Kept

Doubt can hit us in many forms.

It can creep in subtly, nagging us with undermining, subversive questions. Intellectual objections and personal experiences erode our sure foundation, undercutting the rock we stand on, until we suddenly find ourselves falling as the ground beneath our feet caves in. Such doubts conspire to throw us into a violent sea where we suddenly find ourselves cut from anchor, tossed and turned every which way in the anxiety of losing sight of God.

Sometimes doubt attacks us more suddenly, triggered by an experience that makes us ask, “God, are you there? God, are you really good?” The loss of a family member. Personal sickness and pain. The turning of circumstances for the worst. The times where you look up to the heavens and wonder who, if anyone, is looking back down on you.

Experiencing Doubt

Doubt is an incredibly isolating experience. Especially if you’re in a community of faithful people, you can feel cut off because you find yourself questioning the beliefs that you, and those closest to you, held for granted. You think, “I’m alone in this. Other people won’t understand what I’m going through.”

Then there’s the feeling of isolation from God. You feel disqualified and distant from God, because you feel that doubt is not the mark of a true Christian. “If I was truly faithful,” you might think, “I wouldn’t doubt. I would stand firm in faith even though everything conspired to make me doubt.” Yet, that hasn’t been your experience. And, in the midst of that, you wander why God would continue to love you.

Doubt is a harrowing experience.

Kept by God

I’ve always seen doubt as the loosening of my grip on God, like a climber losing grip on a rock face. In other words, I’ve tended to picture the surety of my faith in terms of how well I can hold on to God. And, when I’ve no longer been able to do that, I’ve felt like a failure, like I haven’t been a good enough Christian.

Throughout the Bible, faith is talked about in much different terms from my vision of the self-dependent climber trying to grasp on to God by his own intellectual or spiritual exertions. Rather, the Bible pictures the believer as “kept safe for Jesus Christ” (Jude 2, NRSV). It is God “who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing” (Jude 24). Here the emphasis is not on the effort of the believer to hold on, but by the faithful, steady love of God, holding on to us.

At the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he prays that the believers there may be “kept sound and blameless (5:23), but that because the one who calls us is faithful, he will accomplish this (5:24).

You see, faith is not the act of grasping on to God by our own strength, lest we fall. Rather, our faithful God holds us, keeps us, protects us and clings to us as his own children.

The Faithfulness of the Father

Think about a baby held in the arms of their mother. They try to cling to her for safety and comfort and security, but by their own little strength, they cannot hold themselves up. Rather, their mother lifts them up, draws them close, quiets them, holds them close to her. They are secure in their mother’s arms – not because they are holding on to her, but because she is holding on to them.

It’s like that with us and God.

Time and time again I’ve felt distant and disqualified in seasons of doubt, thinking of my doubts as undermining the authenticity of my faith. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, doubt can, and indeed must, lead us to greater dependence on God. When we shift our mindset from “I’m lost because I can no longer hold on to God” to “I can’t hold on to you, God, but I need you to hold on to me,” doubt can become the means by which we’re led to greater dependence, trust, and obedience.

Doubt, then, is a humbling experience. But, I need humbling, that I might be flung back into the arms of my Saviour, away from the path of self-dependence into utter surrender in the arms of the Father.

Let’s say, with Spurgeon, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

A Great and Terrifying Wilderness

There are seasons where God feels closer than your breath, and seasons where He seems further away than the darkest reaches of the universe, obscured by the night sky as you gaze up, wondering to yourself, “Where are You?”

We’re experience-people. We live on touch, sight, smell, hearing, emotions. We often seek confirmation about the world and the reality we perceive by using one of these senses. “How do you know Everest exists?”, you might say. “Of course it does,” I’d respond. “You can go to Nepal and see it for yourself, climb its ridges, touch it.” You can confirm your suspicion by travelling there, or you can rely on the testimony of others.

A more difficult question might be, “How do you know she loves you?” Now, that’s harder. Yet, in many ways, the question of someone’s love is still confirmed by our experience and feeling of love. The way she treats you, the sacrifices she makes for you, your joint experiences – these would go toward confirming her love for you. Our perception of love is tied up, not exclusively but extensively, in our emotions and feelings.

Our experience of God, however, is often not like this. Sometimes our experience of Him is as tangible as Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai; we hear the sound of His voice, we smell His fire or His fragrance, we perceive, somehow, His glory about us. Yet, more often (for me at least) its more like the believers that Peter’s Epistle is addressed to:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8, ESV

“You have not seen Him,” says the writer of that letter. “Yet you love Him, you believe in Him, you rejoice.” How can that be? When our perception of love is so tied in to our nature as physical beings, based on touch and sight and feeling, how can we who do not see Him love Him and rejoice in Him?

It totally reevaluates our perception of faith. So often I have fallen into the trap of thinking of the outcome of faith as a succession of mountain-top experiences, tangible meetings and encounters. If only I pray right, I’ll have these transcendent feelings of awe and devotion. If only I sing this song, or go to that place, then I’ll meet God, I’ll experience His presence. My idea of faith-experienced is tied up with nice feelings and giddy emotions.

Which is why time and time again I’ve been discouraged and hopeless when it isn’t like that. As if there’s something wrong with my process and method. Like a true relationship with God is like a constant “feeling-stream,” where I receive all these spiritually-charged emotions and experiences. And, when I don’t get that, I doubt, I wonder, I lose heart, because my faith is based on a series of transient experiences rather than a constant bedrock of truth, a truth that surpasses my fleeting human perceptions.

In short, we import society’s longing for instant gratification into our spiritual life, that a relationship with God is about constantly “feeling something,” pious emotions and ecstatic thoughts.

Let’s go back to Moses on his mountain. In Deuteronomy, the story of Moses recounting to the Israelites how God led them through the Sinai wilderness, he says of God, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites…the great and terrifying wilderness you saw” (Deuteronomy 1:6,7,19, ESV).

The authentic expression of faith is not just the amazing, extra-ordinary encounter with God on the mountain top. No. Its the lived obedience and trust in God when He doesn’t feel so present, the mornings you get up and are in terror at the “great and terrifying wilderness” you are about to enter. Its about what happens in the periods of boredom and anxiety in the wilderness. In short, faith is more than feelings. 

And there’s something beautiful about that. Because, our God is not transient and fleeting like our human experience. He is trustworthy, He is faithful, He is steadfast in His boundless love to us from age to age, a constant cornerstone and bedrock. He is the God with whom our feet shall not be moved, in whom we shall not be shaken, and whose Kingdom has no end.

And this is truth that doesn’t change based on our experiences. Truth is constant, when our feelings are not. Take heart, friend. He is with you, holding, leading, loving, even when we don’t feel it.

Chasing Home

Reflecting on the past four months, I’ve realised that I’ve slept in 12 different beds, in nine different cities and towns, across three countries and two continents. Whether that’s been just for a night or for a few months at a time, I’ve called quite a few places “home” this summer, whether temporarily or more permanently. At this point in time, I’m settling into new student housing in Nottingham.

All this isn’t to boast about having a pretty adventure-packed Summer (although it has been great). Rather, it’s to illustrate a point.

You see, my nearly constant movement over the past few months has meant I’ve had to embrace the temporality of it all. Wherever I’ve had the privilege of visiting, whoever I’ve had the blessing of meeting, it’s been in the knowledge that for each circumstance and in every situation, it was for a short time only.

Sometimes I’ve made a place my home for a season – for example, my time at university is a season of life where I’m pretty much based in one place for an extended period. At other times, it’s more temporary than that – like on a short-terms mission trip.

The Bible says that the whole of life is a bit like this. Whether we know it or not, everything – every experience, season, relationship – is temporary, is passing away.

Qoholet, the wisdom-writer of the book we call Ecclesiastes, says that everything is like vapour, a wind. The Hebrew word often translated meaningless in the English translation of in Ecclesiastes 1 also carries the senses breath, vanity, and delusion. Everything is temporal, fleeting, gone in a moment, he says. Later he notes the seasonal nature of human existence (the famous sequence starting “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” in Ecclesiastes 3), and mourns that no matter what legacy he leaves, after death it will amount to nothing more than a “striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:17, ESV). He doesn’t even have power over what his successors do with what he leaves behind – they may go and squander his riches and everything he has toiled for during his life (ibid. v. 18, 19).

The Psalmist paints a similar picture of human existence:

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalm 144:3, 4, NIV)

That’s right: our existence is like a shadow, flickering and changing as the sun passes and gone as swiftly as the coming of the day’s end.

Every place we call “home,” whether in the knowledge it is for a short time or as a more permanent dwelling, will pass away. Every empire we build, every business and entrepreneurial pursuit  we pour energy into, every dream, every victory and defeat, everything that seems so final, so momentous, everything that we seek security and permanence in, these things are passing away. Every relationship, every family, everyone we love and hate, every person we promise to spend the rest of our days with – they, too, are going like a wind, mortal human beings that they are. Human existence is a fleeting shadow. Our degrees, our careers, our legacies, all is but a vapour, swallowed up in the passage of time that washes over our existence like an ocean that we are but a drop in.

All this might sound bleak to you. It might be something you choose to ignore. Our own mortality is a hard truth to swallow.

But the Bible offers some eternal perspective on our own fragile existence, a reason to rejoice – a reason for hope. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, gives us the following insight, as he reflects on our eternal hope of glory:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

This world is not our home, Paul says, at least, not like it is. The life we live now – our life in this world – is like a tent, a temporary residence. It is but a temporary dwelling, a passing place as we await the permanent, unshakeable, eternal dwelling place promised us, assured by our salvation in Christ.

Now we are wanderers, then shall we have rest. Now are we exiles, then shall we have a home. Now we hunger and thirst, then shall He satisfy our every need. Now we long for security, then we will dwell in an unshakeable Kingdom.

Paul uses the image of being “clothed…with our heavenly dwelling” as He pictures eternal life. The portrait here isn’t of some dualistic, abstract vision of heaven, some “place in the clouds” that our disembodied souls will float off into, with no likeness or resemblance to our world. No, not at all. Rather, it is that this world is groaning, longing for the time when heaven touches earth, transforming it into all God intended for Creation. It is material, concrete, real – where everything lacking is made whole.

This is an image of a world – even this world – transformed; a world where brokenness is transposed into wholeness, where sickness is done away with, where everything is made new, nakedness and depravity are clothed with bright raiment, where dark places are pierced with unfathomable light, where everything hurting and dislocated in this world is renewed, restored, redeemed.

It is life as it was meant to be – the bare bones of our mortality clothed with eternity, depravity clothed with abundance. It’s as the writer of John’s Apocalypse says: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).

What does it mean for us now? We can either mourn the temporality of it all, or we can embrace it. Embrace every opportunity, every meeting, every encounter, every season of life as a gift. It is all from God, and it is all going back to Him. And every worry and heartache, everything “insurmountable” obstacle that seems so significant at the time, every burden- these things, too, are passing away. There will come a time when we will be clothed fully, when we come home, when we enter into the eternal feast when the Kingdom is established in fullness. For now, we wait.

It gives us unshakeable hope for the future, and perspective for today. And even now, the Kingdom is breaking in, making all things new. We are living in the aftermath of Christ’s shattering victory over the clutch of death and evil and darkness on the Cross.

And because of that, we have utter freedom. Freedom from having to clutch and strive for the things of this earth as if they’re all we have – freedom from the anxiety arising from our own mortality. He has given us utter freedom, even as we experience eternal life here and now.

(v) Immeasurably More

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20,21, ESV

I’m now home after our week in Romania, and I’ve had some time to process all that God has done during our time in that incredible country.

Over our five days working in Tarlungeni and Sacele, four construction teams and two children’s work teams made up of our seventeen-strong group worked alongside FAST’s amazing staff, pouring themselves out in serving wholeheartedly, loving sacrificially, and seeking the Kingdom of God in one of Brasov’s most impoverished communities .

We finished laying the bricks for a house in Tarlungeni, and built a total of 14 A-frames to roof not only that building, but also another house in the village that was awaiting a roof. We plastered the ceiling of one family’s house, and installed boilers and radiators in two workshops so that FAST’s vital construction projects can continue through the freezing winter months.

God did abundantly more in five days than I could fathom. From a personal perspective, He opened up my eyes to the things that break His heart, confronting me with poverty and rejection that I’d heard about but never experienced in such a way before, so manifestly real. It was heartbreaking to see such pain, such injustice, to walk with people who had known only rejection and squalor all their lives. It left me emotionally and physically exhausted.

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Yet, in the midst of that, God reminded me that He is sovereign, He is faithful,  and He is victorious. In a community that, from the outside, seems to be in a hopeless situation, the Father is on the move, restoring, rebuilding, healing, renewing. Through the work of FAST, run by people like Daniel and Ema who heard God’s cry for His hurting people and obediently followed the call to go out to a community that no-one else would, God is moving in hope, flooding the very streets of Tarlungeni with his mercy and love.

From the outside, building a house or running a holiday club may seem like merely sticking a plaster on a fatal wound: a house will last a few years, a holiday club provides only brief respite. But, it was never about us, what we built or achieved. No. Our purpose was simply to offer what little we could, humbly, obediently trusting the God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20,21, ESV) would take that offering and work His power. By ourselves, we are nothing. Aside from God hopeless places remain hopeless, barren wastelands remain barren, ruins remain ruined.

But we don’t follow a God who is removed from pain. Our Father, whose Kingdom is love and justice and mercy and kindness poured out abundantly, enters into the darkest places to transform them, bringing life, rebuilding the ruins, raining down hope. What is impossible for us becomes possible in God, who works together all things for good. It’s happening in Romania, as it is across the world. Heaven is touching earth. Darkness is pierced by the light, and hopelessness is exchanged for hope.

God gives His people, His church, the blessing of participating in that work. And what a blessing it was to offer ourselves, in a small way, to the work that He is already doing in Sacele and Tarlungeni. The Kingdom is there, and we were given a small share in it. Through the work of FAST, the Father is working powerfully, transforming a community with His love.

For now I bid Romania la revedere. But God is still there, always faithful, steadfast in love. And His Kingdom is on the move.

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(iv) “It is all Jesus”

Days three and four

Today we sit around George’s table, sipping coffee together as we take a break from making A-frames; this is welcome respite from the baking afternoon sun. 

There is a moment of silence in our conversation. George looks proudly at his wife Simona, at his beautiful little girls Anicia and Natalia. Then, gesturing around him, at the house he built from scratch, at his handmade workshops, at his family, he says:

“Look, I have it all…[without Jesus], there is no house, I have no wife, no children…It is not mine. It is all from Jesus…It is all Jesus.”

George is glowing as he recounts passages from the Bible reminding us that although we may have material wealth in abundance, we have nothing at all if we don’t have Jesus. 

This is a moment I won’t forget. This man, who comes from a culture where poverty is widespread and hope seems thin on the ground for so many, has been utterly transformed by the love and hope that is in Christ. 

This is what makes what we’re doing in Romania worth it. Moments like this are such beautiful, such tangible expressions of the Kingdom of God on the move in this country. Person by person, family by family, God is exchanging hopelessness for hope, poverty for abundance, rejection for love. 

What greater cause is there to live for?

(iii) Cornerstones and A-frames

Day 3

Yesterday I wrote about my first taste of Romania. Today I got my first taste of Tarlungeni, the Roma community that FAST is working in to build houses.

As you pull off the main road from Sacele on to the dirt track entering Tarlungeni, the first thing you notice is the smell. Pushed to the fringes of society, this Roma community grew up around a rubbish dump; the pervading smell of fetid refuse coupled with rubbish being burned along the roadside hits you like a wave long before the village comes into sight.

Keagan explains how his first experience of the village impacted him. “The first thing that hit me was the smell…realising how little the people in the Roma community had made me realise how much I have.” It’s a totally different world.

As we journey down the track, families of children curiously peer at our van, waving at us as we pass. This is a shanty town – many families cluster in barely habitable shelters mangled together from scavenged wood and corrugated iron. There is rubbish everywhere. Stray dogs and free-roaming horses line the streets as we pass through to our destination. The conditions for this community has, however, improved dramatically with the work of FAST – through their “Better Homes” project, many families have been able to build homes suitable to live in. This is this project that we’re helping with this week.

Our construction group split into teams today to help with various building projects. The majority of the group started laying the first layer of bricks for a new house in Tarlungeni. Craig and Norman worked to install a bathroom in Peter’s house, a man whose home was built with FAST a few years ago. He’s currently extending the building now that his economic situation has improved, and now pays money back into the organisation in continuing partnership. Others were assigned the job of cleaning the yard in front of FAST’s planned vocational workshops in Sacele, to make way for building work. Trevor, Keagan and I worked on building A-frames for the roof of a house that had been built in the village last year.

My team was supervised by George, a Roma man who was trained as an apprentice and supported by FAST to build his house in Zizin when he was a young man. He now works for the organisation on building projects, and oversaw us as we built the A-frames.

George is a good-humoured, cheeky man. Before we even begin work, he calls to his wife, Simona, for some sweet Romanian coffee, and we sit for a while contemplating in the sun. Eventually we start work, transferring to George’s workshop to measure and cut lengths of wood that will, later this week, support a family’s roof. Our instructor is totally laid-back and nonchalant as we start construction; the age-old mantra I’ve been taught to “measure twice, cut once” goes out the window as he whips out his chainsaw and gets to work on the wood lengths.

It was wonderful to see the impact that the work of FAST has had on George’s life. Originally from a marginalised Roma community where opportunities are sparse and poverty is rife, through the training and support of FAST his life has been transformed, and now he works to help other Roma families in Brasov.

After working through the afternoon, we return to base and catch up with the other teams. The group who worked at the Mission House today got off to a great start, beginning the week’s holiday club. The theme for the week is the Biblical story of Joseph, and today the group ran crafts activities and storytelling sessions (I’ve heard a flannelgram was involved!). Meanwhile, others prepared the space and resources at the Integration Centre in time for other children using the centre tomorrow. The team in Tarlungeni laid the first layer of bricks for the house (which I’ve been informed is the hardest bit of the project). Dodgy Biblical puns are rife building are rife (about laying cornerstones and building houses on solid rock) as I chat to the team about the house building progress.

Above: the Cornerstone is laid!

Altogether, it’s been a productive day. I look forward to continuing tomorrow; but first, it’s time to collapse into bed for a good night’s sleep.

(ii) Arrival

Day one

My first taste of Romania is not what I expected it to be. 

Firstly, the natural beauty of this country has taken my breath away. In the three hour car journey from Bucharest to our base in Sacele, I was captivated by the landscape we passed through. Long highways weave through leagues of rolling hills and rural plains, covered here and there by patches of deciduous forest. For miles into the distance all you can see is uninhabited land drenched in the light of the setting sun, until, in the horizon, your eyes are met by ominous, foreboding mountain ranges. The road to Brasov then plunges us into deep forest, silent and hauntingly beautiful. Night approaches as we wind up into mountains covered in pine trees. 

We’re truly deep into the country that has become the setting of the West’s fascination with vampires – I feel I’m walking the pages of a gothic novel as we pass through this Transylvanian landscape. 

My second big surprise was the huge contrasts in urban Romania. As we pass through Bucharest, I’m greeted on the one hand by the familiar sights of Western shopping centres and high streets (home to brands like H&M, Deichmann, and MacDonalds); on the other we pass blocks of monolithic Soviet-era Communist apartment blocks. A little further out we’re met by the sights of rural Romania – herders herding goats, horses and carts, traditional agricultural buildings. 

We finally arrive at FAST’s headquarters in Sacele, to be warmly greeted by our hosts, Daniel and Ema, who head up the organisation. After greetings, gladly received cups of tea, and prayers, we’re tucked in bed after a long day’s travelling. 

Day Two: church services, picnics and mountain ranges

Today we had the opportunity to travel into Brasov as a group to worship at a small, English-speaking church I’m the city. We had a wonderful time worshiping alongside and meeting Romanians, Germans, Americans, an Austrian, South Africans, and, of course, us English folk. I always love services like this. Although we’re a diverse group of people speaking many tongues, from many nations, we’re united as family – brothers and sisters drawn together praising our Father. It’s a taste of that image of heaven in Revelation, where people of all tribes and nations bow before the throne of God to praise him. I love it. 

Not long after, we’re heading out of Brasov into the mountains after a short picnic stop. We journey through more vast forest, more sun-bathed countryside. We eventually end up at our destination: a ski resort that turns into a base for walkers, climbers and cyclists during the summer months. 

Next, we plunge into a small summit-bound cable car as a group, and trundle hundreds of kilometres up, up, up into the mountains. As the foot of the mountain vanishes beneath my feet and I’m carried as if flying to its peak, I’m continually awestruck by the glory, the beauty, the majesty of God revealed in the scenery around me. We soon reach the top, we exit, and I look down.

Wow.

I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re 1,799m above sea level, looking down into the basin that houses Brasov. We’re surrounded by mountain ranges whose peaks are hidden in thick, swirling cloud. It takes my breath away, again an again- we’re treated to a view miles of unbroken Transylvanian countryside and mountain ranges stretching into the horizon. 

These words from Psalm 98 come to mind:

Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord , for he comes to judge the earth. (vv. 8,9b)

God never stops surprising me with his beauty, his creativity, his majesty.

After this moment of encounter, We’re soon back in Sacele: tomorrow, work begins.