[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.

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]

[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]

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.

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 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.

this is it

today is the day, a day when one season ends and another begins, when old gives way to new, when another unknown journey begins. i sit on my porch, my sanctuary for the last four years, and i’m not really sure how i feel about all this. honestly, i guess i don’t feel that much of anything right now. i’ve been through so many emotions already that i just don’t know how to react at this moment.

the word that keeps coming to mind, though, is ‘thankful‘. i suppose if i feel anything at all, that’s what it is. thankful for four years of growth, of transformation, of stretching, of learning. thankful for each of my kids and how they have enriched my life. thankful for how they’ve taught me to love wilder, deeper, harder than i ever thought possible. thankful for an ever-present, always faithful God who has been with me on every step of this journey. thankful for friends who have seen both the best and the worst of me and loved me just the same. thankful for the chance to live a better story and write out all the parts of it. thankful for hope, for promises, for fresh starts. thankful for each of you who have loved and supported me along the way. thankful for a nation and people who welcomed me with open arms.

i am thankful, deeply thankful, so much that i can’t even put it all into words.

“give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (psalm 107.one)

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.”

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}

[celebrate] love

in honor of valentine’s day, i wrote a special piece for So Worth Loving this week, celebrating the miracle of Love! below is an excerpt from my post, which you can read in its entirety here. much love to you guys! xo

What I’ve noticed in my work with these kids is that most of them have very little self-worth. For so long, they’ve been viewed as nothing more than a statistic, just another face in the crowd, an orphan and that’s all. Because of this, they have no understanding of their intrinsic worth and value as a human being. They’ve been rejected and abandoned, discarded and left to fend for themselves. They believe they don’t matter, that they’re not important, that they are unloved.

And this; this breaks my heart.

I look at them and see such beauty, such potential, such worth. I know they have their whole lives ahead of them, that they can break the cycle that they’ve sadly found themselves in, and can make something of themselves. In the years that I’ve known these kids, I’ve come to love them as if they were my very own. I’ve learned their names, their faces, their stories. They are not a nameless, faceless generation; they matter. They mean something. And so I set out on a mission to prove it to them.