[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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

[for syria]

i’ve stayed silent about the whole syria situation because…well, really. what can i say? syria is bleedingthere are people dying, children dying, and we’ve seen their faces. millions are displaced, the country deteriorating, and now our president wants to step in + fight, all in the name of saving syria.

i want syria to be saved. i want their people to live in peace and security. but most of all, i don’t want any more blood to be shed. and violence and war, the fight–even with good intentions–always means more blood shed. innocent blood shed. and my heart just can’t take it.

i have stood in a land rebuilding itself after 14 years of war, and my tears have soaked its earth. you see, i’ve seen what war can do. i know children who slept under market stalls, men and women who spent years on the run, dodging bullets, always trying to stay one step ahead of the attack, who went days and even weeks without food, who were forced to drink polluted waters in hopes to simply stay alive. i know people who lost their dignity, their families, their homes, every single possession they’ve ever owned. i’ve seen that restoration is no easy thing, especially starting from the bottom up. and i do not want this for syria.

i admit i look at syria and i wring my hands and cry silently because i. just. don’t. know.  i want assad to be stopped, but at what cost? i just. don’t. know.

i remember: in liberia, we sang a song: “freedom is coming; freedom is coming. freedom is coming; oh, yes, i know.” i find comfort in singing that tune these days, for it reminds me of what i do know to be true in all this uncertainty.
freedom is coming.

my convictions will not allow me to stand behind the violence. but they will let me stand.
for freedom.
for peace.
for justice.
for a better way.

and so i bow my head for syria and join my heart with so many others and breathe out the only thing that makes sense anymore:
“we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” [2 chronicles 20.twelve]

the power of one: stories from Liberia, West Africa

recently, i had the honor of delivering the message at my home church on Sunday morning. now, i’ve never been one to call myself a preacher, but i do know that God’s made me a storyteller.

i wish i could take all the words and the pictures and the feelings and the experiences and share them with you here, but somehow, it doesn’t do it justice.

but if you have 45 minutes or so, i’d love for you to listen to a few of the stories of people who have changed my life forever and whose lives i’ve been blessed beyond measure to be a part of. i can’t promise that it will be eloquent, but i can promise you that it’s from my heart.

you may only be one person–but even one can do something.

to my long-lost love

liberia, i have been missing you oh-so-fiercely as of late, missing you so deeply and true that i feel it in my bones, in the way they ache for you. i miss the heaviness of your air, the way it sits on my shoulders and seeps in through my pores. i miss the glare of your noonday sun and the blue of your sky; i miss the lush green of your tall grass, the red of your dusty earth. i miss the sound of waves crashing on sandy shores, of dance music crackling over old, busted-out speakers, of the loud, frequent greetings heard from the road. i miss the feel of your children nestled in my lap as i stroke their heads and run my fingers through their hair. i miss the way you taught me to seek the gift in every moment and showed me how to find Jesus in even the hard places of life, in all the things that don’t make sense, like poverty and war and death.

see, now that i’ve been away from you for some time, i’m able to look back and remember all the good you gave me. five months ago, all i knew about you was that you hurt me; you stretched me, hard, and drained away my strength, my joy. when i left you, i was bitter and confused, heart tender and torn, very much as broken as i was when i came to you all those years ago, just in a different way.

but i’m healing now, and i see that i’ve blamed you for so much that wasn’t your fault. and i’d like to apologize to you and make peace with all the grief and trauma you gave me. it hurt like hell, but i’ve learned and grown from it. and when i think about you these days, i want to dwell on the good, the beautiful, the blessings.

though there are many gifts in the place i find myself now, nothing can compare to you, my sweet liberia. and i don’t think anything is supposed to be able to. i think i was always meant to have a piece of this stretched-wide, bleeding heart that was reserved just for you. no matter what i’m doing or where i find myself in this world, i carry you with me always. and i know also that i’ve left behind so many pieces of myself, in both my tears that have soaked your earth and in all the love i have poured into your people.

i know also that our story isn’t over. because when i walked away from you, from your children that i welcomed into my arms and my heart as my own, i vowed to never forget. i promised i would speak up for those without a voice and fight for those who cannot do it on their own. though i am fearful because i don’t ever want to be emptied like that again, i know it’s my call to be love, to spend myself on behalf of those who are needy.

this morning, as i pray for you, for i, for our future, i carry this verse in my inner-most parts, in the deep well of my soul:
the…heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (proverbs 21.1)

liberia, He has turned my heart ever-towards you. and one day, i know–He’ll turn my feet back also. 

until we meet again…Image