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The {sometimes frightening} business of unboxing

I have drawn boxes all of my life. Neat and tidy boxes with perfect right angles, and no room for error. I would meet a person and instantly, almost without much thought, choose a box and fold them into it. I had boxed myself in so long ago, and it was all that I knew. There was comfort inside that box, and things were so beautifully black and white – so pristine, so easy to categorize. Until it wasn’t. I was cramped and suffocating and dieing, and I didn’t even know it. I guess perhaps it was a gradual process, but it sure felt sudden. One day I could no longer fold myself into that box a moment longer, and so my unboxing began.

With my unboxing, God burst out of the box I had long ago squeezed Him into. He was and always had been so much bigger than my boxes. He could never really be contained. He had been dieing for me to let Him out of that box. No, no, the truth is,

He had died to let me out of that box.

I have learned that I was never made to fit into a box (and neither were you), especially the box that I have tried to fold myself into for all of my life. As a recovering Baptist, rule-following, self-titled ‘good girl’, that un-boxing has at times frightened me. It has been uncomfortable and even painful on occasion. It feels a little too free; truthfully, I think that I miss the security that came with those right angles pressing in on me. I like things that fit neatly into boxes. I actually like being told what to do. I like order and to know what to expect.

But, I am so very human, so flawed, and I am absolutely filled with contradictions, and those cannot be contained in a box.

If we are honest with ourselves and with each other, humans cannot fit inside of boxes.

I am learning that I am a walking contradiction, and I am learning that is okay. For this whole journey of life I will be emerging and unboxing into who I was created to be. Sometimes that will mean that I change my mind and learn and grow in areas that I once was so certain in. That also means that I still have many areas of life that I need to learn and grow in.

And that’s okay. It’s okay to not know, and to wrestle and question. The funny thing about unboxing and all of the questions that it has exposed is that my faith is more real than ever before, and it is smashing the walls of that old box down layer by layer.

The abundant life was never meant to be lived inside of a box. There is nothing abundant about a box.

That is why I am here and no longer writing in the same place that I did for so many years. That’s why this space may feel very different from the other one. Maybe my words seem a little more shakey and less sure. It’s the first time that they have been given permission to live outside the box. I needed a new space, and the truth is I could no longer write over there, because there was no margin for error and therefore no room to grow. I was becoming mute inside that box, and no words would come out. I was stuck. I needed to move away from who I once was, because I am no longer her. I needed to capture words and release them into a safer place, where they could fly and not suffocate. So, here I am in a brand new space, a Jesus – following, home schooling, mistake-making, coffee-loving, mascara – wearing, small-town, wanna-be-writer, quiet listener, home-cooker, music-loving, ordinary mom, unexpectedly living in the capital city of Ethiopia, passionate about people, spreading kindness, fighting for justice, and becoming a safe place for those who just need someone to stop and listen and let them unbox.

Welcome to my unboxing, feel free to unfold out of yours. I am glad you are here. Sip some coffee and stay awhile; you and your words matter to me.

tiff1

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A Child Will Lead Them

It felt as if the walls of the small conference room were closing in on us. I tried to breathe through the panic that was causing my heart to race and the roaring rush of blood that pounded in my ears. His words hung in the air among us, and they felt horrifying.

If you take him out of this country and back to Ethiopia, he will never, ever get another visa to come back here, and he will never become a citizen.

These words were not at all what we expected to hear just two days prior to moving our family from America to Ethiopia. It hadn’t yet even been a month since our oldest son’s adoption was finalized. The miracle of that day was still fresh on all of us, as fresh our three tender tattoos that commemorated the truth that we really were irrevocably family – the very first request our son ever asked of us, and the one he begged us to make come true for years. “I just want a family. I want you to be my family”, he would say over and over again. It seems like such a basic need. It IS such a basic need. And yet it was the most grueling, complicated process to meet that first request, that one basic need. So the weight of what had finally happened was still heavy on us, and we were still in blissful shock. With his adoption came family that he had requested, but not citizenship to America. It was the one thing that still needed to be worked out. We had managed to complicate things even further, by making the life-changing decision to pursue missions in Ethiopia. We would be taking our newly adopted, non-citizen child back to his home country, voiding his current visa, and pursuing American citizenship from across the ocean. The normal procedure would have been for him to stay on his visa in the US and finish out high school, at the private school, then apply for a green card, live on the green card until he reached the time where he could apply for citizenship on his own in adulthood. But the only way to do this was from America, and we knew that was not where we were supposed to be anymore.

We knew this, but we also believed that there had to be another way that would allow us to live in Ethiopia. So I did what I love to do – I researched. I literally devoured legalese and every single immigration law article/document piece of information that I could. I spent hours researching through different ways – only to come up with dead ends and one reason or another that it could not work for Habi’s case. I became fluent in jargon that I had no prior knowledge of, and in the midst of the laborious researching process I finally found one complicated, risky way that could work. I learned everything there was to learn about the process. I knew it could work. I knew it would be risky, but I knew that with the help of our immigration lawyer, that this really could work. My husband spoke with our lawyer on the phone and explained our plans, explained the process, and we were invited to a meeting to set the course in motion, just two days before we moved.

So, there we were in the small conference room. Habi, my husband Jim, and myself, along with our immigration lawyer and three law students who were invited to sit in on the unique case. I was armed with a huge stack of paperwork backing my research, and explaining the process, and I was excited that we had found a way. And then the lawyer dropped the bomb that shattered everything. He had never heard of the process, and despite phone calls to him that my husband had made, had not researched it or had anyone on his team research it. It became clear that he had no intention of researching it. It wasn’t common, he had never done it, and therefore we were made to look like foolish, irresponsible parents for deciding to leave the country. We walked out of that room devastated.

Little was said during the hour plus drive back to where all of our luggage was packed for the move and our three little children waited for us. Scenarios bounced around my head, and my heart beat wildly with fear. Why would God orchestrate this this way? Why after so many hurdles would He give us this child and then not finish giving him the security he needed to know that we would and could always be together as a family? Because essentially that was exactly what citizenship meant – security, permanency.

I was angry and confused. I remember Jim praying with me when we got out of the van, and I was just so angry. We then decided that we had to have a really honest and open conversation with Habi, and lay everything on the table very plainly for him. This meant telling him that if we were to go through with these plans to move to Ethiopia then we would have to fire our lawyer, and he would have to trust me to try to complete citizenship on my own, without the expertise of a lawyer. It also meant that his current visa would be voided, and that we could not make a promise that he would ever return back with us to America – not for a visit and not to live. It was our hardest parenting conversation to date. We told him that if he was too scared to make this move, if it seemed too risky, that we would take some time to pray together about staying in America, because he was and is that important to our family.

It has been said that a child will lead them, and I will never forget what he said, “I trust you. God has asked us to go work with street kids. We cannot ignore that. We need to follow Jesus. I may never come back here, but I trust you and I trust God, and this is what He is asking us to do.If I never come back here, then it is God’s plan, but we have to move.” Up until he said this, I had been thinking that this was my Abraham and Isaac story, and that God was asking me for my son back. It felt like the worst kind of surrender. But after Habi spoke those words, I realized how much MORE of a risk this was for my child, and how much authentic, active faith he had in being able to risk everything for this move. It wasn’t about me at all. This story was about Habi.

Most people probably do not know the strength, courage and faith that it took for a fourteen year old boy to board a plane back to his home country. They may not have realized the risk he was taking to follow Jesus. When he hugged and kissed relatives in America ‘goodbye’ the possibility of that being his last time with them on American soil was all too real, and he knew that. And yet he braved it all, and in the process taught me so much about what faith really looks like. We landed in Ethiopia, and nothing was easy for him. Right away people questioned the legitimacy of him in our family. I don’t know if it was because he did not have American citizenship or because his adoption process was abnormal, or simply because satan is good at this kind of thing. Maybe all of the above. The one thing he had asked us for was constantly being picked at from so many angles – family. But he persevered and he continued to live bravely, and in the process the researching continued, paperwork was filled out, prayers were said, and the story finally culminated with his citizenship to the United States of America, nineteen months after that fateful meeting in the small conference room. None of it came easy. His lawyer was right, and Habi was dangerously close to being denied a visa. He should have been denied, but God placed a very special man in the embassy that day. The only man in the entire building that understood the process we were using for his citizenship. It took a legitimate miracle that day, and is a story all its own, as is the story of his actual oath day to become a citizen. Satan was hot on our heels every step of the way. But he didn’t and couldn’t win, because when God is for you, really, really, who can be against you?

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I have hesitated to share more of this story because it’s not really mine, but Habi told me to share, and he has shared himself a few times while public speaking recently. So, this is my take on his story, please understand that. It is shared tenderly with permission. This is the story of how a child led our family.

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Finding Home

It still fit. Well, kind of fit. The fit was like an old sock, that was familiar and worn, but stretched out and frayed thin in weird places. Or maybe like an old pair of jeans that did not quite slide up over the hips and button at the waist the easy way that they used to. That is a little how America felt on our latest trip. It was our first time back as a family since moving overseas to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2014. And it was all so familiar, but the fit, while still workable, was not quite the same. For months we had dreamed together of what it would be like to re-enter our passport country, so much nostalgia and memories – what we would do, who we would see, what we would eat, how much easier things would be. And it was what we had imagined. And it wasn’t. Something was missing. It didn’t quite feel like home, and I didn’t quite belong. I was out-of-step, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get the steps right again.

It’s a strange feeling to no longer belong to a place you have belonged to for the majority of your memories. I think it took this trip to realize that we really do have a new home. I think for a very long time we have been wandering and searching and waiting to find this very place. I enjoyed our time in the states and seeing loved ones was exactly what our souls needed, and I am thankful for the break from daily life in Ethiopia, but the truth is that my heart wasn’t at peace until we walked back into our house, and I knew that I had finally come HOME. Jim and I both remarked at how much this place felt just like that – home, and I think we breathed a collective sigh of peace and relief to be back in a place that fits us and this moment in our lives. Driving from the airport we were bombarded with the typical erratic vehicles mingled with cattle, colliding with people, and chaos – a chaos that somehow oddly made sense and overwhelmed me with a sense of belonging. This is home I realized, as our van was jostled over the pot-hole ridden roads and my eyes were heavy with sleepless travel.

When our van parked in front of our gate we were greeted with squeals of excitement and hugs and kisses. Walking through our iron gate, into our little compound, up our marble stairs and over the threshold of our home made me realize how right it is that I am exactly where I am right now. It fit. I belonged. It is where we are supposed to be. I walked from room to room, touching our beds, looking out our windows at the breathtaking view of the mountains, breathing in the scent of home, and thankful to be back.

Home, where the sun sets and rises at the exact same time everyday, Home, where going to the grocery store is a wild adventure. Where water is never guaranteed, and power is out as much as it is on. Home, where the language dances over me in that familiar unfamiliar way. Where the aroma of roasting coffee beans mingles with frankincense and spicy berbere. Where the music is loud and beaty, and the laughter is louder. Where we cannot brush our teeth with tap water. Where my cheeks are kissed, and touch is a language all its own. Where my house is wild and loud and filled with life – it is perfectly us. Home, where a soccer ball is dribbled inside on rainy days, and a bicycle speeds in and out of rooms, and both are so okay. Home is where memories and people matter more than the things I have accumulated. Where people are free to be who they are and to disagree and to argue and cry, and to forgive and wrap arms around each other. Home is where bread bakes, and coffee brews, and the fridge is small, and laundry takes an entire day to finish. Home, where intentionality is found in every little thing, because without it, one cannot carve out a life here. Where relationships matter more than any other place I have ever visited, and where there is always, always time for them to blossom. Where produce is soaked in bleach. Where every meal is made from scratch and takes effort and creativity. Where clothes hang all around our house to dry. Where afternoon rest and tea and conversation is expected, and meals are a real thing at the table three times every single day. Home is where family time is enormous, and we have truly learned to know each other. Home is where there are no short-cuts or easy way outs. Where life is slower and more basic and where life is also chaotic and always an adventure. Where no two days are exactly the same. Home is where I fall into bed every night knowing that this life I was given matters, and I have so much purpose here.

If home is where the heart is, than my heart is completely present right here. Maybe this is true for the first time ever. I have always wrestled with ‘living in the moment’, and not being present in the here and now. Or maybe this is what I have been waiting for for my whole life, and I am just finding home, in the most unexpected place, for the first time. Some say Africa is the cradle of humanity – where we all belong. Maybe that is it. Maybe not. But this continent, this country in this continent has given me a haven – a place where I really belong. This fits. This is home. And there’s really, truly, no place like home.

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Living my ‘best is yet to be’ while they wait for theirs

I am one of those super sentimental nostalgic moms. I tear up when I am separated from my children for an overnight. True story. My throat thickens with a lump when I watch them do something that I know they were born to do. When talk of college or one day moving out occurs among our kids, I immediately start ugly crying, just ask them as now it has become a running family joke, and they giggle about it. The truth is that I love, love, love this phase of life, and I want it to last a bit longer. I love motherhood. I love watching Jim being a dad. I love family life. I love us being all together as our little family of six. I do anything that I can to foster a lot of together-ness, and actually living in Ethiopia makes this a bit easier. Our family is not pulled in quite so many directions as we were when we lived in the states. The other day while reflecting on all of this, I realized that the best is yet to be phrase that we always talk about is actually what I am right now living. These family years, these have been what I have been waiting for, these are my very best. I am living smack-dab in the middle of the best, and I don’t want to miss a thing. I don’t want to be too busy or too tired or too stretched to miss a moment of this best.

But in the same thought, I was sucker-punched with the fact, that while we are carving out lifetimes memories and traditions, and are shaping the futures of these kids, this is most likely not their best, and that their ‘best is yet to be’ is still coming for them. In understanding that I also have to acknowledge the reality that I will not be in the daily part of their best, and that is really, really hard for me. These are my babies. This is all going so fast, and I love my four kids so stinkin’ much, and they are one day soon going to have their best days outside the walls of our family home. How do we only have three more years of our family of six being in tact before our oldest graduates high school and our family dynamic wildly shifts from the us that we have come to love? How is that even in sight already? It just hit me out of nowhere, and I was not prepared for the burning stab of truth. How did we get here? As these unsolicited thoughts spilled out of me, so did the tears. I am a deep feeler. So thoughts like this can be spiral me down into such deep sadness, which I am sure is foreign to some people, but it is my reality. This is not healthy and can be emotionally dangerous for me and put unfair expectations on my kids. Being under the same roof as my babies is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege, one that I want to steward well, and let go of well when it is time.

The truth is these days are numbered, and my children are all growing up, and that is a gift that some parents only wish could be their reality. Growing up and shedding childhood is a privilege that is not afforded to all. I need to understand this, even on the days when I feel like my best years are flying by and every day I am living something precious that I can never again get back.

When we bring children into our lives, I guess the truth is that we will encounter the greatest joy imaginable and tangled with it, the greatest heartache. It is life, in order to truly experience joy, we have to experience the flip-side of the coin. I am one of those moms who still picks up my almost eight year old boy every morning to give him his hug and worry will this be the last day that I am able to pick him up? I am conscious of moments. Maybe without the ticking of the clock, the passing of days, these moments would not be so precious. Maybe that is the juxtaposition of family life – of my best is yet to be, in the holding on, in the living of these family moments, is learning how to really be ready to let them go and live their own best is yet to be.

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The Heartbeat of a Moment – How Will We Respond to #blacklivesmatter ?

This is not the post that I wanted to write to launch me into this new space. It really isn’t; I had much better, much gentler and well-received ideas for my first post. My blog isn’t even ready to publish a post, let alone this one. It is not my desire to use this platform for inflammatory posts that divide and bite. I have been there and done that, and I don’t want that to be a reflection of me any longer. However, there are times when I know that the Spirit is pressing into me to use my voice. For a long time I have danced around this topic, just dipping my toes in once in awhile on Facebook, but then quickly retreating. The truth is that I don’t really feel qualified to write this, because I am white. It is a big part of what holds me back every time. But yesterday, after a day where I cautiously posted on Facebook and involved my voice, and then felt so saddened by comments all over Facebook, I felt like a full blog post was needed, and maybe a white mama with black boys does have a place in this. I am diving into the conversation, at least for a moment. My desire is to do this with grace. May we please have this conversation? This cannot be a conversation that is marked as taboo, simply because it makes us uncomfortable. We have to be able to freely dialogue, because the truth is, if we cannot have this conversation, if you scroll on by and remain quiet, then we cannot truly understand it, and if we cannot understand it, then how can we ever find solutions to change it? Let me preface this and say that in writing this post I am not against law enforcement, so many of them do such a brilliant and heroic job of keeping us safe. It is not right that they suffer, and that their families fear for their lives. Many risks their lives every single day, and just last night a whole new horror took place where police officers again lost their lives. This is devastating and outrageous, and I am so heart broken for their loved ones. It reiterates the fact that their unjust loss of lives is so, so wrong and opposite of how this world should be. So is the loss of our black brothers and sisters. We should be righteously outraged for all of this and moved to compassion.  And just as it is not okay to make a blanket statement saying that police officers are corrupt, neither is it okay to say that black men are –fill-in-the-blank–. It doesn’t work that way. There are many sides to every story, and many unique people involved in those stories. Let’s understand that, but let’s talk and question this together.

How should a Jesus follower respond to the outcry and injustices in our country by so many people of color?

I am asking myself this question, because I think that a response is necessary. The world is waiting and watching for our reaction, because it matters so, so much. We claim to follow Jesus in life and practice, so with held breath the world turns to us to see if we really do what we proclaim to do. Maybe this is our chance to be known by our love. I am the mama of two Ethiopian boys, with beautiful dark skin. At one time in my life I thought that skin color did not matter at all. I am deeply grieved by my prior ignorance. Ignorance is not bliss when it hurts other people. I was proud of being ‘color-blind’, but failed to realize that I was unconsciously implying to my boys that there was something shameful about the way that God had created them. I thought racism was a thing of our American past, and that the chapter of atrocities for that was closed. I thought our country had moved on. I grew up in a very small, very white town. I had no friends of color. None. I remember hearing adults in my life speaking of black men and how so many of them have a chip on their shoulder because of slavery, and act as if the world owes them because of something that did not even happen to themand I did not even realize that what I was hearing was racism.

The truth is, we do live in a culture that is still raging with racism, as much as I wish it were not true, it is. I see so many white people on Facebook saying ‘stop making this all about race’, and oh, how I wish it was just that easy. Because it is not, and because racism is alive and well here in America, my husband and I do have to teach our two Ethiopian sons to present themselves in a certain way in public, and we have to teach them ways to be safe, on top of teaching them the typical things like honesty, respect, love, obedience to authority, etc. that most parents teach their children. But this added stuff; it is different. If this is not your reality, could you step into mine for a moment? It is a heartbreaking conversation to look my teenage son in the eyes and tell him that he has to be careful, that because of his skin color, when he is in the ‘land of the free’, he needs to be extra respectful and compliant, that he has to act differently than his white brother, than his white friends, or else his life could one day be in danger. This is a reality. To say otherwise is to ignore the truth that my son could be killed just for walking down the street wearing a hoodie on his head and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is not drama or overreaction. This is not indoctrinating my children with fear, this is preparing them with wisdom. This is not the equality that our country declares to gift to everyone. Devastatingly, it does happen, people of color really are dieing unjust deaths, and instead of mourning and weeping with those who mourn and weep, we throw around phrases like ‘gang-related’ and ‘thug’, and ‘criminal record’, and we fail to see the problem is actually with sanctity of life. I read post after post yesterday from black men (from all walks of life) sharing their actual experiences, not fears of what could be – unjust experiences that my husband, that my dad, that my brother have never ever had to face. Many of these men are from affluent or middle class areas; because the truth is this really can occur anywhere. It could occur here in a safe white neighborhood. It could occur there in a dangerous crime-ridden neighborhood. But regardless of where this is happening, the loss of human life should move us and bother us, and for some reason many black people feel like the deaths of their loved ones largely do not matter to us. And that is just not okay with me.

Devastatingly, it does happen, people of color are dieing unjust deaths, and instead of mourning and weeping with those who mourn and weep, we throw around phrases like ‘gang-related’ and ‘thug’, and  ‘criminal record’, and  we fail to see the problem is actually with sanctity of life.

Followers of Jesus are vocal about abortion, but when our brothers and sisters of color are crying out in fear for their very lives, and for the lives of those they love, shouldn’t we be listening? Are not their feelings valid? Shouldn’t there also be an outcry from us for them? Doesn’t sanctity of life matter for them as much as it matters for the unborn child, for the white teenage girl, for the police officer, for the muslim man?  Are they not all lovingly made in the image of God? I can NEVER understand what a person of color faces while living in this country. I know what it is to try to raise one, but to actually live as one, I have no idea. I have never known, and I will never know, because I am white, and I can never live another way. I cannot change that. But I do want to exercise great compassion. I do want to listen and to learn, because if a large group of people (not all – I am reminding myself to stay away from blanket statements, because they only stereo-type and promote racism) are saying that they are living in fear for their lives and the lives of those they love, then who am I to tell them that they are wrong to feel that way, or should not feel that way? Who am I to tell them that if they would just ‘be respectful’ and stay away from dangerous neighborhoods, and teach their children the same then they will have nothing to fear? I cannot tell someone how to feel any more than I can tell them that their experiences are invalid, just because I don’t and can’t experience what they experience.

We are image bearers and as such, should we not be bearing His image, and inviting one another into the gospel life? All I am asking is that if a group of people are saying that they are scared and hurting, shouldn’t we be pressing in as the Church and at the very least listening to find out why? When we hashtag black lives matter, please understand that we are not saying that white lives don’t matter or police officers don’t matter, essentially what we are saying is that all other lives do not matter more than black lives. As a Jesus follower I am compelled to compassion, to lament, and yes even publicly, with those who mourn, to listen to the outcry of humans who are hurting, because we know that Jesus is close to the broken hearted. Where Jesus is, I want to be. To be a Jesus follower is to love justice and mercy, and that means to have an active part in restoring what is wrong in our society; it is to seek hard after “on earth as it is on heaven’.

When we hashtag black lives matter, please understand that we are not saying that white lives don’t matter or police officers don’t matter, essentially what we are saying is that all other lives do not matter more than black lives.

I believe we are standing in a pivotal point in history in the heartbeat of a moment, where we have a choice. We must take a side. I know it is not comfortable. I know it is not popular. But we must. I want to side with life. I want to stand with human dignity. I want to ere on the side of compassion and loving people well.

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”  Elie Wiesel

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I will weep with those who weep, because I could only hope for the same if it were one of mine. And, the truth is, it could be.

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