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Monday, July 27, 2015

.A Better Story.

She bent down curling her small frame around the tiny frame of her daughter. I watched her breathe her in, finger her curls, caress her cheek, and inhale the peace, regarding her daughter's future, that the doctor had just gifted her. My own eyes grew wet and warm, as I watched her eyes spill rivers of salty tears. I recognized the universal language spoken the world over by mothers, as her hands gently moved over her daughter's body seeming to echo the cadence of words spilling from her lips and mingling with the tears dripping from her warm, brown eyes. There was a sacredness that clung to the moment, and I averted my eyes in an effort to not pierce that sacred with the intrusion of my presence. But in a breath she drew me in, and we were all wrapped up together, arms entwined, hearts beating fast, her mama eyes meeting mine, and despite the language barrier our eyes communicated a thousand words stolen directly from the dictionary of motherhood. 

In that very moment I knew that I had to do a better job of telling a better story. A story that included how so many mamas here love their children just like so many mamas there. This mama in front of me, beaming at her daughter, despite being born into poverty in this developing country, and despite neglect and abuse, and abandonment, stretched beyond her circumstances over and over and over again in order to be a good mother to her daughter. She knocked on gates for years to find employment. She offered her daughter the first and best food, even when she too needed the nourishment. When she was shoved out to the streets to make her bed, she wrapped her small body around her infant to protect her and keep her warm. Despite hardships that I cannot even fathom, she raised her daughter on her own for three years, and her daughter was happy, healthy, cherished, and oblivious to the fact that many on the other side of the world would pity her. Her laughter is sure, and she is confident in the simplicity of her life, and the love of her mother. As a mother, as a woman, as a human, when I think of her story, I feel inspired. I don't feel the fatigue that inevitably comes after a hard story. I feel inspired to know and love this woman, and I feel inspired in my own mothering because of her. I have never doubted her love and dedication for her daughter, and I could empathize with the depth of it when her doctor broke some hard, crushing news, and her body shook with sobs, not for herself, but for her child. 

In this journey, I have realized that in an effort to serve here I don't tell the better stories as much as I tell the sad ones. Looking around social media, I realize that I don't hear the better stories either. Better stories like this one, about the mothers here who do not let poverty steal away their child, who know and understand that regardless of the struggle, one of the very best gifts is the gift of being a mother.

For a long time people have used the plot of Africa to tell a sad, heart-breaking story. Anyone who follows the social media sphere of influence of missionaries, non-profits, adoptive families etc. who serve in Africa has no doubt heard these stories. The heart behind the telling of these stories is more often than not genuine in their desire to raise awareness and support for a place and people they love. There is a time and place and a need for these stories to be tenderly told. But for every devastating story told and gut-wrenching photo shared, I want the world to know the whole truth, that there are also better, beautiful stories to be told. Yes, my friends there are sad stories unfolding  in this continent. I have seen things that I will never share because of the horror of them. I have seen what I wish that I could unsee. There are nights when my stomach churns and my heart bleeds because of what lies outside of my gate. These are realities. They are not made up simply to garner compassion and pull on heart strings and purse strings. But if we take a step back, we quickly realize a truth, that there are sad stories to be told in every continent. That is the reality of living in a world that was never meant to hold the weight of sin, and yearns for perfection to return. 

But what I want you to know is that one, sad story cannot contain the narrative of an entire country, much less an entire continent. That's not fair. Just like one sad story cannot define your world. I have seen just as much good as I have seen bad. just as much beautiful as ugly, just as much wealth as poverty, just as much joy as sadness. The story is never just one note. There is always more depth, always more dimensions. It's the same kind of different here that it is there - a world of contrasts, of people with imperfections living inside a broken world. And with that comes stories some sad, some better, both needed. 

Today I am giving my heart a break, and turning my focus to a better story. We don't know what tomorrow holds, but today I chose to pen the beautiful.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What is Love?

It's been so long since I have written that there are too many thoughts trying to squeeze their way out my fingertips. I fear these fingers cannot dance across the keyboard fast enough to keep time with heart words spilling over. This may not be eloquent as the words just gush out. At first I thought this post would be about grace. God is teaching me so much about what His grace really is, and it seems like the message has been bombarding me for months from all angles. I have had opportunities to see it played out and to put it into practice. I haven't been able to ignore it. I understand now how much I misunderstood His radical grace, but I am not sure if I am confident enough to share all of what I have learned yet. It's still so new, and to be very honest, it is still strange and hard to grasp. The denomination that I grew up in taught grace in words, but the actions of grace - the fleshing out - often fell short, which even now, as an adult, is confusing, but as a child, even more so. I think this is where my misunderstanding began, and I think this is why I am hesitant to share. So then my thoughts turned to love, perhaps because this week marked my thirteenth wedding anniversary, and love has been on my mind. Perhaps because it has been swirling around social media. Perhaps because my teenage son is growing older and daily closer to love and marriage, and I am desperate for him to grasp true love and experience it first here inside of our home, so that he is capable and ready to give it away when the time comes. Perhaps because a friend and I had a mild freak out yesterday realizing that we were raising somebody's husband. {deep breath} That's heavy. As I have walked through these past few days knowing that I would eventually find myself drawn here, locked inside of my room, in front of a laptop, that I had to carve out the time to come here and fill up this space with words, I realized that grace and love are so mingled. The truest version of them is married together. Real grace cannot exist without real love, and true love cannot exist without true grace. When we encounter authentic grace married to authentic love it is one of the most beautiful reflections of the heart of the Father and the gospel of Jesus that we get the privilege to discover here on earth.

There has been a lot of talk about love lately. There are some heated debates swirling around social media. In truth it is rather ugly to witness. It's polarizing. I have remained quiet, because there are humans involved, and i have yet to figure out how to add my voice in a way that does not heap on hurt to one side or the other. So many people on all sides are hurting, and it is so sad. Let's be honest, in the spewing of arguments on social media, especially when they are not cloaked in genuine relationships with one another, nobody wins. In arguing about love; it just looks like hate. In the midst of all of this tension, though, I have personally been reflecting on love - what does real love look like? For several months now, actually since the beginning of this year, I have been meditating on I Corinthians 13; the passage known as "the love passage" in Christian circles. This passage is slapped onto wedding programs and sweetly read over naive wedding couples in numerous churches. It was true for my own wedding. The verses are made out to be cute and pithy and easy as two young people gaze adoringly into each others eyes, dreaming of the life they are starting together. Hollywood has glamorized love in such a way that is is unrecognizable to the real thing, and so many of us have bought into it, and our children are growing up mesmerized by the allure of it. They think that the fake kind of love, the selfishness, the lust, the mushy gushy feel-goodness that masquerades and parades itself as love, that is displayed all over movies and TV and sung about on the radio is attainable and desirable and right. And they think if they don't find that then they are missing out on what everyone else has. As I am writing this post the lyrics of that cheesy eighties song is bouncing around my head, What is love? Baby don't hurt me; don't hurt me, no more. But the truth is that silly song, like so many of us, has missed the mark on real love. Real love does hurt. Love deliberately gets up, goes again toward that person it is aimed at, and it understands that in the process it is choosing to serve someone and put someone's needs ahead of its own in a way that is so vulnerable and so exposed that when you truly love someone, hurt is unavoidable and it will happen again and again and again. 

Love actually does hurt.

Real love entwined with grace is wild and different. It's mature and wise. It's strange and unnatural. It fights against our flesh and our human bent. Just look carefully at I Corinthians 13. It doesn't look very much like the love in the movies. There is so much more to the depth of it. It is the heart beat of our life. It is all that matters. Without love, nothing we do or say even makes a difference - it's all empty. We are given two commands from Jesus to live out our days. The first is to love God with everything inside of us and all that we are, and the second is to love others as much as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37) He promised that if we could love Him and others that everything else would fall under that. Can you imagine what the tapestry of our world could look like if Jesus followers actually practiced these? Almost everyday I hear myself quoting these two commands to my children in hopes that they will comprehend and live out what so many of us have forgotten. But what does this love look like? If it is not the Hollywood love, what is it? The Message version says that we are bankrupt without love, and then in verses 4-7 clearly spells out what love is, what love does. And it is pretty radical.

Love never gives up.
Love cares for others more than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut; doesn't have a swelled head.
[Love] doesn't force itself on others.
[Love] isn't always "me first'.
[Love] doesn't fly off the handle
[Love] doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
[Love] doesn't revel when others grovel.
[Love] takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.
[Love] puts up with anything.
[Love] trusts God always.
[Love] always looks for the best.
[Love] never looks back, but keeps going until the end.
Love never dies.

I Corinthians 13:47 The Message (emphasis mine)

Love shows up and shows out. It is not dependent on the love of the other person. It is active and pursues, and fights again and again and again. Yes, there are all kinds of love, romantic love, friendship love, family love, etc., but all real, genuine love have these same above characteristics at its core. To never give up, to care more about another than oneself, to forget wrongs, to cling to truth, it's all hard, and it all hurts at times. But it is always worth it, and love like this - the real deal kind of love is enduring and the greatest gift we can give to another human. But if love hurts so much, and is so self-sacrificing, and demands so much of us, why would we want it? The truth is love chooses to hurt, because love chooses to love. It sounds cliche' to say love is a choice, but honestly it is. Love is a daily choice. Our perfect example of flawless, true love was Jesus, and He chose you. He chose me. He looked at us in all of our weakness and brokeness and mistakes - past, present and future, and with a love that cannot be comprehended, He tenderly cupped our chin with his scarred, nail-pierced hand, and said, "I want you". We did nothing to deserve His choosing, His love. We could do nothing. We were incapable. His love chased us down, pursued us, and His love sunk into our mirk and sat in the mud with us, embraced us right where we were and accepted us wholly, completely - as is. It's a wild, untamed, alluring kind of love that is not afraid of our filth, and in the filth is where its partner grace enters in, grace goes right into the mess, holding hands with love, and rescues us and carries us out, while we are helpless and unable to rescue ourselves. When Jesus, perfect Love incarnate, allowed Himself to be carried to that cross and murdered, He saw you and He saw me. He saw everything we would ever be and do, and He saw that we were incapable of anything on our own, and He lovingly came anyway to get us. He LOVED us. And now we are compelled to love, because He first loved us with an unfailing, never-giving up love. A love that is yours and mine despite us, a love that we could never sustain, and we don't have to! We cannot make God love us, He already does. I cannot earn His love, and I cannot do anything to deserve it, and wrapped up in that truth rushes in love's mate grace. Authentic grace is cloaked in love and it races in hot pursuit after us and meets us right, exactly where we are, looks us square in the eyes, sees our innermost ugly, and loves us into a beautiful invitation of abundant life. Because love compells it to, grace so gently and tenderly drags us out of the murk and into life.

I am speculating that the way we love others will look a lot more like I Corinthians 13, rather than the phony Hollywood love when we finally recognize the complete way that we are loved and accepted. The way we love must change when we truly understand the outrageousness of the love that was poured over us, while we were so unworthy, love that manifested itself in drops of Jesus' blood, and when we finally get that this perfect love has absolutely nothing to do with us, and the grace that is married to His love crashes over us and transforms and breaks in and heals and changes us. This marriage of love and grace that is ours is explosive, and it it permeates everything about us. Perhaps when we truly grasp how deeply we are loved, we will stop feeling so threatened by the world around us, and instead will see people as people just like us- some still sitting in that murk, not needing our rhetoric and lectures and debates, but needing us to pursue and flesh out the kind of love Jesus has for them. I Corinthians says without love we are nothing. So, perhaps, maybe when put our attention on loving God and loving humans, and just focus on that, maybe then Love really will win.

This knowledge of how much we are loved, changes how we love. Because HE first loved us.

Friday, May 15, 2015

.A Spoonful of Honesty.

We are headed into our eighth month living here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We continue to love this city and the people, and to feel as if we are exactly where God wants us to be. We have spent half a year  intentionally leaning into God and His purpose for us here. Some original plans fell through, and God clearly has pointed us in the direction of creating a brand new indigenous NGO for street children. This is way bigger than what we had prepared for, but it is exactly how God loves to display His perfect strength - in our broken weakness. As God’s purpose and plans have been unfolded we continue to solidify our methodology and philosophy for working with children, and at its simple core it comes down to pursuit. For years we have seen how the Gospel, how Jesus, pursues. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to be ready for change or to even have a desire for change. He doesn’t wait until we have cleaned ourselves up, or have outwardly changed our behaviors, so that we look as if we measure up to His standards, because the truth is there is nothing inside of us that can change or even be ready with a desire to change outside of the working, initiation, and pursuit of Jesus Christ. If we are to be imitators of Jesus, then we must pursue, and that pursuit must be relentless and not dependent upon anything that the child/person does. Through much thinking and praying a three part purpose for Mercy Branch Inc. emerged. A purpose that we believe in and see beautifully exemplified in the Gospel. The three parts must coexist but flow from the first one, and are as follows: relentless pursuit of the whole person, radical grace, and reverent mercy. That’s easy to write, and lovely to think about, and I really do believe deep inside that it is the core of the Gospel. But let me tell you, that there are far, far easier philosophies and methodologies out there than this one, and the past few weeks as we cemented God’s plans and purposes and committed to establishing an NGO that echoes the Gospel, the enemy has attacked the very heart of what we want to do. It’s as if God is allowing us to be tested in this very commitment right here in our own family.

Is this what you really believe?

Are you really willing to pursue like I have pursued you? Because it is hard, messy, and it hurts.

I am going to try to be transparent with you, and yet be ambiguous enough to still protect the privacy of my family. Although we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are exactly where we should be, these past few weeks have been very, very hard for our family. Everything kind of crescendoed today when my children found their puppy had died. It’s time for a little honesty and to get our spiritual boxing gloves on, and to gather our people around us in solidarity and prayer. I am sick and tired of the cowardly way that Satan is attacking our family – by targeting our children. It started way back in February, when it was brought to our attention that rumors were flying, and apparently had been for years, about our family. Disgusting, filthy, and grotesque accusations that “Christians” were giving ears to and seemingly perpetuating. We were crushed. It seems so many times when we seek out authentic community with believers, we are instead wounded and betrayed. Sadly these rumors really involved our oldest child. Satan is very crafty, and he knows our weaknesses and insecurities so intimately. He knew these horrible speculations would plant a huge seed of doubt in our child’s, already traumatized heart. He knew the way to do it was to attack family and have adults question his very identity in our family. It literally makes me shake with anger even as I type this. As parents we desire to protect and nurture the hearts of our children and give them security as a member of our family. This is an especially unique challenge when your child has spent years rejected, abandoned, abused, and not part of any family. Unfortunately, Satan used these lies to manipulate, not only the minds of people, but also our child. He used other lies as well, but all of the lies built upon these rumors. These lies culminated in us coming dangerously close to losing our son. I cannot and will not go into specific details – none are needed. It was the most horrifying, terrifying, and painful experience that we have ever had as parents (and we have had our fair share prior to this). This is where the rubber met the road, and we had to put all of our beliefs about the Gospel into practice – we had to pursue and pursue and pursue. Behavior modification and trying to make a child follow rules is so, so much easier than pursuing the heart and the entire child with grace and mercy. Let me tell you that as a family, we all HURT, and although it looks as if we are slowly limping to the other side, it still hurts, and we are still pursuing – all four of our children through this ugly time.

Satan absolutely hates families. We believe that it is inside of a family that healing can take place, and Satan would much rather traumatized children never heal. We believe that street children can best experience true healing and freedom in Jesus inside of a family – a family that pursues at all costs. Our son is NO longer a street child, and we have treated him as nothing less than our beloved son (because that is WHO HE IS), but we have had to and continue to have to pursue him in crazy, intense ways. Knowing so much about us and about families, course Satan is magnificent at attacking and destroying families. BUT HE CAN’T HAVE MINE. We are surrounding ourselves with truth from God’s Word, with the knowledge that Jesus is pursuing each one of us, praise and worship music and very, very tangible reminders that we are a family – family that God miraculously established. We have a team of counselors firmly surrounding us, and we have God for us. To be honest, we still desire to find community here with other Kingdom builders, but sadly we will now proceed more cautiously. God has given us just one precious family to steward, to cherish, to protect, and to build up for His Kingdom. This is our primary role here on earth, at this time, no matter where we live, or what else God has called us to.
Yesterday, Jim got to explicitly share the Gospel with someone whom we love like family.  For almost eight months we have been praying and pursuing this person, and we have gotten the privilege of watching Jesus pursue him. This morning we hung up a gallery wall of family portraits to daily remind us that we are in this together, and that we truly are FAMILY. At nearly the same time that we experienced these glimpses of grace and mercy poured out over us, the childrens’ beloved puppy unexpectedly died. They are grieving and hurting, as she has played a vital role in comforting them here in a strange country so far away from what they are familiar with. This is not just a coincidence. Satan is alive and well, and he is not done with us. He sees something in us that perhaps we cannot yet see. He is forecasting a future for our family here in Ethiopia that terrifies him. I don’t know what he plans to do next or how he will attack, but we are readying ourselves for this battle. Jim and I are praying over our family, our marriage, and our future ministry with children here in Addis, and we humbly ask you to do the same. We are so not special or super-spiritual. We are messy. We are broken. We are normal – just a family who desires to follow Jesus. We know that God wins in the end, but we desperately desire to come to the end unified and together. Our family can’t be a casualty. So I share this to ask you stand beside us in prayer. None of us were meant to do this alone.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

.The Life I was Missing.

Four years.

It has been four years since I first set foot in this country. Four years ago today that I held my youngest child for the first time. Four years ago Monday that my oldest son completely ripped my heart from my chest, and a burning passion was lit inside of me for children who have had their childhood stolen from them. Four years since I left my blonde little babies an ocean away, and in turn radically changed the life they once knew. Four years since this country captured my heart and beckoned me here. Everything changed in those first moments. Little did I know that four years ago 31 year old me was about to have her world completely turned upside down. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I am glad because I am mostly a coward. God knew that, so He kept me in the dark until I was too far smitten to do anything but follow the wild path He set my feet upon.

Looking back it all started rather simplistically. We wanted another baby, but my pregnancies were rough, so that led to tender hearts toward adoption. Ethiopia had what appeared to be a crisis at the time-  a crisis of orphaned children needing families. We were a family. We wanted another child. It made sense. So we said yes to adoption and to Ethiopia, and then to our special, sweet Jamesy, and then to Habtamu, and all the while our world tilted off axis and lines, that we had once drawn, blurred. And in it all I held my breath waiting for everything to right once again and return to normal. I waited for friends to return, for the American Dream to take hold again, for our family to blend back in, for life to return to the easy pleasantness that it once held, for Jesus to stop asking us to do crazy, wild things. Our yes was over, and it was time to get back to normal.

But normal never showed back up, and a new normal took its place. Sometimes in my most honest moments I grieve the loss of that normal, but mostly I embrace this adventure that my Jesus has so lovingly invited me into. I feel as if I am one of the lucky ones, as I get to look back to a specific moment in time, four years ago exactly, when everything changed.

I now live this one, wild life back in the country where it all began. There are late nights with no power and cold showers and spiders and dust everywhere. And there is laughter and life and love. I cannot walk outside the safety of our gate without being surrounded by children. Some of them are teeny tiny and some are bigger than my own big boy. Some dirty and tattered – so dirty that to touch them makes me stink with them. And some not as much. My hands are always grabbed and smiles are abundant, as are hugs and kisses. My hair is touched, my clothes yanked on, and always a silly grin is plastered across my face in a contented happiness I have never before known.  My heart is continually stretched, and I so desire to pick up the life of Jesus here – to make every person that I encounter feel as if they matter – because they do. I have been making this my goal every time I walk out my gates. It is simple and yet I believe it is exactly what Jesus did. I cannot help everyone who comes to me, there are just too many. How can I pick and choose the countless street children that I encounter? The magnitude of the needs just outside my door are surreal. The number of starving children and half grown men addicted to chat and young mamas begging on the corners overwhelms me. How do I choose who to help? Most days, unless the Spirit clearly prompts me, I can’t choose. But I can look every person in the eye and acknowledge them as another human being. I can love in big ways just by giving a dirty street child a hug and a squeeze – just by noticing them when everyone else hurries on by. I can imitate Jesus just by seeing them. I am learning this and putting it into practice every day, and it is changing everything. It is changing me.

At home my lap is constantly full, sometimes with my blonde babies, sometimes with brown-eyed babies, and even still sometimes with my teenage boy who even after two years of security still questions whether this mama can really love him. Our house is seldom quiet. Languages collide and shouts and giggles echo off the walls. Currently I answer to “Mom” from seven people, and my head swims to keep up with who needs what from me. And every day, although most would see this as mundane, I fall more and more in love with this life. For me this is what my heart has ached, longed and cried out for. Four years ago, the moment my feet hit the dust here in Addis I knew something was missing, but I couldn’t possibly understand what it was that was missing. 

But now I know. It was the African sunrises, and Habesha food, and cold showers, and grubby hands reaching for me, and grown women, who missed out on childhood, calling me mom, and a spunky little two year old who is too precocious for her own good. It is watching my belly babies love in ways I did not know they were capable of, and seeing my brown-eyed boys back in their home country and finally healing from wounds that should have never been. It is catching my husband’s eye across our crowded and crazy living room, as children twirl and dance, and adults laugh and sip buna and nibble popcorn, and in that single glance a thousand words pass between us, all  resting on the knowing that this is what we sacrificed for.  It’s roosters crowing and dogs yapping and the low growl of hyenas. It’s seeing Jesus in the dirty street children or the young man who finally realizes that life is worth living. It’s opening my home to strangers and witnessing the miracle of how quickly love crashes in making us a weird, jumbled-up family. This was all missing in my former life, and while nothing looks the same as it once did, I wouldn’t change this new normal for all the white picket fenced houses in the world.

I know that I am here because God has put me here. In some little way I know that He is using me to change the world. He is using me in simple ways, and I want to give my life away right here. There is no place else I’d rather be than right here. Four years ago I could never have known that this was the life I was missing. Now I know.

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