Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Can I Do?

     Eleven days ago, I arrived home from training to be a missionary, empowered by being around so many people who are passionate about the same things I am. After having so many discussions with these people and learning so much about the values of the program I am a part of, I felt ready to make some real positive change in the world. Then I left the sheltered environment of the training program, and encountered the world in all it's chaos.
     In those eleven days I've been home, a lot has happened in this country. In just eleven days we've heard confusing but troubling threats of nuclear warfare and been smacked in the face with the acknowledgement that in the United States in 2017, racism and white supremacy are alive and well, thriving even. There's probably more that I'm not remembering, and I'm just talking about eleven short days, not even two weeks. I've wanted to do something, but it feels like I'm not in a position to do anything helpful.
     Multiple times I've begun composing passionate Facebook statuses in an effort to make my voice heard, only to change my mind and delete them. The truth is, a Facebook status would do very little to initiate actual change. No matter how well worded my Facebook status is, it will soon be lost in the void of countless other statuses. This blog post might gain some traction for a few days, but it will inevitably be lost in the endless void of the internet. So what can I do?
     As I was thinking about this dilemma, my mind drifted to the dear woman who was our Chaplin at training. Kathryn Mitchem is a former missionary and deaconess, and as far as I'm concerned, a living saint. She told us at the beginning of our training that she would be sitting in on most of our sessions. Not to observe or test us, but to pray for us. Day after day, as we endured long sessions tackling tough issues that sometimes became controversial, she sat quietly in the back and did what she promised us she was there to do. She was a quiet yet powerful presence during our training, and she was well loved.
     I know that I am not alone in my adoration of this woman. Every night at dinner I witnessed people seeking her out and asking her to sit with them. Whenever I saw her in the hallway, she was surrounded by a small crowd. You basically had to stand in line to have a conversation with her. There is just something about this quiet, peaceful woman that draws people in.
     The most profound evidence of Kathryn's impact came during what was called our send-off ritual the night before commissioning. We sat in a circle and passed around a candle, and as each person held the candle for one minute, we were supposed to say positive and affirming things about them. When the candle was handed to Kathryn, the quiet was broken. All forty-five Global Mission Fellows, without previously planning this, stood and applauded our prayer warrior. We got so caught up in our applause that we used up thirty seconds of her minute just standing and clapping.
     So why does Kathryn come to my mind as I try to figure out what I, as just one person, can do in the face of all this evil? Maybe because I know that she has seen decades of evil things, before I was even born. She has seen over and over again how dark the world can be, and she still chooses to shine her light. She gives me hope.
     Advocacy is important and imperative. There's a quote that's been floating around Facebook, and though it's source has been questioned, I think it's a good thought. "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil."In Isaiah Chapter 58, a passage that we studied during one of our training sessions,are these words “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you,  and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. (Verses 6-8)
     As advocates march with their message of justice, and eager new missionaries embark on our missions, Kathryn continues to pray for us. Knowing this, I feel comforted, and I feel empowered. She and others like her are essential to our mission.I do not know what the future holds for me, or this country, or the world. Even after three weeks of missionary training, I often don't know what I can do to create justice in an enormously unjust world. But I do have hope, because I have the examples of people like Kathryn who have been doing the work of justice for decades. If they have not lost hope, then I will not lose hope. I will keep moving forward even when I am not quite sure of the best way to go. I will follow in the footsteps of those who have been where I am right now, and I will continue the work that they started. It is what I am called to do.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has" (Photo by Lily Sloan)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Mixed Feelings

     When I graduated from high school, I remember experiencing a strange sense of guilt because I was not at all sad about it. While most of my classmates were lamenting the end of the "good times", and talking about how sad they were to leave the supposedly idyllic small town we grew up in, I was counting down the days until I could stop pretending to even know what "good times' they were talking about.
     While I want to believe I'm not as cynical as I was back then, that strange sense of guilt is trying to come back again. As I prepare to move to a new state very soon, I find myself answering a lot of questions about how I feel about this move, and many times those questions feel like they are asked with the expectation of a certain answer. If I say I'm excited to go, I worry that it will sound like I have a terrible life here that I can't wait to get away from. If I say there are people and things I am sad to leave, I worry that it will sound like I'm not excited to go. Basically the moral of this story is that I really need to chill out and stop worrying about the implications of my answers.
     Jokes aside, there is no single answer that fully describes how I feel about the next stage of my life, and I think that is why the question causes me so much anxiety. Yes, I'm happy to go, and yes sometimes I'm a little sad as well. Yes I'm excited to experience new things, and yes there are things I am sad to leave behind. It's a complicated way to feel, and I find it very difficult to explain fully within the context of casual small talk.
    Moving to Nome is in no way an impulsive decision. It is the result of a process that has taken many months, and that process was the result of events throughout my life that have made me the person I am right now. It is also the result of a ten page application, two stages of interviews, and three weeks of training. Over the past few months, I have had a lot of discussions with God, many of them full of questions and maybe a bit of complaining when the answers did not come right away. But when they finally did come, I trusted them, because I had been searching for them with my whole heart. That's how I feel about moving. Even though my human emotions will cause some homesickness and nostalgia, I can say with certainty that I am doing what I need to be doing right now.
     The next time someone asks me how I feel about moving to Nome, I'll probably just say I'm excited, and that will be very true. But maybe this would be a more complete answer; My brain is excited and sometimes overwhelmed, my heart is eager but nostalgic, but the most important thing is that my soul is at peace. And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

More to the Story


     I love watching TED talks. Well, I guess maybe I love watching them if they're about a topic that interests me. There's something about listening to people speak intelligently about subjects they know a lot about that I find fascinating. A few days ago in a session here at training we watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a novelist. She talked about how whenever she is introduced, there is a single story that accompanies the introduction of where she is from.
     A single story happens when a person or group of people becomes known for a single trait or action, usually because that is how they repeatedly get talked about. It is what happens when we let ourselves generalize and talk about "those people", as if every individual in a group is a clone of the other people in the group. It is what happens when we get a bad first impression of someone, and become convinced that the negative things we saw in that person are the only parts of them. It happens when every time we see an African child on T.V., they are emaciated and crying. After that being the picture I saw for most of my childhood, you can imagine what it was like to arrive in Togo to find many children laughing, playing, and singing.
     As a person who was born with something called a neural tube defect, in my case Spina Bifida, and as a person who is noticeably different than most people simply because of the way I walk, Adichie's talk resonated with me because I also do not want to be known for one part of my life that I have no control over.
     In a few days, I hope to become a commissioned missionary. I know that to some people, I will be the girl who listened to God's call, even though she was born with this pitiful affliction. Bless her heart. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but it is a story I have been told about myself throughout my life on many occasions, whether it was intentional or not. I know that it comes from a good place, most of the time, so I try to appreciate it. But I also don't want to be known only as the girl with the disability who did things despite her pitiful affliction, bless her heart.
     Yes, I was born with a "thing" that sets me apart in some ways from the general population, and yes I will become a missionary. But that is far from the only part of my story, and I do not want it to become my single story. Yes, the fact that a disability is part of my life did help me learn to notice people who aren't being included, and it helped me relate to people who feel different or left out, which is an asset for someone in the mission field. But other than that, I really don't feel those two parts of my life are dependent on each other. I fully believe God has a plan for each of our lives and I don't want to speculate too much about what my life would be like if certain things were different. I just think that these are important parts of me who make me who I am, but they are not always directly related, nor are they anywhere close to being the whole story of who I am.
     Please know that I try to gracefully accept every compliment that is given to me, and I know that people who see me as an over-comer of my disability are just as full of love and good intentions as those who feel no need to mention it. There are plenty of things in my life that would have been much easier if I was an "able bodied" person, and perhaps I should acknowledge that more often. It's just never been what I want to be known for.
     I know that I cannot control what story gets told about me, perhaps that is why I find it so important to tell my own story as much as possible. And yes, I need to learn to be graceful no matter someone else interprets my life. But as I set out on the next chapter of my life, serving as a Global Mission Fellow in Nome, Alaska, it is my goal to remember that each person I meet does not have just one single story, but many stories that intertwine together to make them who they are. That's the way God made us, complex and diverse, and I think that is something worth honoring.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Unlikely Friendships

     This morning as I was riding to church with some new friends from training, I was thinking that Atlanta looks familiar in a way, like something I've seen in a movie. Eventually, I remembered that this is where one of my favorite movies, Driving Ms. Daisy, was filmed. If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it, but basically it is the story of an older southern, white, Jewish woman who is reluctantly driven around by an African American chauffeur that her son hires for her after it becomes clear that she can no longer drive herself. Although she is extremely resistant to accepting his help at first, the two eventually form a bond, leading up to one of the films most touching moments when Ms. Daisy tells the chauffeur she once despised, "Hoke, you're my best friend."
     Although the movie takes place during the civil rights movement, some of the social tensions it explores are still present today. I'm sure you know that, because those tensions are talked about it all the time. We hear about them on the news, we read about them on social media, we listen to sermons about them in church. I personally have sat in some really challenging discussions about them during these first two weeks of training. So, since the problem clearly isn't that we aren't aware or don't care about the tensions that separate us as human beings, why are they still so prevalent in our society?
     That's to big of a question for someone like me to answer in one blog post, but I might have a small part of the much larger answer. We can talk forever about how we all need to accept and love each other, and it's definitely an important thing to discuss, but nothing changes until we actually do it.
     Because of the mission trips I've been on, I already have some friends from other countries and cultures, and through Global Mission Fellows I am now gaining many more. I'm ashamed to admit this, but today I posted a picture of me with some of those friends, and then wondered what people from my hometown will think of the fact that I am the only white person in that picture. Will they think it's strange that I would befriend people who look different than me, will they think I've got a point to prove? But after thinking about it, I realized that me worrying about these things does absolutely nothing except waste time I could be using to think about more productive things. So, I'll continue to get to know my new friends, and I'll be proud of the pictures I take with them. Like Ms. Daisy and Hoke, we can be friends no matter how different our backgrounds are. And with those friendships, we'll begin to change the injustices of our world.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Happy Soul

    I am at the end of my third day of three weeks of Global Mission Fellows training, and as I begin to write this  I've just gotten back from dinner. I've never doubted my decision to apply for this program, at least not so significantly that I can remember it right now.
     But as I sat at dinner tonight, having a conversation with a few women around my age, this decision was affirmed in a big way. During my conversation with them, I shared some thoughts with these like-minded people, and listened to them share theirs. Even though the conversation wandered to some controversial topics, it remained respectful. I did a lot of listening, and I felt heard. 
     If you know me well, you probably know that I am very much an introvert. I'm usually more of a listener than a talker, so I was surprised at how much I was contributing to the conversation tonight. We've talked at this training about stepping forward and stepping back in conversation. I was comfortable enough tonight to step forward at times, and they were gracious enough to step back and listen. I didn't realize until it was over how much I had been longing for more of this kind of interaction in my life.
     I've been through some personal struggles these past few months which don't need to be named individually right now. But I know my soul has been discontent. Here today at training, my soul is happy. Even though I was busy for many hours today, and spent two of those hours learning about and discussing Methodist theology, which by itself is enough to make anybody mentally exhausted, my soul is happy. I am going to do what I love, I am going to be a missionary.
     Maybe you're going through a hard time, like I have been for these past few months. Whatever the reason, whatever the circumstances, I pray you will soon reach a happier time, and come to a place where your soul is happy and content. Even though I feel happy right now, I know very well how hard it is to be in a time when you are struggling to find happiness and contentment, for reasons that you might not even be able to put into words.As I come to the end of this long day, my brain and my body are tired, but my soul is content. I'm not sure if I'll ever become an expert of Methodist theology, but I'm not really worried about it right now. As one of my new friends told me today, we'll figure it out together. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Great Expectations

     I remember last summer after a youth retreat, we were asked to say some things about it in church, including what our favorite part of the retreat was. I asked if I could say my favorite part was the car rides to and from the trip. I played it off as a joke, but there was a lot of truth in it.
     Don't get me wrong, that whole trip was full of great moments. But I was expecting great moments during the worship services, and at the cross on top of the mountain. I had expectations for those moments, but I never thought about the car rides. Ironically, the part of that trip that had the biggest impact on my life, and the part I will remember the most, is the part I had no expectations for.
     I think we've all got these pictures in our heads of what our lives are supposed to look like, just like I had a mental picture of what that retreat was supposed to look like. Milestones are supposed to be met at a certain time, friends and families are supposed to always be close. When these expectations don't match up with reality, it can feel deeply disappointing, even devastating. I know this from experience.
     I've had to learn that some things in life just aren't the way I wish they could be, and I think it is okay to feel saddened and disappointed by that realization. I've also discovered that while I'm busy having expectations, often the most memorable parts of life are the parts I never expected at all. Sometimes the closest friendships and strongest relationships bloom from regular moments, and sometimes the moments we remember most don't happen when we reach our expected destination, but rather when we're on the way there. 
      I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with having expectations. But I am slowly learning that my happiness should not depend on my expectations being met. Let yourself spend some time mourning the loss of the things that aren't meant to be, but not so much time that you miss out on the things, the relationships, and the moments that are. I guess what I'm saying is, don't get so caught up in waiting for those mountaintop views that you miss what is happening on the car ride to the mountains. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Togo, the Sled Dog Who Saved Nome.

     When I was really little, I remember watching a movie that I really liked called Balto. It was an animated movie based on the real sled dog who was famous for his role in transporting medicine to remote parts of Alaska during a diphtheria epidemic in the early 1900's. There is an annual sled dog race in honor of those dogs each year, and the finish line for that race is in Nome, Alaska, where I will be moving in August. I also learned recently that there was another important dog on Balto's team, and his name was Togo. As you probably already know, I spent three weeks in Togo, Africa on my last mission trip, and that is where I decided that I wanted to pursue mission work full time.
     So why am I telling you all of this? It's not just to give you a history lesson, but you're welcome for that added bonus. It's because  I don't think of all of these things as random coincidences. In my mind, finding out about that dog who shared a name with the last place I went on a mission trip was an affirmation that Nome, where he delivered life saving medicine, truly is my next mission field. It's also a reminder of how God uses a bunch of seemingly little things working together to carry out His plans.
      I don't like to talk about growing up with a disability very often, because that's not how I want to be defined. And compared to many children, I had it pretty good, so I don't want to over-dramatize the truth and make it seem like I had some awful, traumatic childhood. Overall, it didn't bother me or even slow me down that much.  But there were a few times when things got pretty rough for a little while, and as I look forward to this exciting move to Alaska, I can't help but remember those times. These times revolved around hospital stays and long recoveries, with a fair share of setbacks and a few brushes with some pretty scary stuff, like Staph infection and one particularly scary allergic reaction to anesthesia. It was in those times that, though I was completely unaware of it, I was developing skills that I will need as a missionary.
        I was learning to trust God when things like recovering from surgery weren't happening on the timeline I would have preferred. Admittedly, I am still working on this one. I was also learning what it is like to feel isolated and alone, which is why I think I am quick to notice other people who may be feeling the same way. Most of all, I was starting to understand how vital my faith is to me, which led me to wanting to share that faith to others.
      One unfortunate side effect of going through some hard times is that I seem to have an odd habit of not processing good things very well. It's hard not to constantly be wondering when some unexpected hard time is going to derail my plans. But I'm slowly learning to let myself fully enjoy good things. I know that inevitably there will be more hard times, as there are for everyone, but if there's anything my life has taught me so far, it's that, with faith, I can make it through hard times.
     I'm so excited about the direction my life is moving in right now. And though it has taken me a long time to get to this point, I'm beginning to be thankful for hard times in my life, because now I know how important they were.

(Left) A scene from a hospital stay. There were plenty of less idyllic pictures of this time, but I decided to go with this one, where I was almost smiling, thanks to my cool new Kindle and some pretty strong painkillers. (Right) I had no idea watching this movie as a child that I would live in Nome one day.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

No Turning Back

     I have a very vivid memory of standing in a brightly painted courtyard at an orphanage in what the internet claimed was "the most dangerous city in the world.", surrounded by excited children competing for hugs. It was hot, and loud, and overwhelming in the best way. I remember my friend asking me if I was okay, bringing me out of the daze I must have been in. I was okay, more okay than I had been in a long time. I felt like I had just found something I had always been looking for.
     I have another, more recent memory of sitting in the dirt surrounded by chickens in a remote village in Africa, miles from anywhere recognizable. A baby was being passed around, and after a while he was placed in my arms, naked with only a blanket to cover him. As I held him I made eye contact with his mother, or rather she made eye contact with me. We didn't speak the same language, but the look in her eyes didn't need translation. She was a mother who loved her son very much, and like all good mothers she did her best with what she had, the only problem being that she had next to nothing. She was allowing a stranger from a foreign country to hold her baby for a moment, and it was a great honor.
    There was no turning back after that moment. I returned home, returned back to my family and friends and to the motions of every day life, But something had changed inside me, something I couldn't ignore for long. So, I began what I referred to as "looking into longer term mission opportunities." And I am so excited about what I eventually found.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Second Family

     The first time I ever attended Salem Church was on Mother's Day, seven years ago tomorrow if my memory is correct.  In those years, I've grown from a teenager into a young adult, and I've grown in other ways too. I've grown from someone who simply showed up on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights, into a member of the church who is more aware of and sometimes involved in the details of what keeps a church going.
     I have my spot in the parking lot, and my pew where I like to sit.  I have even slept (or tried to sleep) there during a youth group lock in. I have been there through three pastors and various youth leaders, through births and losses, one of those losses being especially personal to me. I have laughed there, cried there, eaten there, and learned there. My church has become a part of my life, and a place that feels as familiar as my own home. My church family has become almost as familiar to me as my own family, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I love them.
     But like all families, church families are not perfect. They are made up of people with unique personalities and perspectives, people with different life experiences that allow them to see things in very different ways sometimes. When I'm 45 minutes into a meeting that is getting too intense, and considering converting to the Episcopalian church, or when I'm sitting in the pew one Sunday morning and can feel a tension in the air that sometimes hangs around for a few weeks. those are the moments when I start to understand friends I've met who have left the church because the people who are supposed to be known by their love all to often become known by their conflict.
     Perhaps I'm just too much of an optimist who is seeing my church through rose colored glasses, but at the end of the day, I love that place. It has stood in it's place through countless historical events both good and terrible, and and has never crumbled because of an unstable economic or political climate. It is not perfect, but I choose to embrace the imperfections so that I can also embrace the love, the friendship, and the feeling of home that I get from my church. For better or for worse, I am a proud member of Salem United Methodist Church. To borrow some words from the tried and true Sunday morning order of service, Thanks be to God.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Even If

    I still remember the humiliation I felt when someone called me a show-off because of the way I answered a question in English class when I was in eleventh grade. I remember the book we were discussing, and I remember the answer I gave, which I was very proud of until I was quickly shot down by this comment from a classmate. Most of all, I remember what it felt like step out and share my thoughts with other people, only to be met with hostility and criticism. It is experiences like that one, combined my sensitive nature that I can't seem to shake, that make it hard for me to share certain things sometimes.
     I've had a feeling for a few weeks now that there's something I should write about. I've tried to shake the feeling by telling myself that hearing the same song over and over again is not necessarily a message from God, it's just something that's bound to happen when you listen to the same radio station for all forty days of Lent. But Lent has been over for a week now, and the beginning of the infamous pledge drive has prompted me to change the radio station, but the feeling still remains. There's something I feel like I need to say, and I'm probably not going to be able to write about anything else very well until I say it.
     Right now, I am waiting to hear if I have been accepted to be a part of something that is very exciting to me. It's become so important to me that I haven't wanted to talk about it with many people. First, because I don't really want to talk about the very real possibility that it might not work out. I have no idea how good my chances are, and for all I know they could have thrown my application in the trash as soon as the interview ended. The second reason I don't want to talk about is it is that it's just too sacred to me. I care about it a lot, and the outcome, good or bad, is going to affect me.
      But I feel that I need to acknowledge, to myself as much as everyone else, that even if this doesn't work out for me, I will be okay. It's difficult for me to even say that because I desperately hope that this opportunity does work out in my favor. It is difficult to say, but I do believe it. There have been many times in my life that I have not gotten the outcome I wanted, and it's always painful in the moment. But looking back, I can say that I have always been okay. I have been sad, even heartbroken. I have struggled more times than I can count with not understanding the way situations have worked out in my life. But I have never been completely hopeless, and I can't shake the feeling that I need to acknowledge that feeling during this time of waiting, when I don't know the outcome yet.
     When you get down to the root of it, I think that's what makes me a person who has faith in God. Being involved in mission work is very important to me, and I love my church family dearly. But at the end of the day, those things are not the reason for my hope. Those things are not the reason that I can hand a malnourished baby back to his mother in a third world country and not come home hopeless. Those things are not the reason that I can hear of the death of two precious children I met in Honduras, and still have hope that I will see them again one day. My hope comes from my relationship with God, my faith in Him. If this opportunity works out for me, I will be overjoyed. But even if it does not, I will still have hope.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Stop Rubbernecking!

     It was a foggy morning, there was a steady drizzle falling from the sky. I was behind the wheel of the drivers-ed car, carefully navigating down the road while my teacher entertained me with funny stories from the passenger seat, interjecting every once in a while with minor corrections and reminders. "Remember to check your rear-view before you your speed, it's not a race." Everything was going smoothly, until we came upon an the aftermath of an accident in the ditch. It wasn't even a major accident, but the flashing lights of the police cars caught my eye.
     Without thinking, I instinctively took my eyes off the road and turned to look at the commotion happening off to the side. It was then that I got an important driving lesson that doubled as a life lesson. "Stop rubbernecking, keep your eyes on the road. I can't tell you how many accidents are caused by drivers who take their eyes off the road to look at an accident that's already happened."
     To rubberneck, according to Google, is to "turn one's head to stare at something in a foolish manner." That day years ago, I had literally taken my eyes off the road, which is something I like to think I don't do often now that I am a more experienced driver. But in areas of my life that have nothing to do with driving, I am a rubbernecking repeat offender. Most of the time, I have good intentions. I believe that God has a plan for me and I start off focused on following that plan, but it doesn't take long before my I get distracted from the road in front of me by the flashing lights on the side. Flashing lights that come in may forms; the "what-if" scenarios about every possible thing that could go wrong, the little things other people unknowingly do that damage my fragile feelings, my bad habit of comparing my life to the lives of my peers. If I keep giving in to all of these distractions that compete for my attention, I am eventually going to end up in a ditch.
      If I had been scolded and criticized when I made that beginners' mistake back when I was a new driver, I think I would have had a much different reaction. But the firm yet gentle reminder that I got was exactly what I needed, and it has stuck with me for all of these years. Perhaps when we become distracted by the flashing lights along the roadway of life, we just need that gentle reminder to keep our eyes focused on the road ahead, no matter how tempted we are by the drama and distractions happening off to the side.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Holding on to Ashes

     If you've read the past two or three posts I've written, you may have noticed a theme, one that's not particularly cheerful. If you're wondering what is going on to cause all of these pensive thoughts I've been expressing, there's really not much to tell. It's just the season that I have been in, but I'm at the place now where I think I can spot the end of this season on the horizon. I believe all seasons of life have a purpose, and maybe the difficult ones are meant to teach us something. In finding my way back to a more cheerful side of myself, I have learned some important lessons. A verse that has been particularly comforting to me over the past few weeks is Isaiah 61:3 ...and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
     As I say frequently in my writing, I'm not a theologian. You know by now that I write from my own perspective, which is one of a person who has had no formal training in the area of theology and is just sharing her thoughts the best she can For the sake of clarity, here's how I'm defining ashes in this context of this blog post. In the literal sense, as I'm sure you already know, ashes are the remnants left over after everything else has been burned up in a fire. Figuratively, in this verse, ashes are the things we wrestle with internally when we go through hard times in our lives. 
     Why would I hold on to ashes? Shouldn't getting rid of the negative junk on my mind be something that I look forward to? In some ways it is, but I have found that the process of trading in my ashes has not been without it's difficulties. I've learned that the first and most difficult step to trading ashes is the act of acknowledging that I have them, which can be a problem for a person like me who has a tendency to shove negative things to the back of my mind instead of confronting them head on. I also know that there is someone, devotional writers like to call him "the enemy" but his street name is Satan, who knows that this process is bringing me closer to God, which is the last thing he wants. The more I try to trade in those ashes, the more he tries to make me believe that it would be easier to just keep holding on to them. He even tricks me into having a twisted sense of pride about my ashes, tempting me to believe that I can use them as proof of some sort of personal strength I have as a result of going through hard times. In reality, the only thing holding on to these ashes is doing is preventing me from seeing the beauty that comes from trading them in. And so, I have decided that I no longer wish to keep them. I am making a trade for something better.   
     Sometimes, getting rid of your ashes is a very personal and private process, and there's nothing wrong with that. I happen to be someone who processes things by writing about them, and the results are blog posts like this.
      I'm trying to get rid of all of the ashes, and I have found that it's not as quick or easy as I would like for it to be. But I feel like it's something that needs to happen, and if I can get some good writing material out of the process, I just consider that a bonus.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lessons on Bravery from an Unlikely Teacher

     Having a blog can be a really strange thing sometimes. I, or anyone else with access to the internet, can write about whatever I want, and send it out into the universe for anyone to discover and read. There are no rules, unless I choose to set them for myself. Most of the time, I don't worry about it very much because I don't get a ton of feedback, and the things I write about aren't typically scandalous or shocking. But seeing the number of views on my last post, compared to the numbers on other recent posts, was a reality check for me. While I was very happy that so many people were interested enough to read what I wrote, my eyes were opened to the fact that I am putting my feelings on the internet for the world to see, and the world, or at least a part of it around me, is taking notice.
     Obviously, being real and honest and vulnerable is something that people connect with. I try my very best to write from a place of authenticity, and I'm usually quite open about the things I share. But as open as I may seem when it comes to writing, there is a side of me that is not so comfortable with people knowing so much about me. Many of the people who read this blog are people I know in real life. I might see you in the grocery store or at church after you've read all about my feelings, and I would be lying if I said that doesn't make me feel a little uncomfortable at times.
      As I've been thinking about the impact of being so vulnerable so publicly, I looked at many bible verses, devotions, and articles about vulnerability, and also this issue of guarding my heart that keeps coming to my mind whenever I worry that I am sharing too much.  In the end, the thing that helped me find my answer didn't come from a Bible story or academic article. It came from one of my childhood heroes, Franklin the Turtle. Franklin starred in a TV show and also a series of books, whose opening lines are somehow still etched into the farthest corners of my long term memory. "Franklin could count by twos and tie his shoes..."  I remember when I had to have a minor surgery when I was probably four or five, and my parents gave me the book Franklin Goes to the Hospital. For some reason as I began writing about vulnerability that book came to mind, so I decided to revisit my childhood and look it up. Something that fictional, animated animal says is exactly what I want to say."Everybody thinks I'm brave, but I've just been pretending." What if, after reading that I've really been struggling with my feelings, people who once thought I was brave now start to change their minds. Now, instead of a brave young woman who's gracefully endured hardships throughout her life, I'm just another "snowflake" millennial talking about mental health and feelings on the internet? For the record, I believe that talking about mental health is very important and something we should do far more openly and often, but that's a topic for another day.
     This is not the first time I've worried about losing my bravery badge. I have felt that way so many times, since I was very young. Is it brave to endure life with a disability that makes me different, and the struggles that sometimes come with it? Maybe, but I don't exactly have a choice in the matter. I did not choose to be born with a birth defect, it's just who I am, and since it's not going away, I try not to focus on it. I'm not sure if that's bravery or just a coping mechanism.
     Is it brave to travel to a foreign country alone, and stay there for three weeks? Some people say so, I say it was an experience that I loved. To me, the issue of bravery only kicked in once I returned home and had to face the ways I had changed. When I had to realize that I had returned different than I left, in ways that I don't yet know how to fully describe.
     As strange as it may seem coming from a person who has endured some pretty gruesome medical drama and traveled to two foreign countries that aren't exactly tourism destinations to do mission work, I think the bravest thing I've ever done was to be open and honest about my feelings. I am still struggling to find a balance between guarding my heart and allowing my weakness to be on display, but here's what I know for sure; If my struggles can help someone in any way, even if only to let them know that they are not alone, then I believe it is important to share my experiences as honestly as possible. It can be scary for me to be so honest sometimes, but I know a thing or two about bravery thanks to a book from my past about a beloved cartoon turtle.
     What part of your story are you keeping to yourself, because it feels too risky to share? You never know who needs to hear the chapter of your story that you've always left untold.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sadness is Not a Sin Part II : Find What's Best

Around this time last year, I was inspired to write a post entitled "Sadness is not a Sin" that I ended up being glad I decided to share. In it, I mentioned that I have experienced periods in my life of what I believe to be depression. Today, almost a year later, I feel that I should return to that subject again, because I feel like although it's an uncomfortable subject to talk about, it is important that it is indeed talked about.
I mentioned that I had struggled problems that were most likely some form of depression, even though I say again that this was not an official diagnosis, and I had not sought out any kind of diagnosis at that time. My problems did not manifest in the ways that our society is comfortable with. The way I see it, we live in a society that is largely uncomfortable talking about anything having to do with mental health, so we either make it a joke or avoid talking about it at all. We casually armchair diagnose people, even entire political parties, with mental illnesses when we can't comprehend why they do the things they do. I'll admit that I've done that, thankfully in private conversation and not in a public forum. We make fun of celebrities and public figures for "acting crazy", because that's more comfortable and more fun than acknowledging the very real issues that people deal with.
The reason I bring that up is that in a world where we observe other peoples behaviors for entertainment, the behaviors that I have experienced when I've gone through hard times are not entertaining at all. I did not become a fun party girl, or take long road trips to find myself. I did not write whimsical poetry or make art. Instead, I became stuck in my own cruel cycle, bored and withdrawn. I sat I the same chair for hours, doing nothing of consequence, racking my brain in an attempt to figure out how I had reached this point. When I go through my low points, the effects are embarrassing to talk about, so I usually don't. It's only on rare occasions like today that I've been comfortable enough to share a little bit of myself that is usually not revealed.
There's a song I've been hearing a lot lately, even though it's been around for a little while. There is a line in the song that says “Lay down what’s good and find what’s best.”, and I feel like that describes what I am trying to do currently. Right now, I’m okay, some of the time I can even pass for good. But I have decided that good isn’t good enough anymore. I am ready to be the best version of myself, and if that means that I have to do things that make me feel a little uncomfortable, then so be it.
I have found that for me, trying to pretend that I'm okay when I'm not only makes things worse. If you're not really okay right now, that's okay. I am writing this in hopes that, even if you take nothing else from reading this, you will realize you are not alone, because that seemingly simple realization has helped me tremendously. There's no shame in the way you feel, and there are steps you can take to help yourself feel better again. I took one of those steps myself earlier today, which is what prompted me to write this.
I'm so thankful for that Psychology professor I had who was so open about being a Christian, and at the same time so unafraid and unashamed of encouraging us to take care of our mental health. I'm also thankful for the other examples in my life of good Christian people who have encouraged me to take care of my mind just as much as I take care of myself in all of the other ways that our world hasn't attached shame and stigma to. I am taking steps to lay down what's good and find what's best, and I encourage you to do the same. If I can do it, so can you.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Loose Gravel and Other Temporary Problems

     An interesting project took place on some areas of the road near where I live earlier this week. I'm no engineer, but as far as I can tell it involved spreading a somewhat thick layer of small gravel on random stretches of the road for no beneficial reason other than to make my personal driving experience less enjoyable. Obviously, that was not the real reason for this project, but that hasn't stopped me from being annoyed by it, and expressing that annoyance to anyone who will listen.
     The saving grace of this mysterious gravel project is that it is temporary. Eventually, that layer of gravel will be dispersed by cars and the weather. It will make it's way to the sides of the road and eventually into the ditch, and all that will be left is the memory of that time the road was covered in gravel and I didn't like it. It is a temporary problem that will have no long term affects on me, unless I allow it too.
     Obviously, a road work project that I don't understand is not really a big deal. It's just a silly thing that gets on my nerves, but is still easy to laugh about. It's the bigger annoyances in life that I find more difficult to let go of. When people say and do things that hurt my feelings, or when I am faced with circumstances that seem unfair, my natural reaction is to hold on to my hurt feelings until the situation is resolved in my favor. I can recall a particular time I was treated unfairly in kindergarten, and even though I can see some humor in it now that I am an adult, I still get worked up about if I think about it too much. That's how good I can be at holding on to my hurt feelings, and it's not something I am proud of.
      While I think it is probably natural to want situations to be resolved so that my feelings can be mended, I have to realize that it is not beneficial to me or the people around me. I don't want to spend my whole life being angry and bitter, which means that eventually I have to swallow my pride and just let things go. It's hard because it doesn't leave me feeling justified and satisfied, but it is better that the alternative, being permanently bitter.
     Clearly I'm not going to stop driving on the road for the rest of my life because of this temporary project I don't agree with, so why should I give up on relationships and positive connections because of temporary problems? One day, all of that gravel that annoys me so much right now will be long forgotten, and the minor things that hurt my feelings today won't matter anymore. What will matter is how I chose to react to those things, because that could be the difference between ending good things in a moment of hurt, or choosing to see beyond the moment and realize that hurt is only temporary, and simply moving on.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Proper Time

     One morning around three months ago, I was having a particularly nice start to my day in Togo, having managed to be up early enough that the heat hadn't fully set in yet and I could enjoy a walk without feeling like I was melting. I was walking back from the little shop on the school property, carrying a gift I had just purchased. I was in a particularly good mood because I was excited about bringing this gift home with me, and equally as excited about the person it would eventually be given to. As I walked along, I crossed paths with a young student going in the opposite direction. He had enough sight that he could tell who I was once I got close enough, and as he greeted me in French with an enthusiastic smile, and I was able to form a somewhat proper response thanks to two or three years of French class in high school,  I remember thinking "How is this my life?". There I was, feeling immersed in the new culture I was experiencing, holding this gift I had just carefully selected, being greeted so sweetly by this precious child. It just seemed too good to be real, and yet it was.
     I've thought a lot about that interaction recently, because I can remember it so vividly, and yet the extreme happiness I felt in that moment feels so far away from the way I have felt over the past week or so. "How is this my life?" is a question that has been on my mind once again, this time for different reasons.
     How is this my life, I've wondered resentfully. How am I so far from where I want to be, even though I've tried hard to stay on a path that will lead me to my desired destination? Where did I go wrong? I'm certainly not perfect, but I've always tried to be "good", sometimes to a fault. I have memories of being very young, following my brother around and constantly saying, "But we'll get in trouble!" to most every idea he came up with. I don't even want to know how many fun adventures I passed up in my attempts to stay out of trouble.      Now that I am older, I have my moments, but that little girl who was such a rule follower never fully left me. I think that somewhere in my subconscious, I've always believed that as long as I keep doing what I think is good, what seems right, things will eventually work out in my favor. But lately, I've experienced many harsh reminders that I was misguided in that belief, at least in some ways. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, things just don't work out the way I would like them to. No amount of trying to be good and do good can completely safeguard me from failure, and that is a hard pill for me to swallow. As much as I have tried to justify my misguided belief, there is no guarantee that as long as I am good, things will turn out to my benefit immediately. I am learning that many times, when I feel like I have been working hard and doing good things for long enough that it must be time to reap the benefits, God has other plans.
     Often, when I have tried to do  what I think is good and it hasn't worked out in my favor. I have been tempted to give up even trying. If being good isn't getting me anywhere, might as well have some fun doing whatever I please, right? But I know that is an incorrect way of thinking, one that will inevitably lead me in the wrong direction.
   So, I am trying my best not to be discouraged, and not to grow weary. And even when life is tough, there are still so many wonderful moments to keep me encouraged, something that I was reminded of a few days ago, when I met the recipient of the gift I bought that morning in Togo for the very first time.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mistaken Identity

     If I ever wrote a memoir about my life, I think I might title it "It's just Jennie." This is a something I have found myself saying countless times, most often after someone has called me Jennifer. Once during middle school, I became very frustrated when a teacher said he was just going to go ahead and call me Jennifer because Jennie was "too hard to remember". That teacher did eventually start calling me by my real name, but only because I was persistent in reminding him.
It's frustrating to be called the wrong name because I know who I am. Jennifer is a fine name, but it's not my name. Calling me Jennifer is no different than calling me Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth; it's simply inaccurate. Even when I was very shy and not so great at speaking up for myself, I never let anyone call me Jennifer, because I knew that wasn't who I was.
     My name is a big part of my identity. My parents picked it for me when I was born, and it has stayed with me for my whole life. I also have another identity, one that I was given even before I was born. I'm not a theologian, but I know that the Bible talks a lot about our identity being found in Jesus. Today when I was once again mistakenly called Jennifer, I was reminded that I should defend my God given identity just as fiercely as I defend my name.
     Like that teacher who kept calling me a name that wasn't mine, there are circumstances in my life that challenge my God given identity. There are times when I let myself be defined by aspects of my personality, both positive and negative. I have tried to find my identity in my talents and accomplishments, in jobs and in friendships. These things are all parts of my life, but allowing them to define who I am only leads to another case of mistaken identity. I need to start remembering where my true identity lies, and correct anything or anyone who tries to tell me otherwise. It shouldn't be too hard, I've already had plenty of practice correcting my mistaken identity.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The First Stone

      She was an easy target, a woman caught red-handed in the act of adultery. If this story had taken place today, they would have probably tweeted about her, and made lengthy Facebook posts about her scandalous life. We don't get many details of her story, but if she was a well known woman she would have probably made it to the evening news and even earned her own hashtag. Everyone would have been talking about her, everyone would have an opinion on the consequences she should or shouldn't face.
     But this was a long time ago, before social media was available. So, they did something far braver than engaging in internet gossip. They took her straight to Jesus. They proudly told Him of the acts she had been caught in, and reminded him of the laws that condemned her to be stoned to death. Thousands of years ago, followers of Jesus had already found that loophole that is still so popular today, the one that lets us put mercy and forgiveness in the backseat in the name of following laws and pursuing justice.
     Instead of telling these people they were right, and encouraging them to punish this woman for the sinful things she had done, Jesus knelt down and wrote in the dirt, and then he got up and spoke those words that so efficiently made these people swallow their pride and cancel the stone throwing party.

"Let him who is without sin throw the first stone."
     It is easy for me to look outward and find flaws in other people. What I find not so easy is looking inward and admitting my own flaws. I am someone who is fairly outspoken about being a Christian, and yet there are so many flawed areas of my life that I conveniently leave out most of the time.
     So as tempted as I am to join the crowd and use the platform of this blog to cast judgement on others under the pretense of being an outspoken Christian standing up for my beliefs, tonight I am reminded that I need to look inward first. I will point you towards a post I wrote recently entitled "Brown Eyes", only because it feels relevant right now. You can take from it what you will, and I will leave it at that.
 This post will lose potential comments and likes because it is not controversial. It does not call anyone out, nor does it put anyone else on a pedestal. I admire well worded pieces of writing that provide insight on what is happening in the world and take a convicting stand. That is what I initially sat down to write, but I simply cannot call out others with a clear conscious when there is so much I need to work on within myself.
     I am far from being without sin, so I will put down my stones and walk away. I can only hope that when I am the one who the stones are being aimed towards, there will be others who choose to do the same.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Puzzle Pieces

     I love words. I love learning new words, and using the ones I already know to express myself and calm my often overactive mind. Most of the time, writing comes very easily to me, but every once in a while I get stuck. I don't call it writers block, because to me, writers block is when you don't know what you want to say. I do know what I want to say, I just don't know exactly how to say it. But I have a compulsion to try, and so that is what I am doing.
Travelling to Togo and living there for three weeks was experience that changed me, and then I came back to a place that had not changed at all. I came back to a familiar routine, and people that know me well. I came back to my family, my friends, my job, and in many ways that was a positive thing. But there is a flip side to all of those positives, For many people, it would probably be easy, and even comforting, to return to a familiar life. Three weeks doesn't sound like a long time, but three weeks in a new country was enough to change something within me, something that so far I have been unable to put my finger on.
     It's as if my life here was a puzzle that I had always fit right into, but when I came back one of my edges had been bent and torn just a little bit, so that piece that fit perfectly before was now unable to fit back in all the way. Not enough to ruin the whole puzzle, but enough to make a noticeable imperfection in the once smooth picture. So where do I go from here? Do I try to fit my piece back in, or do I accept the fact that this particular puzzle is one I no longer fit into?
     I don't know what comes next. I don't have any wise words about the lessons I've learned from these feelings, because I am still in the process of learning them. I do know that not fitting into this puzzle doesn't bother me as much as it once did, and that feels like a step in the right direction.