count the cost

it seems no matter where i turn these days, i can’t get away from three little words:: “count the cost.”

it all started a couple weeks ago, after i read through the gospel of luke. in 14.25-33. Jesus speaks of building a tower and a king going to war, of carrying one’s cross and the act of sacrifice to follow after him. count the cost. 

since then, i’ve been wrestling with this passage, these hard but holy words, chewing on them deliberately, holding them up to the light. in just a few short months, i’ll be taking a trip, the first since the epic unraveling that led to me leaving the missions field. this trip, it’s a big deal for me, in so many ways. missions, Liberia, orphan care: these things, for me, are what following after Jesus looks like. getting my hands dirty and my heart broken–this is the stuff discipleship is made of. it’s grossly uncomfortable and nowhere near easy. count the cost.

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Photo by Harry Doyle // Creative Commons // Flickr

yes, i can confidently say i’ve counted the cost. i know what it takes. it’s giving up hot showers and consistent electricity. it’s sleepless nights tossing and turning under a mosquito net. it’s sweat gushing from my pores and feet that never get clean. it’s frequent headaches and an upset stomach and very little in the way of comforts. it’s sensory overload, which is overwhelming for someone like me. it’s being a source of constant scrutiny, of having my every move watched. it’s standing out when i just want to blend in. 

it’s kids who die too soon and no one who mourns them once they’re gone. it’s unfair systems, instability and oppression, and people who deserve so much more. it’s long, tedious days full of overwhelming needs; it’s constantly wondering if what i’m doing makes any difference at all. it’s guilt and shame as my white privilege stares me in the face.

it’s homesickness and loneliness and sometimes feeling like an ancient Israelite, banished to exile. it’s losing friendships due to time and distance. it’s once-promising relationships that don’t work out because i never stay in one place long enough. it’s the fear of being forever single. it’s coming “home” only to discover how different it feels and how i’m not even sure where “home” is anymore. it’s worrying that i don’t measure up to other women my age who seem to have achieved more than i. it’s saying goodbye to financial security; it’s living on faith and the generosity of others. it’s seeing things i’ll never find the words for, and feeling like no one else will ever understand me as a result.

count the cost.

still, even with all this, i can’t help but wonder. maybe following Jesus looks less like keeping with the status quo and more like “a long obedience in the same direction”. maybe it’s less of a ‘normal’ life and more of an upside-down kingdom. maybe it’s heart-wrenchingly hard. but i’m willing to bet it’s worth it.

because this–missions, life, faith, discipleship, struggle, tension, overcoming; it’s the stuff of Jesus’ heart. yes, it’s costly, and yes, the price is high. but me? i’m counting it all joy–for the sake of knowing and loving the One who paid it all anyway.

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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.

an embodied story

back in my baby Christian days, i hated tattoos.

at that time in my life, the world around me was very much black-and-white. there was good and bad, “Christian” and not, and i hadn’t yet learned about the beautiful in-between, the sacred tension that comes from the gray areas.

tattoos were sinful in my book because of that one little verse in Leviticus that had been taken out of context, twisted to fit a certain ideology and wielded as a weapon by the mainstream church.

and then i got divorced. and then my whole world came crashing down around me. and then the very “brothers and sisters in Christ” i had so proudly linked arms with for nearly a decade deserted me.

and then i started to see that perhaps this faith-walk is not meant to fit into neat little boxes. i realized that life was messy and beautiful and hard, and maybe all the things i had been so sure of i didn’t really know all along.

so i got a tattoo, the word “faith” in small, delicate lettering on the nape of my neck. at that point in my life, faith was the only thing i had to hold on to. everything i had known, everything that had been comfortable and supposedly secure had been stripped from me. i was hanging on by a thread, and that just happened to be the last little bit of faith i had in me. it seemed fitting for me to mark my body with that one little word, to serve as a remembrance in later years that faith as small as a mustard seed truly was enough.

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two years later, i got tattooed again. the word “hope” was etched into the thin skin of my foot, big and bold, hinting of promises of a better tomorrow. i had come out of the fire, tested and still standing on the truth. i understood that though i couldn’t change my past, Jesus could somehow make good of it and give me a new story in exchange for all my broken pieces. i came to know something of this Living Hope, one that could not be taken away by pain and circumstance. hope had become a mantra of sorts, something to cling to as i walked through my healing, and i wanted my body to tell the story.

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shortly after, i packed two fifty-pound suitcases for a journey that would forever change me. i left behind the memories of another life, the woman i used to be, and traveled halfway around the world, settling in the small nation of Liberia, West Africa, to serve Jesus by loving orphans. in the nearly four years i lived in Africa, i healed, i laughed, i cried, i prayed, i loved. in the midst of poverty and the aftermath of war, with death and sickness and injustice all around me, i learned what it felt like to have my heart break for the very things that broke the Father’s. as i held dirty, hungry and dying children in my arms, i would weep silently, rocking them and praying that somehow my love would be enough to heal their heart-wounds. i grew to embrace a culture so very different from my own, a people who deserved so much more. Liberia took a lot out of me, and i have since left the mission field full-time. i gave when i felt like i had nothing left in me; i was stretched to the point i was sure i would break; i loved deeper, fiercer, wilder than i ever thought possible. but each time i look at the wrist of my right hand, i see a reminder of the place that taught me what true love looks like, a land of red earth and green trees and blue sky that i will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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and this i know, friends: my story is not over. there are chapters still being written, still unfolding, even as i write this today. i may not mark each of them with ink, but they will be no less real, no less permanent, no less a part of me. i regret not one of the tattoos i’ve gotten; i wear them proudly, my battle-wounds from the crazy-beautiful mess we call life. and i believe one day i will sit at the table with my Jesus, and i will show him these scars, and he will show me his, and we will talk about them and laugh and cry and remember.

{this post was inspired by the A Deeper Story synchroblog. for more information, check out this tribe of inked storytellers who have embodied the good parts, the bad parts, and everything in between. xo}

when grace both hurts and heals

several months ago i chose a word for my 2013: grace. it’s a word i had heard often through my years on this faith-walk, yet i had only come to understand it just recently. the dictionary defines it as an act or instance of kindness or courtesy, which is all well and good except that grace every once in a while wasn’t enough for me. i didn’t want neatly packaged grace, the kind that looks pretty on the outside but doesn’t really do anything. i didn’t want grace on the surface, grace when i felt like it; i wanted deeper, more, grace as a lifestyle, grace whether i wanted to give it or not. once i understood how grace had changed me, i felt a fire in my bones to share it with others. i wanted to live a life of love, of kindness, of forgiveness, of grace.

pretty soon, i realized that the thing about grace is that it’s messy. it requires me to give when i don’t feel i have anything left. it requires me to love with all my heart, throwing caution to the wind. it requires me to forgive even when i am hurt, to persevere when i feel like giving up.

i also realized that the hardest things in life are most often those most worthy. yes, living out my grace-word in an ungracious world would be difficult. but i knew it’s what i was called to. and so i jumped into the deep end, eyes closed, heart trusting.

people came into my life who were hard to love. some had hurt me, betrayed me, abandoned me; some would take without giving, so much so that i wondered if i had anything left in me. yet i knew: these people, they desperately needed love and prayer and encouragement like a beggar needs bread, like a parched soul needs living water.

and so i loved. i prayed. i spoke truth over their hearts and their lives.

 and i ended up with a broken heart, with bruised pride and tears in my eyes and empty hands.

part of me wants to be angry. part of me wants to blame them, blame God. part of me wants to rage at the unfairness of it, the injustice i feel when i think about all the time and energy and emotion i’ve invested–and for what? part of me wants to feel foolish for caring too much. part of me wants to feel like i’ve failed because i can’t see the fruit of all the seeds i have sown. part of me wants to take it all back, wishes i had never gotten involved.

but then there’s the part of me that knows better. there’s the part of me that knows this is what i signed up for. grace + mercy can be a lonely place; just ask Jesus. how could he have felt when those who said they loved him turned around and betrayed him? how could he have felt when he was delivered into the hands of his accusers by the very man he had called friend and follower? how could he have felt when his nearest and dearest could not even stay awake and support him as he wept in the garden, his soul burdened and anguished? how could he have felt as he hung from the cross and cried out, “Father, forgive them?”

it probably felt a little bit like this.

and yet he still loved. he still sacrificed. he still gave grace.

and because of him,
so will i.

when saturday actually means something

as a Christian, this past weekend was full of significance for me. on friday, i joined with countless believers worldwide as we remembered the sacrifice of the God-man on the tree. on sunday, we celebrated with one another the miracle of his resurrection + his victory over death forevermore.

what i noticed, though, is that little was said about saturday. the in-between day. the day of which we don’t know much about. the day that didn’t appear to mean anything at all. on friday, we mourn, and on sunday, we celebrate. but what about saturday?

as someone who has become well acquainted with life in the in-between, i believe saturday has to mean something. Jesus could have died on that friday and risen the next day if he wanted to. but God waited. saturday was that day of waiting, the day of silence. all of heaven held its breath, anticipating the grand finale, but earth knew nothing of what was to come. all it could see was a dead body, buried in the tomb. it saw unmet expectations, dreams that would never be realized, hopes that had been brutally dashed. heaven knew the miracle was coming, but what of those who couldn’t see past the despair and the questions, all those questions which appeared would never be answered?

thousands of years later, so many of us are still living in saturday. i know; i’m there, too. saturday’s the day when nothing makes sense, the day when we fall on our faces and scream with our fists to the sky, “why, God? why?” saturday’s the aftermath of cancer and divorce, of accidents and job losses, of breakdowns and breakups. it’s the tension of a life lived between the tragedy and the miracle, the problem and its solution. it’s when things appear that they couldn’t get any worse, but that’s only because we’re seeing things with the wrong set of eyes. if we could get just a glimpse of what’s beyond ourselves, we’d see that Redemption was coming.

so if you’re living in a saturday like me, i pray your heart is encouraged and your faith bolstered. there is something sacred and holy and ancient in the waiting, in the in-between, in the way you ache for the miracle. saturday actually means something, even if we don’t understand it yet. but one day, we’ll look back, and it will make sense, and we will see what the saturday has taught us. we will see that nothing in this life is wasted — even the tears, the disappointment, the hope that was lost somewhere along the way.

after all, we can never get to sunday unless we first go through our saturday.

holy places

i’d had a long, hard day; a long, hard week, if i was being honest. dirt under fingernails, feet covered in dust. my bones ached, and my head and heart felt full and heavy. words were few, replaced instead by deep sighs and weighted breaths.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?
his words found me in my thin place, where i felt stretched and sore, barely hanging on. “yes, i’m tired,” i nodded. “yes, i’m worn out. worn down. burned out. yes, yes, yes.”

Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
i stepped into the shower, an outdoor stall enclosed by cement block. the water hit me, warm from the sun, and tears fell down under starlight, washing away the dirt from my soul. 

I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
his words washed over me like the water from the shower, like the tears that kept coming, and i saw it all so clearly. i had been collapsing under the weight of a burden i was never meant to carry. the heaviness hadn’t been intended for my shoulders, for he knew i would not be able to bear it. but i had forced a smile and bowed low, gritting my teeth as i settled into the yoke. it didn’t fit but i, never wanting to appear weak, refused to acknowledge that something was wrong. i carried the yoke, the burden, the weight, day in and day out.

and it had brought me to this place, weary in the deepest parts, kneeling on a wet concrete floor. it was then that i realized: here–in the ache and the mess, the pain, the grit–even here was holy ground. i was bent low in more ways than one, thick in this sacred moment, and it was here that his glory would come to pass me by.

Jesus doesn’t wait for our lives to be perfect, for all our problems to be solved, before he comes to us. he enters in the thin places, the messy places, the hard places.

and he calls them holy.

{scripture reference: matthew 11:28-30, The Message}

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.

[messy]

i already know what my word for 2013 is going to be:: grace.

beautiful grace. lifesaving and life-changing grace. i don’t think there’s a word so lovely in all of the English language.

grace.

here’s the thing, though:: grace is so much more than a word. it’s this powerful, mysterious force that has worked its way into every fiber of my being, affecting the way i think and feel and act and believe and love.

especially how i love.

grace opened my eyes so that i might see how cherished and adored i am by my Jesus. not because of my effort. not because of my accomplishment or striving or anything about me in and of itself. grace has loved me despite me.

and it has asked me to love my brothers, my sisters the same way.

the ones who i don’t think deserve it. the ones who have failed me, hurt me, disappointed me. the ones on the outside, the outskirts, pushed aside and discarded. the ones who no one else will love. the ones who don’t even know how to love back.

i can hear grace calling me:: love them.

the thing about grace is that it’s messy.

it’s hard and uncomfortable. it requires me to get outside of myself, to take risks, to love wildly and with abandon. it’s scary, filled with questions and doubt. people don’t understand it. they think i’m crazy, a radical, irrational. they tell me i think too much with my heart and not enough with my mind.

like i said:: grace is messy.

it’s a beautiful mess though.

because when i get down there in the dirt, in the hard places, in the pain and the areas outside my comfort zone, i find grace is right there with me. softening me. strengthening me. giving me the words to speak and how to say them. stretching this tender, bleeding heart of mine more than i ever thought possible that there may be even more room for love, love, love.

it was in my mess that grace found me. and i was forever changed.
and now, as the saying goes, i’m just one beggar, telling another where to find bread.
i kneel down in the mess, in the mud and point my beggar-friend towards the Source. the Love. the Grace.

it’s messy–but so, so beautiful.
for when you embrace the mess, you find the beauty. when you accept the brokenness, you find restoration. when you allow the pain, you are shown healing:: always.

may the messy-beautiful grace be with you and in you and through you.
amen.

[rest]

today was supposed to be iFast day. today i was supposed to go to the gym and do a couple errands and pack for my trip on Thursday andandand…

you see, there will always be a lot of “supposed to”s. but this day is different.
because if i still myself long enough, i can hear the quiet whisper that is telling me to simply rest.
don’t strive; don’t do. just rest.
if that means eating some comfort food or  leaving a suitcase unpacked, then that’s what it takes. if it means still being in my pajamas at 2 pm or a full basket of dirty laundry, then so be it.

because i know that voice is His, and His rest is my mandate.

“are you tired? worn out? burned out on religion? come to me. get away with me and you’ll recover your life. i’ll show you to take a real rest. walk with me and work with me–watch how i do it. learn the unforced rhythms of grace. i won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (matthew 11:28-30, the message)

so today, this week, seemingly all the time lately, when i feel empty and depleted, i need to learn how to stop for a little while and just rest.
and you know what? it’s hard.
i can feel parts of myself fighting against it. i can hear the voices calling me lazy and selfish, berating me for taking any time for myself.
and yet…i can also feel myself surrendering in the struggle. i submit every weary and resistant part of me to the One who promises to lead me beside still waters and restore my soul.

today, and every day, may we find deep and true rest in Him who satisfies. as we pour ourselves out on behalf of a world that needs a touch from divine Love, may we return our empty hands to He who refills.

amen.

when there are no more words

as my time in Liberia comes to a close, i look back and reflect and remember. i know people back home are going to ask questions. they’re going to want stories, want to hear of my life for the past six months.

the problem is::
for the first time in a long time,
i don’t have words.

maybe i haven’t fully processed all i’ve seen and heard and felt here yet. maybe once i do, the words will come.

or maybe some things are simply so full of raw…feeling that they exist outside of language.

i don’t have words to speak of grieving families who have lost loved ones too soon.

i don’t have words to speak of fear that grips in the middle of the night when you realize your neighbors are being robbed.

i don’t have words to speak of lifeless bodies in the aftermath of a car accident, bloody and broken on the road.

i don’t have words to speak of how guilty it feels to have a full stomach when so many around you go hungry.

i don’t have words to speak of children starved of affection, desperate for human contact.

i don’t have words to speak of a crippled man sleeping in the garbage and the dust, abandoned and left to die.

i don’t have words to speak of the vacant look in a child’s eye who is merely existing and doesn’t know how to thrive.

i don’t have words to speak of thirteen year old girls raped by men in their twenties.

i don’t have words for the silenced voices of so many children who have been told they’re worthless and that they don’t matter.

i don’t have words for the dozens of amputees wandering the streets, victims of a war that is over, and yet they still bear the scars.

i don’t have words for being sick in bed with malaria while at the same time realizing how many lives have been lost from the same illness–simply because they didn’t have access to the medicine.

i don’t have words to speak of children laid out on a table to be whipped or pushed up against a wall to be hit.

i don’t have words for little girls literally starving, for bony shoulders and skinny legs and how frail they feel when you hold them.

i don’t have words for an education system that has failed so many of its children, for fifteen year-olds in the fourth grade or a second grade student who can’t even write the alphabet.

i don’t have words.
i have a heart that bleeds
and tears that fall
and knots in my stomach
and hands that wring.

but more than that,
i have hope.

because while this place can be filled
with pain and poverty and sorrow,
i have also seen::
seen that Jesus lives here.

i’ve seen Him in the prayers of a mother for her children.

i’ve seen Him in the grateful look in a dying man’s eyes.

i’ve seen Him in the healing of kids who were once frighteningly sick.

i’ve seen Him in the sheer joy of the Church praising Him.

i’ve seen Him in kind eyes and warm handshakes.

i’ve seen Him in a nation full of people looking forward to brighter tomorrows.

i’ve seen Him in students who realize they’ve been given a chance, who start dreaming for their futures.

i’ve seen Him in the whispered prayer of a teenage girl who has begun to recognize her value.

i’ve seen Him in blazing sunsets and soft sunrises, in blue sky meeting green tree meeting red earth.

i’ve seen Him in children who cling to the leg, rest heads on the shoulder, intertwine fingers with mine.

i’ve seen Him in the faces of little boys and girls who finally understand that they are loved.

i’ve seen Him in the dreams of those who want to grow up and transform their country.

i’ve seen Him in the innocence and excitement of children who, for once, are just allowed to be children.

i’ve seen Him in unity and brotherhood and acceptance.

i’ve seen Him.

i don’t have words::
but i have seen
.

and because of that,
i have a heart that hopes
and eyes that look up
and a growing faith
and a tongue to encourage.

it is in the ugly that i have found the beautiful.
it is in despair that i have found strength.
it is in the hard places that i have found new life.

i don’t have words,
but Jesus is here.

and so i know that one day,
somehow,
(because of He and not i)
everything is going to be alright.