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Learning to be all there

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Wherever you are be all there.  -Jim Elliot-

Every time that I read this quote it gets to me. I know exactly why.  I struggle to live this way, and have for as long as I can remember. God is so tender and patient with me, as He continually impresses on me this weakness of being fully present exactly where I am in life. Because I am super sentimental, sensitive, and nostalgic, I can often find myself longing for what was. My mind and memories are very selective with the past, and I hold on to the sweet moments tightly, but usually after the fact, in a nostalgic, missing them, wishing for what was kind of way. The irony is that when they are happening to me, I am unable to be present, because I am longing for the time in my life before that. If you have ever listened to the lyrics of Passenger’s popular song Let her Go, what I am writing will echo the song’s sentiment. In those lyrics, I cringe and find myself.

Well you only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go
Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go

This theme of not realizing what I have until it is gone has wrapped itself around the years of my life, but I don’t want to keep missing out on the here and now. It has been years of striving to learn how to be present, of reminding myself to be mindful, purposeful, and intentional in the every day life I am living. I know that the beauty of this moment, of the day before me – the present – is that God has given me all of this as a gift. He is gifting me this life right here and right now, with these people, in this country, in this neighborhood for a great purpose. It’s a purpose I could completely miss out on, if I am constantly looking backward. I don’t want to keep missing the gift of the present.

I think that the people that really understand the gift of the present moment are more content and less filled with stress, and of course that is something that I desire. So, I am continuing on in this long journey of trying to learn how to be present, because it does not come natural to my personality. It is so easy for my mind to wander to the yesterdays, for me to feel and dwell in the pain of missing what was, and to fall into a cycle of depression and sadness. But this week, God in His kindness, brought me into the present a few times in a way that demonstrated the beauty of right now in tangible ways. Every single night this week we have had people in our home. Every person had a different story and a different reason for needing us in those moments, but it became evident that every one needed a moment to be inside of a healthy, loving family – yes, an imperfect, mess of a family at times, but a family who fights for each other, loves each other to the core, and makes time to be in each other’s worlds despite busy schedules and a span of ages. Two out of the three visits were completely unplanned; I had no time to make sure that my house was perfect, or time to prepare the kids to be on their best behavior, and prior to our life in Ethiopia this used to terrify me enough to not even answer my doorbell to let someone in. I couldn’t share any part of my life if it did not meet my expectations of perfect.

This week, I found myself opening the door, with a few floors that could use sweeping, a few dishes in the sink, with obvious signs that children live in this home, and yet I was at peace with letting people in to a real, living, breathing family. I heated up my stove and did what comes so naturally to me, fed people’s bellies, while my husband fed their souls. We work in tandem, merging the physical and spiritual.

I paused this morning after staying up past eleven last night to make teenage guys brownies and banana bread, and waking early to make a breakfast of french toast, eggs, bacon, and sausage. As the smells of fresh roasted coffee and sweet french toast sticky with warm maple syrup wafted through the air, I realized that I was actually living in the moment and loving doing exactly what I know how to do. I found myself smiling in my kitchen and filled with complete all-encompassing joy. Yes, it felt a bit like our life in Ethiopia, but I was really content with the present  – with life here in this moment.

This present moment will always be different from the past, because it needs to be. We were not met to live static in one frozen moment. There will still be days ahead where I find myself unable to breathe, because the waves of grief and shock will come again as the realization settles once again over me of the fact that we really no longer live in Ethiopia. But I have hope that the present moments will eventually calm and even still those waves. I am so thankful for my time on the mission field as a missionary. The experiences that I lived through in those two years radically shaped my life, and they taught me a new and a better way to live. I could never have learned the same thing had I remained here. But there is more life to live; there is more good, sweet moments to come. What I now know is that the past in Ethiopia taught me a way to live anywhere that I am in the world. I don’t have to live in Ethiopia to have a house full of people and a table spread with food. I don’t have to live in Ethiopia to meet people where they are and join God in meeting their physical and spiritual needs. I can be anywhere, and that includes right here – learning to be all there while right here.

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Hemmed In

From the driver’s seat of our van, I watched him walk confidently around the bus circle, his legs longer than they were just four months ago, his blonde hair forever spiked, just like when he was a baby. His bright backpack bumps up and down on his small back, and my heart catches every time, because it feels as if my heart is the one carrying that backpack – he is my heart. And just before he gets to the big double glass doors, and just before the aid opens them and ushers him into another day without me, he turns his head and searches for our van, searches for me. Once he sees that I have not left him, he grins, he squares his shoulders and confidently walks out of my sight.

Everyday is the same for the past few months that he has been enrolled in school. He listens to me talk about kindness and about being a light, and then as I pull up to the drop-off line he quietly asks, “Mommy, will you wait? Will you watch me?” Every single day. He wants me to watch him walk into his school before I drive away. He needs to know that I see him, and that I am with him. My presence gives him courage.

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I realized today, that this dance we are participating in is a small reflection of the one that I have with my Daddy in heaven. He gently urges me into something new, something that scares me, because it is new, and as always He promises to be with me – every day.  My steps are almost always tentative, but I have learned that I can take them, because every single time that I glance over my shoulder, He is right there. His presence gives me courage. I wonder if, as He looks at me, much the same way that I look at my son, does He feel as if His heart is carrying my baggage; does He look at me and see His heart? I think He must. Does He smile at me and get a lump in His throat, like I do, when I see my child doing something brave?

This morning as the sun glitters off of my screen and breaks through a few clouds to enter my home, I feel His presence, and it gives me courage. This walk around the bus circle has been hard and frightening for me. There have been moments that I walk in complete darkness and trepidation, feeling my way around, but light always breaks through enough for me to turn my head and get a glimpse of Him right there, right behind me, right with me. He always steadies my heart with His presence. The darkness still comes. I still have to walk forward when the truth is, sometimes all I want to do is turn around and run, but I am not alone. He won’t ever drive away. The beauty of this dance is that I am hemmed in – all around. My son can only see me when he turns around, but as I was driving home this morning, I realized that I can see my Daddy in heaven when I look behind and ahead. Because He is all around me. There is nowhere that I can go where He is not present. This truth gives me courage to keep walking around that bus circle, even when I cannot see the double doors to enter, because I never walk alone.

I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too – your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful – I can’t take it all in! Psalm 139:5-6

Homesick

I think I could spend hours trying to chase words that would capture how I feel about seeing a dream that my husband and I dreamed years ago actually and finally coming true. Something that was once just captive in our imaginations has come to life, and that is beyond any words that I have right now. Jim just returned home from a quick trip to Ethiopia, and oh my was that trip productive, encouraging, and probably even healing for him. We finally have five boys, who have been selected by the government and our in-country director, enrolled in our program in Addis, and they are now beginning to receive care. These boys have no idea how long and hard we have prayed for them, and I am so excited for what is in store for their future lives. Jim came back home laden with goodies from the country that still holds our hearts – coffee, spices, incense, injera, our jobena, art, framed photos and mementos from our house in Ethiopia, and as he unpacked, the feelings of being surrounded by these familiar comforts soothed my aching soul.

But it also made me feel that familiar, and at this point unwelcome, searing pain that seems to have taken up permanent residence in my heart. Jim came home with stories, and I could picture every single one of them. I could close my eyes and know the smells, tastes, sights of everything that he shared. It was a paradox of comfort and torture mingled together. He stayed in our house in Ethiopia for the very last time, as we will rent a new location for our safe house very soon and give up renting our family’s house. The reality that our family would never, ever again be family in that home, that holds so many memories, hit me so hard. I knew that truth when we left in October, but now it seems actual, and it is hard to bear. The reality that my husband got one more time there, and I did not, makes me fight ugly bitterness. He hugged and kissed the people that I wake up daily missing. And on the very last day, he found my precious Muslim friend, Husain, and delivered love and warm wishes from me. I poured through photos of him with hot tears on my cheeks, both happy and so devastatingly sad. Jim went back to all of our old places and spaces, and I hung onto every one of his details. It was soothing, and it was torture.

It has taken me four months to really understand these emotions and this, at moments, unbearable grief  that I am feeling, and the darkness that it has brought into this season. I think I am finally able to name this, and it is so remarkably simple; I am homesick. What makes it so difficult is that this is truly the first time ever in my life that I have been homesick. I have never experienced this until now, and I was not prepared to handle it having never had to handle anything like it before. I am a grown adult, and there are moments that I am so intensely sick for my home that I cannot get out of my bed or function like a normal person. The way we moved back here, the reason, the rapidness, the lack of closure has all been overwhelming and exhausting. I miss the familiar, because for some reason here in this country now feels strange. I look around at this beautiful home that God so quickly provided for us, I go through the motions of life here most days – the motions that I am expected to go through, and yet this new life has left me feeling extremely empty and lifeless. I have felt numb and paralyzed and angry, and confused, and sad – just so absolutely sad. The acute emotional distress has taken a toll on me. It makes me question if I will ever ‘get over it’.

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But then Jim left for a week in Ethiopia, and I was forced to kind of take a deep introspective look into these feelings, and I think I have maybe finally realized that it is okay to be homesick. It is even understandable. I have felt guilt and shame over these sometimes consuming feelings, and I don’t need to feel that. But I am ready to try to work through it, to try to accept that the former life is over, but our dreams are far from over, and God has bigger things planned than we could imagine by bringing us back to the states. That Mercy Branch might look different than we had once thought, but oh my, it might look better! I dare hope that it may be beyond our wildest dreams.  I don’t want my homesickness to continue to prevent me from living this life that God is curating for me here and now. I don’t want to spend all my days wishing I was somewhere else. That is no way to live this life that I was given, and I will miss out on all that He has for me right here in this new adventure.

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I am so overwhelmed with gratitude to have lived and experienced life in a place that I truly loved with all of my heart. I am not foolish enough to think that everyone has this same experience. I am homesick, because I had something that was remarkable and special, and that is a blessing that I never would want to trade. Every part of me was attached to our life in Ethiopia, and I will always, always feel sentimental and nostalgic for that time in our lives. But I really hope and pray that someday soon, my heart can form new attachments, that the grief will fade, the memories will be less bitter and more sweet, and that someday I will feel like I have once again found home. Because I am finally in a place where I can at least say that I want this place to feel like home.

[To learn more about our NGO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, click here.]

Where the Light Breaks Through

I am the only one home for a few hours this morning. That is a rarity that I am going to sit here with and savor. I just walked outside to the mailbox, and nearly cried as I felt the sun warm on my face. The weather is so mild for New York in February. I think God is trying to help me understand that He sees me and knows what I need. I closed my eyes, and for a moment with the sun warming me, it almost felt like Ethiopia. It felt, for the briefest of time like going home. Going home is all I can think about. I have not hidden that, but at the same time it is hard for me to be transparent in it, because it hurts to share too much. It has been hard for me to wrap my mind around the truth that this is home. My truth is that coming back to live in America after third world missions has been super hard. Perhaps it would have been easier if it was more of a choice, if I had more time to prepare, if I had closure, or perhaps if I had not been so happy living over there. But maybe it always would have been this hard.

We thought we would raise our babies in Ethiopia, before passing the baton onto Habesha staff to run our NGO. We had friends that had lived in Ethiopia for twenty plus years, and we thought that might be our same story. We looked forward to that. I was a teeny bit apprehensive about our home assignment in the states last spring, because I feared it might be hard to go back to life in Ethiopia. I didn’t know what to expect after spending time with family and friends and leaving them again. Would it be harder? Would we want to leave Ethiopia? That wasn’t the case at all, though. Coming back home to Ethiopia reaffirmed for us that our life and home was indeed over there. An entry in my journal from the night we returned home from the states read like this:

I was struck with the thought of how not weird it is to be back. It doesn’t feel strange at all to jostle down the rough streets, with our kids unbuckled  after weeks of buckling, and laughing with such joy as they pointed out our familiar favorite spots, to see the chasm between the wealthy and the poor intermingled, to witness Muslim women in full garb, and Habesha men holding hands. The traffic flowed as always in a chaotic dance that needs no laws to orchestrate it. People are everywhere, and animals claim the middle of intersections as their own. And yet a calm fills this city, like nowhere else on earth that I have ever been. It is the calm that beckons me back. It instantly soothes me to be here. My heart and soul immediately slowed back down to keep pace with this life that I love more than I have ever loved life anywhere else. I wasn’t sure what re-entry into Ethiopia would feel like after being back in the states, but it feels like coming home. It is the only place I want to be. I am home. This is where I belong now. God is so good to me!

I read that with a mixture of grief and bitterness. I can barely remember what it felt like to FEEL that. I left behind so much, when I climbed into an airplane four months ago. I feel like I left behind a piece of myself that I might never find again. It is a scary thought, and one I wrestle with. I feel loss and nostalgia and even trauma. Coming back here brought me to a place of deep sorrow. That feels dramatic, but it is honest.I feel enormous guilt for the feelings that I do own, because God is still so good to me. There are so many ways that He has lavished kindness on our family since our abrupt departure from Ethiopia, and yet, all I want most days is to go back again, to pick up life as I knew and loved. I may never understand why it has to be this way, but as the days here have become longer and sunlight breaks through the darkness, I am feeling a tiny flicker of hope that the same might be true for my life. The fog has not lifted, but there are moments where the light breaks through.

I fell in love with an unlikely life in a third world country and with people that I may never have otherwise rubbed shoulders with. Living life with Muslim neighbors, sharing meals with people who sacrificed significantly to share with us, crying and praying together with people in a different language, learning that to live with less is really living with more, it all radically changed the Tiffany that I once was. I came back here a different person, with different eyes, and with a heart that is stretched beyond recognition. If I could learn to love such a radically different life over there, perhaps God can show me how to once again love a life here, one day, one sunbeam at a time

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“When you travel to another culture and people, your heart becomes enlarged in such a way that it will never be as small as it was before you left.”

In Her I am Well Pleased

I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t trying to please someone. It has been nearly four decades of strapping this burden on like a back-pack filled with cumbersome bricks, of always trying to please everyone, that I am not even sure if I understand or know who the authentic me is. I have lived for so long tormented with this desire to feel pleasure, from other people in my life, to have people approve of me, to work hard at pleasing everyone around me, to not rock the boat too much. It is an impossible task, that I continually fail at, and continually feel guilt and remorse over. When I feel someone’s displeasure of me, whether real or imagined, it strangles me in shame, guilt, and self- loathing. It can be as simple as someone disagreeing with my thoughts written on Facebook and calling me out. That alone can spiral me into fear of losing someone’s approval. Sometimes I am so afraid to have a voice, because maybe my voice does not match what people expect that it should, and I am still learning and growing and changing. The terrible truth is that I have lived a good portion of my life desperate to please God as well, and feeling as if I could never quite figure out how I was supposed to do it. I sacrificed some big things in this life. Not only did I sacrifice my authenticity, but I also did what I thought God wanted me to do. Heck, I even sold all of my earthly belongings and moved to Africa. And yet, this fear of God’s disapproval clung to every part of my soul like a life-sucking parasite.

In the tradition that I was raised in, there was no shortage of proclamations from the message that I constantly “fall short”.  I think the very first Bible verse that I memorized as a small, impressionable little three or four year old girl was Romans 3:23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. I have nearly always understood that I am a terrible sinner and fall short of God’s glory. That has never been in question. The wrath of God and His displeasure of me seemed to be entwined in my very DNA.  And really my desire to please people was birthed from my desire to please God. It makes for a weighty existence, one in which I am constantly failing to measure up. It has been a lifetime battle that has sucked the joy of life from me far too often. One of the very first times that we walked into our home church, I remember sitting and hearing Pastor Blake talk about God, and how He is not a God that is characterized by wrath. Then he said “I want you to know that God smiles at you.” I was furious at his words. Surely they had to be blasphemous. How does the God of the universe look down on despicable sinners and smile? This was not the dialogue that was spoken over any part of my life prior to that point, and I wrestled hard with its validity.

Over a week ago, my husband and I had the privilege of being sent to Colorado to receive a week of intense soul care. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and the younger me, looking to please people, would be cringing right now to even use that word ‘experienced’. One morning as we were meeting with our spiritual directors they led us through the passage from Matthew 3:16-17. We practiced Lectio Divina with this passage and really took time to try to understand the message that the author was intending to communicate.

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When I paused long enough to ponder the timing of God’s words over His son, I was overcome with emotion. Jesus, yes although God, but let us not forget his humanity, had not done anything ministry wise up to this point. It is worth noting that He was around 30 years. Jesus had not done a single miracle, or healed a sick person, or preached a message. Yet, His Dad, His God, announced His pleasure in His Son. He said this to Jesus before Jesus had done any work – before He had performed. His pleasure came before Jesus’ performance.

I sat on a love seat tucked into the beautiful, snowy Colorado mountains with hot tears making rivers down my cheeks. My whole life has been about striving and performing in order to finally obtain God’s pleasure. But in that moment, I truly understood for the first time in my life that God’s pleasure for me is fixed. I already had it. My identity in Jesus is secure and immovable, regardless of my performance. As the adopted daughter of God, He looks down at me with that same love and pleasure, that He has for His only Son. My tears continued to stream and I cried for that little girl who could never get her math facts fast enough, for the junior high chubby girl who was no good at sports, for the high school student who was shy and awkward, for the college girl who nearly made herself sick striving for a 4.0, for the insecure new mom who thought she had to prove herself to be a good mom, for the nose-ring wearing Baptist pastor’s wife who never could fit in, for the thirty year old woman who thought selling her home, adopting kids, and moving to Africa might finally obtain pleasure from God. For the me of today who is depressed, broken and lonely with homesickness for a place that really is not my home who strives for perfection that is unattainable, and who is not sure how to fit back into a country that seems to be falling apart at the seams after having her eyes opened to a whole big world beyond the United States. I cried and I cried and I cried for her, and for the masquerade that needed to be killed off.

But a dam was broken that day, and although this is a journey and there is no quick fix to years of living into a false self, I am desperate to live into my true self – into the identity that is all mine through Jesus – I, Tiffany, am His beloved, and [regardless of my performance or lack thereof] my Daddy in heaven is well pleased, with me. I have His pleasure! May this forever be tattoed on my heart – in her, He is well pleased! May all striving cease. May I stop explaining every nook and cranny of my life to people just so they are pleased with me and my decisions for my life. His pleasure is so much more fulfilling than a few fake friends on Facebook.

And beloved, the same is true of you as well. He is well pleased.

No performance.

No perfection.

No striving.

Lean into it, live into it. It’s a game changer, actually I believe that this beautifully, breath-taking truth is a life changer.

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When I Grow Up

This past weekend I celebrated my thirty seventh birthday, although celebrate and thirty seven are hard for me to write in the same sentence. I am inching dangerously closer to forty. I try to be like those women who embrace aging, but I remember even being a teenager and feeling apprehensive about the numbers getting bigger. I think if I dig deep, the truth has more to do with how fast life is going than really how old I am getting, but the two are for sure entwined. At this age, I should know what I want to do when I grow up – my goodness I should be doing it. I love our work with Mercy Branch. I am so passionate about reunifying families. However, our work in Mercy Branch has suddenly changed, and I do not get to be daily hands-on anymore. Instead my work will now be more behind-the-scenes advocating, managing, and fund-raising. It is hard to come to grips with that, but it is the season that we find ourselves in. And I find myself wrestling with now what?

I have had this little seed of a dream for over a year now. I have only whispered it to a few of my bests. It seems crazy, and the timing is not right for now, but I continually dream about when it might be right. The dream was ignited in a small conference room when an immigration lawyer and a group of law students brushed over my hours of research that I came armed with, and told me that the path I had carved out for my son’s citizenship was impossible. I knew it wasn’t. I already shared the end of the story before. It wasn’t impossible, but it did take an extensive amount of research and work to make it happen.  I began to dream and wonder. I wondered how many immigrants had been told it was impossible, and how many had been told ‘no’ by immigration lawyers who did not want to learn and research new ways and keep up with ever-changing immigration laws.

I have always loved researching. I am the type of person who when purchasing an item, for example off of Amazon, will read every single review on the product – and enjoy reading them! It is an actual fun activity for me. I carefully make my decision after literal hours of comparing and contrasting and reading reviews. I like researching; actually that is an understatement, I love researching. I spend way too much time doing just this about everything and anything one can imagine. I diagnosed Jamesy, based off of the little bit we knew in his referral medical documents, and with extensive research pouring over online medical journals, prior to him coming home, and I ended up being correct. I learned a lot about the process for immigrants to become citizens in America. I read over tedious immigration law, and I was fascinated. I ate it up. I became captivated with what I learned. I cannot imagine, a foreigner coming to our country, trying to navigate the process alone, and yet I know this happens as it can be hard to find a good immigration lawyer. Living overseas for two years made me sensitive to noticing how foreigners, being one myself, were treated in another country. I was constantly wondering how foreigners in my own country were treated. My heart has always been for people that don’t quite ‘fit in’. When I put all of this together, I landed at a big dream – some day going back to school to become a paralegal for an immigration lawyer.

To be completely transparent, I sometimes think that I want to actually be an immigration lawyer, and work entirely pro-bono. However, there are many problems with this. One we are not rich enough to do that, and I am not really smart enough to get through law school. (This is not self-deprecating, just fact.) Also, I really don’t like talking to people all that much. I think I would rather sit in a small office all day long with law books and research my days away! That is the dream that I am waiting to be unleashed. The timing is certainly not now, and may not be ever. Truthfully, a new dream may birth itself. Right now I want to raise my babies. I want to be an intentional mama. But maybe one day in the future, when I grow up, I will become a paralegal for an immigration lawyer.

“Don’t you find it odd,” she continued, “that when you’re a kid, everyone, all the world, encourages you to follow your dreams. But when you’re older, somehow they act offended if you even try.”
― Ethan Hawke

What’s the dream of your heart? I think we all have the seeds of a dream deep inside. Sometimes for us stay-at-home mamas, they are hard to realize. We are so busy fostering the dreams of our children, that I think sometimes our dreams get squandered. I think they are there, though. It is important to keep dreaming and reaching for our dreams. Our kids need to see us doing what we love and passionately pursuing what God created us to do. I think of this often as I encourage my oldest in attaining his dream of making it to the Premier League to play soccer. Sometimes I watch him work for this dream, and feel sad, because I swallow the lie that it is too late for my dreams.

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But the truth is, it is never too late. I am thirty seven years old, and I am still discovering what I want to be when I grow up. Keep dreaming, friends. Dreams really can come true.

 

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Building a Table

 

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Many of us agree that we are living through tender times and figuring out how to navigate this needs some intentionality. The climate of our country is shaky, and people are hurting and choosing sides, and it has become very polarized. One month ago today, I traveled across the ocean to a country that is bruised. I didn’t realize just how injured she was until I began to live here once again. I have been doing some deep soul searching in order to really understand how I should respond, as an image bearer of the Creator. Because I know my response and my actions do matter. Jesus was so purposeful about stepping into people’s pain. It is one of His characteristics that I find so compellingly beautiful. I think this is because it is such a rarity. This could be because it is not easy to endure pain, let alone choose to endure pain that is not your own.

The quote from Louis C.K. has been bumping around in my heart quite a bit the past few days.

When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t. Louis C.K.

I wonder what it would look like if image bearers chose to understand this quote.  Experiences shape us more then I think we give credit to, and none of us have the same exact life experiences. So to understand another human takes a kind of discipline and humility that is not easy. But what if instead of brushing off the pain and fear that so many people are telling us they feel, because we decide it is not valid, because it is not ours, because we don’t fear it, because we do not agree or see it from that perspective, because we did not have a tangible part in it – what if instead we leaned into the pain that others are crying out over? As a follower of Jesus, am I not supposed to be part of the most loving, compassionate, and empathetic human beings on this earth? Are we not supposed to be known by our love; is that not our very identity? Maybe leaning into the pain means that we stop talking, stop putting up social media posts that people tell us hurt them, and take a deep, long pause and honestly listen, and maybe we really do our best to hear another person, and to take a moment to walk in their shoes. And because we are image bearers, we do this without the demand that we get the same treatment in return; we do it completely out of a heart of love with no strings attached. We love our neighbor, yes even that neighbor who voted differently than us, and we love that neighbor as much as we love ourselves. What if we start right there?

Maybe instead of building a wall, we build a table, and then we set it with our finest china, or our brightest tupperware, and we cook our best meal, or order our favorite take-out, and we light the candles, open our door, and we invite the hurt and the pain right into our living room and right up to our tables. And then we break bread together and love in such an extravagantly humble way that the pain has a place to breathe and be heard as we really press pause and listen, and maybe, just maybe even begin to heal these deep wounds around us. What if we invited someone different to our table and got to know and understand the hurts and fears of someone whose experiences have been so different from our own? What if we just tried to understand instead of brushing them off as angry?

What if love really could change things and bridge the divide? I was born a dreamer. I am foolish enough to think that loving well by listening with the intention of really understanding could change a whole lot of things. If nothing else, love, seems like a pretty good place for me to start. When I don’t know what to do, I can live a life of authentic love. Love wrapped up in kindness, compassion, and empathy toward all human life seems like a way of living that will never go to waste. When love is our natural response to every person we encounter, to every life that is different than ours, to every competing perspective and it permeates every part off our lives, then maybe just maybe we will be quick to lean in and really hear, slow to speak things that may hurt, and not easily angered. I am willing to start here at my dinner table, and I am willing to listen in order to understand. I am willing to learn. I am just a dreamer. I am praying that I am not the only one.

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When God Doesn’t Feel Good

Everything was so very good. I remember thinking this very thought as the 6 AM sun welcomely warmed my face. We had worked hard for the life we were living. It was a simple life, with little electricity, water outages, and hard work. But it was filled with pleasures that we appreciated fully, like the brand new bright yellow couch set (our first ever new set)  that we had saved tax return money for, sitting in our living room. It had taken two years for me to put my mark on our house, and we really enjoyed slowly framing photos, decorating, and making this new life homey and a memorable place for our children to grow up in. No, it did not necessarily have eternal value, but in the middle of intense Kingdom work, having this cheery sanctuary was necessary, and God was evident in the beautiful details. This September we were at the point where we felt completely at home in Ethiopia. I rolled over that morning not long ago, and whispered to Jim, I don’t think we can ever move away from this place, and I felt contentment and such joy in the season we found ourself in. For those closest to knowing my heart, they understand this is rare, as I have always struggled to live in the present (I am a sentimental nostalgic fool), but I was living right there. And it was so very good.

And then only weeks later, our world rocIMG_0705ked out of our control and everything good seems gone somehow. I admitted out loud last night (in church even) that God doesn’t feel very good right now. In the brand of Christianity that I grew up in, this is a scary thing to think, let alone voice. I was taught that we cannot question God, and to do so is shameful and even blasphemous. Questioning targeted people as weak in their faith and was a sure sign of unbelief in God. There was the unspoken code of ‘protecting’ God, as if He needs our protecting. However, when I look closely at people who interacted at a deep level with God, I find at times they, too, questioned Him. Martha in John 11:21 asked Him why He could not have been there sooner in order to save her brother’s life. Moses questioned why God would choose him to  be a leader, and why He would bring the Israelites into the desert in Exodus 5:22-23. David often questioned and wrestled with God. Psalm 42:9-11 shows David asking God why He had forgotten him.

Intellectually I know God is good. I really do, and that knowledge is unshakeable. He is good all the time. He IS a good God. He is sovereign. But to be transparent my feelings just are not matching my intellect. I am a feeler. I feel everything deeply. This is a gift, and this is a curse. For so much of my life this was shamed, and I tried to not feel. But I was created to feel, and that is one of the things about me that makes me who I am. To deny this part of who I am is to not live an authentic life. I cannot compartmentalize myself; I am a whole person and cannot be split. I know full well that God can handle my feelings and my fragility, but in my life I have discovered that sometimes God’s people cannot. The truth is these feelings of mine do nothing to take away from Who He is. He does not need me to protect Him by disregarding  my feelings and faking righteousness in a season where I don’t feel very righteous, and I desperately need HIS righteousness.

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As I grow in my journey of faith with Jesus, and as I look back over other hard seasons that have come and gone, I am beginning to think that sometimes God desires this wrestling match with me. Maybe there is something inside of me that needs this season of questions and pain. Maybe I can only really appreciate the other side after painful wrestling, and honestly that does ring true with my personality. If you are familiar with Passenger’s song Let Her Go, well that is a song that resonates with my human nature. In the story of Jacob literally wrestling with God in Genesis, the wrestling ended with an identity change for Jacob. The wrestling turned into a gift – a gift of restoration. Maybe something similar will be done in me, or maybe I am on a different journey.

So, yes, I have questions. I am wrestling with God right now. But there is something so much bigger than myself going on as I wrestle. There is more to this story, and right now it is not for me to know or understand, but I want to, and I think that desire is okay. I think God can certainly handle that and is not apprehensive about it.  I am not afraid to be honest and vulnerable with God. He knows my every thought anyway. There is something after this season that God is preparing me for, and this season of dark wrestling is part of His preparation. I know God is pursuing me. That is the beautiful thing about my God, as I struggle and doubt and question, He draws me in closer and closer in hot pursuit. He is not fearful of my questions; I dare say He welcomes them. Even when it does not feel good, I know that He will always be right here inside my anguish, my tears, my questions. He meets me right here. And I echo Jacob, I am not letting You go until you bless me. I might end up with some battle wounds from the wrestling, and I may limp into the future, but I am holding out hope that one day the sun will kiss my face again, and I will feel that everything is so very good – whether on earth or in heaven. Let it be so.

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Shattered Dreams

Even a month ago, I would never have dreamed that I would be sitting at my parents’ kitchen table and sleeping in my old high school bedroom. But here I am. One decision and one long plane ride robbed it all away from me. The first time I visited Ethiopia I knew our family would one day live there. The past two years have been a dream come true. It was the very best time of my life, and it was the life that I had never known that I had always wanted. It wasn’t glamorous, and there were hardships unspeakable, but it was everything that our family needed, and it was filled with immense joy, contentment, and such abundant living.

Now, here I sit, in my childhood home 7000 miles away from that life, looking out the window at the trees that line the back yard. The leaves on the trees that were so vibrant just a short moment ago have now dulled and are falling to their death. And I can relate. Satan is right here whispering insults and slick lies that speak of failure and a wasted two years and ‘what will people think?’ and children that will grow bitter and a mama that may never recover from this heart ache. Perhaps I have a flair for the melodramatic, but the truth is that I feel everything so, so deeply, and this I am feeling to my core. We certainly did not sell our home and everything that we owned three years ago with the thought of living in Ethiopia for such an extremely short amount of time. We definitely did not prepare for martial law, or situations that jeopardized the safety of our children, or for such life-changing decisions to make. Our dreams were long-term and wide, and they did not encompass a sudden move back to the states. While the ministry continues, and I firmly believe will flourish, and our tiny seed of a dream will come to fruition, it is not going to happen the way we wanted it to happen. And that is awful. It hurts.

But I am proud of the team we left behind in Ethiopia, local men and women who have the same dream and passion as we have, and who work to accomplish that dream. I know this was never really about us. I know, despite Satan’s whisperings, that this is one thing that we did right. I am thankful for that.

“He [the missionary] can live his live amongst his people and deal with them as though he would have no successor. He should remember that he is the least permanent element in the [ministry].He may fall sick and go home, or he may die, or he may be called elsewhere. He disappears,the [ministry] remains.The native Christians are the permanent element.” Roland Allen

I am trying to lean into God and His plans. I am trying to get on board. I find momentary delight in things like finding a home, only to feel sudden guilt for being excited about a fireplace and large back yard and dreams of decorating a house. Should I feel excited? Is it okay? If I get excited will God just take it all away again? I am in this soul-searching wrestling match with God and honestly questioning Him and His plan for us. That doesn’t sound very spiritual or missionary-ish. But it is the raw truth. Every time I wrestle, I notice that God doesn’t push me away, He draws me closer and embraces my flailing, my wailing, and my angry questions. He is big enough to handle my hurt and to let me wrestle. It doesn’t phase Him or threaten Who He is. To leave the mission field and go back to America, is hands-down the hardest thing God has ever asked me to do. In so many ways this feel more foreign and uncertain, and maybe this is exactly the way it is supposed to feel to remind me of where my real home is. Home is everywhere and nowhere at all, because home can never really be here. Maybe this weird and wacky America is our new mission field. Maybe just maybe there is a purpose in this mess, and the shattered dreams will be rearranged into something new.

Deep breath. Here am I God; send me. This new mission field is terribly frightening.

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The view out my kitchen window in Ethiopia. I am going to miss this.

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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.

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