These last six months have been the hardest of my life, and when I say “hard”, I don’t mean “ever so slightly challenging”, I just mean HARD. Blood, sweat, tears, confusion, anxiety, grief, anger, frustration and real, raw, gut-wrenching pain.
There are some difficulties that I can’t put on here, they are not my story to tell, but when the apostle Paul talks about being “Hard-pressed on every side” (2 Corinthians 4), well let’s just say that I now understand what that feels like. When it rains down at you from every angle, and you come to the end of yourself – that’s a difficult place to be.
Things really peaked around December, and in our family, we needed to reorientate most of our lives around the needs of the situation we found ourselves in. This meant stopping things, lots of things, including a variety of fruitful ministry activities. On many levels, this felt like failure, and it compounded the pain we already felt.
I remember one day, when the reality of what we were dealing with sunk in, I just lay on my bed, empty and resourceless, without a clue about what to do next. But taking myself off to bed and hiding my broken life under the duvet wasn’t a great long-term plan. The battle raged white-hot all around us, and there was no option but to fight. There were some crucial components of our battle plan: We marshalled the praying people, we relied on the beauty of a loving community of friends that we could rant to and weep with, we sought wise counsel wherever we could find it, we rested when we needed to and then we fought on. We are still fighting.
But something else was needed in this situation – a deeper resolve, more strength and focus than I had yet known. I needed to allow God to take me deeper, and to forge in me some new weaponry. This happened in the most unlikely of ways.
Let me backtrack, I am a lifetime hard and fast exercise-hater. I remember the first time I ran down the street aged 3. At first, sprinting alongside my cousins was exhilarating and fun, but after a few seconds I discovered that I was out of breath. I stopped in my tracks, turned to my Aunty and said with indignation “I can’t breathe!” She laughed in my face. I pretty much decided then and there that me and exercise weren’t going to be compatible. Thus began a life-long mission of sport-avoidance. To be fair, I sucked so badly at all things sporting, it wasn’t too difficult to avoid. Last to be picked at all school games lessons, attempting to catch balls with elaborately flailing crossed arms, walking the cross-country chatting about boys, and tripping over my own feet at netball. If avoiding exercise was an Olympic sport, I would have won the gold.
It is perhaps surprising then, that I inadvertently chose exercise as my survival strategy in the midst of our whole-life-meltdown. Perhaps there was an element of mid-life crisis too. At pushing 40, it is no longer cool to be pathologically unfit – so I joined a gym. And it came to pass that I found myself in a “spin” class. “Spin”, for the uninitiated is a high-intensity cycling class, where you increase the resistance of the pedals, whilst “sprinting” in a variety of torturous “uphill climbs”. I spent most of the first class praying “Jesus, take me now!” But he didn’t, and the endorphins kicked in (Wow! Nobody told me about them…) so I went back. Again and again. And then the strangest thing began to happen. I stopped cheating, started turning up the resistance up properly, and discovered that I had some new skills – I could do this thing!
I also discovered that my busy mind, whilst sidetracked by focussed physical activity, could slow down enough in a spin class to pray. I developed this slightly odd habit of closing my eyes during the sprint sections of the class, and reciting scripture to myself. (To be fair, it must look pretty odd, but I’m no stranger to humiliation in the arena of sporting prowess, so I go with it.)
Hebrews 12: 1-3 is the main passage of choice:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
I have always loved these verses, they have been significant throughout my life, (which is ironic for a non-athlete…), we even had them at our wedding. I have always known these words, but now, the words know me. I have been remade and formed by them. My perspective altered and my eyes lifted. When you repeat the same words hundreds of times, new things appear. Did you know for example, how easily sin entangles? Did you know that there is a race marked out for us, with angels cheering at the side “You can do it!” Did you know that Jesus pioneers and completes our faith – he is the beginning and the end. Did you know that he endured the cross, knowing that there was ultimately joy? Do you know what Jesus does with shame? He laughs in its face – it has no power over him. Did you know that Jesus is sitting next to God in heaven, egging us on as we run our little race? Did you know that Jesus was opposed – laughed at, ridiculed and ignored, slagged off by ordinary people, just like we are? Did you realise that as we look at his complex, painful but ultimately joyful journey, he resources us to complete our own?
All these wonderful things, from three verses of scripture in a spin class.
Today I ran my personal best! It’s a paltry personal best by most people’s standards, 6K in 39 minutes – and I sweated like a dog, it was not pretty. But I am learning something new. God uses the adversity we face to take us deeper into his limitless resources, to take us to places we would never otherwise dare to go.
I haven’t got any deep answers to why sh*t happens, I just know that it does, all the time, to good people. But the last few days, I have been returning again and again to this weird little verse in Ezekiel. If you dare to read Ezekiel (and usually I don’t…) you will see that in this intensely prophetic book of the Bible, there are some incredible interactions between a man longing to know God’s heart, and a God who is bigger than we can ever comprehend. In Chapter 4, God gets Ezekiel embroiled in an elaborate prophetic re-enactment of the siege of Jerusalem. I won’t go into all the details here, but he asks Ezekiel to do something that has stuck with me. God asks the prophet to symbolically cook food, using human excrement for fuel. It’s pretty clear in the passage that God is referring to the nation of Israel eating defiled food in exile – so my perspective may be slightly skewed, but I think there’s something in this about how we respond to suffering and brokenness in the church.
We just want to flush it all away, get rid of it, and get our hands clean and get the heck out of there – but God takes the sh*t and turns it into fuel that can ultimately even nourish and sustain those who have been broken by it. Only God can do this.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good” Genesis 50:20
God intends to meet us in our brokenness and pain, to walk the path of it alongside us, to forge in us new depths of relationship with him, and to send us back out into his broken world where we can be wounded-healers, his representatives of love, walking with a limp, because we have struggled with God, but he has overcome.
Church, the world needs to see our brokenness. This world is not crying out for slick successful advocates of a religion guaranteed to make everything in life work better. This world is hungry for authentic, ordinary broken disciples of a saviour who turns sh*t into sustenance. That way we know it isn’t all about us. I think I’ll end with St. Paul, because he seems to say it best:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
(2 Corinthians 4: 7-10)
Love and peace to you today in all the challenges you face.