Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Short Chapter

     There are some moments in life that you can never fully prepare for. This became clear to me when I found myself sitting in the dirt in a remote village in Togo, Africa, surrounded by flies and holding a baby. He wore no clothes and no diaper, he was wrapped in only a thin blanket. His mother handed him to one of the other missionaries as soon as we arrived, and eventually he was handed to me. When he was placed in my arms, memories from my trip to Honduras flooded my mind. Memories of sitting in that upstairs room at the orphanage, holding a baby that was far smaller than she should be for her age. As this baby, who also felt too light in my arms, looked up at me with curious eyes I saw that he was covered in bug bites, and there were flies all around him. He didn't cry about being held by a complete stranger, he just looked at me.
     At that moment, I felt completely out of my element. Nothing I learned in thirteen years of school, nothing I learned in Sunday school or youth group, fully prepared me for what I was experiencing. This was one of those times when I had to fully immerse myself in the experience, and figure it out as it happened. It was a moment that I don't think I will ever forget, and I don't want to.
     The thing that has kept me from telling this story for so long, aside from the fact that I know it is hard to hear about an unhealthy baby, is the simple fact that this encounter did not have a happy ending. There is no shiny bow I can attach to this package before I present it to you. When it was time for us to leave, I handed him back to his mother and walked away. I believe she was being the best mother she could be in the circumstances she was in and I truly admire her for that, but it was still hard to leave him there.
So what finally enabled me to share this memory that has been on my mind all this time? The simple realization I have been thinking of this encounter as a complete story, when in reality it is just a short chapter. I don't know what that baby's life is like today, or what his future will hold. Whatever happens I am thankful that I got to meet him, even though the meeting was brief. I hope that by sharing this short chapter of my time with him, the story of his life will be honored.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brown Eyes

     If I was ever asked to make a list of things I do not like, hospitals would be near the top. They are the frigid, sterile backdrop to some of my worst memories. When I found myself visiting a hospital in Togo, I put my brave face on. I pretended not to be uncomfortable, and forged ahead as I've learned to do. I ended up in the pediatric ward, and that's where I met Florence.
     Florence had those trademark big, brown eyes. Like the ones in the pictures that called me to Honduras when I was younger and even more clueless than I am now. They are eyes that hold years of wisdom from a life of trials, and seem out of place on the face of a young child. After my now vivid memories of Togo have started to fade around the edges, those eyes are what will stay etched in my mind. My meeting with her was brief, I said an awkward prayer as her mother held her. I assured her mother that I would continue to pray for Florence, and then I moved on to the next child.
     On the plane ride home, there were two Muslim women seated in the row next to me. For whatever reason, maybe because I watch the news to much, maybe because the I have allowed the biased ideas of other people to take root in my own mind, sitting beside these particular women on an airplane made me uneasy. I am not proud of that, but it is the truth. Their faces were covered completely except for their eyes, and I found myself subconsciously glancing at them every few minutes to see what they were up to.
Eventually, I settled down to watch of a movie and the women sitting beside me faded from my mind as I watched a nun endear herself to seven children and a captain with her musical antics, completely oblivious to the tense political events unfolding around them. Somewhere around the time Maria was learning to climb every mountain, I jumped when I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. I turned around and found myself face to face with the woman sitting closest to me. Her eyes were the only feature not covered, and I noticed that they were brown.

Brown eyes, just like Florence.

     Two sets of brown eyes that my own blue eyes encountered, within the span of a few weeks. One set I met with love and compassion, the other I met with suspicion and fear. Call it justified, call me a smart traveler being aware of my surroundings. Call it what you will, and I will pretend it doesn't bother me.
     Don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that I decided to accept the Muslim woman's beliefs as the truth. There was no discussion of our beliefs, perhaps that is a failure on my part if I wish to call myself a missionary. My interaction with her was brief, she offered me a cookie and I politely declined. Hours later the plane landed and we went our separate ways. For what it's worth, If I had it to do over again, I believe I would have accepted that cookie.
     It's quite remarkable that you're reading this story. Remarkable because it is one I almost didn't tell, at least in part.   Florence's story is safe, she is an innocent child. Looking at her picture will most likely stir up feelings of compassion, not fear.  I went to Africa to meet people and hear their stories, and to share those stories so that others can hear them also.
To quote one of my favorite books, "People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for." I don't know what you're looking for as you read this, and it's not important that I find out. I am simply telling a story, and I wouldn't be much of a storyteller if I decided to leave one of the characters out.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Witness to the Light

In Togo, it is not uncommon to see very young children walking around with machetes. Farming is the typical way of life, and machetes are a common farming tool. So common, in fact, that kindergarten boys are asked to bring a machete with them when they start school. Standing here in this pulpit today, I feel like a five year old that has been given a machete. It’s exciting to have this opportunity, but it is intimidating. I could be so scared of the machete that I tiptoe around it and never really get to the point, or I could become so excited by it that I use it recklessly and cause a big mess. I never heard any stories of the children getting injured by the machetes, and I witnessed some of the younger boys at the school using them with surprising precision. They understand how to properly use the tool they have been given to get the job done. That is my hope for this morning, that I can use this time I’ve been given to share my experiences in Togo
    The story begins back in April, when I got a Facebook message from Samuel Lunsford. He told me that he had been reading my blog, where I frequently rave about how much I loved going to Honduras back in 2013. He said that he and his wife would “love to have me come visit them in Togo” almost as casually as you would invite your friends over for dinner. I was blown away by this huge opportunity they had presented me with, and I wanted to know more.  He invited me to have dinner with he and his wife Lauren and talk more about what they do as missionaries in Togo, and I accepted.
   The night that I visited them, They told me a lot about Togo, which is a country in the western region of Africa. It is a small nation, slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. Farming is the main source of income, and the income level is what we would consider extremely low for the majority of the population.
     During my visit, Samuel told me that many of the blind children at the school are led to believe that their blindness is a punishment for sin, and that is the moment I started to feel that I really needed to go there. It wasn’t like I heard a loud, booming voice of God speaking to me or saw a burning bush. It was more like a restlessness, and an inability to stop thinking about Togo. It bothered me that children there believed their blindness was because of sin, and I knew that I was in a unique position to show them that God does not use disabilities as a form of punishment. I even knew right away which scripture I would reference if I ever got an opportunity to talk to these students.
    After discussing it with my parents, who were supportive right away, and discussing it carefully with Pastor Meghan and close friends whose advice I trust, and of course praying about it, I made the decision to accept the Lunsfords’ invitation, and preparations for my international journey began.
    Since this was not my first mission trip, I felt like I knew a little bit about what to expect. I knew that there would be a language barrier, but I didn’t remember it being much of a problem in Honduras, even when our translators weren’t around. What I failed to realize is that much of the way we communicated with children in Honduras was through visual cues and body language. We could communicate what we were trying to say by doing things like pointing at what we were talking about. This time was different, because with blind people, you have to rely almost completely on your words to communicate. Even though I took three years of French in high school, it seems that my brain can remember numbers, letters, and some words, but only if they are spoken to me slowly, and no one in Togo speaks slowly. Because of this, it did not take me long to figure out that connecting with the students was not going to be an easy task.
    One of the things I was asked to do during my time at the Village of Light was interview the students and write short biographies about them. Since I had a translator for the interviews, I was able to use them as a time to get to know them better. The students at the school have varying degrees of blindness, from different causes. Some were born blind due to genetics, some became blind at a young age from illnesses like the measles. Some were taken to hospitals by their families when they became sick, some were taken to witch doctors that probably made them worse than they already were. These stories were not easy to hear, and I quickly learned to only do a few interviews at once, so that I had time to really process the personal story of each child. I met children who had not been able to go to school at all before coming to the Village of Light, and I met children who did not come from Christian families and were treated poorly in their villages because of their blindness No matter how sad their stories were, each of these children could tell me something that made them happy, whether it was playing soccer, (or football, as the boys kept reminding me to call it), or singing in the choir as so many of the girls love to do. The more I got to know them, I started to see them less as blind children living in extreme conditions of poverty, and more as the bright, resilient people they really are, who are thriving in an environment where they know they are loved, by their teachers and by God.
    I had an opportunity I was not expecting soon after I arrived in Togo, which was to go with some of the Lunsfords’ missionary friends to visit people living in villages near the school. At first I was a little frustrated by this, because I felt like it was taking away from time that I could be spending at the school. I was even hesitant to share pictures from these visits on social media at first, because I was worried that people who had helped me raise money to go to the Village of Light would wonder why I was clearly not even at the school. But those visits made a big impact on me, and I really think God meant for me to have that experience. With each family we visited, I became increasingly shocked by the level of poverty I was seeing. I also became confused about why God would choose this experience for me. I am certainly not an expert in theology, and I don’t quite feel qualified to express to you the intensity of what I saw, or the various emotions I felt as I witnessed these things.
    But you don’t need me to tell you that there are people living in poverty in Africa. You’ve seen the commercials, and you’ve heard some of the stories, especially around this time of year. I think the most important thing I could tell you is that the people I met were more like you and me than you might imagine. There was Esther, who was home with a bad knee, but excited to tell us about her twin daughters and her new grandchild, and even gave us cookies she had made. She was a woman who was living in a two room mud house in a country an ocean away from my home, but looking at her I was reminded of my own Grandma, who always seems to have cookies to give me when I go see her. There was Dodci and his family, who are struggling because he has been diagnosed with HIV and can’t work, and many people won’t buy things from his wife at the market anymore because of the stigma surrounding his illness. But when I awkwardly asked if they would like me to take a family photo for them with the polaroid camera I brought, and his wife gathered up the children, smoothed out their clothes, and did the universal sign of motherhood, licking her finger and wiping their faces with it, I was struck by how they looked like any family you might see, preparing to take a photo together. In the days and weeks following these visits, when I was back at the school getting to know the children better, the people I had visited were never far from my mind. They made an impact on me, and I’m not sure if even now that the trip is over, I can truly grasp what a lasting impact it was.
    Since the students live on campus full time when school is in session, they have activities to do on the weekends when they are not in classes. When I was there, they were doing a study on the creation story. The last Saturday before I left, they were learning about being made in the image of God, and later it struck me that that’s why I was able to connect so easily with people I had only just met, both in the villages and at the school. We were all made in the image of God, so even though we live on different continents in different cultures, there is an inherent likeness that connects all of us.
    If I was going to tell you about everything I experienced in Togo and everything I learned from all of it, we would be here for days. But Pastor Meghan advised me to keep my message within a certain time frame, and I know you are all probably eager to get home and eat Thanksgiving leftovers and have a few more hours of relaxation before we all return to work  or other chores tomorrow, so some of my Togo stories will have to wait until another day. For now, I will leave you with some final thoughts that I have been considering since I returned home.
    One of the darkest times in my life was when I lost my friend Scott  during our junior year of high school.  I remember going to school the day after it happened and seeing something on a banner memorializing him that I still think about often. It was a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one many of you have probably heard. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Many times, trying to be a light in the world we live in feels like swimming upstream against the current. With a 24 hour news cycle that constantly needs to be updated with new information, and the technology to access that news whenever we want to, we are constantly reminded that there is a lot of darkness in the world.
    Darkness has always existed on the Earth, and it will continue to exist until the end. Every day, the sun rises and sets, and the world keeps spinning, until God decides otherwise. The negative things we are dealing with, the hatred and prejudice, the need to be right overshadowing the importance of  being kind, these things have been around since the beginning. I believe God is saddened by them, but I do not believe he is surprised or alarmed.  I think the most important thing I learned in Togo is that every day, I have to make a conscious choice that even in the midst of the darkness, I will do everything I can to be a witness to the Light. Every day, I must choose to believe that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has still not overcome it.
    Something I really loved about the people of Togo is that while they seem so happy, it is not because they are hiding their sadness. When someone asks you how you are doing, there doesn’t seem to be an obligation to say you are fine. Many times when someone would be asked how they were, they would talk about a health issue they were having, or a struggle a family member was experiencing. But very often, they would end with a smile and say “God is in control.”  I love that they can live in the light, without being ashamed of the darkness. It took me twenty one years and a trip across the ocean, but I finally realized that I can be a witness to the Light, even when there are times of darkness in my life. Being a follower of Jesus is not about living a life free of darkness. It is about knowing that even though we will face darkness during our time on Earth, we will one day be with God in a place that is nothing but light.
     We cannot defeat darkness by complaining about it, worrying about it, or blaming other people for it. The only thing that can drive out the Darkness once and for all is the Light. We as Christians know that God is the Light of the world, and I can not think of anything more important than sharing that Light wherever we go. I am so glad God allowed me to travel to Togo and do all that I could to to be a witness to the Light. I don’t know what God has planned for the rest of my life, but I have a feeling that this trip to Togo was not the end of my experience with mission work. Thank you all for being a witness to the Light in my life, and allowing me the opportunity to share that light with my new friends across the Ocean.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Pulling out the Thorns

     The best word I could use to describe how it has felt being back in the United States after three weeks in Togo is overwhelming. It feels like the world around me is so moving so quickly and I am struggling to process things fast enough to keep up. After three weeks with no T.V. and limited access to news, re-entering the country on Election Day was an even bigger culture shock than I had expected. I guess three weeks away from all of it was enough to make me forget just how passionate so many people are about our process of electing a new leader. Politics aside, even the simplest tasks of everyday life seem more challenging at times because half of my mind is still with the new friends I left behind in Togo
     I have been getting much less feedback on my blog lately, which has made me less motivated about posting regularly. As much as I love to write, I don't want the time and effort I put into writing to go to waste, so I want to make sure the things I am writing about are truly worthwhile for me. Today, something came to my mind that I consider worthwhile, so I decided to share it with you.
     The last day I was in Togo, I had an experience that I know will be something I always remember. My friend and translator Grace, another teenage girl who lives with her, and a third woman who I had met when she came to help with some cooking, came to talk to me. I was sitting on the porch and at first I assumed they were looking for Samuel and Lauren, but they said they were there to see me. The woman said she had something she wanted to tell me before I went back home, and Grace would translate for her.
     In order for this next part of the story to make sense, you need to know about something that is a part of life in Togo. I don't know the proper term for them, but there are very tiny and almost sharp pieces of grass that get stuck in the bottom of the long skirts women wear. This happens whenever you walk outside wearing a long skirt, and as far as I know there is no effective way to prevent it.
 The only way to remove these thorns is to sit down and take them out one by one. It is time consuming and not very fun, but it has to be done. If you leave the thorns in they get stuck to your other clothes when you put the skirts in a drawer or in the washing machine.
     As the women talked to me, Grace got out of her chair and sat on the ground by my feet and her friend followed her lead. As I glanced down to see what they were doing, I discovered that they were picking thorns out of my skirt. I quickly protested, telling them not to worry about it and that I would do it later. But they ignored my protest, saying that they were glad to do it. So I sat there with one woman sharing encouraging thoughts with me and two other women carefully removing all of the thorns from my skirt. I didn't have anything to do but listen, and let them take care of me. It's hard to explain why this moment was so meaningful to me, but I think it may have changed my life in some way. To see these women who I had only known for a short time show such genuine love for me seemed to fix something inside of me that I didn't even know was broken. I went through high school at the peak of what I refer to as the "mean girl" generation, and friendships with other girls often included more backstabbing, score-keeping and drama then selfless love and understanding, so to experience such kindness in a group of women meant a lot to me.
     After my time in Togo, I have a lot of emotional thorns to pull out, and my first instinct is to pull them out myself. It feels safer to deal with my own feelings independently rather than be vulnerable and share my feelings with other people.
     It is far to soon to reach final conclusions about what I learned from my time in Togo, and how it will affect my path going forward. There are so many emotions I need to process, and not all of them will be public. But my experience that sweltering afternoon in Togo, surrounded by truly Godly women, has given me a new hope. A hope that if I am brave enough to show my thorns, there will always be people who love me enough to sit with me and help pull them out.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

When the Evening Comes

     It was 93 degrees in Togo when I started writing this, and I was trying to remember what autumn weather even feels like. I was also trying to figure out what angle I should approach this subject from. You see, I am very happy here. I really am. The things I've been a part of here in Togo have been so rewarding and I'm so thankful for this opportunity. But happiness isn't the only emotion I've felt during my time in Togo.
     I can post a million pictures, and the one that will get the most attention will always be the one of me in the customary female missionary uniform of a long skirt and conservative shirt, looking like a seasoned pro holding a smiling child. It does not seem to matter to anyone that I did not actually help that child in any way. All I did was hold her for a few minutes and try to play with her without being able to speak her language. It makes me feel guilty when people give me compliments after seeing pictures like that, because I know the truth behind the smiling faces. At this very moment that child is still living in poverty as I sit in what must be one of the nicest houses in Togo, using the internet and being cooled by a fan.
     I have never had any formal missionary training. I feel more comfortable talking about my beliefs in writing than in a face to face conversation. That being said, something about my trip to Honduras grabbed my attention and didn't let go. I've known since the end of that trip that I didn't want it to be my last experience with mission work.
     Missionaries go out to hard places and do hard work. They also come back home and spend time with their families. They have meals, play games and laugh about silly things. When you take away the cute pictures of the smiling children, the inspiring Pinterest quotes about being a missionary, and all of the other frills surrounding the concept of mission work, once you push all of that aside you have to face the truth. Missionaries are humans trying their best to lead other humans to salvation. They aren't, or at least I personally am not, on some higher plane of spirituality. Just because I'm on a mission trip doesn't mean all of my negative characteristics have been put on hold. I'm still working on trying not to get cranky when I'm hot, tired, or hungry. I'm working on it, but I still have a long way to go and I get frustrated with myself when I fail.
     Missionaries also get to witness some of the purest moments of happiness you could imagine. Like yesterday, when a seventeen year old boy smiled and sang a song on the first day of school he's ever had. Moments like that are, to me, what make the difficult moments worthwhile.
     The students here at the school always end their days with singing, and hearing their voices every night is one of my favorite parts of being here. It helps clear my mind to be ready for a new day. A new day with new mistakes and new challenges, and also new happiness and hope.
     It's raining as I finish writing this, which means the heat has gone away for a short time. Tomorrow, a new day will dawn and the challenges and joys will start again. But first, I will get to hear my new friends singing in the evening, like they always do.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Pray About Everything

     In the past 4 days, I have traveled across the ocean, seen Africa for the first time, heard stories from children who were treated badly because of something that is not their fault, met people living in conditions I have never seen anything like before. I've also eaten passion fruit, played games and baked muffins. I feel like I've done more in four days than any other time in my life.
     What keeps popping into my mind is a quote that is on our wall at church in the room where we have youth group. "Pray about everything, worry about nothing." The funny thing is, this quote is on the wall over the spot where I normally sit, so I never really noticed it until someone pointed it out. I can't reveal the full details of this story because what happens in youth group stays in youth group, but it's a great story. I don't know why out of all the things I've learned at church, this phrase is the one that I keep thinking of, but I find myself remembering it constantly whenever I see problems here that I know I cannot fix.
     I learned in Honduras that you can't go on mission trips and expect to fix everything, so I arrived in Africa aware that I would see heartbreak that I don't have the power to heal. What I am finding out is that what I can do is remember the stories of the people I meet, and I can share them. It seems to mean so much to them just that someone would take the time to listen. I can't fix their problems, but I guess that's not my job anyway. I know their stories now, and I will pray for them. I will tell others about them so they can pray for them to. I will try not to worry about anything, because that does no good. Pray about everything, worry about nothing. Repeat daily.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

What Are You Afraid Of?

     One of the most common questions I get asked by people who know I'm going to Africa is if I am scared. I say no, but I guess a more truthful answer would be that no, I'm not scared of the typical things you might expect. I'm not scared that something bad will happen. Terrorism, plane crashes, the long list of strange diseases they warned me about at the travel clinic, those things don't scare me so much because they can happen pretty much anywhere. I don't like to pass up experiences like this because of what might happen, that's just not the way I prefer to operate.
What I'm scared of is that I will not be able to come back from Africa and just go on living the same way that I'm living now. What I'm even more scared of is that no one will fully be able to understand my emotions after the trip. When I returned from Honduras, I found myself at a loss for words whenever anyone would ask me how my trip was, and it was so very frustrating. I want so badly to express the emotions that trip brought out, but they never seem to come out quite right. You don't come back from an experience like that and just pick up where you left off. It's almost as if you're living in a new reality, where everything around you is just as it always was, but the way you perceive it, the way you react, has shifted because you've had an experience that completely changed the way you see things.
 The intensity of that experience is something that I never did learn how to translate, but at least I had friends who had the same experience, so we all can share an unspoken understanding. This time, it's just me, and that's what scares me the most. Not because I'm afraid of travelling alone, but because I'm afraid of feeling alone. I'm afraid that one day I'll be sitting around talking with friends, and I'll mention Africa, maybe a person I meet there or an experience I have, and they'll just smile and nod and move on. Not because they don't care, but because they don't realize the depth of my feelings because I've learned not to be so outwardly intense all the time.
This week, I've been way more on edge than I usually am. I've been short tempered with people I love, and I'm not happy with myself about that. Looking back, I wish I had explained that everything just feels very intense right now, because I know I'm about to experience something huge. I'm not mad at anyone for not fully understanding the way I feel about mission trips and how they affect me. I don't expect anyone to understand an experience they've never had, and I know that even people who have had a similar experience will most likely express their feelings about it in a different way. I'm just learning to accept that. Please don't read this and think that I am just being dramatic. One of the reasons I hesitated to write it is because I don't want to sound like I am complaining about nothing or trying to get attention.
I am so excited to go to Africa, and I truly believe that this is God's plan for me right now. I may never know why I am such an emotional person, but I hope that I can learn how to express that part of my personality in a better way. More than anything, I hope that I can get to the point where it truly doesn't matter if anyone else understands, because I am doing what I believe God has called me to do. Maybe, that's one of the lessons this experience is going to teach me. I hope so.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

One Month to Togo; Thoughts on Being the Light

     Exactly one month from today, I will be leaving for Africa. I am very excited for this opportunity that is finally feeling like a reality after months of preparation. However, I've started to avoid mentioning it very much lately, because I've been  feeling very oversensitive to any comment or opinion about what I am doing that is not completely positive.
     Yes, I know there are people who live closer than Africa who need help. Several individuals have pointed that out to me in various degrees over the past few months. The original thoughts in my head after those comments were not nice am not proud of them, but if I was a better person I would simply answer with  "Well friend, if you are feeling concerned about those people, then perhaps helping them is your mission." It hurts me that some people seem to pick apart and judge something good I am trying to do, but the positive comments and encouragement have far outweighed the negative, 
     Another reason I've been hesitant to say much about my plans for Africa lately is that they feel in a way very personal. It's hard for me to explain how significant it feels that there are people who have been lead to believe that a disability makes you bad or worthless, and I have a unique opportunity to prove that wrong in a way that few people can. Every circumstance of the way this plan came together has given me reassurance that going to Africa is exactly what God is asking me to do at this time in my life. 
     I've been tempted to stay quiet about my plans lately because I don't feel like hearing criticism or even questions about my plans, but last night I had an eye opening experience. As I listened to a good friend share her testimony about her mission that has just been completed, I was reminded just how important it is for each of us to share our testimony, whether we are at the end of a mission or just beginning.
 Maybe I'm not to the place yet where I know exactly what I want to say or how I want to say it. All I know at this point is that I do have something to say. I will have some access to Wi-fi while I am in Africa (another thing I've hesitated to mention because of implications that because of this access these people must be doing just fine) and I plan to update my blog as much as possible. Sometimes when there are no comments or other forms of feedback, I get discouraged that no one is paying attention to or relating to the things I write, but I continue on. I would love to have more people become aware of this blog before I get to Africa so that the light I find there can be spread as far as possible. So, I humbly ask those of you who have been faithfully reading what I have to say to consider sharing with a friend. I am thankful to the people in my life who are a light to me, and I hope that in some way, the things I share through writing can be a light to each of you.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Making Connections

     There was a time in my life when I believed I was a very good friend. I had a couple "close" friends who I think knew I would always listen to their problems, and while can be a sign of a good friend, I eventually realized that friendships can get strained when one person does most of the talking and the other does most of the listening. Even the best listeners need to talk sometimes, and they too need someone to listen. There was another event at that time in my life that changed my belief that I was good at friendship, and it is one that I talk about very cautiously because it involves a friend I lost, and his memory is not something I want to casually discuss for blog views. But his death did play a role in how I viewed my abilities as a friend, and tiptoeing around that would prevent me from portraying that process honestly.
     Even though I knew his death was not something I could have prevented, there is still some dark corner in the back of my brain that sometimes tries to convince me that because I did not help him, because I did not even know he was hurting until it was too late, I must not be a good friend. How could a true friend overlook what must have been such a deep hurt?
     One of the most beneficial factors in putting those thoughts to rest when they rise up was a psychology professor I had at Richard Bland. With sensitivity and an impressive knowledge of her field, she taught my class about how the chemicals in our brains can get out of balance just like the rest of our bodies can get sick, and even though I can't explain what she taught me very eloquently, it helped me tremendously. It took the shame out of my friends death, and allowed me to miss him without trying to place blame, whether it be on myself, him, or some other person. It allowed me to slowly start trying to make connections again.
     I am still learning how to be a good friend, and even though it seems like something that should just come naturally, it often seems very confusing to me. I worry about being too vulnerable and sharing my most sensitive thoughts and feelings with the wrong people. I sometimes get frustrated when I see social media posts  about friends who claim to be so close in every way, and I constantly have to remind myself that comparison is not helping me and the internet often only tells half of the story. I took a class last week for my new job, and at one point the teacher talked about how making connections in the workplace takes practice. I think the same thing is true for friendships. And I think just maybe, as we discover the people who are patient with our practice, including the mistakes that come with it, we discover our true friends.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Learning to Stand Out.

     The Internet is a unique beast in the way that it gives us all a chance to present ourselves however we would like to. It's like we all get our own personal reality show, and like most reality shows, the worlds we create are only part of the whole truth. I could say " I am taking a semester off of school to go on a mission trip to Africa" and that would be true. I could also say " I felt like crying for a while today because everyone else was wearing cute dresses and I was wearing pants." That would also be true. Usually I would choose to talk about the first version of reality, but I guess I'm feeling adventurous today because I want to talk about the second one.
     I am pretty new to working in a "business casual" environment, and I have spent more time these past few days than I care to admit trying to figure out how to update my wardrobe from "casual college student" to "capable adult at work". This process has left me with many questions, ranging from, "Since there are overalls for adults, does that mean it's socially acceptable for me to wear them, because I would really love that on casual Fridays!" to, "When did the whole world go from covering every available surface from kitchen walls to dog collars to dresses in a chevron to suddenly being completely over it? And more alarmingly, how did I miss this? How do I get on the "this trend is now over" mass e-mail list?"
     Obviously I am able to find the humor in this superficial dilemma, but behind the jokes there is a past of insecurity. There are painful memories of years of feeling like an outsider who had no place to belong, and a deep fear of not fitting in that has been suppressed but not completely eliminated. Dozens of other people have written about this topic, and it hurts my pride to admit that I am affected by the selfish desire for acceptance when I know that it is not what I should be seeking.
     Today I felt my insecurities from the past start to creep back in, but thankfully I was able to stop them in their tracks because I remembered how exhausting it is to live under the pressure of trying to fit in, and I realized that's not what I want for my life anymore. So I asked myself, What will happen because everyone else was wearing a dress and I was wearing pants? How is that going to affect my life?  Are the fashion police going to come lock me up, or am I just going to be shunned so severely that I have to cross the border and start a new life harvesting maple syrup in the Canadian wilderness? In reality, there was so much going on today that my outfit was the last thing on anyone's mind. I was the only one worried about it, and my worry served no purpose other than causing me unnecessary stress.
     Not fitting in is uncomfortable. Feeling like everyone else is included in something that you missed out on is disappointing. But conformity, while comfortable, is not the lifestyle I feel compelled to live. So, I'll keep fighting this desire for acceptance by reminding myself that there are more important things, and I'll keep reminding myself that while it's satisfying and fun to look nice, it's much more important to actually be nice. After all, no amount of cute outfits can cover up a bad attitude.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Introvert's Dilemma

     If you know me at all, you've probably pretty easily figured out that I am not an extrovert by any stretch of the imagination. I don't do small talk well, it's hard for me to spend very long talking about the weather or other trivial subjects others can calmly chat about with no problem. I can easily get stressed out in group settings, and I replay conversations in my head after they happen, and stress about how awkward I must have sounded.
      As a Christian, being an introvert poses a unique challenge. It doesn't scare me to go all the way to Africa for a mission trip, but to try to share a personal story in Sunday school or another small group setting makes me stumble over my words and ramble on nervously. I worry sometimes that I must seem odd or even rude when really I'm just thinking things over in my head rather than discussing them with others right away.
     The question that worries me most and makes this more than just a part of my personality is this. Does being an introvert make me a bad Christian? If I don't have an elaborate testimony at the ready 24/7 or if I'm not constantly speaking up about what I believe every chance I get, am I doing something wrong? I've been asking myself these questions recently and I'm not sure I have all the answers yet, but I do have some new insight.
     I'm a big advocate of getting out of your comfort zone, because Honduras was completely out of my comfort zone and it was one of the most influential experiences in my life so far. But lately as I've been struggling with feeling inadequate as a Christian and as a person because I'm so introverted, I've been considering a new perspective. Have I become so focused on getting out of my comfort zone that I'm ignoring the God given strengths that are comfortable to me? Christians are often encouraged to get out of our comfort zones, which is a great idea, but sometimes it can start to feel like if we're not feeling challenged to the point of being slightly terrified at all times, we're not doing enough. We all have things that we're good at, things that make us feel comfortable and confident, and I believe God must give us those talents for a reason.
     I love that I have close bonds with a few good friends, and though there's always a part of me that wishes I were more outgoing and social, I feel like having a small selection of close friends allows me to connect with them on a deeper level. I may not be a good talker, but I try my best to be a good listener, and sometimes that's something people really need.
     I'll never be a social butterfly who loves the spotlight, and I'm working on being okay with that. Extroverts are awesome, and I am friends with some of the best. But that's just not me, and I have to learn to accept that. Maybe by making me a hesitant talker, God is reminding me to be an eager listener. When I think about it that way, being this introverted doesn't seem so discouraging anymore.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I love to write. It's something that usually comes pretty easily to me and it makes me happy. Since starting this blog, I have learned a lot of things about writing, and one of the biggest lessons I've learned is that when you share your thoughts and opinions publicly, anyone who reads them is entitled to have opinions about them. There have been lots of things going on this summer that I've hesitated to write about it, because they are so special to me that I don't even want to think about someone misunderstanding them or writing them off as unimportant or even wrong.
In October, I will go to Africa. I'm taking a semester off from school to do that, and I know that there are people who don't fully approve of that. I'm traveling alone, and I know that there are people who are alarmed by that. But there are people in Africa who might think God doesn't love them because of the things that make them different, and sharing my experiences in the hopes of showing them the truth is extremely important to me. Looking back on the past few years of my life, I can see how so many things were preparing me for this trip before I even knew it was a possibility, and it reminds me not to worry so much about what's happening in this moment, because if I am listening to what God is telling me, there's no way I will end up in the wrong place, even if I don't always understand the route we're taking.
When I look back at my time in Honduras, I don't remember all of the moments personalities clashed and feelings got hurt. I remember the children I met, and the friendships I discovered. They are strong friendships still, and just this week I've had the chance to spend time with lots of those friends and it was like we picked up right where we left off. 
When I look back on our youth retreat just a few months ago, the first thing I think of isn't all of those moments I was tired and cranky. The first thing I think of is that night on top of the mountain and the conversation it led to, and then I think of our walks to the dining hall, when we would take turns guessing what they would food they would serve, hoping we could somehow make them serve our favorites just by naming them. I think of how at the age of twenty one, I sat on top of a mountain with some people who have become great friends and realized that I truly have let go of my negative feelings about not fitting in during high school. That might not sound like much, but there have been times in the past when those thoughts consumed me and defined how I acted, and the fact that I barely even entertain them anymore is huge for me.
It's daunting to think about going to Africa by myself, but I like to describe it as "roller coaster scary", because the scary is part of what makes it fun. I get that not everyone understands my reasons for going, and that's fine. I've decided to keep writing about it because my desire to share is bigger than my desire for approval. Looking forward to this experience, it's easy to think about the parts that I don't understand or the things that could go wrong, but I think that years from now when I am looking back on my time in Africa, I won't even remember these insecurities I am feeling now about how public this decision feels. Life isn't all mountaintops, and maybe that's what faith is for, so we can believe in the valley what we can't quite see yet. But one day we will, and sometimes that day is sooner than we think. Sometimes that day happens at a lake in North Carolina with a few teenagers that don't even realize yet the things God is going to do with the faith they are still cultivating. But among those people was a person who had already been where they are now and knows that they will do great things with their faith, and I am so thankful to be that person. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Someone Else

     It's taken me a long time to write a post updating you about my progress in planning my trip to Togo, and I think that's because I've been trying to make it sound perfect. I've been waiting for the moment when my excitement, which is still very real, collides with a moment of deep inspiration so I can tell you a beautiful story that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy. But right now, I'm just the right amount of tired to be a little bit too honest and tell it like it is.
     Organizing fundraisers is not a skill that comes naturally to me. I feel uncomfortable asking people for money, and I'm naturally introverted and feel out of place in the spotlight. I'm not a good organizer, and I seem to learn best by a frustrating process of elimination of doing something wrong over and over again until I finally get it right. I'm very lucky to have a supportive church family and lots of kind friends who are gracious enough to look past all of my imperfections and never point out the fact that someone else could probably do this better. In fact, I can think of lots of people who would do it better, and I have been thinking about that a lot.
  But God did not call someone else to do this. I'm the one who feels called to go to Togo, and tonight I realized the one thing that has never changed through all the discouragement of accepting my shortcomings is my belief that this calling is very real. For some reason, God has decided that this scattered, unsure mess that I am is worthy of this important mission. He does not seem to care that someone else could do it better. He wants me, and I am so excited about that.
So, forgive me if my attempts at fundraising and preparing for this trip seem like a big mess. This is my first time going on a mission trip without a whole team of people, and it is a learning process. I have made many mistakes, and I am sure there will be plenty more before it's all over. But everything I've ever heard about the grace of God makes me feel confident that no matter how many mistakes I make along the way, He will not take this mission away from me simply because someone else could do it better. I have to believe that the One who created me must know me well enough to know what's right for me, so I will continue doing my best and trust that He will take care of the rest.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thoughts on Empathy

     I don't like politics. I don't enjoy conflict or arguing of any kind, and frankly I don't have much political knowledge because I never tried too. Most of my understanding of how our government functions came from Schoolhouse Rock videos. Knowing these things, I guess you could say that I have a biased opinion about this, and you might be right, but I just have a hard time seeing how easy it is for so many people to react to tragedy with "and this is why I'm voting for candidate X". The fact that we are able to use the death of another human to endorse our own opinion makes me wonder if unlimited access to constant information is teaching us to be comfortable with horrible things, because they're becoming familiar.
     Even though I'm not a political person, I'm not innocent of dismissing tragic events too quickly. I do that a lot, because I tell myself that these things happen because there is evil in the world, and there's nothing I can do about it. Last week, I had a rude awakening as I was reading an article about something tragic that happened recently in this country. The thing that struck me about this particular tragedy was two words I saw in that article. Two words stopped me from dismissing this event as inevitable tragedy in this broken world, two words that stopped me from shrugging it off because there's nothing I can do about it. The name of one of one of the victims was followed by the words "age twenty."

That's how old I am.

With those words, a news story that I understood intellectually became a real thing that I felt tangibly. Right now, funerals are being held for people my age, some even younger. Parents and siblings are having to say goodbye to their son or daughter, their brother or sister.  Like mine, their lives were just getting started. Like me, they had plans for their future, plans they were looking forward too. They had friends and family they never got to say goodbye to, pets that won't understand why they are never going to come back home. 
     Those people who were at first glance just names in another sad news story to me were someone's best friend. They were someone's son or daughter, someone's brother or sister. This event that will fade into a distant memory for me will be a day that someone will never be able to forget, because it is the day they lost a person they loved. Suddenly, this isn't just another sad story. Suddenly this is personal, tragic and uncomfortable because instead of realizing all of the ways I am different from these people, I have discovered something I have in common with them.
     I know that I said these kinds of tragedies are inevitable in this world, but perhaps I should stop using that as my excuse to dismiss them so quickly. I'm no expert, but maybe my ability to immediately dismiss or even politicize the death of another human being is not a testament to my supposed strength, but instead a sign that I am becoming desensitized to cruelty because it feels familiar.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I shouldn't live in a constant state of sadness, maybe I shouldn't immediately suppress my sadness either. Maybe I should stop dismissing tragedies as just another news story that I'm not going to read because it will only make me sad. Sadness is uncomfortable, and sensitivity can be humiliating. But maybe I need to be uncomfortable and humiliated sometimes. Maybe I need to have empathy for total strangers, simply because a lack of empathy is the one of the very reasons tragedy had the chance to become so familiar in the first place.
     Everyone knows what loss feels like. It is the one thing that no one can escape completely, no matter how much money, power, or fame we have. So why is it that we can so easily see someone else's loss as just another opportunity to talk about "what's wrong with this country" or who we're going to vote for?  Have we forgotten the human behind the story? Have we forgotten how to empathize? Let's start remembering, so that no child ever has to grow up in a world where evil is accepted as normal.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don't Put Ice Cream in Your Hair :Lessons from an Elementary School Cafeteria.

     On a particularly hectic day at work a few months ago, I found myself saying, in my most serious grown-up voice "Why did you put ice cream in your friend's hair, that's not a very nice thing to do!" to which the kindergartner in question just as seriously replied, "I don't know, it just seemed like fun!"
     It was at this moment that I came up with the title for a post I would write at the end of the school year, which I planned to be a comical account of the situations I encounter as a person who works with young children. But since that day, things have happened. Standing in a room helping to supervise large groups of children five days a week has taken it's toll on me. I feel older, and not in a wise way. I feel older in the way that I've probably suffered hearing loss and I feel like I need a nap after work at two in the afternoon. It would be a lie to tell you that my job is always enjoyable and that I arrive and leave every day with a smile on my face. It would be far to idealistic to let you believe that I am not looking forward to the end of this school year, as much as I feel heartless for admitting that. But in the midst of my exhaustion and frustration there is a stubborn writer who can't resist the chance to use that catchy title I came up months ago before the tiredness and frustration set in, so here we are. I myself am surprised at what I'm going to say. I didn't expect current events to be a subject in this post when I thought of that title months ago. That being said, I can't help but notice the stark contrast in the devastating chaos of this broken world we live in, and the temporary, mildly annoying chaos of a few hours in an elementary school cafeteria.
     In a world where mass tragedy  is not the shock of the century, but a reoccurring event that manifests itself in a trending hashtag and temporary outrage until the next big story comes along in a few months, children offer a small glimmer of the fleeting innocence that still exists in the world. In a world where adults take to the internet to debate each other about which tragedy in American history was the most deadly, as if it's a competition to be won, I find hope when I observe that for the most part, children are quick to offer and accept apologies to each other when prompted.  Yes, working with children is exhausting, but it has provided me with a perspective that I hope to always keep close. You see, I get frustrated with the constant conflicts these children depend on me to solve, but at the same time I am deeply thankful that these conflicts are small and manageable compared to the larger and more complex problems they will face as they grow older. It is my hope that somehow, in some small corner of their minds, the way I helped them handle problems in their elementary school cafeteria will help them learn how to solve bigger problems in a responsible way as they grow up.
To the children I love. I'm sorry that you're growing up to inherit a world that is such a mess, but I have confidence in your ability to improve it. I know that I have made mistakes, but I hope the majority of my actions have provided a good example for you. I hope, in some way, I have given you someone worth looking up to. So, don't put ice cream in your hair, don't put ketchup in your applesauce, and don't grow up too fast. Thank you for being you.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

It's Getting Real!

     I want to start by sending a big thank-you to everyone who was so very supportive and encouraging about the announcement in my last post. If you haven't read that one, you might want to so that this one makes sense. Many of you asked how you can support me, and this post is an answer to that question. One of the most important things you can do is pray for me. You can pray for my safety and that God will allow me to be used in whatever way necessary during my time in Togo. Another way you can support me is somewhat awkward to talk about, because it involves money.
     Please don't view this as a young adult asking other people to pay for her to go on vacation. This is a mission opportunity that I have put lots of thought and prayer into. I was raised with the idea that if you want something, you work for it and save up until you can afford it. I rarely if ever had things just handed to me for free unless it was my Birthday or Christmas. If I could pay for the whole thing by myself I certainly would, but that's just not possible right now, and I can't just ignore what I know God is telling me to do because it's too expensive. So, I have to swallow my pride and endure the awkwardness of fundraising and trust that it is part of the plan.
Obviously, a donation of any amount is welcomed and appreciated very much. A donation of $40 will allow you to "sponsor" me for a day by covering the cost of food, lodging and other daily expenses. My hope is that I can provide each daily sponsor with a personal E-mail update one day during the trip. I also need money for the cost of air travel, which makes up the bulk of my expenses, and for fun things like film for my instant print camera so I can give the children pictures of themselves, something that they don't usually get to have. I plan to have some other fundraising plans laid out in the near future, but for now I've set up a GoFundMe to hopefully make it quick and easy to donate.
Something I will never forget from my trip to Honduras is the way children would climb in my lap and sit there as long as they could. These weren't just little children, these were children that I think were probably as old as ten or eleven. Many times, a child would climb into my lap, lean their head against me, and sigh deeply. These children who seemed so resilient as I watched them play showed me the true definition of a sigh of relief as they let themselves simply be held and receive the affection that all children deserve. This was three years ago, but I can still vividly remember these sighs and they cross my mind almost every day. It may seem outlandish to say that this memory of holding children allows me to justify the cost of this trip, but it's true. Those children taught me that no amount of money, or any other obstacle I may face should prevent me from accepting an opportunity to demonstrate God's love. Thank you all for demonstrating that very same love to me in the support you are already showing.
The whole "mission team", including Baby Elijah who will be in charge of all of my financial decisions for this trip. (Just kidding, Elijah, that's just a lame attempt at comedic relief because I've been talking about money and that makes grown-ups uncomfortable!)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trusting the Foundation: A Special Announcement

     If you've noticed that my past few posts have been a little different, you are correct and there's a reason behind that. There's something that I've really been wanting to talk about, but I knew it would be best to make sure the details would work out before I said anything. So, I've been trying to think of other things to write about in the meantime, and it's been a stretch for me at times. I'm happy to say that those details have been worked out now, and I can finally share some exciting news.
       About a month and a half ago, I received an intriguing Facebook message that seemed almost too good to be true. It was from Samuel Lunsford, who I didn't really know personally but knew of because I know some of his family, and also because I've read e-mail updates in the past about he and his wife serving as missionaries in Africa. It turns out that he had been reading this blog and some of the things I said about my time in Honduras and my desire for another similar opportunity, and wanted to invite me to come visit them when they return to Togo this fall. Obviously I was very excited by this possibility, and honored that they would extend such an invitation to me. So, I began the process of learning about this opportunity and trying to discern if it was something God had planned for me.
Samuel and Lauren were kind enough to have me over for dinner one night, and during our conversation they told me about how they will be serving at Village of Light School for the Blind, a school that teaches students how to read a Braille Bible, and also helps them learn a trade. As soon as they started showing me pictures of some of the students, I knew this was the opportunity I had been praying for. I had the same feeling I did the first time I saw a slideshow of pictures from Honduras and knew I needed to pursue that trip that helped me discover my passion for the mission field. In spite of my excitement, I still had a nagging doubt, because my mission trip attempts in the past haven't always worked out the way I hoped they would. My foundation of faith helps me to know that this is what God is calling me to pursue right now, but my flawed humanity wants me to remember the times my feelings were hurt when I got excited about opportunities that didn't work out.  But the excitement started to eat away at the doubt, and I started searching for answers.
I talked to my pastor very honestly about my doubts and was encouraged. I talked to someone at my job about what would happen if I was gone for multiple weeks, and was reassured that I would still have that job upon returning. I wondered how I would avoid falling even farther behind in school if I was gone for so long during the fall semester until I realized (and by "I realized" I mean my mom pointed this out) that I could take classes during the summer and use the fall as my break instead. 
So after what feels like forever but was really only a few weeks, I can finally say that I plan to travel to Togo, Africa in October. It's going to be expensive, and parts of it will even be scary. I'll have to navigate several airports by myself and that's intimidating, but none of these things outweigh the fact that I believe this is something I'm supposed to do, and an opportunity that I've been praying and waiting for. I don't have all the answers, but I do have that foundation I talked about a few weeks ago. This is a bit out of character for me, but I would like to ask for your prayers as I continue to pursue this mission. I'm very thankful to the Lunsfords for providing this opportunity, and anxiously awaiting to see what God has in store for this new season. 

I came across this verse as I was praying about pursuing this trip, and it seems to me to contain an undeniable answer, in the form of a question. How can they believe if they have not heard?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Navigating Conflict : A Field Guide

     Conflict is essential to a writer, because without a conflict, there is no story. Without the big bad wolf, the three little pigs wouldn't have much going on. I appreciate conflict as a tool in writing, but when it comes to other aspects of my life, I tend to avoid it because it makes me so uncomfortable. I am by nature a conflict adverse person, and sometimes I lean on what I believe as a way to avoid being involved in situations where conflict is likely to be present. But there are some circumstances where conflict seems unavoidable, and I've encountered a lot of them recently and been unsure about what to do. As I was thinking about this, I thought of the story of Jesus turning over tables in the temple. I don't really know why I thought about this story, because it's not exactly on the greatest hits list for Sunday sermons. We like to talk about Jesus healing people and teaching about love, but it's sort of uncomfortable to think about him getting angry, so maybe that's why this particular story isn't one I've heard talked about very much.  Since I didn't know much about it, I did what any millennial with a question would do, I Googled it.I'm not a Bible scholar and I've never been to seminary, so maybe I'm completely off. But you probably already know that and you have decided to read this blog anyway, so here we go.
      After reading some commentary on this scripture and watching a few YouTube videos of sermons about it (there's a glimpse into the state of my social life and the amount of free time I have!), I came to the tentative conclusion that Jesus was angry because certain people were being mistreated and shortchanged, which limited their access to their place of worship. He must have believed that in order for this situation to be resolved, he needed to disturb the peace and stir up some unrest. As I said, there have been some situations in my life that have stirred up some feelings of unrest and maybe even conflict, so I have come up with some thoughts about what it might be good to do in these situations.

Pick your battles:  Tonight I saw a news story about the legislation of fantasy sports. I admit I wasn't paying full attention to the whole thing, but apparently some states are starting to regulate them because they could be classified as gambling in some cases. I couldn't help but laugh to myself about this "first world problem.", but I also felt a bit sad thinking about all of the other problems in the world that are being pushed aside in order to spend time on what I see as a very trivial issue. Clearly, this is not my battle to fight, but to someone else it's apparently very important, so I acknowledged that and moved on with my life.
I've been in several situations lately where I've been unsure whether to fight certain battles, and really the only thing I know to do about that is pray, and talk to people I trust. I'm still working on this one, but I

Stand your ground, but don't take root:  For conflict adverse people like me, it can be tempting to just drop a subject when things get tense. But when I do this, nothing gets solved and I
On the other hand, it's a terrible feeling to be neck deep in an argument, only to suddenly realize that what you are arguing about isn't even important. I sometimes have to remind myself that it's okay to drop an issue if I discover that dropping it would actually be more productive than resolving it. As a person who spends lots of time with children, I sometimes have to stop myself and say "You are arguing with a five year old about ketchup. Is this helping anything?" Sometimes, if no rules are being broken and no one is being disrespectful or endangering the people around them, it's best to walk away from the issue. It's fun to be right, but it's not worth hurting people or destroying relationships.

Above All, Love: My interpretation of this has changed as I've gotten older and gained more life experiences. While it would be wonderful if we could reach a point where we can find a compromise for every issue, we live in a broken world where evil does have an influence, so there will always be someone arguing about something.  I'm going to encounter conflict, and burying my head in the sand won't make it go away, but neither will compromising on every issue
     Sometimes you have to love people from a distance because they have become a toxic presence in your life, and sometimes you have to walk away from situations and environments that aren't aligned with what you believe. In some cases, you will need to speak up when you see that something is wrong, instead of hoping someone else will do something about it. Loving everyone does not mean being a doormat, and you can even love people while disagreeing with them. Love is by definition the opposite of hate, and no situation in the history of the world, at least not that I'm aware of, has been improved or resolved because of hate.
     So even though I still have doubts and questions, I think maybe the point is to know when to overturn the tables and when to leave them alone. In my flawed humanity, I know that sometimes I will overturn the wrong tables, so I'm thankful for the gift of grace that covers every mistake.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

One For the Children

     As a person who is lucky enough to be around lots of children on a regular basis, I feel the weight of my responsibility very deeply. Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by how different most of your childhoods are from my own ,and how short they seem because many of you are exposed to adult problems so soon. Childhood is supposed to be a unique experience distinctly separate from adulthood, a time when you have fun and learn how to follow rules, and leave most of the worrying to the adults. Somewhere along the way, some adults got that mixed up.You're really cool people, and sometimes we want you to be our friends. I know that sounds fun, but sometimes, it means that we dump our big grown up problems into your still growing brains, and then we wonder why you're not acting the way we want you to. That's a really silly thing to do, and I'm sorry that so many of you have to deal with the ignorance of people who are supposed to take care of you. I've taken enough psychology classes to know that the vast majority of your negative behaviors are triggered by circumstances in your life that are outside of your control, and yet I am still so quick to lose my patience. I'm trying so hard to work on that, I hope you can forgive me in the meantime.
     I'm sorry that I can't fix all of your problems, but even more importantly, I'm sorry that I've wasted so much time being overwhelmed by what I can't do,and forgetting to do the things I can. So, from now on, I promise to try to do my best to spend less time focusing on all of the negative things I see, and more time appreciating all of the positivity you create  I'll spend less time being sad when I see people coming to eat with you and never putting their phones down, and more time listening to your stories about your little league games and dance classes. I will spend less of my moments of free time scrolling through social media reading arguments between adults about bathrooms and politics,and more of that time listening to both sides of your Baseball vs. Soccer debates,and detailed explanations of who your favorite superhero is.
    I'm still going to correct you when you're not following the rules, and I'm still not going to let you put Ketchup on every single food you eat, because I promise you that there are some things it just doesn't go with. It's my job to make sure your're following the rules and doing what you're supposed to do, and I know that makes me look mean sometimes. I can remember being a child and not enjoying being disciplined, but I am old enough now to understand that it taught me how to respect authority and take responsibility for my actions, and those are two very important things to know in this world.
     I hope you know that you're important to me, even when I'm tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated because I don't always know if I'm doing anything that's really helping you. I wish I could fix all of your problems for you, but maybe it's better for you in the long run that I can only be there to help you as much as I can while you learn to face them on your own. I'm so lucky to be someone who gets to work with children, and you have taught me more that I could ever teach you. If there's one thing I could say to you that I never want you to forget, it's something best said in the words of one of my childhood heroes. You see, when all of the chaos dies down, and summer comes, and the cycle starts again until you wake up one day and discover that you aren't a child anymore, there's one thing that I hope you'll always know, and this is it: I like you just the way you are. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

For My Teachers: A Delayed Word of Thanks

     Today was a Wednesday that truly felt like a hump day, and not in the "funny Gieco commercial with the camel" way. It was a hump day in the "I am trying to tell 80 kids to quiet down and 2 of them are listening to me" way. Instead of being grumpy about my day, I decided to use this as an opportunity to recognize some of the teachers that were faced with the task of dealing with me throughout the years, because days like today remind me how severely unappreciated and misunderstood they are
     To the world geography teacher who introduced me to the thought that the world is bigger than this small town, thank you. That thought helped me survive the minefield that was my high school experience. When I finally got out of that small town the summer after graduation and went all the way to Honduras for a mission trip, I got a letter from you saying that you were proud of me, and it is one of my most prized possessions. Making you proud is more valuable to me than any degree or job could ever be.
     To my high school journalism/ Senior year English teacher, thank you for letting me think I knew more than I did. I know I was a brat, but being in charge of that school paper for a year was one of the only things that gave me any confidence at that time in my life. Thank you for gently steering me in a different direction the times my writing was overly cynical and angry due to teenage angst. I'm glad they were never put in print, thanks to your good judgement. Thank You for teaching the Canterbury Tales in what must be the most entertaining way possible, even though you might have gone just a little overboard with your creativity on that one. I'm still not sure what that story is actually supposed to be about, but I don't think I really care, because the real theme can't possibly be better than your interpretation. Also, thank you for those times you almost made me cry when you pushed me to explain myself more than I wanted to, or flat out told me I was wrong in front of the whole class. In those moments, I may have questioned your status as my favorite teacher of all of high school, but when it was all said and done, that status remained, because I realized that in those moments you were teaching me to stand up for myself, and helping me learn that sometimes in life I'm just going to be wrong about things, and it's going to be okay. That important lesson is worth more than any English skills you could have taught me.
     To my mission trip cohorts that I like to call my "teacher friends", thanks for being the people that inspired me to consider the possibility of working with children. While I'm not exactly sure what I will end up doing career wise, I do know that without you I never would have discovered that I have such a love for children, and a desire to help them, whether they are just down the street or across the ocean. Many people like to complain that God isn't allowed in schools anymore, but I know that as long as people like you are teachers He is there, because you bring Him with you in the way you treat the people around you.
     To the people who say that all teachers do is prepare students for standardized tests (I know you're out there, because I've talked to some of you, and seen your posts all over the internet), I won't try to prove you wrong, because your experiences must be far different than mine. You don't get to be in a school for a few hours a day and see the overwhelming list of task teachers face every day. I've heard it said that teaching is a job that requires you to do 20 jobs at once, and over these past few months I've seen just how true that is. They are expected to manage somewhere around 20 little humans, with different personalities,  different life stories, and different learning styles. They can't control what happened to those little humans before they got to school, but they are expected to handle the effects of it. They are very often responsible for correcting behaviors that are triggered by events outside of their control, and they are the ones that are faced with stopping the tantrums, drying the tears, and correcting the misbehavior, all while simultaneously teaching the things their students are required to know.
     When I think back on all of the teachers who impacted my life, I don't think of the test scores they helped me achieve. I think of people who chose a stressful and demanding job because it was their calling, and as a result of following to that calling, taught me important life lessons that cannot be found in any textbook.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Losing A Friend, Part 2: Remember the Dash

     April 25th is my least favorite day. It's the day I lost a great friend very unexpectedly, and the memories it brings are very deep and dark. I decided I wouldn't talk about it this year, because I didn't think I wanted to bring up sad memories again. I've known this date was coming up, and when I found out that youth Sunday would be April 24th, and that I had a friend coming to visit on that same weekend, I was happy, because I knew I would be busy, which would keep me distracted from thinking about that upcoming day that brings back so much sadness. But after a busy Saturday where I drove my friend all over two counties, coming up with hours of fun activities, and a busy Sunday morning filled with nerves about all the public speaking I would have to do for the beach service and youth Sunday, the time eventually came for me to sit down and listen to a sermon. A sermon delivered by one of our youth that was so profound that I found myself praying that I would not cry right there in the front pew, revealing to these teenagers I secretly want to be cool around that I'm really very emotional in the most uncool way.
    Yesterday, I was reminded that the end date is not what matters. It's no coincidence that I heard this message on April 24th, one day shy of the fourth year since losing my friend. I don't want to plagiarize or steal ideas from someone else's sermon, but here's a brief explanation of what it taught me.What really matters is the dash that represents the life we lead between our birth and death. This really hit me hard, because due to the way my friend died, people tend to focus on his end date, instead of the life that dash between birth and death dates represents. 
     I'm still sad, and a part of me always will be until I see my friend again. But each year, I realize that it's getting a little bit easier to focus on the good memories that the dash contained, instead of the tragic ending that April 25th brought. So, today I'll think about the time my friend tried his hardest to help me study for a French test I was nervous about, even though he had never taken French and didn't know a word of it. I'll remember how he always gave the best hugs, and how he sometimes left English class two times a day to go buy Honey Buns from the cafeteria, even though that class was right after lunch. I'll laugh about the time he brought me orange juice in Sunday school, and didn't tell me it was expired until I had taken a sip, but assured me it was okay to drink because expired orange juice is just "extra pulpy." Today, I'll think about his dash. It was a short one, spanning only seventeen years, but it was bold. He lived his dash to the fullest, and I'll do my best to follow his example and make my dash a bold one. 
Today, I want to share one piece of advice I didn't know yet when I wrote the first post about losing a friend. When you think of your friend, try not to focus so much on their end date. Try instead to think of the way they lived their dash. If your friend was anything like mine, their dash is too bold to ever be forgotten.