There is always a change taking place somewhere. Nothing stays static. Learning to embrace that change, instead of fearing it, is part of what it means to grow. As a father I have walked the road of change with each of our four children. If I close my eyes for a moment and use my imagination, I can remember the children as babies – they would grip my finger for security as I held them in my arms. At night, when they were asleep, I’d kneel by their beds and pray for them – for the futures that they had yet to step into, for the decisions they would make, for the people they would become. My wife and I had four children under five and a half (we also lost a child to miscarriage during that time) and would often talk about when they would all be teenagers together and how we would cope. Well, today is our youngest daughter’s 19th birthday. All four have grown up. They have each embraced Christ and are pursuing God’s purposes for their lives. Our youngest has gone to university, the other three have finished. One is married, one is engaged, two are single. Their lives are kaleidoscopes of possibility. They are always changing and developing but they are not there yet.
We’ve loved every stage of parenting, and each one has brought blessings and opportunities. When I think of those who would give anything to hold a child they have lost, to have been parents and never were, I consider myself extremely blessed. I haven’t been a perfect dad, but I’ve loved learning how to parent – I’m still learning. I’m not there yet.
I’ve changed as a husband. Debbie and I were married in 1993. It’s been the most amazing journey together and we are staggered at how God has led us, provided for us, challenged us, stretched us and held us. It hasn’t always been easy. I have not been the perfect husband. Debbie has shown such grace, love and patience with me. The two and a half decades of our marriage have been the best years of my life. Learning to love each day, to trust, to grow, to take risks. We’ve had seasons when all we had was a bowl of French Onion soup between us and no money to pay bills, and other seasons when the generosity of friends and the provision of God has left us breathless in wonder. We look back over the changing landscape of our marriage and realise how much we have learned – and how much we still have to learn. We are still surprised by one another, we still love one another, we are still growing together – we’re still changing. We’re not there yet.
The same is true in every area of my personal life. I am learning what it means to be a brother, a friend, a neighbour. None of these ‘roles’ stay the same – they are always evolving, developing, maturing. I wish I could say that they have always progressed forwards, but the reality is that there have been times when my lack of courage, my failures or my weaknesses have meant that the learning process has been longer, more painful, and more difficult than it would have been had I been less diffident or more teachable. I am learning that I am not there yet.
And as a pastor I am changing too. I think I am a kinder man now than I was twenty years ago. I am more patient. I am less certain about the things that don’t seem to matter so much. When I see other people I don’t feel the need to correct them as much as I did when I was twenty-five. I don’t feel as if I always have to be right. Actually, I am enjoying the vistas that open up before me when I accept that there is more to learn, more to discover and more to experience than just winning an argument or proving a point. Don’t get me wrong – the Truth is deeply important to me. I care more deeply about the souls of those God has entrusted to me than ever before. I long to see people experience the grace of God through Jesus Christ. I am more convinced than ever of the importance of Scripture, our dependency on the Holy Spirit, and the need for grace. At the same time, however, I have grown to appreciate possibility much more. I think I have come to see the beauty and the depth of the traditions of the Church much more. Those whom God calls ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ I am privileged to call ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. There is such beauty in that; but being part of a bigger Family means that I must constantly be willing to be open, to listen, and to learn. None of us are there yet.
Mystery has a greater allure to me than ever before. Possibility is more appealing to me than certitude. Faith involves being willing to walk the pathway of not knowing, away from unbelief towards the moment when faith itself will no longer be required. Silence often has more power than noise. Seeing potential in people and working out ways of releasing it and celebrating it is such a joy.
When I was a child we would go on interesting holidays. Coming from Rathcoole, a housing estate about six miles north of Belfast, we were part of a tight knit community. I had four older siblings, three brothers and one sister. My mum and dad worked hard, but money was often tight. Yet they did their best to take us on holidays. We’d go camping to Brown’s Bay in Islandmagee, or travel down to Tramore on the South Coast of Ireland. Seven of us would squeeze into a Vauxhall Viva that was bottle green with a black vinyl roof; we must have looked like County Antrim’s equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies! But it was fun. Squashed inside the car, I would often be the first to ask the ubiquitous question, Are we there yet?
It’s a question that we must learn to live with.
Learning to live in the space between now and then
As as pastor, I have to help people live with the tension of that question, Are we there yet? I am nervous about those who think that Christian Faith means that nothing bad ever happens to us. My neat boxes of theological conviction fail to address some of the profound questions of life. I don’t need to rehearse the questions to you – if you haven’t asked them yourself, you will one day. The economy of faith is not one that can trade in untarnished currency. Beware of those who tell you that they will not let their theology be reduced to the level of their experience, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. I am not sure how faith works itself out without being rooted in day-to-day living.
God never deals with us in the sterility of a vacuum. We work out what we believe surrounded by the unexpected, the unknown and the undiscovered. Dealing with the disappointments of life, with our failure, our finitude and our fragility is part of what it means to have a living, breathing growing faith because it is part of what it means to be alive. Of course, we also have the beauty of blessings, the power of promises kept, the hope of God’s persistent Presence. God never lets us down, but I have felt like He has at times. I’ve had to re-examine my assumptions, be honest about the things I believed were rights when actually they weren’t – like healthy children, being with my parents when they died, never facing trauma or avoiding heartbreak. None of these are ‘rights’. The fact that we often assume they are the rights of Christians shows that when it comes to our thinking and theology, we may not be there yet.
Making sense of following God in the midst of the mess and being faithful in both the beauty and the brokenness are part of learning to live between now and then.
My responsibility as a pastor is to help people see and follow God when their now is hard. I have to help them see that their then has the strength to reach into their current circumstances now and give them hope. When the person they love isn’t healed, when their deepest prayer is met with a ‘no’. When the marriage they have invested in and would give anything to save fails. When the children they have nurtured and nourished in the Faith walk away. When they bury their loved ones too soon. When their worst fears become their lived realities. That’s when they need the gift of faith most. If I have taught them that bad things don’t happen to good people, not only have I done them a disservice, I have dishonoured God. Helping people to live with hope between now and then is the greatest privilege and the toughest thing. Holding on to God’s promises despite the evidence around us is not easy at the best of times, but it is almost impossible at the worst.
God is faithful though. He is faithful to the end. By that I mean not everything makes sense in our time-frame. The yelps of those who tell you that praying let Your will be done is a weak prayer are really only the noises made by crying children who have not yet grown up.
Christian faith is not an elaborate avoidance technique. To trust God is to believe that He knows what He is doing, even when we do not know what He is doing; it is to learn that we do not need to understand Him to trust Him; to hold on to the conviction that He will put all things right. It is to let Him be the One who holds the futures of our loved ones most closely to His heart. To trust God is to let Him do in our lives and in the lives of those around us whatever will best advance His Kingdom. It is to be willing to let people go for a while even when it breaks our hearts to do so.
There are times when it means we do battle on our knees for healing, or we confront the powers of darkness with the Ultimate Power of the Light. There are moments when we need to become the change we want to see, when we refuse to back away from the Truth, when we stand up for what is right. Sometimes though, the hardest thing to do is to stand between now and then and hold on to the reality that God is still there, and that He won’t abandon us. We may not be there yet, but we will get there.
Not home yet?
Back to that question we have all asked as children, ‘Are we there yet?’ We always wanted to get there sooner when we were small. We still do.
Some years ago I was pastoring on the south coast of England. One particular family had lost their son to a terrible illness when he was in his late teens. Their lives adjusted but they never forgot him or stopped loving him.
That is as it should be.
I remember having a coffee with them on one occasion and talking to them about how they had dealt with their loss. The mum told me that one day, a few months before their son died, they had brought him home from hospital for a few days before another intensive round of treatment. As they approached their front door, the dad put his key into the lock and turned it. At the same time he turned to his son and said, ‘Are you glad to be home?’ Their son stopped on the path and looking at his mum and dad said, ‘I am not home yet, but I will be soon.’ That was his way of telling them that he wasn’t afraid of death. He knew that his journey would end with him leaving them for a while.
In that moment, on the path, the three of them faced the reality that their story was going in a direction that none of them wanted but that they were unable to avoid. They needed to adjust to the reality of God’s promises being true in the midst of their disappointment with God. They needed to learn to trust Him through the space between now and then.
Faith that doesn’t help you to do that won’t work. Whatever you are facing, the story doesn’t end when someone else says it ends. It doesn’t end with a diagnosis you don’t want, a funeral you can’t face or a heartbreak you can’t endure. Change is unavoidable, but growth is a decision.
Right now, I am praying for miracles in several people’s lives. I won’t stop praying for those miracles. I am not embarrassed by that. I don’t think it is naive and I won’t give up on the conviction that God is able, but at the same time, I refuse to see disappointment as the last word. If God doesn’t do what I want Him to, if He says, ‘No,’ or if the outcome is not what I want, I’ll still believe that He is good and that His love endures forever.
May you be given grace to embrace change instead of fearing it. May you be given the humility to grow through trials and heartbreak rather than be atrophied through them. May you learn to see the world in new vibrancy as you walk between ‘now’ and ‘then’. May you constantly be reminded that neither how good your life is nor how painful changes the truth that you are not home yet. May we, the Church, become people who radiate Heaven on earth as we walk and as we wait. May you live in the power of the already but not yet. May hope be stronger than despair. May you receive the gift of faith daily as you hear the promise of God to you ‘I am not finished with you yet’