Setting Up Camp in the Wilderness

Our good friend Ciara shares her own journey in the wilderness and what she has been learning there.

We often refer to times of struggle as “desert” or “wilderness”. Although these times tend to be seasons of deep growth, it can be hard to fully see all the ways that God is meeting with us, is present with us and teaching us, until we look back

And it’s even harder to see these things when you’ve been in the desert longer than “40 days and 40 nights” and the wasteland appears never-ending ( I like to use the word ‘desert’ because if you are dyslexic like me you can easily read it as ‘dessert’. And who wouldn’t want to imagine a metaphor where you’re wandering around a giant trifle or layers of cheeky gateau?! ).

My current wilderness feels never-ending. It is a wilderness of physical, chronic pain that I’ve been carrying with me for sixteen years. The nature of it is degenerative so it has progressed and has taken over my life more and more in recent years until what was abnormal for me has now become normality.
Where is God in these times? Can I see what God is teaching me right in this moment, in the now of this wilderness?

What I have come to realise is that it is hard to see what God is teaching me in the wilderness while I’m always moving. Pausing to take a breath, to rest a while, is something I’ve found to be of immense help.
There is a reason that those who live in the desert are often nomadic. They have to keep moving in order to find what they need to survive. But then periodically, they set up camp for a while to rest.

The necessity of setting up camp in the midst of my desert is a lesson I have learned reluctantly. But it is an important part of the wilderness journey. It is space to sit with the pain, to take time to mourn, to lament the loss, to heal a little, to listen, to feel nothing yet feel everything ; to shout in anger, to dance even when there’s no reason, to eat well, to sleep well, to let others look after you ; to relent, to deal with what you’ve been avoiding ; to seek depth, to speak with God.

And what God has been showing me is that these times of “setting up camp” are not a contradiction of who we are and who He is, but confirmation. They confirm that we are wildly complex, beautiful beings who need times of rest, of pausing, to know who we really are, who God is and to learn how to navigate the pain and suffering. ‘You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvellously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord!’ Psalm 139:13-14 The Passion Translation

We are mysteriously complex and God’s work in us is marvellously breathtaking. Things that are complex and breathtaking need time to be shaped and formed. Time for discovery and understanding and process.
We like to keep moving. To deal with things only one at time and then move on, not come back to it, done and dusted. We like to feel in control – control feels less messy, less vulnerable, less overwhelming.
But what if we relinquish control, allow God to pull us aside to set up camp for a while where there is the space and time to explore with Him the places within that we have avoided? Yes, it can feel undignified, raw, messy – but it is real, it is good and it is necessary.

‘And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.”  And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.’ 1 Kings 19:5-8

What I am discovering in my years of wilderness wanderings is that these “encampments” are my nourishment for the rest of the wilderness journey. They are not the promised land but they are an oasis. But for me to experience this and benefit from the nourishment, I have to relent, to stop and make camp for a while.

Ciara Menzies is a freelance photographer and creative with a passion for visual story-telling. You will often find her most recent book, The Coorie Home, gracing the shelves of your local bookstore or gift shop. Ciara comes originally from Perthshire but now resides in Edinburgh.

A Call to the Frontlines

We are at war.

Those words would have stirred similar emotions in the hearts of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as were stirred in our hearts last night the moment the Prime Minister announced “lockdown.”

Fear. Anxiety. Helplessness. Frustration. Even anger. So many questions, confusion, lack of clarity. Quiet resignation as we brace ourselves for the coming weeks, potentially months. Depending on who we are, we all would have experienced at least one, if not all, of these feelings and internal responses. It’s only natural. We are human, after all.

Yet, as the Church, as disciples and followers of Jesus, what is to be our response in this time? Many sermons around this exact question have been preached in recent weeks by far better communicators than I; so I will not attempt to add to what has already been spoken many times over. I just want to share my own personal thoughts and reflections and hope that they offer some hope and encouragement.

I awoke some time just after 4am this morning, as if something had jolted me awake. Yet there was only silence. And an urge to pray. As I was meant to be up at 5am for my slot in the “Virtual 24-7 Prayer Room” anyway, I answered the call to prayer. As I lay there in the dark praying, I found myself asking God, “I am here, in this nation, at this time. Why? Maybe it is only coincidence. But with You, I think not. So what is my role? What part do You want me to play in this time?”

When I arose, I discovered I had not been alone in my early hours of the morning call to prayer. A number of people across Scotland had awoke around 4am as well with the urge to pray.

So though I am still reflecting on and praying into that question I asked the Father this morning around what He has me for in this time, one thing I am certain of – we are at war.

This is something I have been sensing for a few weeks but was struggling to put words to until last week I heard Mark Sayers of Rebuilders Church talk on a podcast about “wartime leadership.”

But this war is different from most any war we have fought as a global unit. Our frontline army is not made up of those trained to kill, but those trained to protect, care for, save and bring life. Including all those making it possible to feed ourselves and our families in the midst of this.

And I think this is where much of the fear, frustration and anger really come in. We feel helpless. Powerless. Our enemy can not be seen, can not be stopped with bullets or anything the majority of us can understand. And on top of that, our default response of activity and even activism have been stripped from us.
And we are left feeling helpless, vulnerable and lost.

Even for us as the Church, our default response of activity and service in the ways we are used to have been largely stripped from us.

So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see and support an army that the majority of us are not equipped to join?

Paul tells us clearly in Ephesians 6: ‘For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ He goes on to instruct (in The Message ), ‘Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.’

We may not be able to join our NHS or our key workers on the physical frontlines, but we can on the spiritual. And further, I would say that we can even advance “behind enemy lines” when we go in the spiritual.

Friends, we have everything we need to fight this battle – as Paul shows us in Ephesians – in God and in one another.

Never has the time been more appropriate or more urgent that we fulfil the dream and prayer in Jesus’ heart and come together as ONE Church, one Body and fight through prayer and through loving connection, even in the present isolation.

So a whole lot of us have joined hands and are now inviting you to join a Scottish 24/7 army. We have created a Scotland “Virtual” 24-7 Prayer Room where you can “enlist” to join this battle. As well as a “Virtual Creative Wall” on Facebook where we can share encouraging words and stories to “keep each other’s spirits up.

Will you join us?

Click here for the Virtual Prayer Room sign-up and if possible, put your name and where in Scotland you are praying from.

And click here for the Creative Wall

Cooried In

I am so grateful for the diverse streams of the Church of Jesus, and the the richness to be experienced in that diversity.

Over recent years I have begun to learn more about contemplative prayer, as well as the beauty and value of simply being in the presence of God with no need for words.

Coming from a very evangelical background, being introduced to contemplative prayer has brought me a new freedom, rest and delight in prayer. And it has also had a profound impact on those times that invariably come where my head, and even my heart and soul, are such a swirling mess that I find it difficult to formulate words. I have now learned/am learning to bring all of that into God’s presence, and when I can’t find the words to not even try. I simply sit with it all in His presence, giving it over to Him, maybe with palms open (unless I happen to be walking out in nature) and breathe Him in. Then slowly everything within me begins to settle.

I recently went on retreat at the beautiful Sannox Centre on the Isle of Arran. I arrived on the island only a little before ‘Storm Ciara’ so my plans were slightly delayed and my retreat extended by a few days but it turned out to be the best thing for me.

I arrived at Sannox in a similar state to what I describe above – my head and heart and soul swirling with tired thoughts, questions, concerns, tentative hopes and, if I’m honest, some underlying anxiety.
I had been counting down the days until the retreat and when I was finally there, I went into prayer as quickly as possible, desperate to talk with God about it all, desperate for Him to speak.
That first evening was difficult. My internal world would not settle and I kept pushing for words – words from me and words from Him.

But only silence.

And then I let go, stopped pushing. I remembered what I am learning about simply being in His presence. In my heart I heard, “It will come. I will speak. But for now, draw breath, relax, let go… and linger.

Linger.

How often do we linger in God’s presence when we aren’t hearing anything, simply content to sit in companionable silence? Yeh, me neither.

So I lingered.

The next morning I wrote this:

Last night
the storm was in my heart and mind,
swirling in my soul.
This morning
the storm rages outside.
Wind and rain beat at the windows.
But I am cooried in.
Cooried in next to the fire of Your love.
Cooried in under the blanket of Your peace.
Candle flames flicker and dance,
like the gentle presence of Your Spirit.
The wind howls,
the trees swish and creak,
yet inside,
deep quiet.
A heart content,
content to rest at the hearthside of You love.
“Not in the fire, the tremor or the wind”
But in the deep quiet I listen,
content to wait
for the gentle whisper  
that brings forth life.

If you can relate to that sense of your internal world resembling the storm in the external world and would like to learn some helpful prayer practices, such as contemplative prayer, we would really recommend How to Pray by Pete Greig, the 24-7 Prayer Prayer Course and Prayer:Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard J. Foster.

Room for Me Here

Vicky Allen from Dunbar shares with us her personal reflections on the 24-7 Prayer Scotland Gathering back in February.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect when we signed up for the 24-7 Prayer Scotland Gathering in February. I didn’t know how many people would be along, or who else we might know, beyond the few of us coming from our wee town. I didn’t know if everyone would be a seasoned 24-7 Prayer “pro” apart from me. But what I did know was it felt important to come, to learn, to listen, and to pay closer attention to what God seems to be drawing our little community further into. And as far as I’m concerned, any chance to visit Dundee is a good thing, so what did I have to lose?

So we arrived, blown into the city on a strong tailwind and snow flurries swirling around us. Familiar faces found us before we even entered the building. Is there any better way to feel welcomed and wanted than to be asked to give a hand? We helped friends carry some boxes in, instantly and inadvertently changing our arrival status from “almost late” to “helping to set up”. My vague anxieties dissolved as we met people, chatted and sipped coffee. It became clear that this was a gathering where I wouldn’t be seen as an outsider. There was room for me here too.

The day flew by, and now I’m left with memories of stories that were told, which felt like signposts for ideas that our little community have been mulling over. I’m left with a deep sense of the sacred, of how good it is when God’s people are in harmony amidst diverse expressions of the Kingdom. I’m left with a treasure trove of possibilities and potential to explore.

You ask me what it was like, really? It was like…like gathering at a well, drinking life-giving water, hands on shoulders as we draw the water together. Like cupping hands to scoop the water over our heads, a fresh baptism of sorts, and then holding up the hands of others, wearied after working so hard for so long. It was like eavesdropping on beautiful stories as we move through the crowd, hearing punchlines, twists and turns in tales which are still being told. It was like a big messy family get-together, smiles and laughter and tears amongst all ages, everyone watching out for the little ones, no matter who they belong to, and reminding them they are part of this too. It was gathering at the well and remembering the well has enough for us all, there’s no hurry, no need to press forward or to leave. There is a wide open invitation to this well.

And so, in the end I have this. For a little while now I’ve been reflecting on the word “poiēma” which is translated into “workmanship” or “craftsmanship” as used in Romans 1:20 and Ephesians 2:10, and is apparently also a root of the word poem. This sparks my imagination. Us – you and I – a uniquely crafted God-poem. I left the Gathering with such a sense of the poetry of God, manifest in our scattered and gathered lives. I imagine our poem-lives flying into the world like small birds on the wing. I imagine each of us, singing our poem-songs so sweetly individual, with the urgency and delight of the coming spring.

Vicky Allen is a communications consultant for a small Scottish children’s charity, with a parallel passion for creativity in general and writing poetry in particular. She’s part of Discovery Church Dunbar, a young church plant which loves to meet in the wide open spaces of East Lothian’s coast and countryside as much as possible.