God is NOT faithful

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Eight years ago we left our lovely three storey Edwardian house with a car load of things and headed off with our three children to live and serve in Albania.  We arrived and settled into life in a nice house, once we got rid of the fleas.

People asked us why we would give up everything and go, it didn’t make any sense.  But it did to us.  Our belief in God and our desire to live our lives for Him meant we had said we would go wherever He thought best, do whatever He asked and trust.  WE were faithful.

 

After two years we knew we were to set up a centre for children and young people in this deprived settlement where hopelessness had made her home.  So we asked our church and they helped us with the finance and there were some rocky moments, some tough challenges, threats to us but we saw these children and young people grow in God, learn in their own lives, become more than they thought and realise that they mattered.  We saw in their smiles, in their chatter as they crowded round the gate waiting to get in that this was what God had wanted.  Our CHURCH was faithful, WE were faithful.

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When we felt we should move from our nicer house on the tarmac road to the mud lane swamp area we found a four room house.  It was ground floor, had an entry space that we could put a kitchen and a sofa in, we could use two other rooms for bedrooms and a bathroom.  Sure it also had mould covering the walls and it was TINY, but we knew this was to be our home and so we packed our stuff into a van and moved.  WE were faithful.

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Two years ago we set off on a plane, accompanied by our suitcases and a van full of boxes (by the road) and returned to the UK.  We were due to have our fourth child, we knew that this time in Albania to live was at an end but we didn’t know what lay ahead.  WE were faithful.

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In the months ahead we discovered we had to prove our nationality that we had gained at birth but lost living overseas, we lost our entitlements to benefits and help.  We had some friends who continued to support us and the dwindling monthly income stretched miraculously.  Neil went for interview after interview to be told he was a close second, over qualified, too experienced.  But we kept going, we had our baby and placed her in a charity shop basket, in second hand clothes, we told the children they couldn’t go on school trips and we all learnt the walk of a land where your passport fits but your heart does not.  It was dark, it was tough, it seemed never ending.  But WE were faithful.

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Two years on and I have my dream job, it is incredible and beyond what I could have ever felt I would be offered – tutoring at the Centre for Youth Ministry on the degree course.  Neil is a university student – he never felt he could do academic work but continues to strive for his best and passes well each semester.  We both also have the incredible privilege of working in our home church who had supported us for so long and seeing another generation grow in passion and life for God.  We have our four amazing children, three at school who have faced challenges of bullying, fitting in, learning a new language and continue to fly high and smile and take each challenge.  Lilijana, chatters and sings and worships like I have never seen a child before, her heart just overflows.  Then after temporary accommodation for the past two years we bought and have moved into our new home.  A stunning three story, five bedroom, four bathroom, kitchen, diner, double garage, lovely garden, moments away from a nature park in one direction and the play park in the other.  Our two cars sit on the driveway when they aren’t going to our many activities.  Our life is full.  But God was NOT faithful.

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I don’t mean He hasn’t blessed us continually, incredibly, wonderfully and miraculously.  Oh my goodness He HAS!  But this was not because He was faithful in the sense it seems it is often used.  It is not a REWARD for what we have done, given, been.  He doesn’t need to pay us, He didn’t owe us for our time of ‘sacrifice’, He wasn’t in debt to us for asking us to do things.  That was our choice as our commitment and belief, that was more valuable to us than other people could ever understand and that was us, being us.  God is a God of incredible love, a ‘good, good father’ as we like to sing – He gives because He loves to, He loves us and He can.  He isn’t faithful in paying back something that was never a cost, beyond a Call.

 

When we think this is God’s faithfulness what do we do when the job interviews all failed, we had no income, we are living in that mouldy little house? Was God not being faithful then?  Oh, the stories of that precious home, the memories of that neighbourhood and the place it has in our hearts are more than the flash new build.  God’s faithfulness is not linked to payment or payback but linked to His never ending, never failing, never giving up love.  People say ‘God is Faithful’ in terms of a payback, a settling but how cheap that makes His love and His Call.  Faithful is His persistent love, faithful is His walking through the storms, faithful is His Call to adventure and life, Faithful.

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Deafening Sounds of Silence

Silence so rarely happens round here… sometimes the afternoon siesta of grandparents snoozing gives a respite from noise but generally it is non stop.

But these sounds aren’t the sounds of cars going here and there, carrying children to school, colleagues to work.  They aren’t the rush to get the shopping and tick that off the list before moving down to the next “must do today” thing.  It isn’t the noise of heavy machinery or big factories manufacturing work and building for today and the future.  I don’t hear the drones of cellphones full of chattering demands or call centres requesting what you do not need.  No for all of this there is only silence.

The noises I hear are chickens (lots of them), croaks of frogs from the dirty canals, crickets chirping from the empty buildings.  I hear children kicking balls, chattering, playing.  I hear parents calling their children home, shouting across the neighbourhood to where ever they may be playing…. there is no fear here of distance and tracking.  I hear grandparents talking over the garden walls or rickety fences, the milk arriving and footsteps rushing to take their empty bottles to be refilled.  I hear cement mixers futilely creating more cement, for more walls of more unfinished or empty buildings that will never be called home.  I hear life.

In the desolation there is not the rushing, the racing, the fast paced life.  There is playing, family, community.

In the desolation there are not jobs, business, prosperity of wealth.  There is helping the neighbour, spinning wool and knitting needles and prosperity of skills we have long forgotten.

In the desolation there is not the noise of the outskirts of a busy town but the chirping, quacking, laughing, chattering of play, neighbours and freedom.

The problem is the sounds of desolation are deafening, we forget to hear the wonder of what is in this place and only listen to what we do not have.  Struggle shouts loud on these dust and mud filled roads.  Hardships peer from every draught filled, gaping window.  Dreams and desires have often been swept out the door and beaten like the rugs until not a speck of their dust remains.  But in all the broken, empty, desolation there are sounds more precious that many long for, days and times gone by where community was not just a theory or buzz word but was life.  That is the sound I hear.

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sounds of playing… how much fun elastic can be!

Boxing Day…. make it count

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Yesterday on the most special day, Christmas Day, from Amazon telling me about their Boxing Day offers on Christmas day.  It made me cross, in fact I love Amazon and because of living here have no choice but to use them for lots of things but at that point I was ready to boycott them I was so annoyed.  How can you have Boxing Day offers on Christmas Day?

Then advert after advert, every news broadcast, every internet page opens up to The Big Sale… come and buy, come and spend, offers, offers, save money, grab a bargain.

Living here makes you so aware of how greedy and materialistic we are in the UK.  We don’t have tv or toy shops so we don’t have adverts here in Albania and so my kids don’t say I want this I want that.  I don’t have the pressure of what their friends might have and having to buy to make sure they aren’t disappointed.  Their friends don’t have.  Really.  If they are lucky they have one small toy car or a stuffed animal. I’m not trying to make your heart bleed I’m trying to say these kids survive and are actually really happy and they don’t have.

So the whole boxing day buy buy buy makes me angry.  The idea behind Boxing Day was for landowners and the more affluent to give gift boxes to their servants or to take a box of food out to the poor.  It wasn’t about filling your house with more it was about saying thank you to someone who had done something for you or to help someone who needed it.  Now there are pictures as embarrassing as the US’s Black Friday sales, people fighting, arguing, stressed, queing up all night.  What for?  For a bargain, for something on offer.  Except I wonder if they really needed it, as far as I can see if you don’t need it and you could live with out it and so you wouldn’t buy it because you needed it you aren’t saving money you are spending money on more stuff.  I love a bargain so don’t get me wrong, when you get a discount on something you were hoping for or going to get that is awesome but we get tricked into needing what we want and then thinking we got a bargain buying something we didn’t really want in the first place.

There is such a huge pressure for people to spend more, put it on the plastic and for many people right now they don’t have it.  They don’t have enough for food for next week, they don’t know how they’ll pay off that credit card, that mortgage, the car payment, whatever.

I just thought it would be cool to get back to the real Boxing Day and go shopping grab yourself a bargain but whilst you are there what about getting something to give to a foodbank?  That jumper will look great on you but imagine the delight it would make to someone who is living without using their heating because they can’t afford it.  That toy will be such fun for your kids but remember what they got yesterday and imagine the delight on a child’s face if they got that as a gift after Christmas to make up for the fact they got nothing this year.  Oh yes a bargain on the food aisle, but as your stomach is still feeling stretched after yesterday imagine the delight for a family who have some food next week, a treat pack of biscuits, a tin of sweets that had been looked at in the store but out of their price range.

I believe that as good a feeling as a bargain is, a bargain bought and gifted to someone else will be way more exciting, thrilling and fulfilling.

(by the way I don’t work for these but I know http://www.kirkbystorehouse.co.uk/ for people in Kirkby in Ashfield and http://www.arenachurch.co.uk/community/arena-community-centre/foodbank/ for Ilkeston area are doing amazing work and would be so grateful for any donations)

Christmas Day Reflections

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This morning at breakfast Timmy said he had a passage to share with us… the first time he has ever done this.  He said he felt God wanted to share this passage, he had thought it was in Matthew but found it in Luke.  He could have stopped there, I was blessed.

He went on to read the Christmas story from Luke, in his slightly faltering reading style. he read about the promise of Jesus, the glory song of the angels and that for us had been born Christ the Lord.  He went on to pray for our day and thanked God that He had sent Jesus at just the right time, as Caesar Augustus had sent the decree at that very moment the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled.

Of course I was in tears, what a beautiful gift.  A child sharing his thoughts from his bible reading, sharing his heart in his prayers, the things he had learnt and the things he now held.  It felt like my Christmas was bubbling over.

But then, later on in the morning we went to an outreach the churches together were doing.  In lots of ways it does not feel like Christmas here at all, we are the only ones celebrating, to everyone else it is just another day in the lead up to their new year celebrations.  This miracle my son had shared about was being missed by what feels like the whole city.  So the outreach was a great opportunity to at least feel a little Christmasy!  There was a stable made and in the shadow of the main mosque in the city, in front of the cities council offices, the square was filled with worship of this Saviour.  Praise music blarred out competing with the mosque’s call to prayer, people gathered, came, asked, had drinks, were prayed for, were offered bibles and literature, children (and a fair few adults) watched the puppet show and children got their faces painted and had balloons made for them.  It was an amazing atmosphere, joy of Christmas was here with the hope of Salvation.

At one point I noticed coming into the square a little girl skipping with a huge smile on her face and carrying a balloon shaped like a flower, closely following her was a little boy laughing and excited to get over to the puppet show and behind them another child carrying a balloon and looking at the twists and shapes.  What got my attention was I knew these children, I’ve seen them before. Normally they aren’t smiley faces and skipping with joy they are street children, begging for money with big sad eyes practiced for the greatest effect.  With determination to get just a little money to take home with them or buy some food.  Their clothes don’t fit, they are dirty like their faces and their scruffy hair.  But today they were precious, excited, wondering children, not beggars, not the lowest, not ignored or shoved away but welcomed, invited, gifted, valued.

But it wasn’t just them, it was me too, through all my dirt and grime, through my daily failings and drudge, the times I feel pushed out, ignored, unworthy.  I was invited to come excited and hopeful to find this Saviour again, this newborn King, this Child born for me.

I hope you can join me skipping to see again the wonder of this Christmas.

the Shepherds

This week our focus in the Christmas story is the shepherds.  Coincidentally at home school this morning our reading was about the shepherds.  Reading extra from “Journey Through the Bible” it commented that these shepherds were not just dumb shepherds as I had always believed (no offence!) but they were from the temple… I was intrigued.

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As I’ve looked at this it seems these shepherds were guarding sacrificial lambs, set apart by the high priest to be used at passover.  The reason they were working at night was because this flock was huge and these lambs/sheep, chosen as undefiled needed to be kept that way.  These shepherds had the task of keeping an eye on these active little lambs, to make sure they did not become defiled, to keep them safe, to keep them pure, ready for them to be used in the sacrifice at Passover.   Wow!  God sent the angels with a message for THESE shepherds, the ones watching over the sacrificial lambs, they needed to go and find the Lamb of God.

The shepherds however were not “holy, holy”.  As shepherds they were considered unclean people, they did not meet the laws set out in Leviticus, they were constantly touching ‘dirty’ and dead things.  As defiled people they were not allowed into the temple, they could not bring a sacrifice, they could not come into the place of God. This in itself seems kind of ironic, the ones guarding the sheep couldn’t then offer a sacrifice.  Anyway, do you know what, God called them to Him.  They did not need to bring a sacrifice, they did not need to bring one of those lambs set apart as a Passover lamb because God chose them that night to come into His presence, with their dirt and defilement to see the lamb that would be the sacrifice for once and all.  How amazing is that?

I always likedthat the shepherds were normal people, doing simple work, not the fancy, educated wise men with their rich gifts. Nothing against you clever people.  But the shepherds always seemed friendlier, maybe it was the tea towels rather than crowns.  Perhaps it was just because  I liked singing they washed their socks by night much more than Ooooo star of Wonder, Star of Light…

Oh, but how much more I love his part of the story now.  God is so clever.  He announces to the ones who couldn’t come into the temple to come and meet with Him face to face, to the ones who guarded the Passover lambs to come and find the sheep that was not with the flock, but the Lamb who would one day die as a sacrifice for all of us.  

It doesn’t matter I don’t make the perfect grade, it doesn’t matter I walk in the muck and mess of life God is showing up to invite me to the manger.

Hitting Reality today

Often life here has become our normality, having made a quick trip back to the UK many, many things there felt very uncomfortable because they weren’t our norm anymore (did I ever tell you about my total meltdown in Asda?!)

Today though was a day I hit the reality of living here in ups and downs…. grab a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive (oooh that would be nice!)

Yesterday I spent three hours putting together the presentation for this morning’s Gazoo Bible programme for kids.  It involved creating a great animated story (translated) as the main point of the story and an interactive computer game for the final fun activity.  So this morning at 7.50am we set off for home school (not at home!) and had quite a good morning.  At 9.30 I went next door to run the Gazoo session.  We had three new boys, which was great news.  I registered them asking their names and date of birth.  It took at least five attempts for the first boy to understand my simple question… what is your name, when is your birthday?  The second boy I asked (now already knowing what I was going to ask) should have been easier and I got his name no problem.  But when I asked his birthday he said he didn’t have one.  I asked again, knowing some people here don’t celebrate birthdays but presuming he just hadn’t understood.  No, he responded again he just has New Year (the Albanian equivalent of Christmas), no birthday.  I checked, do you mean your birthday is at New Year?  No, his friends said, he doesn’t have a birthday.  One of them then prompted him that maybe he had been born in February.  Yes, the boy seemed to think that was a possibility, so we wrote February as a month, any idea as to the date?  No, no, no.  He just didn’t have any idea when he had been born, no one had ever celebrated with him the fact that he had been born, the importance of him, who he is.  I told him I thought he was really important and that I knew the world had changed the day he was born, he had changed history because he is alive and I would like to celebrate the fact he is alive.  Together we decided that we would celebrate him being alive on February 14th, the day of love as I hope if nothing else this morning he will remember that there is a God who planned for him to be alive and loves him.

Still reeling a bit from this we played the first game and then the electricity cut out meaning all my great multimedia work was for nothing.  Ah well, we carried on and had fun.  When we got home we discovered that we had no water in our tank soon followed by our electricity cutting out as well.  I smiled when I checked with the neighbour if they had electricity… you live in Albania they said!  I know and today I have been reminded!

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Next? Encouragement.

As most know we are wondering what lays ahead in our future. We originally committed to three years but with a view to five years in our mission journey in Albania but now we are in year 4 with the fifth approaching quickly there is no escape from the question what next?
We of course continue to ask God, we need to ask our supporters as without financial support this door is definitely shut but we also have such a mixture of fear and questions that we so want for these not to cloud our decisions.
Neil had a dream to serve in Albania since he was 13 and someone asked us, what happens when you finish do you get a new dream, we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders but both silently said “I hope so!” We have met many inspirational missionaries who have long term visions for their countries but also some who we can see clearly stay because it becomes the easier option.
We have always been clear we are just very normal people, not super Chrisitians or with some special five star staff badge. We are us. Shouting, moaning, grumpy, laying, happy, need to pray more, read the bible more, go to church more, us.

But now that us does have a job title which is possibly the most fantastic…. Missionaries. It means we are clearly defined to be trusting God, living by faith but what we like the most maybe, doing our thing with only the big man to answer to. We only do what we did in our own country, we know loads of people who are serving God more radically in our old community but we get the good job title that makes people think we are somehow more arming, holy, incredible. We are not.

But what next? To go back to slogging away without the cool title. Living without the amazing summer weather and proximity to the beach. Taking the kids away from the life they know, the friends they love and the culture which is more theirs than their nationality.

We don’t have another calling. We don’t have a burning dream. We see the kids at the gate of Burime, the neighbours who need a Saviour, the openness to finding out about God and see we could stay here forever and still there be a need. But we are not the solution, we are just reflections for now, we are here in this season.

So with all these rumblings you see the questions that are before us each day. What next? Where next? How long and how? How I wish I had a map to follow.

And then, within four days we have been told that people want to support what we are doing financially. We have a team and five individuals wanting to come to be a part of what we are doing. Just the encouragement in the midst of questions that other people see not the tag of missionaries but the touch of God and what is happening here. I don’t know the answers (yet!) but I am so very grateful for the people who believe in this journey, have and still walk with us and will be beside us no matter what our job title. For the times people show us a bit more of the map, the journey. Of course, a few answers would be nice!

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