Welcome! It's wonderful to see you here!

I'm a passionate writer - and therefore spend most of my time writing thriller novels. But I also live an interesting life in the nations. This blog is here for that aspect of my life - our life - I live with my wonderful wife and two daughters.

I believe in encouragement. I live for obedience. I believe in learning from our experiences, and this blog exists for both of those, and more.

So that you stay connected, getting every new update, please add your email address to receive all updates directly, or follow the RSS feed.

I was part of the leadership team in St Petersburg, Russia - which planted Hope Church in 2009.(www.hopechurchstpetersburg.com).
In March 2012 Hope Church sent my family to plant into Tallinn, the Capital of Estonia. I therefore lead this small but growing church plant team. Here is the website for Hope Tallinn (www.hopetallinn.ee)

For details on our journey here, read the series called Adventures of Faith which is linked for you on the right hand column, just below. That details our original journey to Russia and then onto Tallinn 4 years later.

Author for fiction novels - Cherry Picking (2012), The Last Prophet (2015), The Tablet (2015) and The Shadow Man (2016) are available on all major bookselling sites. Please visit: www.timheathbooks.com

Some want to help in practical ways:

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Six Years in Tallinn––Finding Treasure in the Trash

It's six years to the day since we took the short flight from St Petersburg and landed in Tallinn.

It's been a year since I last posted on this blog.

Today my wife, Rachel, is in hospital, having her fourth operation in the last twelve months.  Hopefully, this is the last one.  She's cancer-free, and it's going to be all good from here on.

Six years. It's been not an insignificant time, and yet, looking at this photo of the four of us about to board the flight, I doubt there was much of what was to take place over the following years that we might have imagined on that day.  I've covered all this (the good, the bad and the ugly in my three-part series, by the same title, last year).  So I won't repeat myself.

But I felt it was important to share something today, this day of extremes, this day of another annual milestone, even if we are forced (as a family) to be apart due to this final operation.

For Anya, who was not even two years old when the photo was taken (her birthday is in three days), all she knows of life is where we currently are.  It's the only home she remembers.  She has no recollection of our time in St Petersburg, nor does she even remember the rental flat we were about to arrive in six years ago.  Home as we now are is the only home Anya has ever known.  That makes me stop and think, pause to ponder.  It gives some perspective.

For Mia, she was about to embark on another change.  Six years on she's into her fifth language, three of which she has fluently.  When we arrived in Tallinn, her Russian was very strong, and she used it often.  Now, Mia claims she is more natural in Estonian (no small achievement there!) and though she doesn't have as much practice in Russian, it is there when she needs it.  She doesn't want to lose it, either.  One thing that's come from our move abroad (and it will be ten years in total this summer!) is that Mia, for sure, will always be a great linguist, Anya also.  Anya tends to shy away from speaking Estonian (she doesn't have the Russian like Mia does, as she was too young when we left), but she will surprise us often with using it.  Her language teachers (Estonian and French) both report how well she is doing.  I guess living in other cultures really is good for a child's language abilities.

As a family, we've set about learning the fifth language together.  Nothing offered yet as to why that is, but it's a great thing to do together and might, one day, come in useful.

The Moment Before Dawn

I'd never really thought about this before leaving the UK.  I'd always assumed the middle of the night (say 3 or 4 AM) was the coldest, just as you assume that either the end of December or January to be the coldest months.  Yet during the coldest spells (and we are maybe in the coldest spell we've had since moving to Tallinn, with temperatures pressing down to -20c this last week), it's the coldest right up to the point just before the sun rises. 
It makes perfect sense, of course.  Until the sun appears, there is no heat, nothing to change to cold.  So it figures that those moments before sunrise (therefore the longest amount of time since the sun was up) that it is then, in fact, the coldest.  That means 8, 9 or 10 in the morning can be colder than at night.  Just as February (we soon learnt this from our time in this part of the world) is colder than the months before it.

The lesson I'm trying to draw here, and something we've been learning ourselves, is that sometimes the toughest moment is the time immediately before a breakthrough, not halfway through something.  It can be at the time you think it'll never change when the end arrives (at last).  

Hopefully, today's operation (the last one that is planned) signifies that shift for us, even if March 1st does little to convince us that winter is over and spring is just around the corner.  Here, and with a heavy snowy winter, it'll be many more weeks before we see the grass again.  It might be green by the end of May.

Winter changes lots of things, of course.  Spring (and the warming sunshine) allows new growth.  It's the course of nature.

Coming out of our winter (figuratively speaking) as a family, we know there is much to look forward to.  We know much has been lost, also.  Things that we had around us, things we maybe took for granted, that are no longer a stable part of our life, even if in the background.  How these things begin to blossom and bloom in the season ahead, we will have to wait and see.

God is ALWAYS speaking

Something that has been encouraging, in a way we couldn't have imagined six years ago, is the amount of non-churched people who are drawing strength and asking questions, because of the way we've walked this path recently through cancer.  We've been vocal that this isn't God's doing (the disease).  We've been upbeat (I hope) about our need for God, especially in a time like this.  And we've been told by many that what we are sharing is helping them.

One of the things I've been pondering recently is the subject of When God Doesn't Answer Our Prayers or When God is Silent.  I get what is being asked, and it's good to have that conversation, but I also think it's foolish to position such a statement or question that way.  Because God also hears our prayers, and I'm convinced he always has an answer.

I was chatting this through with someone recently and likened the above to radio waves.  It would be like someone, who because they could no longer pick up a station on their radio (or WiFi on their device also works for this analogy), assuming that the radio station had gone off-air (or that the internet had switched off).  A broken radio or device in no way means the signal is gone, it's just our ability to hear or understand the signal that has been momentarily affected.

A loving God and Father will always hear the prayers of his children.  As a human, I have to accept that I don't know all things, only God does.  So when something happens that I can't explain, it doesn't change who God is.  I've touched on this before but will repeat it here.  Being a Christian, and trusting in a loving God, it means I give up my right to know why something happens if there is no obvious answer.  I just choose to trust.

Sometimes it’s good to follow a path
someone else has forged...
It's 10 AM as I type this line.  My wife is most probably on the operating table as I write.  Those dreamers pictured in that photo at the top from six years ago couldn't have imagined this would be how we'd mark today, and yet the following is also true.  We've understood a deeper aspect of God and his nature (and his goodness!) that we might never have known, had we not gone through these last eighteen months.

No, that doesn't mean God made this happen, and yes, I guess being all-knowing he would have been aware of what was going to happen back on that day, even if we didn't.  But he exists aside from time, knowing the end as much as the beginning.  And one thing I've come to learn over this last year is that he's got a much bigger plan for us and that he's been thinking about it for far longer than we have ever realised.

I recently went on a ski down through the forest to the frozen sea near our home.  I took two pictures, knowing, in a way, God was speaking to me through them.  The caption under each is what I felt God say for both.

...and sometimes you need to forge a path
where no one has gone before.
I'd been following tracks in the snow that took me further out over the frozen Baltic.  It was fun, and the tracks helped me cut through the snow a lot easier.

But the tracks didn't take me far enough.  Suddenly, in front of me, there was a whole mass of untouched snow.  I knew I needed to forge a new path.  New adventures await, but I had to now make my own tracks––my own marks––in the snow.
And I did.

So What Does It Mean?

Not a lot, for now.  But we've sensed 2018 is our year (I recently heard that 8 is the number of new beginnings).  That figures as it was 2008 (in the eighth month, too) when we moved to Russia.  We've come through a dark period, and just like the dawn, even though we are still in the thick of it, change is moments away.  Today gives me hope.  It's the last operation.  Rachel is through it all––she's done brilliantly!  We've coped well.  The girls have been amazing.

Yes, there had been some really tough times.  It's not ignoring them to say good times are ahead.  But it's looking forward with hope, with excitement.

We don't know what this new day will bring, though we have a sense.  We don't know when this new day with dawn, though we feel it's closer than ever.
And when we do know, you'll hear about it first right here.  I doubt it'll be a year before I next have something to share...

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly––Part Three

Now we have landed at the final part in this mini-series, a catch up on what is happening with my family in Tallinn–what has happened in the case of the first two posts–and where we are now.  If you haven’t read Parts One and Two, please do so before you read this one.

Part Three: The Good

We’ve had a bruising time of it lately–I think anyone that has heard from us, visited or Skyped, or even has just read the first two parts, will know that to be the case.  I’ve closed down a church plant because the team walked away, and watched my wife battle cancer.

Yet our faith in God is as strong as ever.  He has been good.

Just one of the offerings from a family at the school.
One example of this has been the immense support and care shown by the parents in Rachel’s class.  It was the first week back after the summer break.  The school has a family picnic at the end of August.  She got to see her class again, and any new students.  She’d moved up with them from the year before.  She then had the open lessons with them all the day after.  She worked the morning of 31st August–the first day of proper school–but left early so that we could attend her doctor's appointment and get the final (we thought) result.  It wasn’t the news we hoped.

Coming in that first week, the news hit others equally shockingly.  Every Wednesday, for example, since then, the parents have put together a care package for Rachel, which is left at the front desk for me to pick up.  Months later, they still appear.  Sometimes it’s meals.  A few of the parents have in fact brought around meals–teachers too.

It’s not been limited to just the parents or school, either.  During the chemo days, folks from four different churches were volunteering to make meals for us so that we had them over the nights each round of chemo started.

When it came time to buy a wig, money was raised.  

We’ve seen such an extreme outworking of care and love–Rachel is clearly a very loved teacher/colleague/friend and person! But I knew that.

Christians all around the world have been praying for us–people we’ll never know about, churches we’ve never been to, standing with us and praying.

It’s hard knowing exactly what impact this is having on our girls.  We talk, obviously, and there have been tears at times for sure.  But they’ve also been brilliant at getting on with things.  People have helped so much with them–one family from school even decided to take them across on the ferry to Helsinki for the day, eating out and going to a theme park there!  Others have picked them up, taken them to the cinema, taken them to exciting places in Tallinn.

Last year, with Rachel working at the school, I’d wave them off in the mornings (early) and welcome them home again in the evenings (sometimes gone five pm).  Yet since the news at the beginning of the term, I’ve done most of this.  And that’s been a fabulous time for me to connect a lot more with the school, and see some other dads etc.  Anya started school this year, and I was, therefore, able to walk her in that first term, see her desk etc.  Stuff I’d never have otherwise done.

Of course, I’d have chosen Rachel’s health over getting that opportunity, but it’s another example of God working good for those who love him.  It has been special.

At times, I’ve had to play the role of single parent–attending various birthday functions, or simply doing stuff with the girls when Rachel was not well enough to be involved.  It’s not a role I ever wanted (I love being a dad, I mean the single parent bit) but it’s also brought something special because of it.  It’s also made me appreciate doing stuff as a four.

Better days are ahead of us, I know that, even while we still work through the aftermath.

With doing the school runs (back and forth to school twice a day) it has, of course, had an impact on my working day.  Yet, amazingly, so much has been possible.

I remember on the day Rachel was first in the hospital having chemo–it was the worst feeling leaving her there, as I walked away, not really knowing what to do.  I always found those times the hardest, those Thursdays every three weeks when Rachel was at the hospital.  Well, on that first one, I tried to fit too much in, as always.  I’d designed an amendment to my desk–I was converting it from a standard desk to a standing one.  During that first chemo session, I raced around the city getting the wood I needed and getting it cut into the sections I required.  That night, as Rachel rested and as the food was delivered, I was busy starting the project.  I think by the Saturday I’d finished.  By her next chemo session, I’d been working at the new desk for about a fortnight.  

I remember that second session I started to write my latest novel.  I hadn’t done loads on that first day–those Thursdays I always felt lost waiting for her to be finished–but in that three-week block, despite the school runs and shorter work days, I wrote the complete draft of the novel.

Somehow, despite it all, the goals I set myself (which were based on healthier times) I’ve managed to reach.

My 4th novel
A massive outworking of being in Tallinn (which started just a few months after our move to Russia) is becoming a published author.  In December just gone, my fourth novel was released and three more are coming this year.  There is a real momentum now, and a growing, supportive and vocal readership.

It’s made me wonder–and bear with me here–could the following be possible?  Is God big enough–we know He is, of course–to have moved me from the UK with the specific goal to help me become the author I am today?  It’s a surprising thought, of course.

But what if the only way for me to become globally successful–dream with me here, would you, for a moment–was taking me from my job in Stockport, and sending me abroad on the adventures we had.  Yes, we’d bless and be around church plants, and yes, we’d continue to do what we’ve always done and give our all into those settings.  But what if the goal was to make a major breakthrough as a writer?  What if the only way God saw that gift He’d placed in me coming to life was to call me to the nations?  What then?

You see, things have been going exceptionally well.  I’ve seen tens of thousands of new readers discovering my books for the first time this last year.  I’ve seen a mailing list grow into the thousands, all waiting the announcement of my next novel in April.  What if?

Is it beyond God to do such a thing?  Could that really have been his only agenda?  

I, of course, don’t know that.  I probably won’t this side of heaven.  But what’s been clear (and this especially so with my last two novels) is that readers who discover me, are telling me this is something I can do–this is a gift I have.  And I’m aware of that, as well.  I’ve always felt God with me as I write, that if this is a talent He has given me, it’s something I need to take seriously.  And it seems to be something I’m learning the art of–learning the craft of–the more I do it.

Could it really provide the finance we need going forward?  Are the floodgates about to burst open, to not only supply our own needs but beyond that, the needs of many other mission settings?  What really is possible?

One thing I like about writing–the process itself is life-giving to me, so for that alone, is worth it–is that when people, including supporters of us, buy my books, they are not only supporting us, they are getting something in return.

Of course, that’s technically true in the traditional sense as well––treasure in heaven is not to be taken lightly.  But I love the idea of producing something, and exchange happening over just charity.  

People have supported us financially for some time–in the early days, the regular giving was as much as 60% of our income–and we’ve seen our expenses, and this type of support, drop over time.  Now it’s something like 20% if that.  If that stopped, in this season, it would be hard.  But as I said in the earlier entries, if that is the outworking of this news–and after already having supported us for so long already–then so be it.  It might be that others want to start this way.

But better still is help me to reach new levels as an author.  Help me to sell more books.  If you are a reader–or know of others–get involved in this aspect of my life.  Who knows what God will do?

I’d consider any options––speaking at church events, book club link ups, talking with bookstore chains.  If you have an idea, let me know!

And what about church life?  As I said previously, as the summer rolled by, we were committing ourselves to serving the folks at the local Vineyard Church* here in Tallinn.  They were going through a change of their senior leader–something they’d been very clear about with me in the spring, though this was only announced to the church in September.  Miguel–who is American and married to his Estonian wife Mai–was handing over the church after nearly 14 years to British man Anthony.  At the start of this year, Anthony took the reins and it’ll be officially done with a celebration in April.

(*To clarify, despite being around for 14 years, they are not a large church.  Some weeks there are about 15 adults there, other times there are 40. When we first started going it wasn’t uncommon to see Anthony opening up the meeting, then doing worship and then speaking.  So it’s a small church that we are serving–though, in recent weeks, numbers have been rising.  Is God already doing something?)

Anthony has said many times that our family and Arnoud & Elisabeth’s family arriving when we did was a real answer to prayer.  Who’d have thought it?  It’s been about six months now.  Anthony has invited me and Arnoud, as well as another two guys, onto his new look wider leadership team.  There are no labels yet–none are needed, nor would be helpful at this early stage–but it’s humbling for me to find ourselves in a place where we have a voice to speak into something, despite their long history, and our recent one.  I preached for the first time in November and will speak for the third time this coming Sunday.

As I’ve chatted and processed with people, we’ve talked about how long this ‘season’ is to be.  I keep coming back to this, though–it’s not as if we had the choice between church plant or the Vineyard, and opted for the Vineyard.  I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way.  All I’m saying is that having tried everything, we were left with nothing.  And we needed to serve somewhere because God had called us to Tallinn.  It’s His will that we are in Estonia–still in Estonia, in fact–and we need a place to build community.

And that’s happening slowly.  

There is, of course, an excellent opportunity for us now.  Taking all the relationships we’ve built here (in Tallinn we’ve had the most unchurched friends by far compared to anywhere else we’ve ever lived) we now have an established context to connect them to, as and when the time comes.  We have a place where we can bring the gifting God has placed in us, a place to outwork that, to encourage others, and grow together.  We have a leader who we can serve, someone who needs our encouragement, and someone open to us as individuals.

Mia, our oldest, for the first time the other week, sang one song at church as part of the worship band.  Elisabeth–who used to run the toddler groups in our home with Rachel–has recently launched a similar group at the Vineyards building each Thursday.

Looking forward… 

So as I look forward (we aren’t really looking too far ahead, as so much is uncertain at the moment with Rachel’s future treatment) we do have hope.  Healing is possible.

Maybe by the end of the year, we’ll be fully engaged in a vibrant church community, playing our part as leaders there.  Maybe I’ll be a best-selling author with my three books that are coming taking me to new heights?  Maybe it’ll be something else?

How Can You Respond?

So what is your take away?  What are we asking of you?  Well, nothing in fact.  This has been written for information–many of you will know of all or some of this–some might not have.  It’s hard to keep everyone fully up to date, and especially for those that mainly read via this blog, for which this is the first such update that concretely states where things are at, currently.

Please do pray.  That’s the best thing.  Pray that God would work all things out for His good in our lives, that the enemy wouldn’t be allowed any more ground in the life of my family.  Pray for us as we process and work through the church situations–healing from past hurts and guidance for future works–as well as blessing, opportunity and prosperity for me as a writer.
One of our favourite spots in Estonia––last summer, before all the madness really got started.

If you do have any questions–maybe something that I’ve not covered, or something I’ve not explained clearly enough–or any other comments, suggestions or thoughts, please do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly––Part Two

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!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly––Part One

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.
I love this photo, as did 100s of people once I put it on
Facebook.  Yet it will always be the reminder that
Rachel was going through chemo––her hair not yet grown––
that she'll remember as she looks at this image.
As nice as it is, this season will live with us forever.

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...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and Me: An Outsider's Inside View

"We won't make them leave straight-away. The ones that score the most points might not even have to leave."
Answer given on a BBC Radio show today (talking about EU nationals currently living in the UK, post Brexit result). Since when was that ever in the debate, anyway?

Hello, I'm English but I live in Estonia (a thriving EU nation, if not with its own unique regional challenges). I voted in the recent UK referendum on the issue of whether the UK should remain or leave the European Union.

I traveled back for a family celebration on the day after the result was declared - last Friday. I was still in shock. Still am actually.

On Saturday morning I went to a local play-ground in Oxford. There were lots of people, families, out enjoying the day, their kids playing. I was with my two daughters.

We've lived in both Russia, and now Estonia, for the last eight years. In the past, whenever we've traveled back to the UK, I've often made use of the other languages we've picked up. Sometimes for the novelty of it, mainly to be able to communicate something to our girls whilst out in public that I don't necessarily need others to hear.  It's (usually) our secret language!

This last Saturday the same thought crossed my mind. Even as the Estonian words were forming in my head, this time I caught myself.  And this is why I'm writing this article.

You see, the caution that crossed my mind was this - I don't know anymore from those around me whether I'd be as accepted if I spoke anything other than English. This thought greatly troubled me.

There I was, as English as anyone can be, tall and male (so least likely to be physically threatened by any would-be aggressor) and I no longer felt it was acceptable to speak a European language to my children in a public park in England.

Now let me state the following, before you read into things that I am not saying:

- I'm not suggesting that everyone who voted LEAVE was basing their decision on racist and/or xenophobic viewpoints.
- I'm not saying that I was threatened in any way or that people living in Oxford (or anywhere) are all hostile towards outsiders.

I'm merely saying, because of the result, that an element of doubt was now in my mind. And in that moment I felt what all visitors, especially EU citizens (many living and serving this nation for a long time already) must now feel.

And that is a really sad revelation.

Now whilst I state that the LEAVE vote wasn't solely based along xenophobic lines, there has sadly been a very vocal element of this voice rising up since the result - foreigners being told by 'locals' to leave the country. The news, social media and papers are growing on a daily basis with accounts of this type of anti-social (and criminal) behaviour.

And even just days after the actual result, it is clear that everything promised on a successful LEAVE vote is far from a given - the NHS lie is maybe one of the biggest.  There are also large numbers of LEAVE voters (presumably unaware of how voting actually works, or just playing with what they thought was a harmless protest vote) that are now voicing they'd not have voted that way if they'd known, or at least now showing doubts upon their decision.

As well as this free license the result has given to the racists, the last few days have also seen the following:

- The Pound crashing in value (as well as the UK markets).
- Both main political parties in a state of free fall, their leaders doomed.
- Both Scotland and Northern Ireland very likely to vote for their own independence, therefore breaking up the UK. Either of these breaking away causes a huge issue with what becomes of the borders after that. They'd have to be secured to keep people out.
- It's clear that the EU isn't going to roll over and make it easy (why should they when we've been the ones to ruin the relationship?)  There are therefore no guarantees at all when it comes to any type of business trade deals.

These are just some of the issues.

Clearly the strongest issue is the fact that the xenophobes now feel they have a legal right to abuse anyone they deem as unworthy of staying here.

Is that what you voted for?

Again, I'm not saying anywhere near the majority of those 51.9% who voted LEAVE were doing so on racist grounds - but from what can be seen, the number that share some element of that view would be a significant percentage.  

And let me be clear - if you were putting everyone on a xenophobic scale, 0 being no issue whatsoever and 10 being outright racist, there is no gradient. Another from 1 up to 10 is already xenophobia.

So even if that number was as little as 30% of voters, that's 3 people in every 20 (lets assume its a 50/50 split for IN or OUT, then 30% of those 10 LEAVE voters makes 3 people).  Standing in that playground on Saturday, with a lot more than 20 people around, statistically, I wasn't going to take that risk.

Of course the referendum was just something to take the nations pulse, so to speak, on the issue of EU involvement. It has no legal power to take us out of the Union, and as the days go on, you can see the full weight of making that call taking its toll. No one wants to be that person.

The whole debate, vote and now result, of course, was completely wrong to put the nation through in the first place. The UK should never have been put in such a position. 

What now?

Is all hope lost? I don't believe so. There are growing calls for a new referendum. I'd go along that. 

If you now knew all you do in the days after the result (and seen these xenophobic attacks) would you still have voted LEAVE?

Think about that one.

I'm not saying you need to carry on as before. I just believe the vast majority would look at what has happened - as if the curtain has been pulled back and light shed on all those 'promises' that the LEAVE campaign made - and suddenly you aren't now so certain.

Maybe its the racist thugs, jumping on the LEAVE band wagon (with good cause, I might add, as the vote has given them all exactly what they were looking for) that has caused you to take stock and say; 'hold on, that's not what I voted for.'

What next?

Sadly, once this action gets formalised, there will be no going back. There is time to stop this. Let your voice be heard.  Stand up for what you want the UK to really be.

Don't let the thugs win.  We aren't a nation of xenophobes, are we?

And if the UK does leave the EU?

The vast majority of younger people wanted to be a part of the EU - so I'd say leave, travel into Europe, get work there, enjoy life in the common market. Visit places. There are many places calling out for people to come to them - Estonia being one of them. It's an amazing country, and an amazing experience.

You all do have a choice.  

But time is running out.