tiny paper hearts

fifteen months ago, i took pieces of construction paper, bright red, soft pink, and scattered them across a dining room table. pencil in hand, i traced little hearts and cut each one out, nearly fifty of them in all. and as i said my goodbyes during that last week in liberia, i’d slip a tiny paper heart into each girl’s hand. she would look at me with tears in her eyes, and i’d pull her close and hold her near as we cried. the hearts were merely a symbol, i explained. though my body was leaving, much of my heart was not. janet, leemue, mercy, jumah–each of them kept a heart. so did rose, princess, janjay, kamah; and gormaloh and hannah and siah and caroline. and on and on it goes…

looking back, i was never much concerned with leaving a legacy. i cared more about those construction paper hearts:: not much to look at on the surface, but rich with meaning, a significance only they and i could understand. and that–well, that was enough for us.

//

today, one of the girls pulls me aside. “auntie,” she whispers, “look! i still have it!” opening her hand slowly, she shows me a red heart, folded up neatly in her palm. it’s tattered a bit ‘round the edges, and time and dirt have dulled its color. but she kept it nonetheless:: a tiny paper heart, a promise that i wouldn’t forget.

“i knew you’d come back for us,” she smiles, slipping her free hand into mine. we sit like that for a while, not speaking, a red heart clenched tightly in her fist.

//

the thing is:: this world needs more tiny paper hearts. all of us, we need to be people who love, deeply. we need to be people who give our hearts away. because your heart? it’s beautiful, simply…beautiful. and i know; that’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, and sometimes, it loses its meaning. but i can think of no other word that fits here, dear heart. yours is rich and full, and it’s got something that this world needs.

i’ve given a lot of paper hearts out over the years, and you know what i’ve learned along the way? love; it’s not for the faint of heart. love’s not always the stuff of movies, sweet and easy and wrapped up neat with a bow. love’s a risky business. you’re giving a piece of yourself away, and that can be a scary thing. what if that other person is careless with your heart and doesn’t cherish it the way he should? what if she takes that tiny paper heart of yours and rips it to a million shreds?

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Photo by Soumit // Flickr // Creative Commons

though maybe, just maybe:: she’ll keep that heart and treasure it. maybe he’ll fold it up neatly in the palm of his hand and keep you safe there. 



maybe, just maybe (and i think i’m right about this one):: loving other people is worth it all.

[broken]

time in Liberia always moves at its own, unique pace. i’ve been back for only two and a half days, yet somehow, it feels like a lifetime ago that i stepped off the plane into the humid night air, the heat that settles itself deep in your pores, on the shoulders like a heavy blanket. two and a half days. how can so many thoughts, so many emotions and experiences exist within the confines of 65 hours?

i’ve had one word running through my mind since i landed here, a word that i’ve been chewing on, deliberately, thinking about and mulling over and holding up to the light:: broken. broken? at first glance, it doesn’t make much sense. sure, when i first came to Liberia in 2008, i was broken. i’d just gone through a messy divorce, i’d lost a job and relationships, and everything i’d held secure had come crashing down around me, shattering into a million tiny pieces at my feet. the shell-shocked woman who first stepped foot on African soil five and a half years ago–she was undoubtedly broken. but i’m no longer that woman; everything’s changed since then.

and when i left Liberia in 2013 i was, again, broken–just in a different way. i had PTSD, and the depression i’ve battled for most of my life had reared its ugly head. i’d seen too much, felt too much:: the grief when children die too soon, the shame when i finally understood my white privilege, the anger when teen girls were raped by men in their twenties and no one did a thing about it. i left Liberia 14 months ago broken, most certainly, but in the time i had at home–i healed. mind, body, heart, and soul; all those fragmented pieces have been put back together again.

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                                           [Photo by Peter Kirkeskov / Flickr / Creative Commons]

and so thinking about all of this, i see that i have come to equate Liberia with brokenness–my own, mostly, that of my heart and something deep within me that used to feel as if it would never be whole again. over the years, Liberia had stretched me, drained me, broke me. the things i saw, those that my heart and mind could never really find the words for–they wore me out, wore me down.

but somewhere along the line, i started thinking: maybe it doesn’t have to be like this. maybe there’s a better way. maybe brokenness no longer has to mean what it used to. hannah brencher wrote, “your heart is supposed to be broken like bread and passed all around, not left in pieces on the floor.” and these days, i hold her words within me, delicately, for i can feel the truth in them, and it feels holy, somehow. i hold her words, and i can’t help but think of our Christ, who broke the bread to feed thousands–and it was in the breaking that it was mysteriously multiplied. and i think, too, of when he himself was broken, on behalf of us, for the sake of love; again, the breaking somehow gives way to more, something better, something full.

so i started thinking about all these things, and it came to me:: maybe i can do something with this brokenness. maybe it means that somehow, someway, now there’s suddenly more of my heart to go around. i can hug and hold and share and pray and love without it taking everything out of me. looking back, i think there was a time when i was supposed to suffer with; but perhaps now is the time to show what awaits on the other side. the thin places, they always stretch you, and the hard places, they’re full of grit and pain, but they don’t last forever; that much i know to be true.

maybe my brokenness was only meant for a season after all. yes, it was heavy, and it was painful, and the season seemed long, too long. but it served a purpose. and maybe, just maybe–now is the time for redemption. maybe now is the time to see Liberia through fresh eyes, through the lens of what it feels like to be living a better story. maybe i’ll always carry the burden, and maybe the hard things are always going to break me. but i do not have to remain broken. i don’t have to stay shattered.

i have a choice. i can use what’s been broken, and i can see something new be birthed from it. and that–well, that’s a really beautiful thing.

ode to the table

i’ve always known that i’m deeply relational. i crave connection, opening up our hearts and baring our souls, and typically, that happens for me around the table. there’s something about sharing a meal with others that binds you together. the table somehow becomes holy ground, and it’s all i can do to not gulp deep of that sacred air and take off my sandals and bend myself low. people talk at the table, not just formalities and niceties but real, honest, open conversation about how we’re doing, really, and all the things we’ve been too afraid to speak aloud. these; these are the things of substance, of weight, of glory–these are the things that matter.

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Photo by Tim Samoff on Flickr; Creative Commons

//

these days i’m thinking purposefully about the hard things, the questions that don’t have easy answers, spending a lot of time in the gray areas. i don’t want to debate, don’t have time to argue. i’m not interested in keeping score, in who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out. i just want to sit with brothers and sisters at the table, to look past our differences and revel in our common ground, for all of us to forgive one another our flaws and embrace who we are in this, the in-between, the not-yet. our stories are still being written; let’s simply celebrate this chapter, shall we?

//

lately, i find myself frequently in the thin places. life, seasons, everything–it’s all changing, and i feel wildly unprepared. when i strip away the layers and stare truth in its face, i guess it all comes down to the fact that i’m afraid. afraid of giving up control. afraid of the unknown. afraid of loss, of coming up empty-handed. and i’ve been trying to keep it all inside but then i can’t keep myself from unraveling; and the tears and the stress and the feelings, they all just spill out everywhere. it feels messy; *i* feel messy. and yet:: i consistently am gifted with people who look past the mess and invite me to sit at their table. and there, at the table, i find i can simply be. i can cry and spill and ask the hard questions, without parameters, without rules and regulations:: just me, being who and where i am in this moment, for really, when it comes down to it, this is the only moment that matters.

//

i dream of sitting at a table in the wilderness, with the misfits, with the messy, with those of us who have wild hearts and dirty hands. when i close my eyes, i can see it:: all of us, welcomed, seated ‘round a slab of unfinished wood, faces squinting in the sunlight, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes and getting glimpses of on earth as it is in heaven.

//

“i want you to love with wild and gorgeous abandon, throwing yourself into each day, telling the truth about who you are and who you are not, writing a love song to the world itself and to the God who made every inch of it.

we don’t come to the table to fight or defend. we don’t come to prove or conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. we come to the table because our hunger brings us there. we come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. the table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. the table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children…

the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel. if the home is a body, the table is the heart, the beating center, the sustainer of life and health.


come to the table.”

(quoted from bread and wine by shauna niequist, emphasis mine)

in which my heart knows to make space

i’m usually one who has no problem wearing her heart on her sleeve.

i feel things deeply, always have and probably always will. things of substance and soul tend to captivate me, and if there’s one thing i’ve learned over the years, it’s that these hearts of ours are fickle little creatures, messy and beautiful and glorious and wild.

i can remember a prayer that i prayed once, on a sunny afternoon on my porch in Liberia. i’d just read Isaiah’s words–the second verse of the fifty-fourth chapter, to be exact. enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your curtains wide, do not hold back… i read and i sat with my eyes closed, face turned to the sun, and i made the plea of a prophet into a prayer from the deepest part of me. “stretch my heart wider, God,” i breathed. “stretch me wide.

you see, back then, my days in Liberia were filled with so much need, so many kids, and i didn’t feel big enough to fit it all inside me. the poverty, the death, the injustice, what i saw, what i felt; all of it, it ripped me apart, over and over again. so i prayed a simple prayer, the only thing i knew to do at the time, and after a while, i started to see that prayer answered. it used to feel like my heart was breaking there, but i came to realize it was really just being enlarged, making room for me to love even more. it wasn’t until i wondered how i could fit all those kids inside that i realized this tiny, wild heart of mine had grown and made space–for each of them.

somewhere along the line, though, my heart lost its elasticity. it wasn’t bouncing back the way it was supposed to, the way it used to. each new death, each new loss and case of abuse and question that couldn’t be answered–it just kept ripping me. and then, four years later, i broke. my heart was torn and mangled, and it was bleeding out everywhere.

going home then, i think, became a hospital of sorts. in comfort and the warmth that comes from feeling safe at long last, my heart found the space it so desperately needed to heal. gaping wounds began to close, with time and care, with the prayers of so many who love me so well. and one day, my heartbeat became steady once more. i hadn’t forgotten, but i was also no longer haunted by the memories. it was a good safe easy place to be. and after a long, long period of hard, easy was a welcomed friend.

but as i always say:: if i’m comfortable living an easy story, it makes it impossible for me to live a brave one. so though it took every ounce of faith and guts and grit i had in me, i said yes to a return to Liberia and bought a ticket on a Friday afternoon. i leave in eight weeks. it feels crazy. it feels scary. but it also feels right.



and since then…well, i’ve begun to feel the tearing again, which i can only suppose is my heart’s way of getting itself ready. i look ahead and wonder what it will be like to return. i think about all that i know is waiting for me on the other side of that ocean. and every single day, another piece of this bruised and beating heart of mine comes undone a little bit more at its seams. but this–the tears and the feelings and the words i can’t seem to find, the fear tinged with hope and the butterflies in my stomach and the lump in my throat–this is what preparation looks like. nearly five years later, God continues to answer my prayer. stretch my heart wider, Lord. just when i think i’ve had all that i can take, just when it feels like there’s no more room–suddenly, just like that, there’s space. free, open space.

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Photo by Bren // Creative Commons // Flickr

because in eight shorts weeks, i know:: each of those empty spaces are going to be filled.

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.

when we’ve come undone

can i just be brutally, completely, in-your-face honest with you for a minute? this whole being a missionary thing is no joke. it is hard, you guys. really hard. and there are some days where i would rather be anywhere but here, doing anything but this. some days, i feel so totally, completely done. depleted. empty.

i’m having one of those days. only this day has gone on for the past three weeks. i’ve been struggling–a lot. i’m tired, more than tired, really. i’m lonely. i’m homesick. i’m over the heat, the sweating, the sleepless nights, the fatigue that follows me day in and day out. i don’t feel like myself. i worry i have nothing more in me to give. i know that i only have a few months left and yet, somehow, those few months seems like they’re years away.

i don’t tell you this to play some sort of sympathy card; i’m not looking for pats on the back or pity of any kind. i’m sharing this because i want to show the world that all of us, every single one of us, even (and perhaps especially) those of us in ministry–we have a bad day once in a while. or a bad week. maybe even a bad year. whatever; it happens. it doesn’t mean we are weak. it doesn’t mean we’re failures. it doesn’t mean we’re not spiritual enough, not depending on God enough, or that we don’t have enough faith. it means we’re human. it means we have hearts and souls, and they’re messy and sometimes maybe we come undone. 

and it is there that i find myself, in that undone place, where i don’t have the answers and i don’t know how to get out of this and it hurts, but i keep hearing the whisper of Jesus telling me to just hang in there, babygirl. and i try, and i fail, and i collapse at his feet in a puddle of tears and disappointment and somehow, i get back up again. i’m in that place where words fail me, where my language has become the deep groanings of the heart, and yet i know that even those are some sacred prayer, a holy utterance.

i have come undone, and instead of hiding away all the broken pieces, i’m letting you see them.
i have come undone, and instead of attempting to explain it all away, i’m sitting down in the aftermath.
i have come undone, and i’m talking about it.

because perhaps you too know this feeling, know it well, and you wonder if anyone else in the world understands. perhaps no one has ever given you the permission to have a bad day. perhaps you’re stopping yourself from falling apart because you’re afraid that you’ll be too broken to ever be put back together.

i get it. i really do. but may i suggest that, though it may feel like it, you will not be undone forever? i know right now you may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and, to be honest, neither can i. but our limited vision doesn’t change the Light’s existence; that i can promise you.

be gentle with yourself, and remember: you are human. you are beautifully flawed, and that is the mystery of your heart and soul and flesh and bones. if you’re having a bad day, it’s okay. if you’re falling apart or breaking down, it’s okay. i promise you; it really is.

you, dear one, will not be undone forever. and neither will i.
because if there’s one thing i’ve learned about Jesus, it’s that he loves to stitch things back together.

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.

Your Heart Matters

(Also titled “The Heart: Part Two”. I told you there’d be more to come on this subject!)

Our hearts are the purest indicator of who we truly are. What we believe about our own hearts reveals to us what we really believe about ourselves. For so long, I lived in self-hatred and believed that there could be nothing good in me. My eyes have been opened to lie, and there is one thing that I now know to be true: I’ve been given a new heart. A redeemed heart. A ransomed heart. And Jesus says it is good. Really good. Good enough to die for.

As I said, though, I didn’t always know this. Ever since I was a little girl, I carried this belief around with me that said my heart didn’t matter, that I didn’t matter. My biological father left when I was a baby, and I haven’t seen him since. Why would he stick around, after all? My parents were emotionally (and sometimes physically) absent for a lot of my early childhood. It’s because of you that they’re always gone. Why would they stay? Why would they love you? My ex-husband cheated on me, left me and then divorced me. You’re disposable. Worthless. You will never be cherished, never be adored. Everyone always leaves you—and it’s all your fault. With each wound came the same old lie, and the pain that I felt only seemed to serve as proof that it was all true. I felt like there was something inherently wrong with me, with my heart, that drove people away. That made me unworthy of love.

I didn’t recognize this, of course. Not in a way that I could put into words. But it was there, deep down inside that wounded heart of mine. It would rise up in me whenever I felt rejected. Out of place or not good enough. Lonely. The tears would come, and I would nod yes, this is how it would always be. These hurtful things inside of me would never go away, and I simply had to learn how to fight the pain, choke back the tears, and “move on.”

But then, one day, I heard another Voice. A softer Voice, a gentler Voice. It was a Voice that I recognized but, admittedly, a Voice that I hadn’t heard in a while. That Voice whispered to me, adamantly. That’s. Not. True.

And over time, through prayer and study and learning to listen to that Voice, it began to make sense. It made so much sense, in fact, that I could hardly believe I’d been blinded for so long. Isaiah 61 hit me like it never had before. In it, God explains the reasons that Jesus has come. And you know what He says? “To bind up the brokenhearted.” “To proclaim freedom for the captives.” “To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

When I read those verses, I could see it so clearly. That was me; He was talking about me! My heart had been broken by pain and other people’s sin, and I had become a captive to the lies that came from that brokenness. But that’s not the end of my story! Because Jesus came—and He came for me! That means the ashes, the mourning, the despair, the lies, the feeling of worthlessness is gone. Christ’s work is finished, and I now stand “rebuilt”, “restored”, and “renewed”, just as He promised.

That, my friends, is Good News. Because of what Jesus did when He came, my heart has been made new—I have been made new. So if your heart is feeling heavy and broken, if you’re weighed down by hurt or fear, I urge you to take that precious heart of yours to Jesus. Your heart matters to Him; you matter to Him. And He cannot wait to set you free.

(Photo from bravegirlsclub.com)

  • our hearts are the very essence of who we are.
  • thus, what i believe about my heart shows me what i believe about myself.
  • certain theologies have taught me that my heart is wicked. unpredictable. dangerous. untrustworthy.
  • this is not what Jesus has taught me.
  • Christ died for me—and “me” includes my heart. He has conquered all evil, and has given me a new life. for me to believe that my heart is ugly and worthless is for me to make a pure mockery out of what He did on the cross.

just a few things i am thinking about/learning during my time with Jesus tonight. more to come on this subject, i’m sure…