Why?

Our new friends and neighbors here in France ask me all the time why we moved here. Why here? Why France? Why this village? None of my answers seem to satisfy them. We tell them we love living here in this quiet little village that is so peaceful it seems to soak right into your bones. We tell them how we wanted a home big enough to hold friends from around Europe who might want to vacation here. We tell them how my mother always wanted to live in France and since we can live and work anywhere, we chose to live here. But, none of that seems to satisfy their curiosity. They know there are trendier places in France to live. Easier places, with communities of expats, English speaking schools, and more opportunity for jobs. But how can we really explain? I find it hard to even explain it to our friends back home, people who have stood beside us as we made decisions that lead us to this moment. How do you explain the hand of God in your life? How do you make someone understand what feels like a miraculous mystery even now?

We didn’t plan to move here. Have I mentioned that? It wasn’t something we hoped for, planned for, or prayed for. It just sort of…happened. But, looking back I can see how it didn’t just happen. It was happening all along and we just didn’t realize it would lead us here. I see how the last two years were shaping us for this exact move. We knew God was leading us into a time of change, we could feel it in so many ways. Our hearts were changing after reading Radical together in 2014. We knew our life wasn’t focused on the purposes of God like we had intended, and we began to pray earnestly that God would change us, direct us, and use us to serve his people.  That year there were clues, hints that made us think change was coming. Our prayers intensified and I began to ask God for a word to focus on that year. He blessed me with two, and they were so NOT what I wanted to hear from him, that it was easy to believe they were spoken straight from the Holy Spirit: Hardwork and Humility. That same year, I began an intense seeking of God through the ministry of IF, a group of women asking “IF God is real, then what does that mean for my life?” If I really believe everything in the Bible is true, then what should I do about it? That question echoed through my mind for two years. Weekly I met with friends who were asking harder questions, really diving into scripture and begging God through prayer to reveal to us the many ways we were struggling to see him clearly. I committed to spending more time with God daily, desperate to know him more, and to hear his voice in my life so that I could more fully obey.

In those first few months of intense prayer I became convinced that God’s plan for my life had something to do with my love for hospitality, specifically cooking for large groups of people. I began praying intently about that and soon two things happened. I was offered a position as kitchen manager for our local summer camp, a place we loved for thier vision and ministry to youth. I took that job and began one of the hardest summers of my life. I can’t tell you how many times I sat down to cry out to God and those two words he spoke to me in January were whispered back to me. It was the first of many incredible lessons that are still echoing in my life today. The greatest lesson I learned through that season was that God’s blessings often come through what feel like pain, heartache, fatigue, and fear. God uses the hard things in life to shape us. Those two summers at camp pushed me harder than I’ve ever been pushed to rely on God for strength, for friendship, for guidance, and even for rest. He helped me work through ridiculously long days, extreme heat, unexpected demands, and a host of other situations I was not really equipped to handle. But I survived it. I even managed to succeed at some of our goals for my time there, and I did it all by the grace of God.

The second answer to prayer seemed to come out of nowhere, but it quickly took hold of my heart. I enrolled in the culinary school in Little Rock and watched as God opened door after door to ministry using my skills in the kitchen. But just as quickly as I began, it all seemed to fade away. Within the first month, it became clear that culinary school was designed for those who wanted to work in a commercial kitchen. Most of my classmates dreamed of being chefs in big restaurants or of owning their own restaurant. It didn’t take long for me to realize that life was not for me. Something felt very “off” about the whole thing. I finished that semester with a clearer understanding: God was not leading me to a restaurant. I poured myself into ministry opportunities, thinking it must be the reason for this stirring of my gifts, but that too fizzled despite everyone insisting it was a good and timely work. I became disillusioned. Had I imagined the whole thing? Why would God have me go through all of this if it wasn’t his plan? I began looking at other areas of my life, questioning whether I was pursuing things for my own motives or for God. Was my writing really for him? Was homeschooling my children really bringing him glory? Was I using my home, our possessions, our funds for his work? I started my second summer at camp with these questions burning in my heart and felt certain that God would reveal his plan for us by the end of the summer.

Meanwhile, Graham was struggling through his own path. Radical had stirred in him a greater desire to live and use all that we have for God, but he felt confined by his career. Working twelve hour days with little or no vacation in a high level salaried position was providing well for us financially, but depleting him of all his time and energy. It felt impossible to imagine taking on any sort of ministry work with so little time available in his life. Add to this the poisonous relationship he had with his boss, and my husband was barely surviving. He began having mysterious pains in his chest and sudden dizzy spells. He had a perpetual headache and was fighting hard to keep depression at bay. The more he desired to live for God, the less he felt able to, and this left him feeling hopeless. My first summer at camp left him alone in Little Rock every week, only able to visit us on the weekends since it was too far to commute. This gave him time to really question what God was doing. By the end of the summer he was wondering if maybe he should quit his job. It seemed the only solution, but one filled with lots of fear and uncertainty. It took nine more months and a lot more pain before he finally decided to quit and start his own business…just in time for us to move to camp together. We were sure that God would show us what to do by the end of the summer, and at the very least, Graham would have more free time to spend with us and to spend in ministry.

But the end of the summer came and went. We finished our work at camp and left the next day for a mission trip in South Dakota as a family. We spent two weeks working there, wondering what God was doing with us. Then, we went home and packed for another adventure: Virginia Beach. We spent the next year travelling between Virginia Beach and Little Rock, all the while praying that God would show us what we were supposed to be doing. Virginia Beach is the home of Graham’s largest client, so it was good for us to be there where we could build relationships for his career, but it was good for our family, too. It became a place of rest and focus. In Arkansas we had a lot of commitments, but in Virginia Beach we only knew a handful of people and so our time was spent together as a family, or working. Life became very simple, restful, and it began to change us. We began to ask strange questions. What if we sold our house and didn’t buy a new one? What if we didn’t really live anywhere in particular? What if we traveled? What if we just went wherever God seemed to need us? What if…?

This is going to sound strange, but it was the first time in twenty years I’d ever heard my husband talk like that. He is a planner, organized and very analytical. He had his life planned by the time he was seventeen and we’d followed that plan to the letter. Suddenly, this man was dreaming. A friend of mine calls it “dreaming with God.” It was beautiful to watch, and I began to realize how much God had changed him in those two years since we first began to pray together for a radical change in our hearts and in our life. God was clearly at work. He had taught me that I could work hard, embrace humility, and serve others with my talents in ways I had never expected if I would lean on him for strength. Now I saw how much he’d been teaching Graham, too. He had learned to let God have control of his future, to let go of what he “owned” and consider it God’s, and to believe that God could open doors that we can’t even imagine are there. This last lesson was what lead us to France.

We look back now and see how impatient we were. We started this journey thinking God was going to immediately answer our prayers and move us into ministry. Immediately. I can’t stress this enough. Honestly, I think I could write an entire book on this one topic. From the moment we first felt that stirring as we read Radical, we were sure our lives were about to be completely turned upside down. That is, of course, exactly what happened, but it took longer than we expected to see the end result. Why? Because the radical change that first had to happen was inside of us. Our lives changed because we invited God to come in and change US. That took time. It is still happening, as a matter of fact. In the last two years we’ve learned to think differently about nearly every aspect of our lives. There was a great “letting go” that had to happen before God could hand us anything new. We let go of our plans, our own designs for our careers, our home, our belongings, our friendships to some extent, and even family. We let go of trying to own everything, control everything, and the constant desire to have more. We still struggle with some of those things, years of conditioning are hard to erase, but we are slowly submitting more and more to the things God has placed on our hearts. It took two full years to get us to the point where France could happen, and this is why I can tell you we never planned for it. Here’s how it went down.

“It looks like God wants us to buy a house in France for missionaries.”

“Yeah. I guess we’ll have to sell everything. It will be too expensive to try to take things with us.”

“I think you’re right. Good thing we can both work from anywhere in the world that has internet.”

“Yeah. So…I guess we’re moving to France.”

“Yep.”

That was it. It was almost more of an assumption than a deliberate discussion. Why? Because we couldn’t deny what God had been setting up all along. It felt so obvious! We thought we were going to be serving God in some simple way in the U.S., but by the time this opportunity came along, there was no denying that every single crazy thing in our life for the last two years was all about this. We were already positioned to leave everything behind, fund a portion of the house, live abroad in a home we don’t fully own, and host families that need someone to welcome them in with open arms and a table full of good food.

I know some of you reading this have similar stories about how you ended up in God’s work. But an awful lot of you may have found yourselves begging God to use you, and then never finding your place. I encourage you to embrace the good, hard, messy work of God inside of you first. Dig in with him, be determined to seek him out, to wrestle with him in your spirit, and to allow him to change you. That is where the work of God really happens, inside of each of us. Do you want to go out and do something amazing for God? Then, sit down and let him do his work inside of you.

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Joining the Journey

Yesterday was a rough day. We are half way through week three in our new home here in France and the day started with a flat tire on our rental car in the middle of nowhere which triggered an ordeal with our roadside assistance/car insurance that was a handful (but worked out fine.) We had an oven that refused to work triggering a minor panic attack in this woman’s heart, bringing the total count of appliances that don’t work in my kitchen to four. There is still no sign that our internet crisis will ever end and our cellular connection is dodgy at best. This may be our demise, people. But in the end, the issue that made us lament and wail was that we are nearly out of the few precious American snacks we’d smuggled in with us and no quick fast food fix available to cure our homesick hearts.

And there it is…we’re homesick.

I honestly thought it would take us a little longer to reach this point. I think the lack of internet has precipitated this situation because we all expected to be a little more connected with our friends and family back home than we have been. I think a few hours of American tv or even Youtube would also have helped. But in the end, I’m not so sure it has been such a bad thing. Part of why we’re struggling is because we expected to simply transfer our American life to France. That clearly isn’t going to work, and I’m not really sure I’d want it to, either. Life here is different, but in ways that really seem to fit us better than America ever did. Let’s face it, we are a strange bunch. But France, so far, seems to reflect our same ideas on how daily life should flow. For us to fully embrace that, we will eventually have to let go of some of our addictions to American things. I’m sure it is a process that takes time, but yesterday pushed us hard in that direction.

In a moment of frustration over the fact that I couldn’t make it all right and fix these things for my family, I picked up my phone and confessed to Facebook.

Confession: Today is hard.
Flat tire.
Internet issues.
Oven won’t work.
Running out of our favorite American snacks and facing the reality that they won’t be replaced.
Pray for us, friends.

With a heavy sigh, I put my phone away and went back to work. But God has a way of taking our mess and turning it into beauty. This became clear just a few hours later when my phone began to chime on the other side of the room. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.

I was expecting a family crisis based on the number of messages coming through at once. Instead, I found an outpouring of love and cheerful support on the other side of the world. Friends and family sent messages of prayer, encouraging words, helpful hints on how to find our favorite American treats, and even offers of care packages from home. Tears filled my eyes as I read the notes on Facebook, some of them from friends I’ve never even met “in real life”, and a sudden realization washed over me. We are not alone. We have been surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are joining us on this incredible journey. Although they are far away, they have made it clear that they are with us in spirit, and they are cheering us on each step of the way. What an incredible blessing!  It’s so much more than I asked for or ever expected. Honestly, I thought our moving to France would be an interesting tidbit of information that lasted a few days and then was quickly forgotten in the hustle and bustle of real life and holiday preparations. Why would anyone care that I’m feeling a little homesick?

“Oh, boo hoo. You’re in France you big baby. Suck it up!”

Nope. Instead, I get showered with love, kindness, compassion, prayers, and offers to send a package of essential survival gear like hot sauce and Dr. Pepper.

“Really? Aren’t you too busy shopping for presents for your family to care about mine? Aren’t you annoyed with my stupid attitude in all this? I am!”

No. They love me. They love us. They are rooting for us to succeed. They want to see us healthy and happy and thriving here. Many of them truly believe in the WHY that brought us here and are certain that our work here will save marriages, save families, strengthen churches, maybe even save lives. Most days I believe in that, too. But sometimes I worry. I worry that my selfishness, my fear, my inadequacy will ruin it all. I am not enough. Luckily it’s not all up to me, not by a long shot.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”       2 Corinthians 12:9

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O Sleepless Night

When I was a little girl, my family would visit my grandparents in Texas for Christmas. Greeted by family hugs and kisses at the door, we’d stuff ourselves with treats and soak up the chance to be the center of everyone’s attention. As the night wore on, mom would start dropping hints that it was nearly time for bed. She’d make us brush our teeth, change into our pajamas, and implore us to kiss everyone good night.

“But Mom!” we’d cry.

With a tilt of her head, she’d deliver the line that always made quick work of the battle. “If you don’t go to bed, Santa won’t come. So, say goodnight, kids, and hurry to bed.”

Soon we’d be piled into bed, listening with oppressive resentment as the adults continued to laugh together in the other room. I was sure I was missing out on fun, but that thought warred inside of me with the fear that mom was right and Santa would arrive to find me still awake. And so would begin a Christmas ritual that played out every year until I was too old for such things. It went like this:

My brain begins to churn with conflicting thoughts and soon my stomach is churning, too. The war rages inside me as I toss and turn.

My brain: I can’t wait, but I feel like I might throw up, and I just know it’s going to be awesome, but I have a headache and I need a glass of water, and I can’t sleep, but is it morning yet?
*Check the clock.*
Seriously?! It’s only 10:15?!
*sigh*
This vicious cycle was repeated every five minutes until I either threw up, got spanked and sent back to bed, or woke up bleary eyed with my little sister screaming, “It’s here! It’s here! Today’s the day!” (And one year, I was lucky enough to get all three. Yay, me!)

As I lie here in bed, the night before we move to France, I am filled with such a strange feeling. A wave of nostalgia washes over me and suddenly I’m eight years old lying in a twin bed in my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve all over again. My stomach lurches as I hear the familiar thoughts war inside my head. I’m excited, and I’m scared, and I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep. I want to go, but I also feel a little like I’m going to be missing out on the fun I leave behind, too. My head begins to pound and I roll over in bed, wishing I could make all the icky feelings go away and just be happy like a “normal” person.

Ha. That’s funny for so many reasons.

  1. I’m not, nor have I ever been normal. Moving to France doesn’t really change that.
  2. I’m pretty sure I don’t really want to be “normal”, whatever that is.
  3. I’m almost certain it’s completely “normal” to feel so deeply conflicted the night before moving to another country. Or the night before you give up one life to pursue another. Or the night before you take your three children overseas for the first time. Or the night before you leave your family and friends behind. Or…all of the above.

I can’t quite shake the conflict, but I can embrace it, and that’s what I choose to do. Closing my eyes, I whisper a prayer that has become my mantra through all of this:

“Dear Lord, most high God, you are my king and I trust you. Teach me to trust you more, to love you more, and to rest in your arms. I am safe with you and I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. This will be okay, I will be okay, because you are here and you go before us, and you follow behind. Complete in us the good work you began and may your name be praised, Lord, even in our brokenness, because you are good and we are made perfect in your love. I ask all of this in the name of your holy one, Jesus, who holds all things together…even me. Amen.”

 

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Thanksgiving Promises

This year Thanksgiving means a little more to all of us here in the Sutherlin and Pogue families. We are hugging each other a little closer and holding hands a little tighter as we say our prayers around the Thanksgiving table. That’s because the day after Thanksgiving this year, we’ll all be starting the next leg of an adventure that has taken our life by storm this year.

In February my mother called me in tears. “I’ve had a vision,” she said, “and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m either going crazy, or God really means to do this thing.”

I know we rarely talk about visions anymore, and its nearly impossible to convince another that a vision was real and true. That’s exactly why she came to me trembling, afraid. Was this real? Was it really happening? Had she imagined it? Was it just something she really wanted to be true? In the end, we decided to pray. We got down on our knees in her office and prayed fervently to the Lord, tears dripping onto the carpet as we begged him to show us truth and help us obey.

That “thing” turned out to be very real, and as the weeks went by we became more and more convinced that God had begun a good work and he meant to see it come to fruition. I watched as my mother began to walk closer and closer with God, and I marvelled at how he was changing her. She spent hours in prayer, filled an entire notebook with journal notes and scribbled scriptures, and every moment that felt scary or uncertain had her pulling out her Bible for more time with God. She was a woman filled with an intense desire to know and follow God’s will. By the first of March, she was fully convinced the Lord had indeed given her a vision and she held fast to the belief that it would be fulfilled.

That vision was a 12 bedroom chateau in France, bought for less than $200,000, and dedicated to serving missionaries who needed a safe refuge for respite and restoration. She believed it would all happen by the end of the year…and it has. On November 28th we’ll close on the chateau and begin our ministry to the workers in the field, offering them a place of refuge where they may be restored and renewed, strengthened for the work the Lord has for them in his kingdom.

God has always been one to keep his promises. I believe God made a promise to my mother that day in February, and she dared to believe he meant it. By faith, we knelt to ask him for clarity. By faith, we took those first steps toward obedience. By faith, we began to share the vision with others, trusting God to share truth with those who would need to see it. And by faith, we’ve walked with God through this year, laying down our plans in order to take up the plans of God. I know that this walk of faith will be the first steps in a long journey with our king who has set his heart on protecting and providing for those who have given up everything to serve him. We feel honored and richly blessed to join him in this beautiful work. What a joy it is to serve those who have so faithfully ministered to the lost and lonely of this world. We can hardly wait for the day when we can throw the doors open wide on the chateau and welcome in those who are battle weary and ready for rest. Our Lord will bind up their wounds, restore their strength, and empower them to return to the battle so that more souls may be saved before the end of days. This is the good and holy work he has called us to in France, and we know he will be faithful in leading us forward. After all, he’s a God who keeps his promises.

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