because the story’s not yet over

it all began with a puddle of tears soaking into the off-white living room carpet.

it was early spring, six years ago now, when there’s still a chill in the air and everything looks dingy and grey in the weak sunlight. i’d just watched Hotel Rwanda for the first time, i remember, and it’d ripped something open in me, something that cried out for justice and healing and peace, some deep part of my soul that ached for africa, though i hadn’t yet been. i sat sobbing on the floor, rocking and praying (pleading, really) for the wrong things to be made right. “send me, Lord,” i wept. “i’ll go; send me.”

and as soon as i spoke those words, i knew, somehow, inexplicably knew, He would.

and then in November, i traveled to Liberia for the first time; a tiny nation i’d never even heard of but felt drawn to nonetheless. for two weeks, i quieted my soul and followed where i felt His leading. and He led me to the children–hungry children; sick children; hopeless children; scared children. the orphan-spirit in me recognized its kindred in the least of these, and i held them and i rocked them and i cried; oh, how i cried. because i knew that feeling; i had felt that ache, the lack. and when it came time for me to get on the airplane, to leave the poverty and return to privilege (guilty and ashamed as i felt for even having that choice), i knew i would never be the same.

so i went back. time and time again, i went back. i gave those children a permanent place in my arms, in my stretched-wide heart; i became auntie, mama, friend. i gritted my teeth and settled into a life lived in the thin places, in the messy, the uncomfortable. and it was hard; truly, so very hard. poverty took on a face. Michael died, and then Buster did, too. girls were raped, and the kids were beaten, and why in the world was no one talking about it? corruption was everywhere, and always–more death, more bodies, more loss. and then i got malaria, and then my health seemed to just deteriorate from that point on. i wasn’t sleeping well, and my body was sore, my heart tired, and in March of last year, i made the unthinkably difficult choice to walk away.

difficult because even in the hard, there was always beauty:: in Jumah’s fat, sweaty cheeks nestled against my neck. in Mercy’s long fingers that intertwined perfectly with my own. in Leemue’s happy smile and bright eyes, and Beyan’s transformation, and the look on Janet’s face when she told me i was her mother. and in the way these little ones lit up when i called them by name, for they knew–they were no longer overlooked or passed over; i saw them, really saw them, and i wanted to give them back the dignity that had been stolen.

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so in the fall, in the midst of changing seasons and a reminder to give thanks in all things, it should have come as no surprise when He asked me if i’d consider going back. He asked if i’d count the cost and decide if it was worth it. because i’ve tasted, and i’ve seen, friends, and i know the price is high.

but i also know:: this life is not my own. it’s been given to me that i may give it away.
and i know:: it’s when you give of yourself that you truly give.
and i know:: the tender heart of the Father aches for these children, so how cannot mine also?

and i guess that’s what settled it, then, when i decided i’d go. i’m currently making plans for a june-september trip, in which i’ll be reunited with my kids and hug old friends and hand-deliver some love letters and help a community center open its doors to be a beacon of light. i’m heart-thumping-in-my-ears excited and butterflies-in-my-tummy nervous, because i know and i’ve learned:: i cannot do this alone.

for starters, there’s a price tag, an actual monetary amount that i need to raise to buy a plane ticket and take three months off work and pay for accommodations and life in Liberia. $5000. i need to raise $5000…in four months.

and i need people to pray, to start praying now, really, for all the steps of this process. because i know this is going to be hard some days, and i’m going to be tired, and i’ll feel like giving up, and it’s then that i’ll need friends to be my Aaron and my Hur and hold my hands up to the hills where my help comes from.

so. here’s where i swallow my pride and humble my heart and i ask. will you help me? in whatever way God leads you, will you help me?

for if it takes a village to raise a child, i can only imagine it takes many, many more to raise hundreds of them. and there are sons and daughters not of my womb but of my heart who are an ocean away, waiting for Auntie Elena to come back to see them. and my heart-cry for the orphan, for the poor and the oppressed, for the discouraged and down-trodden, for the ones who need Jesus in the most desperate of ways–well, it’s calling me back, too.

your words mean more to me when i get to see you speak them

attention, people of the internet; let’s do REALTALK for a moment or two here, okay? pour yourself a drink, settle in for a little bit, and stay with me here. i may not know much about some things, but i’ve learned a lot about knowing people, and something tells me i’m not the only one who’s been feeling this way lately.
i’m weary, y’all. weary of these false connections forged over computers, of the tapping of fingers on a keyboard, of likes + comments + notifications, of reading between the lines and flickering phone screens.

i want more. i want relationships again. i want heart-and-soul connection, ones that are tangible, ones with skin on; i want what’s deep and real and rich and true. i want to memorize the way your hands cradle a cup of hot coffee or the way your lips curve as you spill out your stories and life-lessons in a torrent of emotion and weighty words. i want to see the fire in your eyes, to encounter the God that lives in you. i want your laughter, your tears; i want to create a safe space for you in which we can talk and share and feel and be changed, somehow. i want to hear your heart in full sentences and honest conversation, in inflection and the way we sometimes stumble over the words. i want to listen and be listened to; i want you to walk away and know you were heard. i want us to understand that time is valuable, but so is relationship; and i want us, like Mary, to choose the better thing that it may not be taken from us. i’m so sick of fraudulent emoticons that try and make themselves a substitute for emotional expression, and i’m tired of computer screens and vague facebook posts, of mass emails and group texts and trying to update those who actually care about your life in 140-characters or less. puh-lease. ain’t nobody got time for that, and life is just too. dang. short.

what happened to being a person and not a user name?
what happened to seeking as much as we’re saying, to listening as much as we’re answering?
what happened?

somewhere along the way, i think we got a little lost, or the lines got a bit crossed, and we forgot that there are real, live, actual people on the other side of that screen; people with voices and feelings and stories and struggles, people who want to know and be known and be loved for it anyway.
Image                                            [Photo by Rachael Shapiro, Creative Commons]

the irony of me typing up this blog post on my macbook while i sit solo in a coffee shop filled with people is not lost on me, and i’m the first to admit that technology and online-living in this modern age can be an incredible communication tool. as someone who has many long-distance friendships, sites like facebook and twitter allow me to stay connected, in a way, even to those who are so far from me. and i’m sure many of you can relate.

but even so, there are still times when we need to take a few steps back and get outside in the sunshine, to breathe deep and breathe heavy, to fill our space and time and senses with those who are right-here and right-now, who need us and ache to connect just as we do. we’re all in this thing together, after all, each of us stumbling our way through this crazy-beautiful, messy-glorious thing we call life.

so do yourself a favor and shut down for a little while–shut down and shut off. unplug and reach out. say what you want to say, but say it face-to-face. seek ways to create community, intentionally, through honesty and emotion and one heart to another. catch up over coffee and not a computer screen. be a person, a person who loves people, and watch as you set the world on fire.

because every year is just another chapter in a far greater story that’s still being told

another year–gone. another year of memories and feelings, experiences, lessons learned. another year full of ups + downs, highs + lows, and i look back and i remember and i breathe thanks for each + every moment of it.

twenty-thirteen was one hell of a ride. five days into the new year, i returned to liberia, to life lived in hard places and this messy-beautiful thing called ‘missions’ and ‘ministry’. i taught and i preached and i laughed and i loved. i ached and i held and i cried and i fell apart. i lived. looking back, i think that’s one of sweetest gifts liberia has given me:: the ability to live, fully, in the moment, to suck the marrow and bloom where planted and seek the gifts–because He is good, and everything that comes from His hand is good as well.

this year i embraced change. i walked away from what had become my new normal: round-trip tickets across the ocean, a life lived out of suitcases and plastic bins. i hugged “my” children, sons and daughters not of my womb but most assuredly of my heart, and i told them goodbye. i walked away from needy ones and hungry hearts, with tears in my eyes and arms that felt so very empty. i chose to fight for my well-being, to look grief and trauma square in the eye; i chose to not let it win. i talked about what i’d seen, what i’d felt, what i’d lived through, and it hurt–good Lord, how it hurt. but the hurt eventually gave way to hope: hope that there could be beauty from ashes, healing for the tender places. hope for a new + better story.

this year i saw reconciliation in ways i never thought possible. and i remember praying for that one year ago, and i swallow the lump in my throat as i reflect on the Faithful One. there was closure and i’m sorry’s, and i finally felt the weight on my chest lifted, and oh, it felt so good to breathe again. i realized that sometimes, healing comes in the most unexpected of ways and often looks nothing like we think it will. but it’s better, somehow, because it feels more deep and more true, like it was always meant to be this way all along. and now i can think of what once wounded me and wish it well, and there is such an incredible freedom that comes with it.

this year i learned about grace, about loving the unlovely, about the hard work of making peace and extending mercy. i learned about swallowing my pride and keeping my mouth shut, about being slow to speak and quick to listen. i learned to no longer fear that which looks foreign, that which i cannot yet understand. i learned to embrace mystery, to be content without plans and guidelines and step-by-step directions. i learned that messy can still be holy —because there’s a Jesus who kneels with us in the dirt and grit.

i don’t know what 2014 holds for me yet, and really, i think i’m okay with that. so often, i rush into what’s next, into the new and better thing that’s waiting on the other side of the door. but for now, i just want to pause. i want to sit in what was and what is and celebrate. i want a moment to pay respects, to give a proper goodbye. i want to linger, to remember, to simply hold this year in all its weighty glory before i go turning that next page.

Image                                               [Photo by Martin Marcinski, Creative Commons]

when love looks nothing like you thought it did

in the nine months i’ve been out of liberia, i’ve spoken countless times of the deep ache that comes with saying goodbye. there are moments when i miss liberia and her children so strongly it takes my breath away, where the loss and all the emotions that come with it feel as real and true as the hot blood running through my veins.

i miss liberia. a lot. i miss my kids. a lot. my arms feel empty and my soul split in two, missing its other half that lies an ocean away. 

sometimes my ache consumes me, and sometimes, i forget.
my kids are hurting, too. they’re aching, too. they’re crying, too.

i recently got a few letters from some of the girls in liberia, and what they wrote nearly broke me. “i love you so, so much deep in my heart.” “i will never stop loving you until God takes my life from me.” “when i sit by myself i think about you and cry.” “please come back to me.”

i read their words and feel the tears sting my eyes. i long to gather them into my arms and press my lips to their foreheads and let love like a hurricane somehow heal their heart wounds. i long. oh, how i long.

and though they be but little, their love is fierce, and i smile proudly at the thought. because i can remember a time when feeling was a risk, and emotions were held at bay, and now there is freedom in love, through love. because of love.

because this:: this is what love looks like. it’s tender words that cut sharp as a blade. it’s longing and aching and waiting and missing. it’s grit and guts and mess and heart, and it hurts sometimes, but it hurts because it’s real. it’s brave and it’s furious, and it’s glory because it gives us a glimpse into a kingdom coming to earth. love anything deep and true enough, and it will hurt you. 

but it’s never a wound that can’t be repaired. by Love.
though it injures, it also heals us. it wounds, and then it binds us up. it’s full of mystery and a beauty that is sacred, and it reminds me that the ache and hurt are holy, somehow, even if i cannot understand it.

the answer to love is always more love. always, always more love.

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                                                [Photo by Hamed. Al-Raisi, Creative Commons]

someone once said, “find what you love and let it kill you”, and i agree. let it hurt. let it rip that beating heart of yours wide open. let it spill out and spill over and make you get your hands a little dirty.

and then–allow it to heal you the way in which only Love can do.

be careful, little mouth, what you say

i recently read through the book of Job, one i tend to shy away from due to its weighty content. i mean, it’s heavy stuff, the book of Job–laments and suffering, the age-old question of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’

this time, when i read it, there was one little verse, right near the end, that stood out to me. i’ve been wrestling with it ever since, mulling it over, holding it up to the light, trying to figure out why it hits me with such force::
After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7)

here’s what i notice: God was angry, angry at three men who seemingly spoke truth. i mean, read back through the chapters; what they say to Job is right along the lines of what so many Christians say today. “suffering is God’s punishment for sin; repent and be saved!” we say these things because it seems and sounds like the correct answer, how a Christian should respond.

but God got angry–because they we have not spoken of him what was right.

ohmygoodness. how many times have i done the very same thing, spoken of things which i did not understand?

it saddens me, deeply, and ignites a fire within me at the same time. because honestly, i love the Church, messy and imperfect as we may be. and i think there are a lot of things we’re doing right, things that are beautiful and worthy, like sending out missionaries and caring for the poor and taking communion and 24/7 prayer and worship.

but i also think there are a lot of things we do that shouldn’t be done, things like judging and criticizing and being insensitive to others’ sufferings (even if they are “sinners”.) we’re quick to speak and slow to listen even when the scriptures clearly tell us to do the opposite. at times we hurt instead of heal with our words, and we talk about things that nobody really understands as if ours is the final say. we wield Bible verses as weapons without taking time to dissect the content. we act as if we’re God’s mouthpiece, which is all well and good except what if sometimes what we say is wrong, and we do more damage than good? what if what we’re speaking of God is not right?

do i believe that sin bears consequence and punishment is real? yes, i do. do i believe that true repentance must happen in the hearts of men so that they may be saved? yes, i do. and do i believe that we’re sometimes asked to call out the wrong that needs to be made right? yes, i do.
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                                          [Photo by Mustafa Khayat, Creative Commons]

but when we do so, we need to be careful that we’re speaking truth in love, that our conversation is seasoned with grace, and that our speech is pure. we must be careful to avoid “thus saith the Lord” when in all actuality, we’re not sure that is what the Lord is really saying. we must strive to speak of him what is right–and if we don’t know the answer, then it’s okay to admit that. there is humility and grace in swallowing our pride and choosing to say nothing at all.

…and i did not know it

i’ve never been very good at waiting.

maybe it’s the visionary in me, the one who sees the end before the beginning and doesn’t know how to get there. perhaps it’s because i’m an idealist, with an incredibly strong sense of how things should be in the world. or maybe it’s just because i’m human, messy flesh and a heart that beats and bleeds and feels, feels, feels it all, all at once, with intensity so fierce it can take my breath away.

and so i tend to struggle with the present, with the right here and right now, with digging my feet in and sucking the marrow from the moment. so often i know where i’m going, but i’m weary of the journey. i just want to arrive.

these days, i find myself living in the tension of the in-between. i read the scriptures and i remember the israelites, those who caught a glimpse of the promised land, of their canaan of plenty; of those who were eager to enter but instead found themselves caught in perpetual wandering, year after year in the desert that looked nothing like what they had hoped for.

like when i got news from liberia that janet was quite sick, had been for two weeks, and she didn’t want to take her medicine. and though a friend was there to care for her and bring her to see a doctor, i felt a twinge in my heart, a slight ache, a longing to draw her close and pray for her healing and urge her to accept the medicine that was only going to help, not hurt. i should be there; i want to be there. but i’m not. i’m here instead.

or when i daydream of my wedding day, of a white dress and a man of tender strength and vows under open skies, before a covenant-God. some days, the fairy tale seems so near, so close that my heart could reach out and grasp it. i should be there; i want to be there. but i’m not. i’m still waiting, still in the not yet, and it’s hard.

and i think again of those israelites, of a cloud and a pillar of fire, of water from a rock and manna, the mystery-sustenance from heaven. God inhabited even their wandering. how can i not think he inhabits mine also? here, now. in this place and in this moment. yes, the desert and the waiting and the wandering:: even this is sacred space; even this is holy ground. like scales falling from the eyes, cobwebs from the musty parts of my faith-laid-dormant, the truth seeps in. and i see, and i know.

“surely the Lord is in this place, and i did not know it.” [genesis 28.sixteen]Image
                                              (Photo by Lis Ferla, Creative Commons)

a long way home

i know a weary traveler, a young woman of tender heart and tough skin. she spends most of her days walking, never staying in one place for too long:: always the sojourner, one foot ever in front of the other. every now and again, she stops for a while–sometimes because she’s tired, sometimes because she’s lost, sometimes because she’s unsure where she’ll go next. so she will stop, and she’ll shake the dust, and settle in where she’s found herself the very best she can.

once in a while, she will sit and massage the cracked skin of her worn feet. she sits and she talks, telling of her travels, of the roads she has traversed. she speaks of an alcoholic father and parents who were absent, of a little girl with a big burden; and her eyes tell of the steep and narrow path that led to her escape, of how she felt all alone as she walked, of the times she slipped on the rocks and cut up her feet and cradled them as she cried, wishing someone were there to help stop the bleeding. she speaks of a lover who was unfaithful, of a broken heart and shattered dreams, of deep loss and soul ache and the times she had to force herself to crawl through the fog, the walkway shrouded in darkness and storm. and she speaks of the dusty road on which she’s found herself in recent years, long and winding, in a faraway land that keeps calling her back again. she speaks of burning thirst in the hot sun and how often she’s felt like a hagar, a life lived in perpetual exile, sent away to die in the desert; and of secret streams that have refreshed her, like the laughter of her children or a bright blue bird perched on the porch steps.

and after she tells her stories, she will sit in silence for a while with her eyes closed, like she’s thinking about something too sacred to speak aloud. moments pass–maybe just a few, or perhaps many more; and then she rises to her feet, ready to walk again. and it seems so soon, too soon, and some voice their concerns, for wherever could she be off to this time, and after all these years and all these miles, isn’t she tired of walking, of always being on the move?

“you see,” she explains gently, “we’re all on our way somewhere; we’ll all find ourselves home eventually. i would just rather walk away from what’s hurt me and walk towards my destination, than sit and wait for the destination to come to me. for what life is lived in sitting? very little, to be sure. but when i’m walking, i’m moving; there is breath in my lungs and blood through my veins and purpose in my heart. simply put, i’m alive. and yes, the way seems long, and of course, i get tired, and who really knows what to expect along the way? but i know where i’m headed, and every step taken brings me that much closer.”

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i have a dream

if you know me in real life, or have been following this blog for some time now, you’re probably well-aware of one thing: i have a dream.
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it’s a dream of red earth and blue sky, of toothy smiles and weathered hands; a dream of bright sun in my eyes and hair grease on my fingers while i loosen the girls’ plaits; a dream of dust on my lap from where little ones have crawled and settled themselves in.
it’s a dream of love beyond language barriers, acceptance beyond cultural differences, a bond that breaks down walls.
it’s a dream of joy that is wild and a heart that’s stretched wide, of working through the hard places, the grit of a life both unfair and unjust.
it’s a dream of defying the odds and refusing to let statistics have the final say.
it’s a dream of doing my part to build a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, of a life lived in pursuit of the things of Jesus’ heart, of chasing after the presence of God that is waiting for me an ocean away.
it’s a dream for the children whom i’ve welcomed into my arms and my heart as my own, to see them grow up loved and valued and whole.
it’s a dream to be there through all of it, the triumphs and the failures, the successes and the tears. it’s a dream to laugh and love and pray and teach and see and feel and learn and doubt and live out this messy beautiful faith-walk, however imperfect it may be.

i have a dream.
and i am on my way
. i’m going to a “place with joy, tears, glory, grace and most of all, more of Jesus with every step i take.” (holley gerth)

so this one is for the dreamers, those of us with wide eyes and lofty vision, who are working at making their dreams reality. the road sometimes seems long, the way often narrow, but sure enough, we are on our way. with shaky hands and unsure steps, we keep walking. and people may question, as they often do when they don’t understand, but still we walk ahead.
we dream, and we walk, and we know–one day, we’ll get there. 

the return to liberia: an update

it was a mere two weeks ago that i stood in church, hands shaking in surrender as i realized the magnitude of what i was saying yes to. a return to liberia. a return to the oppressive heat and sleepless nights. to lives lost too soon, to children who nobody mourns once they leave us. to a land that assaults the senses, to the corruption, the poverty, the things i saw and heard that my heart and mind still have no words for.
but also–a return to regrowth. a return to a simple life, lived without excess. to hope and dreams for brighter futures. to community and to my kids, these young ones who have forever stolen my heart and changed the course of my entire life.

two weeks ago, i said yes. and i started to prepare. i filled out my citizenship application and put out a plea for the funds needed to file it. two weeks later, i’m over 60% funded, with a little over a week to go until my deadline**, and i’m already looking ahead to the next phase of this process.

two weeks ago, i told God, “yes…but it’d sure be great if you could let me know i’m making the right choice here.” and He did. in the scriptures that urge me to spend myself on behalf of the needy. in old journal entries that reconfirmed His call on my life to  “be love.” in the support and encouragement of friends and family who agreed to give, knowing that this, all of this–whatever God is up to–is a worthy cause. “it’s no surprise,” they said. “we all knew you’d be back there one day eventually.” and when i told my good friend Momo that i was coming back to Liberia, he laughed delightedly and told me, “God will provide. you need to be here.”

and i do–need to be there, that is. i need to be reunited with the pieces of my heart waiting for me there. i need to be living out my days doing what i was made to do.

and so i take another step, a little shaky but with all the faith i can muster. and when i falter, and this all seems crazy and impossible and a little of both, i lift my vision higher.

i walk, slow but sure, and every day, i cry a little with gratitude for this crazy, beautiful, messy adventure He has put me on.
wait with me, my sweet Liberia. i’m coming-o! 

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**the first step in getting ready for a return to Liberia is filing my citizenship application, so i can travel freely between countries. the cost is $680, and i hope to file by November 1st. if you feel led to give towards this, please send me a message so i can give you donation info. no amount is too big or small–every little bit helps!

when i want to live a life that says “yes”

nearly seven months ago, i left Liberia. after an especially grueling season, i made the hard decision to fight for my emotional, mental and spiritual well-being and step off the mission field.

i dreamed of returning home to the States and resuming normalcy once more; i wanted to fall into a life of comfort and ease and forget all about the exhaustion of the past four years.

when i got home, i struggled a bit, as most missionaries do when it comes to reentry. the mass consumerism and excessive consumption of the Western world overwhelmed me. i felt guilty after lunch with friends, and i wondered if my kids in Liberia were hungry, if they’d had their fill.

mainly, though, i simply ached to be with them. these kids–they’d become my life. i’d welcomed them into my arms and my heart as if they were my own, and then i walked away from them. but the thing is: i had left pieces of my self, my very soul, behind with them.

and as more time passed, i started to wonder: how can i really live when i’m not whole, when massive portions of my heart lie an ocean away? and it was then that something deep inside me started to whisper, “the story is not over.”

i confess i dismissed it at first. a return to Liberia would be emotional suicide. i’m not ready. what if i can’t handle it again? what if this is just me, not being able to let go?

so i prayed, and i opened up the scriptures and sought out Truth. and i saw, woven throughout all its pages, i saw–the bleeding, tender heart of the Father for the fatherless.

i saw–that it’s when you give of yourself that you truly give.
i saw–that this life is not my own, and i don’t want to fill it with things that will only pass away.

i realized i wanted to live a life spent chasing after God and the things of His heart.
and you know what? for me, that’s found in Liberia.

because it’s one thing to serve the poor and the orphan, but it’s a whole other ballgame to identify with them and live among them, to enter into the hard places and hold their faces in my hands and tell them, “i’m here to stay.”
and i want to stay. i want to spend my days living out the scriptures, defending the cause of the weak and the fatherless, maintaining the rights of the poor and oppressed, rescuing the weak and needy (see psalm 82).
you see, i want my life to count for something, for my kids, who deserve someone to settle in for the long haul, someone to say, “i’m not going anywhere.”

and to do that i need to get my hands dirty. i need to step outside my comfort zone and give up the things that were never mine to begin with.

so i said yes. i stood in my church last sunday and raised my face high and told Jesus yes. even though my hands were shaking. even though the tears were falling. even when i counted the cost. i said yes–because he’s worth it.

and i’m looking for people who will say yes with me, who believe in me and the God that i serve and the work he has put in my heart to do. the timing is still off; there is still healing and some recovery i must go through before i can return to Liberia. and there are some very real, tangible needs that i cannot meet for myself that i need help with.

so please–send me a message, ask the questions, find out how you can get involved. i want you on this journey with me, friends.
say yes?