It was four days before Christmas Eve and London was in lockdown. Most churches had canceled their Christmas services. For the ones that remained open, singing wasn’t allowed. Yet steps away from our house lay a massive, empty rugby pitch and when I walked past it, I felt a stirring. So much room. So much space that wasn’t being used. If God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, I wondered, doesn’t he also own our neighborhood rugby field?
God is limitless, bound by nothing. We humans, on the other hand, are limited and live under perpetual, earthly restrictions of many kinds: health restrictions, financial restrictions, mental and emotional restrictions. We are restricted by time and space, by our short-sightedness, by the aches and pains of the day and the quality of sleep we get at night.
Living under restrictions is nothing new. Even so, serving in Europe under the ever-changing government-imposed restrictions has been a challenge. Like many teams across the globe, our London City Team has been forced to let go of plans, get creative, accept that God is sovereign over everything and trust that He has purposely placed us here for such a time as this.
Here’s more good news: God and His Word cannot be thwarted. Even the most severe of restrictions can’t impede the gospel. What’s more restrictive than death? If death can’t restrict God nor stomp out the gospel, nothing can. In fact, as history attests, death, limitations and weakness – as unwanted as they are – often serve as a kind of Miracle-Gro in which the gospel of Christ flourishes.
I know this to be true, and yet I’d be lying if I said I’m happy about these restrictions. It has not been an easy season, and I’m prone to whine like an Israelite, even though God provides us with manna for the day and gives us unexpected ways to serve such as creating and implementing a kids’ zoom program and sending valentines to singles, we can’t help but long for more, long for what was, long to meet with people face to face.
This is a good longing, a God-given longing. And, as you’ll soon see, God has proved faithful in this hidden season to teach us through restrictions and give us opportunities (like a rugby field) to share the gospel in word and deed.
Limitations may be invitations
Buffets can be overwhelming. Too many choices of what we could eat, and we know we can’t (or shouldn’t) consume every option. While we’d never choose government-imposed restrictions to limit our ministry, restrictions may serve as guardrails of sorts, parameters that direct our course. Limitations may prompt us to be “all in” with the one or two things we can do.
If mashed potatoes and roast chicken are the only two items on the buffet, then why not fully enjoy mashed potatoes and roast chicken! But how might this look in ministry? How might ministry restrictions push us to fully engage and prompt us to dream up new ministries?
Over the summer, when indoor gatherings were limited to six people, my husband and I were intentional about who we might invite over to occupy those precious open spots. When restrictions tightened and we could meet with three others but only outside, my women’s prayer group bundled up and clutched hot mugs of tea as we prayed.
Currently, we are only allowed to meet with one other person outside. This severe restriction has opened the door to intentionally pour into an intensive care nurse who is on the frontlines of the pandemic. We take long walks and pray for one another. I prepare a meal for her young family about once a week. My American openness to emotions has allowed her to share fully and even cry.
I long for the day when restrictions are lifted, but the time spent with her is precious and I probably wouldn’t have poured myself into this specific person if life was going along as normal. God can use reduced ministry opportunities to fine tune our focus or direct us to something new.
Because I dislike grocery shopping, I sometimes regard the dwindling contents of my cupboards as a challenge: What can I make out of this? Living and serving under restrictions can push us to ask similar questions.
- What do I have? What skills do I have that God may want me to employ? Can I write letters of encouragement? Prepare a meal or shop for someone? What about my possessions? Do I have a spare room, an underutilized car, an assortment of DVD’s or books that might encourage and help someone else?
- Who is around me? Who could I pour into? A neighbor, a family member or someone who’s on the fringe of church life? Perhaps it’s one of your children or your spouse. God places us in specific neighborhoods, jobs, schools and families—and sometimes His desire is for us to focus on the people who are right in front of us. Taking away the usual ministry programs, meetings and expectations may steer us to one or two individuals we may have otherwise overlooked.
- How does the gospel address the current culture? Many people are feeling anxious, afraid and hopeless. As gospel ambassadors, we should be ready to speak into this. Often, that means listening, but we should also be mindful to bring Jesus into the conversation. We are wise to “…always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15). People are desperate for hope. Our offers to pray and our openness to share about God working in our own life breathes hope into a despairing world.
Initially, due to all the shutdowns, we thought Christmas 2020 might be the dreariest Christmas we’d ever experience. We grieved that we wouldn’t be worshipping in a physical church on Christmas Eve.
But a brainstorming session with a partner ministry called Faith in Kids motivated us to take inventory. We had the ability and desire to lead a carol service, a vacant driveway and a neighborhood of people, many who were lonely and fearful. Christmas Came to Me, a simple, reproducible, neighborhood carol sing was born. In mid-December, about thirty-five neighbors lined our street to sing carols and listen to a few, carefully-chosen Bible verses, including John 3:16 and Matthew 11:28.
The evening turned out to be so tender and well received, I began to dream about organizing a similar, larger event on the nearby rugby pitch. We prayed, talked it over with other believers, and approached the rugby club owner with a risk assessment form and a request to use his field to host a socially distanced carol sing.
To our surprise, God opened the door; the rugby owner said “yes.” Since my husband and I had knocked on all twenty-nine doors in our tight-quartered street to invite neighbors to our carpark carol sing, connections were already established for personal interaction. We also utilized our WhatsApp group to quickly let the neighborhood know about Christmas Eve on the rugby pitch. Two other church families in the area spread the word on their own streets through personal invitation and social media.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, our family lugged a couple of guitars, a simple sound system and some twinkle lights to a section of the rugby pitch that normally serves as an outdoor pub. We were nervous and, to be honest, a bit short with each other as we set up. Would anyone show up? Would neighbors complain? Would the police check to see we were following safety protocols? Was this whole endeavor crazy?
As the afternoon sun descended, families arrived and scattered themselves across the field, over 100 in total. Church friends gave a welcome, our family led Christmas carols and our pastor friend gave an eight-minute gospel talk centered on how Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness.
It wasn’t a perfect night: the sound malfunctioned and, after sunset, the temperature dropped so drastically that we cut the last two songs. In hindsight, we would do some things differently (like advise people to bring chairs!) but God used our feeble efforts. Christ was proclaimed; seeds were planted. And we later found out that some on the field would never have stepped into a church on Christmas Eve.
Being in the hidden places
With much of Europe under fluctuating stay-at-home mandates over this past year, it’s hard not to feel hidden away. Recently I was reminded of the prophet Elijah. A famine impending, God’s instructions to Elijah were to “hide yourself by the brook Cherith” (1 Kings 17:3). For three years, God provided fresh drinking water from the brook and food service from the ravens. For three years, Elijah learned dependence on God and God alone.
Did he get lonely? Feel like he was wasting his time? Wonder why God had called him to be a prophet if it was only going to lead to this strange, solitary life? It seems only natural. We, however, know what’s coming. We know about the widow’s son being raised from the dead and about the epic battle on Mt. Carmel. We know God used that season in Elijah’s life to teach him utter dependence and to prepare him for greater assignments.
While it might be presumptuous to compare ourselves with Elijah, the same principles apply to all believers. If we let Him, if we keep our hearts soft and our spirits teachable, God will use our hidden seasons to refine us, to show us more of Himself and to prepare us for good works in the future.
We are, by nature, restricted beings in a myriad of ways. Earthly restrictions, in one form or another, will always be a reality. But human limitations and weaknesses, as well as government-imposed restrictions, don’t impede God. On the contrary, serving in full dependence on Him, relying on Him for grace and empowerment, is when His glory shines the brightest. We serve under restrictions; we also serve an unrestricted God.
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