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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

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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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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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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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