The Unexpected: 2

So, the unexpected then. We went to Amiens, expecting to look for and find long-term rented accommodation. A flat, a house, nothing special, not a palace, just enough for what we believed God wanted us to do there: share our lives with the people we would meet and share Jesus with them along the way.

After eight weeks, we had not found anywhere. The last couple of weeks it seemed to become increasingly clear that we were not going to find anywhere. There are human, natural, reasons for that. But the biggest reason seemed to be that God did not want us to stay in Amiens, at that time anyway.

What? Had we heard wrong? Were all the things labelled Amiens which fell into place in our lives a mistake? Was God saying one thing whilst we were hearing another? Nope, I don’t believe so.

We returned to London at the very end of February, knowing that Amiens was not the place for now. Maybe later? Who knows? God knows! There was a germ of possibility for spending a short time in another place, which we would explore to see if God opened a door.

Back here in London, then, a couple of days after finishing reading Acts again, as described in the previous post, I went out for a walk round the streets and parks. A pray-think-listen walk.

As I walked, I thought about what God had shown me about Acts, how He worked through the unexpected (to His people, never to Him!). For no particular reason, I thought I’d review the crisis times in my life since I became a Christian.

So I delved back into my memory to find the times when it had seemed to me that my life was at a real crisis point and thought about what had happened. Work crises, personal crises, ministry crises.

What I found was really interesting. It seemed to me that in each case I had been living my life according to a plan that I had worked out. At some point, the plan stopped working: the crisis point. My life moved on again, got back on track, when God brought along the unexpected: something which was never part of my plan and would not have happened without the crisis.

Obviously, some of the examples are rather personal. But let me share one from my work life. I had been working for myself as a computer consultant for maybe a few years. Things had been building up and the work level was OK, but then it seemed to plateau. The new work and new clients were not there. Money became very tight indeed. It was a really worrying time. My nicely worked out plans for my young business were failing fast.

Things got to the point where I could see no alternative but to stop working for myself and get a job. Ugh, bad news as far as I was concerned. OK, so I began applying for jobs. Very quickly I found that I was too old (a little over 30!) for many opportunities and I did not have paper qualifications for the jobs I had the experience for (in computing). The fact I could do the job with my eyes closed didn’t matter, the employer needed that piece of paper. Grrr!

Crisis time! I haven’t got enough consultancy work, nobody will employ me, what can I do? Where are you, God? What’s going on?

What happened? Two things. The first was that totally out of the blue, in a completely unexpected way, I got a new consultancy client. Not just a client with a little bit of work, but lots of work. And different work: design, training and database publishing, the last of which involved a lot more computer programming. A new direction. I was safe… phew!

The second thing that happened was that out of the increased amount of computer programming I was doing came an idea to publish a magazine for programmers. To cut a long story short, that worked out very well indeed, to the extent that I eventually gave up consultancy to concentrate on the magazine. It gave me a level of financial security that made lots of other things possible (including, eventually, going to France).

So, my careful human plan failed. I came to a crisis point. At my crisis point, God brought along the completely unexpected. And actually, the two-stage pattern of an immediate unexpected and temporary way forwards (my new consultancy client), followed by a longer-term and more significant unexpected way forwards (the magazine) has been repeated in my life.

All of this obviously made me think very hard about where we are just now in terms of God’s call on our lives to work for Him in France. We had a plan, it seemed to be the plan that God was leading us into. The plan failed — no flat or house in Amiens at the moment. We have a crisis point — what happens now? Does God really want us in France?

The first unexpected thing is that in a couple of days we are off to spend seven weeks in Clermont, in the Oise département, working with missionary friends of missionary friends who are planting a Church there.

What then? Who knows? God knows! I’ve tried very hard not to keep running lists of possibilities through my mind, I’ve tried hard to stop making my own plans. I think I should plan less (not that planning of itself is bad, but planning God out of the equation is not the way to go…), expect God to bring me to crisis points, see these as opportunities and not disasters, trust Him more… and expect the unexpected. Trust that God will show up and move things forwards in an unforeseen, amazing and powerful way.

Is it easy? No, very far from it. Is it painful? Absolutely. Do I often feel like doing a Jonah and running away? Definitely. I try and remember what God said to Joshua: be strong and very courageous. God can do this, I can’t, so I’m just going to have to keep relying on Him…

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The Unexpected: 1

Last week I finished reading the book of Acts again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, but there always seems to be something new which God shows me as I read. It is perhaps my favourite book of the Bible.

This time, what struck me was how many times God’s purposes, the Kingdom of God, moved forwards through what was completely unexpected to His people, the Christians.

Think about the day of Pentecost to start with. The disciples knew that they should expect something to happen: Jesus had told them to wait for power from on high. But I don’t think that they expected what God did on that day, I don’t think they had any idea that it would be so violent or dramatic!

What about the great persecution which broke out after the death of Stephen? Whilst some might have guessed that they would not have things easy for very long, I doubt that the Christians realised just how God would use this time.

There are many more examples: if you haven’t raad Acts recently, why not dive right in? There is so much to learn.

Our tendency as Christians is to plough on with our strategy, our ideas, our plans, our activities. We assume that it is through all these things that we have worked out and will put into action that God will work and His Kingdom will advance.

Maybe, sometimes, that will happen. Most of the time, though, I think the Bible tells us that it is God who advances His Kingdom through the ways and means that He chooses, which on the whole are unexpected to us.

Impossible?

To reach the people of rural France, in their thousands of villages and tiny hamlets, with the gospel of Jesus Christ; to see living, growing, multiplying communities of Jesus-followers established in those countless villages; is surely unrealistic? Not sensible? A mad idea? Impossible? Not for God.

Hudson Taylor saw the impossible turn into the difficult and then done. In God, the establishment of those living, growing, multiplying communities of Jesus-followers in the villages is… DONE!

Pain Au Levain

We’re temporarily in London… and I’m missing real bread! Sorry, but having got used to wonderful bread from great French boulangeries I just can’t face British supermarket bread.

I do have a bread machine here, so that certainly helps. But it’s not quite the same. I like using it to make dough for rolls, which are great, but different.

A lot of bread in France is made not with yeast but with levain, or in English leaven. There are various types of levain, but something very simple to use is a piece of dough from the previous baking which has been allowed to develop and ferment slightly.

By the way, when you read English translations of the Bible and you come across the word yeast, it’s wrong. What it should say is leaven. If you think about it, for example the parable of the leaven, it makes sense when you think about leaven, but not when you use the word yeast. Anyway….

So I decided to revive and try and improve a recipe I’d worked out a while ago for pain au levain, or old dough bread. Note that leaven (in the sense I’m using it) is not sourdough starter, although it’s related. Also I should say that many keen bakers will complain that my recipe is not truly pain au levain. Fair enough, but I was deliberately trying to come up with something that was simple to make. I make no claims to be an expert baker either!

The photo at the top is the end result. Here we go with the ingredients:

250g piece of dough saved from a previous mix
460g bread flour*
400ml tap water
1.5 tsp salt

*What flour? You could just use strong white flour. You could use a little bit (maybe 50g) of rye flour (very French). I like to use mainly white flour and about 100g of malted flour (Granary, or Dove’s Malthouse, etc). With wholemeal flour you may need more water.

Now for the method:

1. When saving the old dough, put it into a bowl (large enough to allow for doubling in size) and clingfilm the bowl. Leave it in the kitchen at room temperature overnight, for up to 24 hours. When ready it should have visibly risen and smell slightly fermented.

2. Put the flour, salt and water into a bowl. Mix with a hard spatula until all the water is mixed in. Cover bowl with clingfilm and let the mix rest for 1 hour to autolyse (which means that enzymes in the flour begin to break down the starch and protein in the flour, developing the gluten, resulting in an eventual dough which is easier to work and gives better results with less kneading).

3. Add the old dough to the mix in pieces and mix with the hard spatula as much as possible. Note that the amount of water is deliberately on the high side, since a wetter dough seems to make better bread.

4. Turn the mix onto a floured board and knead for 15 minutes. Add flour as needed to keep the dough workable – it will be very sticky, especially at the beginning, but just persevere. The aim of the recipe is to keep the dough as wet as possible: adding a bit more water than really needed at the start then adding flour at this stage to make it kneadable. At the end, it should ideally be possible to stretch the dough into a nearly see-through”window” (don’t worry if you can’t get it to this stage).

5. Form the dough into a boule shape and put it into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and let it prove for 3 hours at room temperature until it is at least doubled in size. Yep, 3 hours. More might be even better! The idea is that long proving develops flavour and texture, and also makes the bread easier to digest, so it’s better for you.

6. Knock the dough back and then remove a 250g piece for the next loaf (see stage 1: this can be put in the fridge if not being used the next day).

7. Shape the dough (into a boule or baton). There are techniques for this, search online for dough shaping for more details. Place the loaf onto a strong baking tray covered with baking parchment. Cover lightly with oiled clingfilm and prove for 3 hours at room temperature.

8. Heat the oven to 250 degrees C (“normal” heating, not fan); this will likely take up to 20 minutes. Slash the top of the loaf deeply a few times with a very sharp knife. Throw half a cup of cold water into the bottom of the oven to create some steam (which helps develop a good crust), then put the loaf in.

9. After 5 minutes turn the oven down to 220 degrees C and bake for 20 to 25 minutes more or until well browned and hollow when tapped.

Here’s what mine looked like: