I titled this post a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t have time to write it, but wanted to at least park the title as a means of, in a way, committing to its composition.
There were other titles that came to mind that particularly low day, but this was the most publicly acceptable one I could muster. So with Mozart, Brain Power in my ear, I feel a bit like David composing one of his Psalms (sort of… you‘ll have to read to the end). Not one of the pretty ones, rather, one of the messier ones.
I’m in a season where, while not entirely hopeless, I do hope less…
- If you don’t have time for a long post… I’d recommend reading it another time.
- If you do have time for a long post… make sure the coffee’s hot!
There are a few things that have brought me to the point of committing this to the blogosphere (who knows… I may just be shouting into the wind).
- 8 years of being in France
- Age… I’m now north of 50
- A good dose of French ras-le-bol (I’ll explain)
- A book I recently edited for a friend
I’m not really sure why I’m blogging about it today other than…
- I’ve simply been at a bit of a breaking point… a Nadir.
- Writing sometimes helps me sort things out, in my brain if nowhere else.
- Here on the blog, I usually try to put a positive spin on things. That doesn’t always fully accurately portray the reality of our experience however (Oh the number of times I’ve started writing some of this stuff, then promptly held the Backspace key).
So… let’s start writing and we’ll see where this plane lands…
8 Years of France
We recently marked an anniversary: On Jan. 25, 2015 we left Canada, and made our way to Châtellerault after arrival, the next day. That was the start of this chapter of our life. We’ve had a couple of 1-2 month stints in Canada since then… but really, this is more or less home now.
In those anniversary-type seasons, you can’t help looking back to measure progress. Honestly, the day crept up, and crept by, without much fanfare. I didn’t actually think of it on the day, although I had before, and have since.
Eight years is a long time to give yourself to anything, let alone working to grow a church in France, which is not for the faint of heart; particularly when working alone about 95% of the time. Progress has been minimal, we’re worn down, help has been insufficient, and our biggest cry for help has been summarily ignored by those with the most ability to effect change.
If we’re still afloat today (not swimming, not advancing, not thriving… afloat) it’s because, in the general absence of titular leaders, God has raised up others to lend us strength. Of course that’s not negligible, and we’re thankful for it, but the lack that led to God raising up others is hurtful.
North of 50
I’ve written about this before. I’m convinced that mid-life crisis is more than just the open-neck shirt, gold chains & new convertible sports car stereotype that came out of the 1970s. It’s when you reach mid-life, look back, wonder what you’ve accomplished and where you’re headed, and the image is more of a blank canvas than you would like to see.
When I compare what I’ll loosely call, my life-contribution from age 30-45, I am both satisfied and yes, even proud. The tree that is my life, produced visible fruit and a measurable difference in people’s lives.
When I look at the past 8 years, they stand in stark contrast.
- I have a memorable impact in the lives of my English students. I know because they tell me, repeatedly, even years after I’ve taught them.
- My kids will tell you that I’ve had an impact on them… but on one hand, they’re your kids… they’re supposed to say that right? I know what I feel about how I impact them and there’s room for improvement. My angst is not lost on them.
- The local church… individual members would perhaps say that we’ve made a difference (I can’t even bring myself to say “I”… there’s no church here without my family…. it’s a team thing). We are, however, still waiting for some kind of critical mass to kick in… 8. years. later.
Beyond 50 is also the time you start thinking… “in 15 years or so, I’ll be staring down the end of my peak earning years.”
- In Canada, we would have owned our home already for a good 15 years. Here… we rent, and struggle to pay rent. We are routinely 1-month behind, and this past month, we were approaching the 2-month mark.
- We don’t always just buy groceries when the urge strikes, we plan (& sometimes delay) those purchases because finances are thin.
- We keep our house temperature at around 19˚C (66˚F) to save money.
- We have a whole host of water-saving strategies which I’ll leave to your imagination.
Any idea how humiliating it is to admit all that? … yet here we are. Each one of those things is a daily reminder that we’re essentially living month-to-month; each one makes me feel like a failure.
This French expression literally means “the bowl is full to the brim.” The implication, however, is more like the their equivalent of “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
When I started teaching here, it was intended to complement the missionary support we receive from North American churches. We consciously chose the route of working part-time here, (a) because we could, owing to our European citizenship and (b) because our kids had just gotten settled in to the language, their schools and their friend groups… we didn’t want to go the way of the 1-2 year long, North American deputation, every 4 years.
Without teaching, we’d not still be able to be in France.
That missionary support however, because of our not-fully-appointed status, varies month to month. We still have a reasonably stable number of partners (who have pledged roughly $2,000/month), however there are multiple links in the chain between that money getting from the local church donors to us.
- Local church finance-processing workflows.
- Provincial / State / District workflows.
- (in our case) the Canadian office (which processes payment to the US headquarters, incurring a loss of value due to Canadian – US Dollar exchange rates).
- North American headquarters’ workflows.
At each of those levels, processing is also impacted by things like summer vacation, Christmas holidays, sickness, office delays, financial stress on church members / local economies, etc. This means sometimes payments can be processed days/weeks later than usual. If a deadline is missed at one level, the delay is cascaded down the chain.
More rarely (although it happens), there are times when months are skipped. I don’t understand how that happens, but every year, there are typically 1-2 months when we do not get a transfer at all. (To be fair, we’ve asked them to not send transfers less that $1,000, because bank fees are exorbitant).
To be clear… we are not on a missions salary. The support we receive is heavily dependent on a number of potential fail points… any one of which can reduce our available finances. Factor into that things that are affecting everyone right now: gas, food and electricity prices have all exploded, and require extra, not less finances.
In short… we are, and have struggled financially for a long time.
Incoherence & Justification
“But,” you may say, “You & Liz just took a week-long vacation to Italy in December. You had money for that.”
Liz & I took advantage of a timeshare property that we purchased in 2014, and we went as a belated 25th wedding anniversary getaway. We didn’t have to put out for a week’s accommodation, we just had to get there, and in 10 days, we ate one restaurant meal… the rest we cooked ourselves.
Even the pressure I feel to justify certain things we do (like right now), because we’re missions personnel (lest it be seen as living large in Europe) is enormous.
Then, upon our return home (to reference what I just mentioned above) we realized that the December funds transfer (a) would be late coming through, and (b) would be less than expected; …and the thought crossed my mind whether or not going was a good idea in the first place… for your 25th wedding anniversary.
Yeah… that feeling!
Faith & Long Term Struggle
It’s awfully hard to marry the notions of faith and long-term struggle. One is supposed to carry you through the other. Not to mention that you’ve got Bible verses like James 1:2-4:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
So when you aren’t handling it well… you feel doubly guilty because you’re really supposed to count it joy.
In 2012 our church went through something incredibly tough and I was in the eye of the storm for a good 3-6 months. You can come out of something that’s 3-6 months easily enough. Sure… it was hellish at the time, but perspective comes.
What if it’s 3-6 years though?
At 52, involved, as a family, in the work of God, we should not be consistently struggling to pay rent, planning grocery purchases, or keeping the thermostat at 19˚C / 66˚F.
“Where’s my faith?” you ask.
It’s in rough shape at times.
Book Editing Connection
Earlier, I mentioned a book editing connection. The book was Melinda Poitras’ newly released Preaching in Pink (I finished editing it since starting the post). Melinda is incredibly transparent about some of the tough experiences she’s had… things she’s gone through. She talks a lot about the messy days and even admits to how those situations have momentarily caused, or revealed, a lack of faith in certain areas.
It’s refreshing to hear other dyed-in-the-wool Christians admit to struggling with faith through times of deep disappointment.
So here I am… being brutally transparent.
There are a few things that distinguish our situations however. Melinda has the benefit of hindsight with regard to many of the topics she broaches, so the Lord has given her insight as to the why of those things. (It’d be naive to think she didn’t have anything ongoing at the moment… she’s just not writing about it yet.)
Us… we’re still largely in the thick of it, and reminded afresh, every time we go to pay the rent, place a grocery order or fill the gas tank. Or every time we open the doors of our little home-missions church, set up the projector, the frustratingly old computer, and wonder whether something will happen.
I will tell you though, that the Lord is used that book to minister to me as I edited it (the same was true of her last book, Warrior Princess, that I edited in 2022). There are few, very few people who could speak to me on that level. I’m grateful for God’s ministry to me through her powerful writing.
This… is a Psalm!?
At one point I said it felt like David writing a Psalm. You could be forgiven for not seeing anything overly Psalm-ish up to this point.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about David’s Psalms, is the level of brute honesty about what he was feeling at any given moment.
- When he doubted…
he expressed his doubt to God.
- When he was frustrated…
he expressed it.
- When he was angry…
he left a written record of it.
It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that David could be a bit of an emotional basket case by times. Yet he took those emotions to the Lord. More often than not, by the end of the Psalm, there was an expression of his ultimate faith and trust in God.
At this point, 8 years later, there are honestly times when that’s a struggle for me… trusting in God I mean. That being said…
Hoping (less), but not Hopeless
Last week, I was teaching in Angers and at the end of the day, I saw that my iPhone 6 had downloaded the most recent podcast episode from the Building Great Lives Podcast, by Rev. Trent Gilliam. The title of this particular episode… A Word for the Weary.
This podcast never disappoints. Time after time, over the past year or so, the Lord has given me things that I needed to hear. Sometimes they were sources of comfort, other times they were a timely challenge.
This episode differentiated between physical fatigue on one hand, and spiritual weariness on the other. It was like he was describing my day-to-day life; the good, the bad and the ugly. Spiritual weariness (not entirely dissociated from the secular terms ‘burnout’ or ‘depression’), kind of flavours every area of life… things that used to bring us pleasure no longer do, things that we know to be right to do… we just don’t have it in us to do… even up to & including responding to the presence of God (yet another source of guilt / failure when people call you ‘pastor’).
Yep… you read that right; even there, in a corporate setting or around certain individuals, I can find myself guarded.
Bro. Gilliam referenced Psalm 69 in this episode. Here are the first three verses:
1 Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
3 I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.
If you can’t feel David’s despair… you should probably check your pulse.
That’s how I have felt… how I routinely feel.
Yet… as is so common for David, by the end (the near end in this case) of the Psalm… he reaches to the Lord for his help. He recognizes his responsibility in the situation and determines to do it.
29 But as for me, afflicted and in pain—
may your salvation, God, protect me.
30 I will praise God’s name in song
and glorify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the Lord more than an ox,
more than a bull with its horns and hooves.
I’m not always there yet to be perfectly truthful, however, just the fact that God put it on the heart of a pastoral brother, in the Western USA, whom I’ve never met in person, to discuss this topic, as I was writing this blog post, is really quite something. It is proof, to me, that though I may have felt, numerous times, as though God ‘lost our address’, He in fact has not.
It’s like Melinda’s book…
God knows how to get ahold of me, in the alone, quiet times; how to orchestrate pre-written or pre-recorded words, and see that I hear them at just the right time.
Rev. Gilliam even mentions how we don’t like to talk about our struggles, fearing them to be an admission of weakness, when in fact the sign that we’ve not given up entirely can be its own sign of strength.
I’m not at the end of the tunnel yet, and these years have, in some ways, fundamentally changed me, but while I hope a little less, because of the Lord’s grace, I am not entirely hopeless.
All that said…
Enough cannot be said about my wife.
Liz has stared adversity in the face and, as much as it’s knocked the wind out of my sails, it has caused her faith to deepen.
Bette Midler used to sing a song called “Wind beneath my wings”, from the soundtrack of the movie “Beaches”. Liz has really been that for our family (another source of embarrassment for me given the emphasis that scripture puts on men being a strong example of faith in the home).
My hoping-less-ness has put extra pressure on her. Anyone who has dealt with mental health issues or bouts of depression will be able to relate: You recognize not only the strain you’re going through, but the impact that it has on those around you and the sense of powerlessness you feel to change things, at least in the short term.
This past year and a half or so has been my Nadir.
Don’t be surprised if I blog my way through some of these thoughts over the coming year… not sure, but as Dr. Hughes said last year… it’s taken years for you to get to this point, it’s unlikely that you’ll come out of it overnight.
I’m not (we’re not) entirely out of the woods, but I think I’ve said enough for a whole month’s worth of posts, so we’ll leave things off here for today.
If you’ve stuck with me this far… thanks!
I’ve said it before… I’ll say it again;
Let what you read, inform your prayers for
us and for France.
I loved this heartfelt post. I felt such a spiritual bond with you. I love authenticity-and truth. I felt renewed and strengthened after reading your words. I love your family-eight years ago I would pray for little children in France, that I somehow cared for. Look at them now! Your wife shines with wholesome beautiful glow of goodness. Godspeed my brother. Michele
Thank you dear Michele!
I sent an email to your gmail.com address, to share another part of the story. 😀