In some way, this will be a long overdue update. I've not written in this context (to the blog/email list) for a long time. It will form part of what I planned to write out to you all last autumn. But life then took on a new level of differentness.
This will actually be in three parts. Is it the thriller author in me that plans now in series, or something else? Maybe it is the need to ease you in gently to whatever is about to come out of me here as I put fingers to keyboard. As I walked back from the beach at the end of our road the other day–the sea frozen in its winter state–I had the line "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly" come to mind. There is nothing original, of course, in that phrase. But I knew then that it would make a great basis to tell the story of these last couple of years, and to bring you all fully up to speed with what life looks like for us here in Tallinn in 2017–and beyond. Because things have changed.
But before we get to all that, I need to reorder the sequence of words a little. We'll end on The Good. This first post will be The Bad and I'll cover The Ugly next.
Part One–The Bad: Our Story of the Last Two Years
We've learnt a lot during our time overseas (it'll be nine years this summer) but maybe through the challenge, we've learnt more than ever in recent years. I hope we are learning, anyway.
Cancer is clearly bad. It deserves first mention, and will certainly come up again in the next post, too. As we were processing everything this last summer–a period of reflection that followed one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make–we were hit with Rachel's diagnosis. Hit is probably the best word. Treatment started so quickly, that we were into the cycles of chemo before we really knew what was happening to us. Everything else would have to be put on hold. Those feelings and emotions that were still not dealt with suddenly covered over by an even more evasive form of challenge.
As I write this, we are obviously still not through it all. The chemo phase has passed, thank God, but radiotherapy is just about to start. The medication (5 years in tablet form and 2 years of injections) has already started. There will also be operations to come to repair the damage that the fight against cancer took on my wife's body.
As a Christian, it's been an eye-opening journey as I've faced the realities of all that has happened. When I spoke at the Tallinn Vineyard church for the first time in November, I had to be frank with the questions. But I shared how facing a challenge like cancer is a workout for your theology, your understanding of who God is, and what you believe his character is like. It's a test of your own beliefs–do they still hold true in the face of real issues?
Can you still say God is good? Can you still say God heals?
These are the questions I've worked through these last six-plus months and what I've realised is that more than ever I know these statements to be still true. I can't imagine going through something like cancer without a strong faith in God. The things I believed of God one, two or ten years ago are still the things I now know to be true, even given all that has happened to us, despite all the bad and the ugly (we'll get to that...)
I realise that these things happen. People die, people get cancer, churches don't get planted. Take the man called Lazarus, for example. Jesus raised him from the dead, yet is he still walking the earth today? Is there some 2000-year-old man wandering the Middle East? Of course not. He died again, assuming this time of old age. But if Jesus can raise someone from the dead and yet that could at best only be temporary, then why do we think it's any different for the rest of us?
As I began to process these things, I took my focus off our own situation and kept as much focus as I could on Him. God is good––that’s an unchanged reality.
It doesn't mean only good things will happen, because this side of heaven, that was never promised.
We live in a fallen world, where bad things happen. One day there will be no sickness, no death, no sorrow. One day that will be our reality, but in the meantime, people get sick. People get cancer.
On 1st March 2012, we landed permanently in Tallinn. It’s now five years, therefore. Time flies. We arrived full of hopes and dreams. Much of what has happened since I can assure you were not in those early dreamers minds.
Did God fail us? Did we get it wrong?
These last months have shown me these aren't the right questions, because they come at the issue from merely human understanding, a human mindset. But I'll unpackage what I mean over these three entries as a whole. Stay with me. There is a lot to unwrap.
When we arrived in Tallinn we'd had to say goodbye to some very dear friends in Russia. Our spiritual family in fact in St Petersburg, where we'd seen many spiritual sons and daughters (mainly daughters actually) connected to us in the heart. We knew because of visa restrictions and other restraints we wouldn't see many of these people again, besides our trips back. We've only managed one trip as a whole family since we left due to the cost of four visas and I've maybe been 2 or 3 times on my own.
We arrived in Tallinn on the back of something amazing happening in St Petersburg–and the more I reflect, something quite unique actually. It was something special, a short-term bubble and window that I don't think would even have been possible today as things now stand. God was good to us. He knew exactly what, when and where something needed to happen and he moved heaven and earth to get us all into that city for that time.
Tallinn we knew was always going to be a long haul battle. There were no quick wins to be had in Estonia. Welcome to the land of hard graft!
Yet, of course, the church is God's. It's his to build. What I've reflected on though is that when the opposite happens, how quickly we forget the same truth that it is God's church. How quickly we land on man and start looking for what went wrong. Yet if salvation and church growth are His, if He rightly gets the honour for every lost soul rescued, isn’t He also equally at work in situations that don't work out?
In the first half of 2016 we laid down the church plant that was Hope:Tallinn, officially saying enough was enough. After nearly four years, by then back to just the two original families, and after every effort had been given, it was time to make that call.
Like a doctor trying desperately to resuscitate a patient on the operating table, at some point you have to stop and call time of death. Dead is dead. And we were dying–thankfully, not physically.
Then cancer reared its head.
In hindsight, how much harder would it have been had we just launched, had things taken off like they had so effortlessly (it seems, though it took a lot of effort at times of course) in Russia? I don't think we could have done it. It would have been more than we could have managed.
I think about these things and then say maybe God knew, and then I laugh. Of course, he knew!
He knew about the fact that in Estonia when someone is off work due to illness, an employee's salary is only 70% of its usual amount, thereby reducing a huge element of our income since September whilst at the same time our individual supporters are down to the last few. Yet we've seen some amazing things happen through this time, some special generosity. I'll cover that in part three.
Another thing that we've had to work through (sending this update out might well force the issue, for some) is the thought that aren't people financially supporting us to church plant, and if we are only serving in another church, won't they just stop when they find out? There are no easy answers for this, though as friends have often told me, people support the individuals, not the job description. And also, as you'll see in part three, there is a lot more that we are and can be involved in now. Things have moved quite quickly really.
Last year was personally a very tough year. There were, of course, some good moments, I'm sure we'll come to that, and we've landed in a better place this year. I'll certainly leave you with that before we are out. But not before it gets ugly...