When the Straight Path Takes an Unexpected Turn

I gripped the pages with trembling hands, reading and re-reading the words that had made my heart plummet. This was my final evaluation, a summing up of who I was as a twenty-seven year old woman. How could it be that my time at this place was ending on such a bad note?

I’d spent the past two years at a bible college in Tasmania, living in close community with staff, their families and other students—working, studying, eating, sleeping, laughing, singing, crying and praying together. This well-regarded training centre was not merely a place for academic learning. It was a pressure cooker, a refining fire where the jam-packed schedule and melting pot of cultures and personalities drew our well-hidden flaws to the surface.  

Every four months, each student met with a staff member to reflect on our progress and pray over any areas of struggle. As part of that meeting, we reviewed a checklist—already completed by staff—which offered detailed feedback on our character. The form in my hands that December morning was my final checklist, my graduation ‘reference’.

Up till that moment in my life, ticks always meant I’d done something right. On the form I was holding, most of the ticks affirmed positive attributes—as they had on my prior reviews. My eyes drifted over them quickly, then came to a screeching halt when they saw ticks beside comments like, ‘Somewhat over-emotional,’ and ‘Struggles with change’. To me, those ticks might as well have been glaring red crosses. If the staff who had journeyed with me over the past two years chose to highlight these flaws so late in my training, they must have felt they had potential to impact on the years that followed.

How right they were.

The ten months leading up to that day in early December had been one long roller-coaster ride as I began a wonderful relationship with my now husband and quickly became engaged. Swirling inside me was a dizzying mix of blissful dreaming and sheer terror. Along with the joy of beginning life with this man came the need to let go of my carefully formulated plans for the future. Just five weeks after our graduation, Mark and I would marry. Beyond that, our future was unclear.  For me, that was a very scary prospect.

My growing-up years were as firm and steady as a hundred-year-old oak. Almost all my family’s favourite memories were made in the same house at the end of the same quiet street in the same tiny Sydney suburb where my parents still live. We holidayed in a predictable pattern, heading inland for a dose of farm life at Easter and driving a few hours north in September to swim, fish and sunbathe. My parents followed consistent routines in what time we ate dinner, what days the lawns were done and what tv shows we watched each night. Life was stable and predictable and that gave me a great sense of security. It was no wonder uncertainty made me nervous.

The funny thing was, the closer I grew to God, the more change He brought into my life. The idea of living in total abandon was alluring—I wanted to follow God’s call, not shrink back from His purpose for my life. Yet every time He led me into something new, the drastic changes required had me panicking, wondering if I’d cope. He led me to leave my family and friends to look after orphan babies in Taiwan for six months, spend some time with missionaries in Africa, move to Tasmania to study, marry right after graduating, start a family as soon as we married, homeschool our children for more than a decade, move house six times, move interstate again to an unfamiliar region—this time with three of our four children in tow, unveil my secrets in a memoir and publish it for the world to read . . . and the list continues to grow.

Photo credit Esther Brown

There’s a little habit I’ve noticed I slip into whenever I face major change. I grab onto control wherever I can. It’s kind of a battening down of the hatches ready for a storm—probably in an attempt to control the storm roaring inside me. Thirty years ago my desperate clutching became self-destructive when I focused all my energies on extreme dieting. These days, through God’s healing, it manifests in smaller, more constructive ways. I become more determined to keep the house tidy and the day-to-day routines flowing smoothly. It’s my way of fostering a sense of security, despite the upheaval going on in other areas.  

A few weeks ago, I realized I was doing this again and stopped to ponder why. There were staff changes happening at work, my responsibilities were increasing and my husband’s schedule was becoming crazy-hectic. Then came some news from my publisher that meant my book would soon be distributed a little differently. These changes, while challenging, offered potential for good results. But none of them were expected—and I was thrown. I thought, after our crazy COVID year, my life was finally settling down to a manageable rhythm. Yet, everything was still changing and my sudden fussiness about the house showed I wasn’t coping.

I kept telling God I was scared of being overwhelmed and asking Him to give me strength and show me His way through, while on the inside, some part of me was bucking against the whole situation. Why am I always having to change and adapt, Lord? Can’t everything settle down now?

When I finally stopped talking long enough to listen, here’s what I felt God speak to my heart:

“Trust Me. I love you and I am working all this for your good. Every change has a purpose and is set to move you forward. Even closed doors are part of the forward progression, re-directing your course in line with My plans.

None of the journeys of My people have been straightforward. All have had unexpected turns and winding convolutions. It’s all part of the mystery and wonder of adventuring with Me, of learning trust and dependence and security, even when you can’t clearly see the way ahead. Those times when you think you’re settled on a certain course, then everything suddenly changes, confront you with the fact that you’re not in control—you’re not God. They bring you back to that place of child-like dependence, of thankfulness for every provision, every reassurance. And they reveal to you that I am well able to fulfil My plan, even through a different avenue than what you envisioned.”

It’s hard to describe the peace that came with that shift in perspective. Of course, God was working it all for good. Wasn’t that always His way? Every change He’d led me into so far had come with great cost, yet such richness of His presence and goodness that, in hindsight, they became the high points of my journey with Him.

So, again, I made a choice to embrace the adventure, knowing that with it comes growth. It’s all worth it. And really, life would be very dull without God’s unexpected turns. Those ‘surprises’ stretch us and take us to a place of greater intimacy with Him, greater thankfulness and ultimately, greater joy.

‘I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,

along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;

I will turn the darkness into light before them

and make the rough places smooth.

These are the things I will do;

I will not forsake them.’

Isaiah 42:16  

Invitations

“Please come and visit before you go to sleep.” Scrawled in old-style cursive on a torn-off strip of paper, the note lay in my cabin. On my bed.

Minutes ticked by as questions swirled around inside me. Should I go? What does he want? Surely he’s safe – isn’t he? What will he do if I don’t come?

The chill of the night seeped through my skin, setting me shivering, as my feet crunched slowly along the path to his abode. There, shrouded in darkness, strong arms wrapped around me. Warm lips pressed against my hair, my neck while words of affection were softly muttered.

“She was a black-eyed beauty, like you,” he said. “We were lovers,” he said. “I’ve missed her terribly all these years.” Long and slowly he spoke, weaving his tale of endless grief, while I sat silent, immobilised by confusion.

“You remind me so much of her.” He shifted in his seat. Horror surged through my muscles and carried me, breathless, back to my room. Alone.

He was fifty. Married. A father of four. I was fifteen.

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“Come for a walk with me.” His strong, tanned hand tugged gently on my fingers. “It’s okay. I promise I won’t hurt you. I just want to talk.”

Hours earlier, his voice had beckoned. “You are beautiful. You are elegant.” Silky smooth, his words caressed me, quietly seeking to wrap themselves around my soul.

Caution snatched at my ankles as I followed him into the arching shadows of a garden. The moon stretched its glowing fingers between the branches, urging me to dash back into the light.

I stood in the shelter of the trees, tossing carefully-chosen phrases across the void I’d placed between us. Conversation meandered like a slow-flowing river. Philosophy and religion – our similarities, our differences.

Clouds drifted in front of the moon. Voices quieted. He opened his soul and spoke of desire.

My heart raged in fury, urging me away, back into the light.

He was thirty-five. My long-time teacher. I was seventeen . Fresh out of school.

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“Come to me,” he whispered. I recognised this voice – had known it all my life. He was the one Who loved me, the preacher said. The one Who died for me.

When I was tiny, He kept me safe at night. As a teenager, He called me closer, stirring up longings to know Him more.

Then darkness had entered my soul, slowly building a wall between us.

Surely I was unfit for his presence. I was the fearful one, shrivelled up and tormented, straining endlessly to whitewash the blackness away.

Still the stains seeped through.

His eyes gazed at me with fiery intensity. “I know it all,” He said. “I love you still. I’m not like the others. My love for you is pure. Complete.”

His arms stretched wide across the span of my life, covering all of my history and every moment yet to spring to life. “I gave Myself for you.” His voice was soft. “Stop striving. Come and let Me heal you. Let go of your past, of those who’ve wounded you. Trust Me and I’ll wipe away your pain.”

I lifted my head and staggered to Him, desperate. Tears streamed as shame and longing flowed freely from within me. He gathered me tenderly into His arms and held me close to His beating heart. Weathered hands wiped away my tears.

“You are the delight of My heart,” He said. “I’ll never, ever let you go.” Grace flooded over me, washing me through, replacing despair with hope and peace.

I was twenty-one. Anorexic. He was the Good Shepherd. The restorer of my soul.

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“My darling, I love you.” His gentle hands reached out to hold mine. “Will you marry me?”

I stared into his eyes, glistening pools of blue, my heart overflowing. This was the man I knew so well– the devoted, creative, handsome one who had my admiration from the moment we met. Far beyond my reach, I thought. Yet there he sat, smiling through the darkness while waves crashed on the beach below us.

The diamond ring sparkled in the moonlight as he slipped it on my finger. He held me close, his tenderness awakening the sleeping parts of my soul.

“You are so beautiful, inside and out. Let’s walk together through the rest of our days. Everything I have is yours.” His voice was soft with emotion. “I long to know you completely – with every part of my being. But I’ll wait…until the day. Be sure of this – already you have my heart. ”

He was twenty-eight. A lavish gift from God. I was twenty-seven. Blessed beyond words.

Healed and finally free to love.

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Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Related Scriptures

Jeremiah 31:3-4

1 John 3:16

Revelation 21:4

Isaiah 40:11

Zephaniah 3:17

Deuteronomy 31:6

 

 

 

Standing Firm in Turbulent Times

I never imagined we’d end up here.

A storm is brewing in our nation. This tempest grows increasingly fierce as contentious issues – the subjects of public debate – are relentlessly shoved in our faces. For some, peaceful dialogue seems to be on the decline. Words fly impulsively, venting passionate opinions without thought for the real people who’ll receive them.

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I understand that these issues need to be discussed. The decisions which are made will have lasting impact on our beautiful country. All perspectives need to be heard.

It’s the open hostility and relationship breakdown that I struggle with.

By nature, I’m a peace-lover. I’m most happy when everyone is in harmony, whether in our family or on a larger scale. The constant tension and hateful language we’re confronted with makes me shudder. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.

“How am I supposed to deal with this, Lord?”

This question often springs up from my anxious heart. Today as I waited on God, He revealed some of the answer.

I realised Jesus understands fully what it’s like to live immersed in tension. His people, the Jews, had a level of freedom to practice their faith. They could carry out their weekly rituals and meet in temples without question. Yet overarching these freedoms was the brutal rule of the Romans, who demanded complete submission and feared any kind of uprising.

Right from birth, Jesus was seen as a threat by those in leadership. Soon after his birth, his parents had to flee to another country for a time to keep their precious baby from being murdered by King Herod (Mt.2:13-18). As Jesus matured and His fame grew, so did the hatred of the religious leaders. The common people saw Him as their King, the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression. The chief priests and teachers of the law despised Him (Lk 19:28-20:47).

Today I read Luke 22:1-6, the story of Judas plotting with the religious leaders. These priests and teachers were terrified by the people’s worship of Jesus. They feared losing the power they’d held over the faithful for centuries. When Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends, offered to betray Him, they were delighted. If they could be rid of Jesus, they thought, life could return to its former state.

I was confronted with the way we humans clutch at control when life gets uncomfortable. We avoid difficult people, effectively seeking to remove them from our lives. We block our ears to contrary voices or try to shout them down. Anything to shut out the ripples which shake up our comfy status quo.

Jesus knew the plotting that was going on. He felt the hostility directed toward Him from several directions. He fully understood the betrayal, false accusation and intense suffering that lay ahead (Lk 19: 28-20:47).

Yet He didn’t flinch.

Not one bit.

He set His sights on the task at hand with complete confidence in His Father’s ability to see Him through. He stayed the course, doing what He’d been sent to do, step by step by step.

All the way to His final breath.

No wonder He’s referred to as the Rock.

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We can’t walk in God’s purposes while fear is ruling in our hearts. Like Jesus, we need to set our eyes on our Father and trust Him to see us through. He doesn’t want us to try to control everything. Nor does He want us to be paralysed by fear.

He has plans for us to fulfil, good works for us to do – right in the midst of the storm. (1 Peter 4:19).

No matter what tensions and upheavals we may face, there is a place of peace and confidence from which we can live full lives and bring hope to those around us.

A place we can plant our feet and stand firm, come what may.

That place is a person. He’s called the Rock.

Psalm 18:2 

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;

my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.”

Isaiah 26:3-4

“You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast

because he trusts in You.

Trust in the Lord forever

for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal.”