight- year olds favourite movie tells me – “Life isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows y’know”

But I still sometimes find myself wondering why God leads me into difficult places.  I’m not massively resilient, or patient, or strong; I hate change, I care too much about what people think and I have to fight a tendency to want to run away from confrontation and hide under my bed.  I am weak.

I know that many of you are fighting a battle that is leaving you feeling weak and wounded.  Perhaps you too question whether you’re the right person for the job.  Maybe you’re asking God why he didn’t pick someone stronger? Someone more resilient?  Someone who could forge this raging  river victoriously and energetically and well?

Why did God pick the weakest man, in the weakest family in the weakest tribe in all of Israel to lead his army?

Well here’s the answer, right at the end of the story of the Song of Songs, and the title of this painting.

Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved?

God chooses the weak, because they are the ones who learn how to depend on him.

The strong fight in their own strength, but those who limp, lean.

In your fight, or your walk through the wilderness, lean into him, that’s how your weakness can become his strength, and his strength made complete.

And this will be the end of your story too.  You will come up out of this wilderness, and you’ll still be leaning.

 

 

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When all is not lost

You may recognise this smile.  It featured in the book, Postcards From Heaven, when the front tooth was missing, and now 3 years on it’s full of big teeth, and the somewhat irresponsible owner of a (very-expensive-to-replace) removable palate-expander-thingy.

We were having a fantastic day at the Zoo and it wasn’t until we were just about to feed a magnificent giraffe that the gorgeous Chaos-Generator turned and grinned at me, revealing the tell-tale lack of wire.

“Where’s your brace?!” I yelled, “and why isn’t it in your mouth?”…

Fellow parents of wonky-toothed children may recognise the scene that followed. After an intensive hunt through bags and pockets and some frustrated remonstrations,  I left the kids with their Grandma and unenthusiastically retraced my steps around the Zoo wondering where on earth she might have taken it out and dropped it.

After unsuccessful hunts around the ice-cream stand and the Gopher viewing area, eventually I returned to the picnic area where we’d had lunch, more than an hour after we had left it.  The picnic table we had sat at was empty, and I hunted on and around it and the bin where I’d thrown the empty crisp bags, but the floor was covered in a thick layer of bark chippings and I imagine several families had used the table since we had.  There really was no chance of finding a 4cm wide piece of see-through plastic and wire.

The tiny bit of hope I had left drained away as I sat down at the table,  convinced that we would never see it again.

And then I looked down, and there it was, just next to my foot.

I’m not sure now whether it had been there all along, or whether God had moved it there.  But as I picked it up, flooded with relief, I heard God whisper “I am a God who restores”.

“I am the God who restores”

It’s funny because I would have said I knew God as Restorer well already, and I do, but in the sense of a restorer of a master painting – someone who comes in and painstakingly cleans something up and carefully repairs damage!  But obviously I only had part of the picture…

When I looked it up, the first definition of restore that I found was ‘to give back or return’.

Part of what God longs to do as our great Restorer is to return to us things that have been taken away,  things that feel forever-lost.

Perhaps there are parts of your heart,  your confidence, your strength, your faith or your hope that feel as though they have been taken away and are gone.  There are times in life when difficult things happen to us and something good that we had is taken away; we make a mistake and some part of us is lost.    If that sounds familiar, hear this:

 

Our God is the God who restores.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revolution

I’ve experienced a revolution. It was peaceful, and so quiet you could be forgiven for not noticing it at all,  but it was real…

In the weeks before and after Easter I was really struggling: feeling something deep and painful but not really able to work out what was wrong. And then, as I was fighting/ grumbling/ praying with God, he showed me this picture of a bottle –  knocked over and with bright orange liquid spilling out from it and running out over the ground.

‘Yes!’ I thought, ‘THAT IS EXACTLY how I am feeling right now’.

Let me explain:

I always associate the colour orange with the future. (This is almost certainly due to the mobile phone advertising slogan that played right through my twenties: ‘the future’s bright, the future’s orange’)  So for me this picture represented a lost or wasted future, or more specifically,  the vanishing of the future I thought I was going to have when I was twenty-something.

It started on a day when I’d mislaid my ipod and picked up the very old one that our youngest uses as her ‘storyteller’.  (I can deal with the pain of the treadmill, but not with the musical choices of the young guy who runs the gym!)  On it I found a playlist that dates back almost fifteen years, full of songs which reminded me of the years before that.  Music sometimes has the power to transport us back in time, and that playlist of nineties worship songs (anyone else remember History Maker?) took me right back to my mid-twenties, just married, totally sure of my calling to preach God’s word, and excited about what the future would hold…

There are days when it feels like the decision we made to leave home and move to Cyprus has had the effect of kicking over the bottle of my ‘future’ and seeing most of it be spilled out and lost.  A lot of what I had hoped for and expected, particularly in terms of ministry, has been poured out, and those precious years have been wasted.  Of course in those moments I conveniently forget the part where we heard God tell us to come here, and all the great things that have happened in those years,  but the hard part of this picture is that in some senses it is entirely true. There has been a sacrifice of some things that I loved and that I felt sure God had called me into doing, and that hurts.

So I’ve been (slightly angrily) trying to avoid thinking about this picture for about a month, finding reasons not to have time to paint it.

But it wasn’t going away… so here it is.

And as soon as I saw my overturned bottle on paper, with the golden orange liquid flowing out of it,  I suddenly realised how much it’s like the one I painted of Mary of Bethany as she poured out perfumed oil on Jesus’s feet.   And I could hear my words echoed in those of Judas when he objected to the valuable nard being wasted when it could have been used for something ‘useful’.

‘and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’

The picture looks different to me know.  It’s still true, but there has been a revolution in my heart, and I can now see the beauty in it, sense the fragrance of it.  It’s still shot through with pain, but I understand something I didn’t understand  before, something that I can’t quite pin down in words, but which changes the way I see the sacrifice.

It helps.

I wonder if  you need a revolution?

Do you need God to come in and change the way you see something?  Maybe today is a good day to ask him to reveal that something to you, and to show you how he sees it differently.  Perhaps his perspective is what you need to restore hope and courage to your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Brownies

Yesterday I made chocolate brownies. They didn’t turn out as I expected.  This seems to be a recurring theme.

You may be surprised to learn that it’s not the first time brownies have caused consternation.  I read that when the famous cookery writer Delia Smith first tried to launch American Brownies on the unsuspecting British public her mailbag was full of letters from concerned would-be-bakers wondering why the brownies weren’t properly cooked.   Her website now notes ‘they are not cakes’, I guess in the hope that people will adjust their expectations and realise that squidgy and a bit damp can actually be a good thing in a baked item.

It’s not just baking.

Sometimes life: ministry, relationships, jobs, kids, health, security… just doesn’t turn out as we expected and planned.  Sometimes because of our mistakes, or someone else’s; often because we live in a broken world; and perhaps sometimes because, like the brownies, it was never supposed to be the way we imagined it.

It would be easy to live a life coloured by disappointment and recriminations over the things that are not as they might have been, either with God, with yourself or with others.

The truth is that more or less everyone I know is living a life that in some respect is different to how they had imagined it would be. Even those whose facebook profile might suggest otherwise are facing trials behind the scenes. Because life is, on the whole, neither fair nor easy. The rain falls.

However there is an alternative to disappointment, confusion and resentment.   There has to be, because those things will eat you up from the inside.  It’s this…

You eat the brownies.

As it happens, my brownies are actually a bit overcooked (new house, new oven).  I’m not saying they ‘d break your teeth, but they’d give it a good go.   Thing is, they still taste pretty good.. If you adjust your expectations and think ‘cookie’ then they’re sort of OK, the ones in the middle are edible at least.

This is hard to write friends, because I know many of you are facing situations so hard you can barely stand up.  I’m not saying that everything about life is good. Sometimes it really, really stinks.  Sometimes it’s so far away from what you’d hoped it would be that it makes you grieve in the depths of your soul for what might have been.

But God is good and sometimes there’s blessing hidden deep in amongst the difficult. Sometimes God has brought us this way on purpose, sometimes this is the way he is leading us out.  The one thing we know for sure is that he travels with us through it, whispering encouragement and ready to catch us if we stumble.

Mostly, we don’t get a lot of choice over which life we live.

Where we do have a choice though, is in how we face our unexpected lives,  and how we adjust our attitude towards them.  We can perhaps choose to step away from disappointment and blame and look for what is good and enjoy it.

Perhaps today we can acknowledge that our ‘brownies’ are not we expected, not what we asked for, or what we’d hoped for; but perhaps we can pull together the courage, take a breath, reach for God’s hand, and eat them.

I hope you will find, that in some unexpected way, they are good.

 

 

 

Embers

We’ve just moved into a new place.  To our great delight, as well as the necessary number of bedrooms and walls and a roof,  it has an open fireplace.  Believe it or not, winters in the med can be surprisingly chilly, and this one is definitely no exception(!)  so the past few weeks have seen something of a revival of the art of fire building and tending!

In all that, this simple picture has really found a place in my heart – Someone blowing gently on the embers of the fire and seeing them suddenly glow with light and heat.  It’s so easy, and yet almost magical to watch.  Seeing this happen over and over has stirred my heart, and a conviction has taken root that now is a time to pray over embers.

How many of you know people whose hearts have burned with passion for God in the past, but for whatever reason have gone cold?  How many of you have watched the fire of someone’s first love for Jesus settle into something steady but lukewarm?  Perhaps some of you can recognise parts of your own heart where the light and heat has gone out?   Perhaps you’ve even begun to believe that hope, joy and excitement are for new believers, and that the reality of faith is slogging it out in the cold.

Sometimes it’s about circumstances or disappointments that have caused a gradual, not even noticeable coldness, or perhaps we’ve lived life or done ministry in a way that really has ‘burned us out’.   Sometimes we’ve made mistakes (or others around us have), and instead of running to the stream of forgiveness we’ve let our guilt or unforgiveness smother the fire within us like a heavy blanket.

As always, there is so much grace here. We all live in seasons, there are times when we feel more or feel less of God’s presence, or have more or less zeal to serve him.  Sometimes faith really is about putting your head down and forcing yourself forward.  That’s kind of normal –  a pendulum swing in our walk of faith.  But maybe you look down at your own heart right now and all you see are embers.

In all of these cases, I am absolutely convinced that all God wants us to do with our embers is to surrender them to him and ask him to breathe on them again.

Where you can see embers in your own life, or in the people you care about, it’s time to pray.  It’s time to pray that God would come and breathe where the fire has almost gone out, to blow gently on the embers and to see them glow into life again.  It’s time to ask him to restore light, life and warmth to the hearts of men.

And it’s time to sit back and watch what happens.

 

embers-crop

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Balancing Oranges

Ever played the orange-balancing game?  Players see how many oranges (or in this case mandarins) they can stack on a tea-plate, then try to stand up, turn around and sit down without dropping any.  It’s trickier than you might imagine.

Sometimes my life feels a lot like this.  There are so many oranges: so many things yelling for my urgent attention, so many people that need me to do something, or be somewhere, or find their shoes…

There are days when I think that if someone tries to balance one more orange on top of the pile (just one more) I might yell, throw the whole lot up into the air and storm away to some imaginary place of peace (maybe some arid place where no-one has ever even seen an orange).

I don’t of course, I just keep on balancing and dropping… And avoiding people who might have oranges in their pockets that they want me to carry.

I’ve slowly learned over the years that it helps to pray about things.  So I was moaning to God the other day about all the problems and worries and things to do (he called some of them blessings and opportunities, but I wasn’t in a totally positive frame of mind) and telling him how I really needed FEWER oranges thank you very much, or I couldn’t be held responsible for the mess I was going to make on the pavement, when he suddenly stilled my heart and whispered a word of great wisdom and encouragement:

 

“Get a bigger plate”

 

“There are bigger plates?” I asked incredulously, “I hadn’t thought of that

So it’s led me to a lot of thinking this week about what ‘plates’ might be made of, and how you could go about growing yours to fit your needs.  And my thoughts are, in no particular order:

  1. Take care of yourself.  Mentally, and physically, as much as you are able.  It makes a difference.  I hesitate to say this, given the shape I’m currently in, but it really is true that exercise gives you more energy. I don’t know how exactly, but I get more done on days I’ve made it to the gym. Invest time into your  mental health too, play, create things, get enough sleep, drink more water.  All of these things grow plates.
  2. Take care of yourself spiritually too. Pray! Walk as closely to Jesus as you can, not as far away as you can get away with, take time in God’s presence every day, even if it’s just a little bit.
  3. Choose wisely. Ask for wisdom so that you can make good choices and walk in them.  Don’t try to be superman, or superwoman, supermum, superdad or superpastor. If you don’t get what I mean by that please read this.
  4. Finally, grow your faith.  Faith is like water that goes granite-hard just as you step out onto it.  It gets stronger, wider and more weight-bearing the more you use it. If you never step out onto the water, maybe you’ll never get to learn that it can take your weight?

 

I pray that if you are balancing oranges, you’ll find ways to grow a bigger plate.  That your current burden would become a breeze to balance, and that you would be able to learn to let Jesus take responsibility for the weight.  I pray also for those days when oranges fall, that you would be enveloped in a grace that enables you to trust our Good Father -the ultimate expert fruit-catcher.

Hope

Hope /həʊp/:  n.  An optimistic attitude of mind, based on the expectation of positive outcomes.

It seems appropriate that at the start of thew new year I’m sitting here facing the challenge, emptiness and possibilities of a blank page.  It’s the calm before the storm of school, activities, study and work beginning again, and 2017 is still an empty blog post, a ticking cursor, waiting for me to get on and write something on it.

As you know, life isn’t all mountain tops.  Sometimes it’s deep difficult valleys, and a lot of 2016 was a struggle.  I didn’t write much.  It’s hard to write about lessons you’re still in the middle of learning and in the valley you don’t much feel like stopping to think about the view.

Actually, in the valley you mostly focus on trying to keep your face out of the rain and keep walking.  Sometimes victory is just staying upright and limping on.   But, even if you aren’t really aware of it, in the valley, truth takes root,  hope buds, new things grow.

This year God has been nudging to me to start writing postcards for people walking through valleys and wildernesses; Postcards of hope.  Not the watery hope that we often hear about: longed for, but not really expected, but solid hope. Hope which is the optimism that grows out of what we know in our hearts is coming.

Here is the first, a picture that some of you will recognise.  It’s mostly a wilderness, a blank, unexplored space.  It’s both terrifyingly empty and brimming with potential and  sometimes just what God needs in our lives.  Often he creates it, clearing the land of what has gone before to ready it for a new crop. In other times he comes and breathes new life into a space that has been created by a loss that he too wept over.

wilderness

Either way, if you’re facing a wilderness, it’s time to look for the new thing God is growing.  Whatever it is might take a while to bear fruit (and you might need some time to  rest and sit and watch it grow), although you should remember that even the dead wood of Aaron’s staff budded, blossomed and bore fruit all on the same day, so at the right time, when God does move, things might happen more quickly than you think!

I know not all of you are walking in valleys right now. Most of our lives are a patchwork of struggles and dancing, with blessing found in parts of both. But I trust that some of you on the mountains might help these postcards find their way to our sisters and brothers in the valleys and perhaps store up some of the truths for the day you do need them yourselves.


And thank you, to all of you who have encouraged me to begin again, to all of you who have shared postcards, who have bought the book and given it away, who have written to tell me how God has used my pictures to speak into your hearts, and who are still here reading in spite of the months of silence.  I wouldn’t have made it back here without you.

Ellie x