I write from within the thick centre of a very full month of ministry and it will most likely be another couple of weeks before I get time to write again.
There’s a growing reluctance within me to use the words ‘busy’ or ‘demanding’ to describe these periods of ministry because they have the effect of focussing on me instead of the Lord and those He desires to minister His grace to. I am simply the Lord’s servant, in the Lord’s hands, in the Lord’s work and it’s an honour and a blessing to be called to serve Him and in particular, to have cause to lean harder on Him. These periods of ministry might only be described as ‘demanding’ and ‘busy’ in the sense that they cause me to be busy in prayer alone, where I make the desperate demands of a clueless sinner at the throne of grace
“Gracious Lord, I need you, I need you, I need you! More light, Lord; more love, Lord; more wisdom, Lord; more power, Lord!”
In that sense, I feel like ministry is as much a channel of blessing to me as it is to others. The harder it gets, the harder I lean on Him. The lonelier and smaller I feel, the more I cherish the fellowship and refuge of Almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit.
Last Saturday I had the great privilege of marrying a dear friend, Philippa, to her now husband, Dan. Annie considered Philippa a ‘kindred spirit’ (fans of Anne of Green Gables will sound the depths of that relationship immediately!) Although Philippa was first a dear friend of mine from Worcester, my Annie met her quite coincidentally and independently of me, roughly 14 years ago (probably even before Annie and I were engaged) at the wedding of a mutual friend of them both. They found themselves seated at the same table during the reception and following a small conversation they soon discovered that they had another mutual friend in common; namely, me! I recall vividly the excitement Annie and I shared when she called me that night to tell me all about this great coincidence; our worlds were coming together! Needless to say, we both received and cherished it as one of those many nudges and signs that God was drawing our lives closer together and affirming our relationship.
And so marrying Philippa and Dan was a particularly poignant moment; and for that reason quite bitter-sweet too.
‘…until death do us part.’
It’s quite something else for me to ponder just that little word ‘until’ so often repeated in marriage vows. I know how much Annie would have loved to have been there to witness that beautiful occasion. And I can’t begin to tell you how much I missed having my Annie by my side on that day. No Annie to have and to hold my hand and arm that day; no Annie to share a knowing lover’s glance with as I stood on the platform and read out the vows; no one to tell me whether my choice of tie was a good one or not! Our vows had completed their course; in sickness, for worse, for poorer, until and unto death.
The wedding took place not far from the hills where my Annie’s body rests and I just couldn’t help but look to that green hill and just wish she was by my side. Not just to experience the sunshine and the great occasion of that wedding but just to have her there, right by me. ‘Wish’ isn’t even the right verb. It was an agonising longing.
Over the last few weeks, I have begun to experience much more deeply and acutely the feelings of frustration in loss. I remember a dear brother who had suffered a similar loss, telling me that the emotions would most likely vary and deepen over the months immediately following my loss. How right he was. I get up some mornings and the realisation that Annie is not with me feels as new and disorienting and unbelievable as those moments that followed her last breath. Sometimes it feels like that last day all over again. Sometimes it feels like I haven’t even begun to process the fact that she is not with me and won’t be with me here in this house, or on earth ever again. The frustration of not being able to hear her or touch her or tell her something or ask her advice or receive her encouragement is almost too much to bear sometimes. I feel this especially during periods like these where I really feel the loss of my earthly helper.
This won’t be the last wedding in this period of time either. In fact there have been two weddings over the last two weekends and there is another one this weekend at which I am preaching. I know I will experience the bitter-sweet sense of joy and sadness all over again with no better prospects of having Annie again at my side. This wedding will take place even closer to the hill in which my Annie’s body lies. And as I look out towards that green hill, I will look beyond it to another green hill far away; towards Calvary’s hill; towards that hill of loss and agony and yet also joy and hopeful anticipation.
There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
O dearly, dearly, has He loved,
And we must love Him, too,
And trust in His redeeming blood,
And try His works to do.
After my return from Geneva I spent three days at a minister’s conference down in London. It was a time of refreshment and for me personally, it was a time of affirmation from the Lord. Over those three days, I heard 16 hours of word ministry (not counting the many conversations in between) – all of it soul enriching. But amongst those hundreds and thousands of sentences that I heard, one sentence in particular was like a personal word from the lips of the Lord to my own ear and my own heart:
“Be a good steward of pain.”
As you will have read many times in this blog, Annie and I had come to receive suffering as a gift from the Lord. It seems to be a rare gift or at least rarely understood and received as a gift by many Christians in the west. But what a great gift it is. What a life transforming, faith building, joy increasing, hope assuring gift it is! And while my Annie now dwells with the Giver and no longer has any need of that gift, it was still a precious gift given to both of us; and like all the remaining precious things that we shared in common on this earth, I still cherish this gift, I still treasure this gift. I still take hold of it and carry it with me, like a photograph of Annie in my wallet, like the many letters she had written me, like the journals she filled on a bed of tears and suffering; this gift won’t be something I wrap up in newspaper and retire to the loft. This gift stays close to me and dear to me. This is not something to be hidden away under a bushel or buried in the ground. And for the remainder of my life on this earth I desire to let that gift continue to work in me – even work death in me if God intends – and through me, in this broken and decaying, sin-wrecked and death-shadowed world. The Lord wants me to be a good steward of pain. I know this and was so deeply blessed to have had this confirmed at that conference two weeks ago. The Lord wants me to be a good steward of pain. That is my desire. That is how I see my place in His purposes for me in His church.
Good Shepherd, keep me to be a good steward of pain in this life, for your glory and fame in this world.
A dear friend said to me recently “I felt so sad for you at the wedding…you just don’t look complete without your Annie.” I received that with great encouragement. It is true. Painfully true always. Frustratingly true sometimes. And yet I am content with this incompleteness. This is the environment in which I hone the gift that God has given me. This is where I learn to lean harder on and press further into Him so that I might become a better steward of pain.
Towards the end of the wedding last weekend, another dear friend asked how they might pray for me. On that particular evening, it took me some time to settle on a response that would improve on “I don’t really know!”. So if you’re wondering how you might pray for me, then this is the answer I finally arrived at: “Pray that the dust wouldn’t settle.” My greatest fear right now is the pursuit of the return of normality. Time will no doubt heal – to a degree – but time is also a great undoer of some things better left untouched. What is normality after all? Normal for a Christian isn’t settling in this world; normal for a follower of Jesus isn’t finding comfort in the things of this world. That is quite frankly and biblically utterly abnormal; and having spent much of my life pursuing normality, I can testify that it has produced more foliage in me than fruit.
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. – 1 Peter 4:12,13
My greatest concern is that the dust would settle and I’d ‘find my feet’ and ‘find my stride’ and so dig and sink my heels further into this world. I don’t want to find my feet or my stride. I want to find the feet and heart and eyes of my Saviour and walk in the path He has set me. I want to bring Him fruit not foliage. In the unsettled dust of difficulty and loss, my honest testimony is that even with tears in my eyes, I see this world more clearly as it is and my broken heart settles more joyfully, more readily on my King and His love, His power, His way, His purposes.
I cannot will this or do this without Him. Without Him, I will simply desire normality and neatness. If you’d like to pray for me, my request is that the dust would not settle in my life so that I might press further into and lean harder onto my God. Pray that I might lean on Him and listen to Him and learn from Him and receive from Him and so serve others and be found a faithful servant and good steward of all that He grants me: life, breath, time, money, blessing and pain.
let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
In His Arms,
PS: Below is a photograph of my beautiful Annie taken at the very wedding at which she sang and met Philippa all those years ago. And here’s a link to the original song which she sang on that day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZI3lMc6nJM
I wonder if anyone has an original recording of Annie when she sang that song? Let me know if you have 🙂