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]

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[slow]

life feels much too hurried these days. there’s meetings and appointments, deadlines, an actual schedule. i have to set an alarm, and the moment it begins to beep, my eyes fly open and i hit the ground running.

typically i do well with busy; i think it’s because i equate it with productivity. but in this season, busy is not my friend. it wears me out, wears me down. days and then weeks pass me by in what seems to be just one blink, and most days i feel like a robot, a slave to the clock. and i hate it.

because i feel like i’m missing out on something. i am missing out on something, many things, actually:: the gifts of any given moment. i miss because i’m already looking ahead to what comes next.

in liberia, it wasn’t this way. liberia seems to move at a unique pace, at a time all its own. and after a while, my life in liberia meant that i did, too. there was an ebb and flow there, a peculiar ordering of minutes and days, and over time, i adapted it as my own.

and i learned from my years there that you don’t miss out when you choose to slow down. you don’t miss out on rest, on sabbaths spent in a hammock with a good book. you don’t miss out on the way the light streams in through the windows, or how absolutely lovely a cool breeze can feel. you don’t miss out on the delicious way fresh food tastes after it’s been prepared by loving hands. you don’t miss out on the twinkle in a child’s eyes, or the feel of weathered fingers locking with your own, or how vibrant bright cloth looks against sunned skin. you don’t miss out on the hours spent writing your prayers in tattered journals, and you don’t miss out on the unexpectedly beautiful ways those prayers are answered. you don’t miss out, because you’re slow enough to see. breath is what brings life, yet how can i say i’m really living when i’m too tired, too busy that i forget to stop and breathe?

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[Photo by Geraint Rowland on Flickr; Creative Commons]

i’ve spent too many days continually on the go and rushing around from place to place, and i’m tired of it. hurried living is no life at all. liberia taught me that life is meant to be rich. savored. full.

tired work never tells, and a hurried life isn’t lived.

so instead, i choose life. full and abundant. sweet and savory. present in every moment. slow, and able to see.

* also:: some soul-full songs for this slow season…
“slow it down” by the lumineers
“lover’s eyes” by mumford and sons
“watch and chain” by iron & wine

thin-spiration: {week four}

sometimes in life, you just need to hit the reset button. i’m sure you know what i’m talking about. you have a rough day, a hard week, and all you want to do is start all over again, fresh and new.

that’s exactly where i’m at. this past week was difficult on many levels, and i was too focused on just trying to make it through that i didn’t care about eating my vegetables or whether or not i got to the gym. it’d easy to beat myself up for getting off track, but i refuse to let shame have a say

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and so now i’m hitting reset.
and i’m reminded once again how thankful i am for second chances.

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until next week…
xo,
ep.

thin-spiration: {week three}

okay, y’all; you know how this works. but first – some updates!

  1. i’ve lost five pounds. which someone told me is the weight-equivalent of a chihuahua. …so, i’ve lost a chihuahua. not bad.
  2. i also spent yesterday in NYC and carbo-loaded in little italy. so it’s entirely possible those five pounds will come back to haunt me. but i don’t regret any of it. (well, maybe that last slice of pizza…)
  3. still running. up to about three miles before my body taps out on me.
  4. trying to eat as much fresh food as possible and maintain a nutritional balance. none of that diet food for me!
  5. i found out how many calories and grams of fat are in a spoonful of nutella, and i will never be the same. *sadface*

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and finally, THIS: “measuring self-worth based on socially constructed ideas of success is spiritual death.” (buddha)

until next week…
xo,
ep.

thin-spiration: {week one}

as i trolled the internet today, looking for thin-spiration to help motivate me through my newest “shed the excess” plan, i found myself rolling my eyes and sighing loudly every couple of seconds. why is it all so…cheesy? looking at a pic of some girl’s rock-hard abs dripping in sweat is not going to inspire me; it’s going to depress me, and i’ll likely end up drowning my sorrows in a pint of ben + jerry’s, so good job, internet. and all those “nothing tastes as good as thin feels” photos? umm, no. let’s be real here. pizza tastes as good as thin feels. and so does nutella, and cheese fries, and and and…

i don’t want to be a fitness model, and i’ve had it up to here with the disgustingly cliché tag lines. i want to be me–just a healthier version.

so here are a few things i found to help inspire me during week one:

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and my personal favorite:
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learning from the hard places

as i write this, i’ve been home from liberia for just a little over three weeks. i am finally getting to the stage where i feel like i’ve actually re-entered life here in the states; at first, though my physical body was present in pennsylvania–as weary, worn-down (and cold!) as it was–my thoughts and emotions were in the land of liberty, thousands of miles and an ocean away. it was like a weird sort of time lag; i guess my heart just needed some time to catch up with my body.

so now i’m here, i’m home, i’m fully present. and reality has set in. my entire life is starting over–again. my world for the past four years has been liberia, the kids, the problems, the burden. and now…well, what now? i have no idea what the future holds for me. part of is exhilarated, drunk on hope and imagining the possibilities. and the other part of me is straight-up terrified. what am i going to do? how am i going to get it together? i’m too old for this.

i’m in a hard place, an in-between place, a place full of more questions than answers, more struggle than victory, more faith than i knew i had in me. i’m broken and messy and shell-shocked. i’m scared, i’m frustrated, i’m confused. but i am also learning, difficult soul-lessons that can only be understood here, at this time, in this season:

one: more often than not, the hard places and the holy places are the same.
there’s a reason why Jesus said blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are poor in spirit. it’s because in the pain, in the lack, in the ache, he is there. he chose to enter this crazy-messy world as flesh and bone, as one who bled and got sick and had his heart broken. he chose the mess to be the place of his coming, and he’s doing the same thing today.

two: it is not our job to fix.
people are broken, and they are needy, and as the hands and feet of Christ, our hearts should ache for them and want to ease their pain. we are meant to be love with skin on, those who dress the wounds and kiss away the tears, who put our palms against the gaping heart-holes to stop the bleeding. we are made to show mercy, compassion, love. but we were never supposed to assume the role of savior. so often, we go above and beyond to try and fix other people’s problems instead of pointing them to the One who offers a perfect solution.

three: self-care does not equal selfishness.
typically, mainstream Christianity teaches us to put others’ needs above our own, citing scripture to prove that Jesus doesn’t want us to be concerned with ourselves. and i get it; i really do. i want to prefer others because i know that’s what he did. i want to serve instead of being served. i want a humble heart, pure motives, a life lived selflessly. but i do not believe Jesus wants his beloved to work themselves into the ground, to give without refilling, to wear down and burn out. a letter to his church reads “don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple?” as a holy dwelling, why should we not be intentional about making sure we are healthy and whole? it might mean getting that extra hour of sleep, or maybe another half hour of cardio at the gym. it may mean letting the tears fall instead of holding them in, or taking a vacation, or refusing to stay late at the office so you can eat dinner with your family around the table. it is not selfish to take care of yourself; after all, you don’t really have anything to offer those who need you if you are empty and dry.

four: community is important.
whether it’s friends or sisters, pastors or counselors, a cousin, a co-worker–we need these people in our lives. not just when we are healthy and thriving, but also when we are struggling, especially when we are struggling. fiercely independent and admittedly introverted, i tend to retreat into myself, especially when i’m in my hard place. but i am learning that i need others. i need connection, community, support. these are the people who are going to hold our hands and lead us towards Truth when we’re too weary to get there on our own. they will listen to us, cry with us, even celebrate us. they will love us.

five: not every question has an answer.
i like the feeling of being able to figure things out, so i am constantly observing and asking questions, seeking to learn. that’s not much of a problem, except when i am presented with things that seem to make no sense at all. things like children dying, war and poverty, injustice, trafficking–the list could go on and on. i shake and i grieve and i cry out, “why, God?!” and sometimes he doesn’t answer. sometimes i need to swallow hard and choose to trust him, to keep the faith, to remember that he is still good even in the midst of all that is not. sometimes i just need to accept what is. 

{what about you? perhaps you are well-acquainted with hard places, or you may be in one now. what have you learned? how have you grown? i’d love to hear from you!}

heavy

two weeks removed from liberia, i still feel as if i’m carrying the country with me. memories rise up at the most random times, and i’m instantly transported back to a different time, a different place, and yet it still seems so very real. a photograph of one of my girls can bring me instantly to tears, and there are a few articles of clothing that i’ve yet to run through the laundry because i want to remember the smell of sticky air and pungent dust, a scent so uniquely liberian, so heavy that it settles not only in the fibers of your clothing but also your pores, your heart.

part of me doesn’t know what to do with all of this, with the memories, with its weight that i still carry on my shoulders, with the broad spectrum of emotion that i go through in any given day–any given moment, really.

i shared with someone recently that it feels like i’m wearing a backpack, stuffed full with children’s names and faces, their stories, their dreams. the backpack contains experiences, both good and bad, and all the intricate details of which i’m still working through. it’s filled with worries and fears, with guilt and tears, with triumphs and praises and prayers without words. my backpack is busting at the seams with four years of a life lived elsewhere, and it’s still so close, still too soon, that i just don’t know how to let it go.

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so this person challenged me to take a backpack, an actual one–the one i’ve carried through airports and on roadtrips, across oceans and countries–and actually fill it with everything i have that makes me think of, makes me remember liberia.

and i did it. pictures of me and the kids went in the backpack. so did letters from the girls, begging me to stay, pouring out their hearts with ink. in went books and gifts, pieces of fabric bought for me as a goodbye from a 19-year old who spent the little money she barely had on the auntie who was leaving her. i filled up the backpack, and i put it on.

and it hardly weighed a thing.

‘how can that be?’ i wondered. so often, it feels so much heavier, a pressing force on my shoulders that makes me want to collapse beneath it.

i thought about all the things i couldn’t put in the backpack: the way Lamie looked when i first saw him, crippled and dirty, sleeping in a garbage pile. the way it feels to have no idea where they put his body. the turning in my stomach when i think about where Lucky is and if we’ll ever see her again. the way i want to give the world to Janet, how i want her every dream to come true. the way bodies look broken and bloody on the road after an accident. the way mothers grieve the loss of their babies. the way i love Mercy so much that it hurts, and how i’ve always felt like she was mine, and now i don’t have her.

i wrote all those things out and stuck them to a pair of free weights, five pounds a piece. and i cried over them, cried so deeply i felt like i’d never stop. and then i put them in the backpack.

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even with the added weight of ten pounds and countless tears, the backpack was nowhere near as heavy as i felt like it should be.

which made me realize: sometimes, things hurt us so much that we feel like we’ll never be able to move on from them. but rarely is it as bad as we think it is. yes, it’s heavy and painful, and yes, maybe we’ll always carry around a piece of it. but all of the mess, all of the questions and tear, brokenness and heavy hearts, are not our lot in life forever. they’re merely a few short chapters in a greater story that is still being told.

when i have to say goodbye

i.
a pile of folded clothes sits atop the black suitcase, ready to be packed. photos come down off the walls, the closets are cleaned out and bathroom shelves cleared off. two large duffel bags, fifty pounds a piece, contain four years of memories. i think of the boxes and bins waiting for me back home and marvel at this, a life lived in such a way, packed up and stored at a moment’s notice. i suppose that i should be thankful; i’m free, refusing to be weighed down by possessions and all my stuff. 

i am thankful, but i’m also a little sad.

ii.
i sit at her feet, this liberian mama of mine, and clutch her hand while i pray for her. daily, she and i hug in the kitchen, laughing and talking about kids and food. i realize who she is to me: a friend, a sister, a mother, and i choke back tears. she’s taught me so much, about love and humility, serving others, living by grace.

i pray, and i cry, and i don’t think i’ve ever loved her more than i do in this moment.

iii.
it’s four a.m., and i lay awake under the mosquito net. my head feels heavy from fatigue and allergies, yet i know sleep will elude me. another restless night–i’ve had so, so many.

in less than a week, i’ll be in a bed. it will be quiet; i will be comfortable. i dream about sleeping away the exhaustion of the last three months.

iv.
she shows up for work crying, and she somehow seems smaller than even the last time i saw her. they stole from her last night, broke into her home, her sense of safety and security, and took what wasn’t theirs. she swallows her tears and doesn’t want to talk about it. everyone rallies around her, offering sympathy, understanding, murmurs of encouragement. people here are forever losing, losing children, losing the things they scarcely have to begin with. when does it end?

and i, in my excess, feel guilty, ashamed.

v.
“auntie elena, you will not forget about me, yeah?” she whispers it softly into my ear as she hugs me goodbye, and time suddenly stands still. little hands claw at me, begging to hold, to be held, but all i can focus on is this one before me, jaw set with resolve, tears and questions in her eyes. i cup her face in my hands and meet her gaze; i can scarcely choke out the words. “i will never forget you. never. i love you.”

i see she believes me, and she rests her head on my shoulder. our hearts forever connected, our tears mingle in tiny pools, soaking the red dust of the earth where we stand.

vi.
i sit and stare, at nothing in particular, really. i think nothing in particular, feel nothing in particular. emptiness. it’s all that’s left. every word has been spoken, every prayer been prayed. the season comes to its close, as i always knew it would, eventually.

i lived well here; i loved well here. i did what i came here to do, did it the best way i knew how.

and then i hear it, an echo in the emptiness, a hint of hope in this barren heart:
“this chapter may be over, but the story’s just begun.”

a new season

this week has been tough for me. my heart is tender and tired, and i have to fight the tears back multiple times a day. i’ve been meeting with the girls in my small groups, the same girls i have loved + taught + mentored + laughed + cried with for the past four years. i’ve watched some of them grow into young women, others from little girls to teens. i’ve prayed for them, listened to them, encouraged them, held their hands in mine and simply been with them.

and this week, i had to sit them down, had to tell them that i’m leaving Liberia in July–and not just for a few months. more like for a few years.

yes, that’s right. for reasons i do not need to go into here, i will be saying goodbye to my beloved Liberia this summer + transitioning out of full-time missions; i will return to the States and transition back into full-time life there. Liberia will always be a part of me, and i fully expect to come back and visit in the years ahead. but until then, the time has come for me to walk away. i have prayed long and hard about this decision, and i have deep peace about it. but it is still hard to think about saying goodbye, and it was really, really hard to break the news to my girls. i wanted to tell them early on so they have time to get used to the idea, but truthfully, it would have been just as difficult had i waited.

so many of them already struggle with abandonment issues, and i fear that i’m adding insult to injury. i know all too well what it’s like to feel discarded, forgotten and alone, and i weep at the thought of them feeling the same way. i don’t want their hearts to hurt. we have been through so much with one another, and though i know our hearts are forever knitted together, there is a deep pain that comes with the physical separation. i have not yet birthed children of my own, but i know what it is to have a mother’s heart. in these four years, God has entrusted His little ones to me, and i have taken them into my soul + into my arms as my own. and in a few short months, my arms will be empty, and my heart aches.

and that says nothing about how it feels to be saying goodbye to Liberia as a whole, saying goodbye to this season, to this chapter of life. it’s been over four years, and so much about this place has become home. it is a nation that has etched itself into my skin, and my affection for it + its people is as strong and real and alive as the blood that flows through my veins. i don’t want to forget. i want to remember what i saw here, what i felt here, what i lived through here. even the dark + painful, the grit, the mess. i don’t want to return to life in America + have my heart grow cold. i want to stay soft, to keep hurting for the things that are unjust and unfair. i want the burden to stay with me, even after i’m gone.

again, let me reiterate that i know with every fiber in my being that me leaving is right. i know it is God, and i know it is time. i am prepared, and there are new and exciting things for me in this next chapter. and i also know that is this the way of life, that seasons come and seasons go, and some stories come to an end, and everything, at some point, has to change.

still–it is sad. the grieving process is never easy. truly, July will be like an end of an era for me. i’ve given blood + sweat + tears here, so many tears, and today, even now, they still keep falling. i have grown as a person and in my faith so very much during these years. i’m no longer the broken shell of a woman that i was when i first stepped foot on Liberian soil back in 2008. this place and its people, the kids and the love i’ve felt with them and for them have healed me from the inside out. Liberia has given me so many things:: unspeakable joy, unspeakable heartbreak, unspeakable beauty, stories i’m determined to never forget. my heart is full and heavy, and that is the part that also hurts.

i know that the goodbyes will not be easy. as i’ve seen this week, even speaking of the goodbyes is hard. i know i’ll need to let myself grieve and hurt and cry–and i also know it will be okay.

i was listening to a song this morning, and found myself forming a prayer out of these lyrics::
take my life, take all that i am; with all that i am, i will love you. take my heart, take all that i have; Jesus, how i adore you.

and that’s really what all this comes down to, when i think about it:: worship. surrender. love. i gave myself fully to Jesus when i came to Liberia, and i’ll give  myself fully to him again when it’s time to leave. it is my prayer that he truly does take my heart, the weight and all of its fullness. he can take the sadness, the grief, the pain, the longing, the ache, the hope, the excitement, the love. he can take the kids and my girls, the staff, my friends. he can take the past and the future, the unknown, what is still to be seen. he can take the sunsets, the breeze, my porch, the laughter, the prayers, the colors, the smells. everything i have opened my heart to, everything that has settled itself into the deepest part of me–it’s his, all his.

for now, i am nothing more than a tangled mess of emotions, and i suppose that’s natural. as i said, this week was hard. really hard. and hard weeks will come my way again, especially as the time of my departure grows near. but, as i told the girls this week, for now, i’m still here. i am present in body + heart + soul. i am still determined to dig my heels in here, to live fully in every moment, to suck the marrow from the days i have left in Liberia.

i share all this with you because, whether you know it or not, you are a part of this journey i am on. many of you have stood by my side during these four years, held my hand when i felt fearful, encouraged me when i wanted to walk away. and i also share this with you because, to be brutally, transparently honest, i need you now. i need your prayers. i need your encouragement. i need your support. i need shoulders to cry on and people to lean up against when i’m weak + sad + scared + trying to figure out this crazy mess called life, the continual changing of tides, the turning of seasons. old gives way to new, and sometimes we get caught in the in-between place, and that is where i find myself now:: grieving what was, anticipating what will come, learning to embrace the season i am in while looking ahead to the next one–the hope-full, the new.

[brave]

as i write this, i’ve been back in Liberia for a week. seven short days, yet somehow my life, my world in the States seems like it was forever ago. memories turn to fragments, replaced by here and now and the need, always the need. it’s a different pace, a stronger one, a busy schedule, everything consistent and steady yet somehow unpredictable as well. and i jump into it, this life here, because i want to inhale every moment and suck the marrow from it::

the blanket of heat, heavy in my lungs, on my shoulders. bright sun hidden by hammatan’s dusty haze. dirt under fingernails, sweat on the skin. car horns blaring, music crackling over old, broken speakers. toothy smiles and weathered hands, tattered t-shirts and grimy money balled tight in the fist. plastic buckets full for flushing toilets, a lukewarm shower under the stars. the hum of the generator at night, the ocean crashing, mosquito net tucked into bedframes. sticky rice and oily soups, sweet fruit, cold water. talking on the porch, laughing on the porch, praying on the porch. handshakes with snapping fingers, hugs with a kiss on each cheek. little hands clawing at my legs, little fingers running through my hair. hannah’s head on my lap, mercy’s head on my shoulder, jumah’s head buried in the space beneath my chin, resting on my collar bone.

this. it’s been my life for four years, a stark contrast to the direction i thought i was headed. at first, it was hard, and i fought and struggled against it, simultaneously loving and hating everything about it at the same time. and then i grew into it, grew with it, really, and it has become comfortable, somehow, even in the midst of so much discomfort. it’s familiar, dependable; basically, i know what to expect.

from a survival standpoint, this is good. it helps me to keep going, to move with the ebb and flow of life in Liberia. it helps me compartmentalize–my thoughts, my emotions, my experiences. without it, i would surely collapse under the weight of sorrow and guilt, of poverty, of illness, of hunger, of death, of kids who deserve a better chance, of systems that keep people oppressed and simply…stuck.

still, i feel a conviction, hollow in my stomach, gnawing on my insides. and it all comes down to one little word:: brave.
now, i wouldn’t exactly call myself by that name because frankly, bravery terrifies me. i’m a play-by-the-rules kind of girl. i like plans and roadmaps and explanations for everything. and up until recently, i was fine with all of that.

but now, i feel something shifting. i’ve had this sort of awakening, if you will, and it feels like i’ve been shaken from a long, deep slumber and brought out into the light. and i’ve discovered that i like it, this light i’ve been exposed to, but in order for me to have more of it, i must be brave. see, when i’m content with living an easy story, it makes it hard for me to live a better one. without taking chances and taking risks and embracing the adventure, i will never learn what it feels like to live fully, to live bravely.

but that means, of course, that all the rules might go out the window. it means change and transition, and it’s entirely possible that things might get a little messy. it means that there will be moments when i have no idea what i’m doing, times when i will be unsure. it means things are going to look differently, and i have two choices. i can run away from the mystery, hide myself in what’s easy–or i can be brave and let go, and see where the winds of change take me.

for now, i dig my heels in, determined to bloom where i’ve been planted. i take it all in, every moment, every experience, breathing deep to savor these days i’ve been given here. for it’s only been a week, and i’ve already noticed the difference in how i think and speak and feel.

i am learning to be brave, even in what has become uncomfortably comfortable.