Three years ago, Iona Rossely boarded a plane from Dubai, headed for a three-week stay on the farm in Tweed Valley, northern New South Wales. Unfortunately, as she put it, “They waited until I was 40,000 feet in the air to say that it was a pandemic.”
It will blow over after a couple of months, she told herself. We all know how that turned out.
Unable to meet in church buildings, Rossely decided to host outdoor church services on the farm. “I’ve always thought about it, and I never would have done it if Covid hadn’t happened,” she reflects.
Congregating under an enormous pecan tree, ‘Prayer, Praise and Pecans’ was born.
“It sort of took off,” says Rossely. “God was really working. Worshipping under the heavens, seeing eagles and hundreds of birds circling us as we’re singing, is amazing. We had miracles and healings. It’s just amazing.”
Over and over, people told Rossely to write a devotional, capturing the stories of God’s work on the farm. She agreed, hoping to show that God is a living God, with us in our messy daily lives. She also wanted to “get some of [her] Irish sense of humour involved, to display God’s sense of humour too.”
The Unexpected was initially a collection of 40 devotions, centred around stories of God’s providence, featuring Rossely’s own paintings as illustrations.
As the book went to print, Rossely called the publisher. She needed to add one more story and it needed two pages instead of one. It was the story of Arabella.
“I can’t pray anymore. You’re obviously not listening to me.” – Iona Rossely
Arabella was the filly of a horse on the farm, who quickly became deathly sick, unable even to stand. The vets gave up and Covid restrictions prevented a trip to the equine hospital.
“She had no hope and no help,” Rossely remembers. “Everyone was praying, but I had given up praying. I sat on my bed and cried and said, ‘I can’t pray anymore. You’re obviously not listening to me.’”
At that moment, Rossely felt God tell her, “Pick up your devotional.” It was a Charles Spurgeon devotional, which she hadn’t read for years. She flicked to the date.
The passage was 1 Kings 18:43: “Go again seven times.” The prophet Elijah prayed that the Lord would end a years-long drought. At the top of Mount Carmel, he sent his servant to look towards the sea. The servant returned, saying there was nothing there. Seven times Elijah told him, “Go back.” The seventh time, the servant saw a small cloud, the first sign of heavy rain.
Rossely felt God say, “Go back.” She ran back to the stables. It was one o’clock in the morning and there was an orange glow around the stables.
When she touched its rump, the horse stood up for the first time in days.
Rossely thought she was dreaming, not having slept for several nights. She texted everyone at 2am and went back to bed, monitoring the stables on a camera.
“At six o’clock,” she recalls, “we went to the stable. We opened the door, and she shot out.”
The suddenly healthy horse needed a name. Rossely started As and decided on ‘Arabella’ – a strong name for a strong horse.
It wasn’t until lunchtime that she began to wonder what the name means. She was amazed to find that Arabella means “one who yields to prayer”.
An unexpected encounter
Rossely is uniquely qualified to write about the unexpected. She was born in a strict Catholic household and sent to a religious school (from which the nuns tried to expel her several times). These left a sour taste in her mouth.
After dropping out of art college, Rossely headed for Switzerland to fulfil her dream as a ski instructor. Speed skiing was a natural fit, and she eventually became British Overseas Champion and New Zealand Ladies Champion.
But an exhilarating career was brought to a sudden and distressing end when Rossely suffered a life-threatening injury. She quickly became aware that something was going on beneath this unexpected tragedy.
“When that got taken away from me, I felt like someone had taken everything.”
“My mum was always praying for me. I felt that God had allowed the accident so that I would meet him. And I did meet him. But we had our ups and downs.
I met Jesus in Cyprus when I was recovering. But I was really worried that he would turn me into some kind of clone and remove all the stuff I loved. I thought he was going to take my personality away and not let me do sports.”
Doctors told Rossely she would never be able to do sport again. So she did what anyone would do: she became a world-class jockey. Safe to say Rossely had not, and still has not, lost her personality.
Unfortunately, right before her third World Equestrian Games representing Ireland, her horse, Bisou, got sick.
“I totally lost it,” Rossely admits. Having called herself a Christian for two years, it became clear she had been sitting on the fence. “When I met Jesus in Cyprus, I really felt that he was the missing link. But I wasn’t willing to let go of my life. I didn’t trust him enough. So when that got taken away from me, I felt like someone had taken everything.”
“Within a couple of seconds my whole life changed.”
Rossely recalls walking downstairs into the kitchen. She was alone, her to-do list and her Bible on the kitchen table.
“It was like Jesus walked into the kitchen. All the fog and all the stuff I was carrying just disappeared, and I felt loved by God. I suddenly realised that he’d never ever left me. I actually was leaving him all the time.
“I dropped to the floor on my knees and just cried. They were tears of joy because I felt so free and tears of sadness because I’d wasted so much of my life. Within a couple of seconds, my whole life changed.”
Expecting the unexpected
In case you haven’t noticed, Rossely is somewhat competitive. One of the most challenging and joyful ways she practices her faith is surrendering everything to God. She emphasises Jesus’ instructions to be childlike in faith, highlighting King David as an example to follow.
“When God does something we don’t even notice because we’re not living in the present like kids do.”
God wants us to depend on him the way little children depend on their parents: for everything. “The worldly perspective on being successful is being self-reliant,” Rossely explains. “But as a Christian, and for anyone who wants hope and peace and freedom, you need to let go.
“What I try to get across in The Unexpected is allowing God into the boring stuff, like doing the dishes or feeding the horses or the chickens. It’s allowing God into every detail of your life and being aware of when he does step in. If we’re so focused on the past or on tomorrow, then when he does something we don’t even notice because we’re not living in the present like kids do.”
Rossely tells of a dream in which she was running. Looking around, she saw that it was a race and that everyone was overtaking her. She crossed the finish line, already processing her deep disappointment (“I’m not good at coming last,” she explains).
Immediately a man ran up to her and said, “You won! You won! You won!” Despite her protestations, he put a medal around her neck and said, “You won!”
After reflection, the message of the dream was clear. Rossely learned not to compare herself to others, instead focusing on the race set before her and the God who had already secured her victory.
Rossely recalls when she learned to keep her eyes forward the hard way.
“In a gym in Dubai, I was on a treadmill. I was looking across at a woman with very pretty, long legs. She had some fairly weird stuff on and I thought, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have worn that.’ Next minute, I flew off the back and landed flat on my face.”
Rossely has many more entertaining stories – evidently a whole book’s worth. The common thread is her awareness that God is with her in the details, in the unexpected, in everything. That knowledge enables her to run with focus through all life’s twists and turns.