This is the second part of this five-year update. If you haven't yet read the first part (they were written to be read in order) please do so here.
Part Two–The Ugly; Talking Frankly about all the Mess
Before things ever get good, they've got to get ugly, right?
As I try to unwrap all that has happened, to inform you and hopefully encourage you with what we've learnt through these challenges, I will not name names. That is not the reason I’m writing this series. Nor do I want to draw on situations too clinically, though to tell you our story (and to land at The Good) I need to cover some of the background interference in order to fully explain myself. It's as much an exercise for me as anything, so bear with me if I go on, or sound like I'm speaking to myself. I probably am.
I realise some might know the people whom I might be indirectly implying. Maybe it's not who you think it is anyway? The point is not the witch hunt but to grow from these experiences, to increase our learning and come through it all stronger.
Like being the husband of a wife going through chemo. I want to become someone that can help others when facing the same situation because I've walked that path. Chemo and everything that follows really is like trying to crack an egg with a sledgehammer. But until there is a better solution... (please God, let there be some advances in cancer treatment in the near future). Watching your wife's body completely broken down by that poison, her immunity stripped out and hair falling out, is not anything I'd want anyone to face.
Of course, statistically, many will.
Even post-treatment, when the cutting starts, it's not over. Rachel has made the decision for me (I'd have agreed, in all honesty) not to show me the wound mid-surgery as we are. And if I'm honest it scares me. So did the thought of her hair falling out, hidden under her hat until the day I shaved it off for her. So I might come around.
Why do I say this? It doesn't make me look good, or brave, for sure. But that's the point. I'm not writing this series to come across as strong, but real. Bad things happen to people and sometimes it's not all good and sweet. Sometimes life is ugly.
If we don't understand that fact, if we build our theology on the 'now everything is going to smell of roses' lie, you really are just setting yourself up for a fall. When bad things happen, you have nowhere to go in your theology apart from being undone, and then I hope you then come back to God. But people do walk away altogether having experienced what we have, and I can only imagine it's because they blamed God. That they assumed by being a Christian, it meant we were exempt from life somehow. That just isn't how it works. Life gets ugly.
Wind back with me to before the summer–a year before that, in fact. In autumn 2015, after a challenging three years in Tallinn with ups and downs, we were seeing some serious numbers. Crowds were filling our home. I'd prayed for six extra people to join us that October and there they were. We had a core at the heart of that which included two Estonians. Things looked promising after months of struggle, years of pressing in, wearing ourselves out.
Yet as easy as it came, it went. The temporary extra help we had needed to return home, the students were at the end of their course, and suddenly the core that I thought had been with us simply dissolved.
Rejection never feels good. Coming from fellow Christians that you'd invested so much into and your kids had grown to love is especially hard.
None of them I think set out to deliberately do harm. But just as an absent parent does harm by the void they leave behind, the same was true for us. Some of it was down to personal sin and struggles. Yet those we were counting on to share the load with us just dropped their shoulder. They were done.
And it hurt. A lot.
I've reflected recently, that with cancer jumping uninvited into our family as it so ruthlessly did at the end of August, the last autumn passed us by with these issues from the summer kind of pushed to one side. Maybe dealt with, maybe dissolving away?
Maybe they still need addressing?
By last summer, we'd already been talking and praying about where we should get involved as a family. If we were laying down the homegroup and gatherings that we were hosting with the church plant, one of our values as a family and as Christians has always been to be involved in the local church, to be in community. The Christian life was never meant to be lived in isolation.
And Estonia can be an isolating place.
|Isolating––true. But see, it's not all 'ugly'. This photo|
was taken at the end of our road the other week, looking
out over the frozen Baltic sea.
I'd really felt that we could serve for a season with the guys at the local Vineyard church. We'd visited on and off over the years and I'd met with the leader before. They could also do with some encouragement. We needed a place to heal. We'd stated that we would be coming regularly from the summer onwards, and as a final rejection, aside from Arnoud & Elisabeth who have faithfully walked with us throughout our time here, none of the others in the church plant felt/wanted to come and serve with us there.
Most aren't involved in the local church here in Tallinn anymore. But it's not about them, of course.
I vocalised the other day to Rachel how I still find that personal rejection hard, and didn't want it to affect the way I view Estonian Christians I might come across in the future. I need to keep working in this area, clearly! We both approach these things totally differently. Rachel is the picture of love, acceptance and inclusion, reaching out to people long after most would have given up. I tend to cut myself off from hurtful people and situations, probably a protection method.
Our hearts had plenty of those situations these last twelve months.
It's not always locally based either. I attended a conference last summer in another country. They were showcasing (probably the wrong word–it was to prompt prayer and awareness) in one of the rooms the various situations and plants happening around Europe. We would historically fall into that group because we were in Tallinn. Before the conference (we'd just laid down the church plant remember) I had cautiously replied to the emails asking for updates on the church that could be shared at the conference. I reigned that in. I didn't want the crowds to think more was happening than it was, and we were hurting. I needed healing and played down going 'too big' on what got shared.
Conferences have a way of taking what little faith there is and making it grow. I was stirred by being there (being amongst thousands of like-minded souls does have a way of doing that). But the way they expressed these European bases, I was not ready for.
Instead of calling them church plants (which I had shied away from) they had soldiers on a map. Folks were stationed in various places. This was a language I could run with! We were soldiers, for sure, on the ground. We knew battle. Boy did we know what that felt like.
Yet we weren't on the map. There were no little soldier figurines on Estonia, no flag, no picture of our family as pioneering on the wall. Nothing.
And that hurt more than I knew it would.
I cried like I have not cried in a long time. Andy Moyle got the front row seat for that performance, spotting me breaking down during worship and asking if I wanted a chat outside. I'm not sure how many words I got out. It was also the day Rachel was taking further tests in Tallinn as they were investigating what the lump was. So that certainly played on my mind.
Again, I'm not finding fault. Our absence from that map, our removal from the website that looks at pioneers around Europe (which still hurts, though I write this with a smile I’m trying to make myself wear) was not malicious. It was based on what I said, even if the outworking looked very different to what I'd been asked about.
I'm not pointing any fingers, but looking at what this all does on the inside.
How does it feel going from being a church leader to a pioneer...to nothing? Of course, we are far from nothing. But in that context, what is happening now (within that group of churches) on the ground compared to before, or other situations is comparatively nothing.
It's so easy to have your identity wrapped up in what you do. Tim the church planter. Tim the pioneer. Until you aren't doing that anymore. Until that's not what you can say about yourself.
I realised I needed a new answer to the question we often get about why we were living in Tallinn. It often came up, especially when they realised I wasn't here for work or married to an Estonian (the two most common reasons for moving to Estonia). Add to that I'm an author (lots more on this in The Good, I’m sure) and they always wonder why Estonia. In the past that was always an opening to a conversation (often brief, once they heard my answer): "We moved to Tallinn because we felt God leading us here to start a church."
When you've just laid down a church plant, that answer doesn't sound so helpful anymore.
But you still need to answer. Even if just for yourself. Why are we here? It's actually a question I looked at a lot at the beginning of last year (everything post-summer has been cancer and chemo. As I said in the first entry, it's almost as if these earlier challenges have been pushed to one side in the light of the health issues). Namely, the question: ‘Do we still believe God called us to Tallinn?’ If the church plant hasn't worked out, and if that was the reason, do we remain?
Believe me, we prayed about every situation imaginable (and probably a few you can't). I did anyway. I can't speak for Rachel in this, nor the girls. But all were clearly affected by what had happened and would be by any change we might face.
I kept landing back to the following: we don't feel our time in Estonia is over. As much as I'd like to have fitted another option, an easier one, someplace where there was life, where there were a vibrant church community and culture, where there were people we could be friends with, where life would be easier, where we could speak heart to heart easily and not be misunderstood....as much as all that, as much as we'd like to be nearer to some dear friends that God has recently knitted our hearts to...we didn't sense any of that was right.
God had said Estonia, God had moved us to Tallinn, and despite what we'd just gone through, our time here wasn't done. He wasn't done with us. Far from it.
Let me add this. We love the country of Estonia. We love living in Tallinn. It's by far the nicest house and area we have ever lived, since being married or when growing up. It's amazing to think our girls get to grow here. We love the city, we love being in the EU (Brexit really didn't help the UK's appeal to me during the summer!). It's only in relation to the church situation (granted, lots of heartaches) that life here has been challenging.
I've joked that if we could have the life here and Hope Church St Petersburg all at the same time, we'd be in our element. It'd be heaven. Well, I guess, one day it really will be. Maybe we just have to wait?
But does that mean we spend our days in Tallinn without ever having that type of community? Is that fair? Is that right?
I've said before, I think words like fair and right are the wrong ones in these contexts because it comes only from a human perspective. The church in Tallinn might never look like what we are used to, of course, what we yearn for so deeply. Maybe we've had those days this side of heaven. The question remains; are we prepared to be in the place God has said despite it not being all we could dream? If Christian life for us here doesn't have all the trappings so readily available in other contexts, do we stay?
For me, the answer has to be yes.
Yet I believe we can work through all this. We can step free from this cancer, this experience. God can use it for good. I can walk free from these rejections, these hurts, one day, even if I know I am not free at the moment. Even while it still hurts, I trust one day it will hurt less.
The simple truth is life gets ugly at times. But I guess, if that wasn't ever the case, would we actually be doing life? But there is also so much good...and that's coming next!
One final thought on what's ugly. Going through cancer having just laid down the church plant has made me aware of how too often we view spiritual warfare. We've all been there, let's be honest. So and so are pioneering some great work somewhere and then illness happens. It's obviously a work of Satan–spiritual attack!–and we rally to pray. That might be true, the attack element I mean, in some cases. What I find interesting in our situation is the fact, in human terms, we hadn't had a backdrop of victory, but defeat. Had the opposite been true, how much more fervent would the cries be, how felt would the outrage be that a church leading couple could be attacked like this? It’s an interesting thought.
I actually feel I've gained a great perspective on this. I'm still processing the full extent, but it's helped me to view the area of spiritual warfare in a fresh light. Let's not be so quick to draw lines in the sand, calling one thing warfare and another something different. It's all ugly. Cancer stinks whether you are preaching to thousands or picking up the pieces of a shattered dream. Food for thought–like I say, I'm still working this one through, but I find the appearance of that chain of thought quite thought-provoking!