Do not underestimate the effects of grief and loss. The whole being can be touched and it can be difficult to find words to understand and especially express to others. Grief can be complicated if it is compounded by multiple losses – especially if these are ambiguous losses. Ambiguous losses are those that are most difficult to express to others such as the loss of expectations. This furthers the dilemma because it seems like no one understands, and advice from others often makes things worse.
It has been so long since I have been able to blog that the longer it went the more difficult it was to start. My blogs were harshly critiqued by the elders of the church in Ljubljana and were labeled “hopeless”. This definitely contributed to the difficulty. I'll do my best to fill in the gaps. The Lord is faithful.
Luke's wedding was amazing. It was truly like a fairy tale. He and Jenny have been great for each other, and it is wonderful to see how they work together through their own sets of moves and difficulties over the past year. The good part was that it was a joyous sendoff. It was as good as anything we could have desired as our first born went off to start his new life with his new bride.
We have received (and continue to receive) much criticism for how close we are as a family. We seemed to have the most problems in the churches we visited even from our children's infancy because of a hesitancy to put them in the nursery, children's programs, and even our choice to home school. These choices were certainly not without their own sets of problems. However, with all the fresh sexual abuse allegations coming out now regarding a growing number of churches we have been breathing a sigh of relief over standing our ground.
When Luke did leave, we all felt good about how much time we did spend together. I was glad for that time. I didn't even expect how the loss side would effect all of us in our family. It was even more difficult to discern because it was mixed in with other losses.
Our time in Ljubljana became marked by extremes in relationships. We had some great and growing friendships, good ministry, a growing church in depth and numbers on one hand. On the other was a growing divide between me and the elders. This would culminate in them deciding not to renew my commitment to the church in December of 2019. Right before Christmas.
The constant criticism from the elders was difficult to bear, but it was always balanced with the reality of a real calling of God and confirmation among the congregation. Amy and I were invited by a church in the US to spend a few days in Dubrovnik to be built up. It was a wonderful few days and the focus was on the importance of rest. We were able to meet some other Balkan church leaders and share experiences.
The very next week Amy and I attended an ICC Eurasia conference. The point was to connect the church in Ljubljana with an affiliate group for accountability and partnership. We were able to meet other International Church pastors there. It was a fun group and we ended up laughing so hard we cried during one of the times of fellowship.
After we returned to Ljubljana I began to take seriously the command to rest. I scheduled a day alone with the Lord and it was awesome. He felt so close and loving and I felt Him asking, “Do you trust Me?”. That was on a Friday. That next Sunday the two remaining elders asked to meet with me after the service. They simply asked me to leave. They refused to give a full reason, follow biblical steps, or involve the congregation. They simply stated that they asked me to come so they can ask me to leave.
While praying through this, I asked the Lord as a grace to me if He would send me “to” somewhere instead of just “away” from there. My prayer was met within minutes by the ICC founder inviting me to come to Marseille. Well Lord, I guess I better go there since you were so specific in your answer.
We spent Christmas of 2019 in France. It was nice to have somewhere to go, but all of us were feeling the effects of what was happening. It was difficult for any of us to talk about.
Once we returned to Ljubljana we began the formal process of considering coming to Marseille. The situation was less than ideal, but we felt like God was sending us here. Amy and I came back by bus for a formal service where I preached and the congregation voted. That confirmed that the church wanted us here and we committed to 2 years in Marseille.
Amy and I returned to Ljubljana to begin planning. We had to travel to Vienna, Austria for our French Visas and were awarded them in record time. Then COVID-19 began changing the world.
We made some great friends through an MMA club that I mentioned in my previous blog. The abandoned factory never got shut down so they eventually continued meeting. This was a great confidence builder for all of us (except Amy who wasn't interested). As great as MMA is there are always some hazards. The main trainer was teaching me jujitsu submissions when we both heard a pop from my chest. I'm pretty sure my rib was broken as indicated by all the presenting symptoms. What a metaphor. I left Haiti limping like Jacob, and now I was leaving Slovenia with a broken rib from literally wrestling.
Moving in Europe is more difficult than the US under normal circumstances, but this started to seem impossible. We only needed a passenger size van to move our stuff since we continue to travel light, but one way vans were not a normal thing for Slovenia. Amy finally found one, got it booked, and then received a notice that our transaction was cancelled due to travel restrictions.
After much difficulty she found a local Slovene company that was willing to send us with their driver so he could bring the van back. They suggested we leave immediately as borders were already starting to close and the days ahead were unpredictable. Most of our planned goodbye's got shortened or didn't happen. So many tears were shared among us and our friends. Another extra perk to help us understand complicated grief experientially.
We drove through the night holding our breath with each border crossing. The driver was great. Very professional and committed. He spoke little because his English was limited and we only knew a few words and phrases in Slovene. We basically made a horseshoe through a northern route through Austria, Germany, and then down into France. We couldn't go through Italy due to quarantines and Switzerland had potential problems also. The driver knew some small border crossing into France from Germany that wasn't even guarded. It was literally a small wooden bridge across a river surrounded by farms.
We all breathed a sigh of relief once we crossed into France. The driver found a gas station and we all slept for a while. We entered into Sanary sur mer in the late morning and unpacked. The driver didn't waste any time heading back to Slovenia so he wouldn't get stuck in France. We kept up with him as he made his way. He went directly to Germany and then got a hotel where he rested a couple of days. He didn't have any problems getting back into Slovenia, but border crossings through Austria and Slovenia both had extensive wait times.
We had planned to stay in the ICC office in Sanary only for a week or two until we found an apartment in Marseille. The official quarantine began the day after we arrived so this turned into 2 months. This was pretty difficult on all of us. We didn't really want to leave Slovenia and we didn't really want to be in France. Now we were all trapped in an office for an indefinite period of time.
Of course there is always the bright side. It was nice to have a place to go and southern France was much warmer and sunnier than the winter snows we left behind us in Slovenia. However, the sunny days were confined to a small gravel yard when we were only a few hundred meters from the coast. Just out of reach.
In May things finally started opening up. We were able to find an apartment through some relationship connections. It was literally our only choice available. We took it sight unseen.
The apartment turned out to be great. It was in a perfect location close to public transportation, access to a really nice natural area, and close to the church. The apartment itself is very accommodating and a much better place to be quarantined than the office.
All throughout the quarantine we held services online. Lance was invaluable in his assistance to us for the technical side. When we moved to Marseille we were able to figure out open air services as the warm summer days had arrived.
I started running in the natural area near us. The long gravel roads and open views were healing. I hadn't ran long distances very often, but this area was perfect for it. I started upping my mileage.
Right after I started running some longer distances, a Kenyan marathon runner visited the church service. We got to be friends and he said he would love to run with me on his “recovery” days. He was encouraging me to continue running the longer distances. It turned out that my body really began to feel better by running the longer distances than running shorter ones. I started to really think about the spiritual aspects of this.
It seems that nothing good lasts for long. It was just as I was getting into a good running routine that all of the parks began to close because of increased fire danger. I was back to being stuck again. This really hit me hard and I ended up sleeping every free moment I had for the next couple of months. It seemed like everything finally caught up with me.
One of the requests by the church in my letter of call was that I would continue my education. After much prayer and debate I settled on Liberty University to complete a degree program in Psychology with a focus in Crisis Counseling. Not having an accredited degree has continued to surface as a source to not be taken seriously by those who do have some sort of degree. There are many reasons why I have waited so long. Many of them have to do with problems inside the institutions issuing the degree that it seemed difficult to find one that wasn't problematic.
The day after I paid my tuition the president, Jerry Falwell Jr., posted a picture of himself with his pants unzipped. The day after I signed up for my first classes all of the scandals started to come out in major news platforms. This was definitely depressing. After waiting so long to go back to an accredited institution and paying out of pocket since my GI bill benefits had expired. Now my financial sacrifice was going to pay for a $10 million severance to someone who seemed the opposite of a “champion for Christ”. I also had to reckon that my salary is paid by my support base.
I considered quitting at that moment. I wrote a letter to my professors explaining how I felt. They encouraged me to continue and look for evidence of God at work. It does seem some momentum is happening and a forensic organization is currently at work to unearth the problems. I pray that the Lord will bring to light all that needs to be seen. On the good side, the classes and professors have been wonderful. They have truly contributed to my growth in my relationship with the Lord.
I guess I didn't realize how much I missed Luke until he and Jenny visited during the summer. It was such a joy to be reunited. All of us were laughing and talking. It was during the time of reunion that I realized how much of a void it was without him. It is wonderful though to see him and Jenny together. Amy would always tell Luke that some of his ways would never be acceptable to a wife. However, Luke seemed to find one that does all those things too. Abby and Anna call Jenny the girl version of Luke.
With a short ease in travel restrictions we had several friends from Slovenia come to visit. It was amazing to see all of them. Another reminder of how much we missed them came with the restoration of joy by seeing them again.
It wasn't long after they left that COVID-19 cases began to rise and France was threatening another quarantine. Curfews began and then back to full blown quarantine with all movement severely restricted. In all we spent nearly 4 months of 2020 in full quarantine conditions.
Just before Christmas things let up a little. Amy, Abby, and Anna traveled to Paris to help Luke and Jenny move to Bordeaux where Luke was able to find work. Abby, Anna, and Lance were able to travel by train to spend New Year's with them in Bordeaux.
Things have been difficult for everyone this year. It was certainly difficult to see the political unrest in the US this past year. It was even more difficult to see the recent protesters breaking into the Capitol building. Using the name of Christ as a means to advance political power has certainly hurt the witness of American Christians on the field as those we are ministering to wonder if we are all like that. What is Christianity? Is this what it means to be a Christian? Distrust (with good reason) builds among those Christians in the countries we are working in. Are we here to advance to cause of Christ or to advance American Nationalism with the name of Christ attached?
The one thing I know clearly is that God brought us to Marseille for the moment. We were able to work with some students in need of counseling, and it is clear that God used us specifically to help them. We were able to walk with them for a time through some difficulties. They have now returned to their country of origin and seem to have found some counseling services that will give them the help they need on the next leg of their journey.
Hopefully I will be able to keep up with the blogs a little better in the future. Even with all of the hardship, I feel confident about the future because the Lord is leading. He is near to me and never lets me go.
Psalm 34:18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.