Cattle on a Thousand Hills

Where is the most dangerous place on earth? Is it poisonous snake and spider-ridden Australia? Is it the Middle East? The Bermuda Triangle? Perhaps the Gulf Coast during hurricane season? Shark-infested waters? Chicago? Under the same roof as a quarrelsome wife? Answers may vary. Everyone has their own ideas about what ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’ entails. Just over a year ago, when I began telling family and friends that I had signed up for my very first mission trip to Rwanda, the reactions ranged from joyful exuberance to the nearly whispered question – Is it safe? Hmm. Going by the dubious representations given through the film industry or the media in general, Africa is an exotic wilderness churning with jungles, ferocious beasts, malaria-riddled mosquitos and grim-faced AK-47-wielding militia. Oh yeah, and basically everyone has AIDS. If the media is your measuring scale for safety, Africa won’t score very high. Good thing missions don’t take cues from the media. They take their cues from the Messiah.

The question of safety regarding Rwanda in particular is somewhat valid, as this country suffered the horrors of genocide a mere 23 years ago. The passing of time doesn’t always denote healing and reconciliation. But if the genocide is all you know about Rwanda (a year ago, that was all I knew), then you don’t know enough. You know the devastation; you don’t know the deliverance. Rwanda has been delivered from the hatred and evil that raged there between April and July of 1994. It has been delivered, not because of the passing of time or the ‘goodwill’ of men, but because of Christ. Only because of Christ. I was blessed to not only hear the good news of healing and reconciliation in that land from people who had seen it during past mission trips, but also to experience it for myself. And WHAT an experience it was!

Last December, our team from Manchester Christian Church began meeting every month, learning about the culture and language, the dos and don’ts of the mission field, and the not-so-subtle art of leaving our Western mindsets (and clothing) at home to allow the Holy Spirit to move in our midst, so far from everything we had ever known. Of the 11 of us that met in the mid-August humidity to weigh our bags and take an inventory of who packed the best snacks, 4 were Rwandan veterans and 7 of us were newbies to Africa. A few people had never been out of the country before, and/or it was their first mission trip. Go big or stay home, right?! As I cheesed for our ‘before’ group photo and said an outwardly placid goodbye to my mother, I thought: Even with all our group preparations and meetings, I still barely know most of these people, and very few of them know me…it’s all in Your hands now, Lord.

Roughly 24 hours later, we greeted the Kigali airport with sluggish enthusiasm, crammed our luggage and bodies into vans that would be our most-used mode of travel throughout our stay, and watched the dark hills peppered with city lights zoom by our open windows as we began to take in a foreign land. Our hotel, scattered room assignments and mosquito netting-clad beds came soon enough, and sweet oblivion closed over us. The next morning, we began our day on Rwandan time (which is to say, we took it slowly). When I left our section of the hotel building to amble along a jungle-esque walkway to the breakfast patio, the glory of the morning refreshed my heart. Joy comes in the morning, no matter the coordinates. (And apparently so do mini bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and muffins.) Our first day was largely comprised of visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial while veteran teammates went to the Rwandan Home Depot for building materials, so after meeting our translators and drivers we set out across the city for a sobering cultural intake. Several of my teammates had read memoirs of genocide survivors and had learned from these first-hand accounts the depths of human depravity during this dark time, but the history and photos along the walls of the memorial still knocked the wind out of us. (A memoir I cannot recommend enough is “Left to Tell” by Immaculee Ilibagiza – her story is heartbreaking and miraculous.) The hardest part of the tour to stomach was called The Children’s Room. Salvaged from the destruction of the genocide were photos of babies and young children, all ripped from the safety of their families and slaughtered. Below the pictures were brief descriptions of each child – names, ages, favorite toys or food, best friends. I can’t imagine anyone exiting those rooms with dry eyes. Another section of the memorial had rooms briefly chronicling other genocides. The Holocaust was the most universally known, but there were several others that, to my shame, I was unaware of. The histories of devastation and evil were so palpable that the only way to step back outside into Kigali, a city once filled with atrocities, and still feel some measure of hope was through the knowledge of Jesus, and the grace He extends to all people. With a weightier sense of why we had come to Rwanda, we left the capital that evening for more hills and fewer lights…and a time warp.

Leaving New England for a third world country was obviously going to be a culture shock. If there’s an entire ocean between you and home, you’re not in Kansas anymore. But what was even more bizarre was that a mere few hours from where landed in not-Kansas land, the culture shifted yet again, this time seeming to hurtle us back at least several decades. The clothing, the modes of living and travel, the food – all had changed. And you know what? I LOVED it. We stayed several nights in the town of Kayonza, and five of those days (the most precious of our trip, in my humble opinion) were spent traveling to the remote villages of Nasho and Gasarabwayi. On our second morning in Rwanda we dressed in village-appropriate garb (in Kigali we did as well, but this felt more serious), had our communal breakfast and devotions, piled into vans and set out on the 2-hour journey to Nasho.

We were prepared for no AC. We were prepared for the red dust that coated the scarves wrapped around our faces. We were prepared for the jolting as we hurtled through the hills and valleys. We were somewhat prepared for the heartbreaking poverty. What we were thoroughly unprepared for was the irrepressible JOY. The city of Kigali had been diverse enough that white skin was not a rarity, but a group as large as ours still garnered attention. But out in rural villages along little-traveled dirt roads, seeing not one white person but two vans full of them was a show stopper. Barefoot children forgot their games as they pointed and waved at us, yelling out “Muzungu! Abazungu!” – translation: “White person! LOTS of white people!” Women with babies strapped on their backs beamed and lifted their hands in greeting. Boys pushing banana-laden bicycles turned their heads as we waved, and if we stopped for gas or directions, within moments a swarm of men and children would surround our vans and stare in at us. And not that any of this engendered vanity in us. We were not there to bear the white man’s burden, we were there to be Christ. Our skin had nothing to do with it! If anything, we were humbled that their reaction to foreigners was not mistrust and fear, but exuberant joy. And if the journey to Nasho was joyful, our reception at the church was a celebration! A long straight road parted slanting fields and led up to another road on which the church sat. From the distance we could see a large group of people waiting where the roads met, and as we drew closer we could see them dancing and hear them singing! Our translators told us that they were praising God and thanking Him for bringing us to them safely! The Rwandan worship team led us up the road and we disembarked from the vans into a crowd of bright, vivid patterns and shining faces. The church hugged us, kissed us, lavished their love on us, and led us in for a dance party unlike any I have yet seen! At first I was too nervous and shy to take part in the dancing, and remained on the sidelines merely clapping, but one by one our team cast off their inhibitions and we joined in the celebration, kicking up lots of dirt as we danced before Imana (God). There’s no better way to begin a church service!

Everything we did during the course of our 3 days in Nasho felt like worship. The dancing, the speaking, the listening, meeting with the women’s co-op and doing teeth-brushing presentations and building toilets. And we were humbled again and again by the church. I had left the States thinking that we would be doing all the serving, so I did not expect the church to serve us so cheerfully and graciously. They had so little, and yet they set aside the best of what they had for us. Without words in a common language, they taught us so much. In between our activities and the choirs and sermons (during as well, to be honest), I would gaze around at the people. The women were beautiful, their skin glistening against the bright colors of their dresses. Their hands were strong as they caught up their children to soothe or admonish. They worshiped with abandon, and they shared their love with us freely. I wish I had connected more with the women we met. But the children were my great love. Everything we did, their eyes followed us. In Nasho they were on the shy side (Gasarabwayi was a WHOLE other story), and when we motioned for them to come over to sit with us, they would feign slight indifference as they slowly approached us, even as the multitude of other children watched in rapt anticipation. All the children were precious, but the little girls were my favorite. Whether boy or girl, all the children had their hair cut short (I believe it was a sign of status and wealth for a woman or girl to have long hair), and the smaller children looked so alike that their clothing was largely the only indication of gender. One little girl had a cheeky, impish look to her, like she was a tiny Puck from a Rwandan Midsummer’s Night. Two other girls had slightly lighter skin than the other children and were clearly sisters. The younger one was more extroverted and came over to us, sucking her thumb or chewing on a corner of her shirt (Hanna and I referred to her affectionately as Cocoa Butter Baby). There was another little girl, no more than 4 or 5, that I especially bonded with. On our first day she was dressed in an off-white handmade skirt and blouse in traditional patterned cloth, and the contrast of her skin and the near white clothing made her stand out. Each day I motioned for her to come sit with me, but she was so shy that it took all 3 days to convince her! Once she did though, we were inseparable. She sat with us, tried to teach me a few words, and I carried her on my hip as I showed the children the wonders of the selfie stick and took group pictures (we learned the word for smile – seka! – so the children knew it was okay to smile when we had our phones out for photos!). On the third day we set up a large screen to project a movie on for the children to watch, and in the midst of that process there was suddenly a torrential downpour. We were all inside the church, safe and dry, but the roof seemed to be made of tin, and the sound of the rain on it made all communication, Kinyarwandan or English, essentially unintelligible. As we waited for the rain to abate, my little friend (I found out later that her name is Miriam) fell asleep in my arms. That was one of the sweetest moments for me. Before we left that afternoon, the pastor gathered us with several members of the church in a separate room and gave gifts to us, praying and speaking a unique word over each of us. Between the extravagant love and generosity of the church, and knowing I had held Miriam for the last time, I wept. (Out of our team, Karen was the one who warned everyone we met that she was a crier and easily moved, while I prided myself on my emotional containment. Go figure.) God surprised us, to say the least. And our trip was only halfway through.

In between the villages, we spent hours in the vans, sometimes napping, sometimes socializing, and Suzanne and I were nearly always waving. I spent a few trips in the “cool van” (titled by Damaris, Hanna, Angel, Michelle, Patricia and Brenda, aka the extroverts) before moving over to the calmer and MUCH comfier “contemplative van” (titled by me). While we didn’t start a party every time we hit the road, we had a blast talking and exchanging experiences and asking Patrick about Rwandan culture. After a day or two in Nasho and noticing how chill the parents were with letting their children sit with us and even bringing over their newborn babies for us to hold, I asked Patrick about it. He said it was a joy for Rwandan parents in the villages to share their children, to see them playing and dancing with us. How strange for an American! How different. But how beautiful. Along with talking about the culture, we had some riotous laughs in our van. A joke that became common not only for our van but for the whole team was Allie’s age. When the women on our team had presented our Bible studies to the women at the church, we introduced ourselves, gave our ages and a brief summarization of our families (the unmarried state of most of our team gave the church plenty to pray for!). When Allie came up to share her Bible study and announced that she was 17, the women were shocked! They wondered how she had been able to come on the trip since she was still only a child! (In their culture, you are considered a child until the ripe age of 18.) For the rest of the trip, we told Allie that she had to sit with the children while the rest of us sat with the adults. It seemed to get old pretty quickly with her but the rest of us went into hysterics every time! We also had some quick wit on our bus (myself included) that kept us laughing uproariously when least expected. I also treasured the evenings back in our hotel room with Hanna. Between our angst over our shower only giving out cold water (thank you Karen and Allie for sharing yours!), being goofy on Snapchat and talking about life back home, we grew even closer. And God was so gracious with all of us. There were many personalities, many different ways in which we processed the things we were seeing. Without His grace, it could have been easy for us to get into petty arguments or at the very least, be annoyed and moody. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for me! But God smoothed over any rough edges. He allowed us to love not only the Rwandans but also each other. I wrote that at the beginning of our trip, for the most part I barely knew my teammates. By the trip’s end, we were family. Because this is who God is, this is what He does.

Another thing God does is He gets us out of our comfort zones, and teaches us something new when we least expect it or perhaps want it. Our first day in Gasarabwayi was a Sunday, so we were treated to a 3-hour long church service with multiple choirs, a prophetic word spoken in tongues (although to be honest, it was all Kinyarwandan to us), and an invitation for Damaris to preach! (Which she rocked!) After church we set up the screen for another movie afternoon, which the children enjoyed. But what they seemed to enjoy even more were US. Unlike the reserved children in Nasho, the children in Gasarabwayi had a no holds barred approach to us muzungu. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were SWARMED. Math didn’t seem to be a strong suit because at any given time, at least 6 children would be vying for hand-holding privileges with us. I like kids, but it was overwhelming for me. Hanna, on the other hand, isn’t a kid person, so she grabbed her camera and made it her job that day to snap photos of the rest of us with our miniature ensembles! Earlier that morning before we left the hotel, Damaris had shared a devotion in which she talked about rejoicing. I had come to breakfast bespectacled, eyes bloodshot from crying over leaving Nasho, and fairly drained. Rejoicing was the last thing I felt like doing, so I knew God was speaking. Later that day, surrounded by children, I decided to not be heartbroken over Miriam, far away in Nasho. I decided to rejoice. There were 2 girls among the throng of children that would not let go of me, come hell or high water. So I didn’t let go of them either. And I rejoiced. I taught the younger girl to say “Hey, lady!” and brought her around to all our team to showcase our combined linguistic skills. And I rejoiced. When it came time to leave and Brenda and Peace translated to the children that we would be back tomorrow, and the children smiled and waved and ran alongside the road as we drove away, I rejoiced. That was my lesson. The entire team was soon to have theirs!

On our second day in Gasarabwayi, our meticulous plans were scattered in the wind when we arrived at the church and learned that the women (with whom we were doing Bible studies that morning) were all away at a funeral. Patrick and Angel had a solar panel project to keep them busy, but the rest of us suddenly had to improvise for a few hours. Practice a little communal flexibility. And honestly, it was one of the best times of the trip. A few women were there doing the prep work for lunch, and the children were slowly but surely trickling into the church yard. Allie grabbed her soccer ball to play with the kids, Damaris grabbed an apron and a ladle to help in the kitchen, Hanna and Vili and I grabbed ground nuts (aka peanuts) to shuck, and soon enough asked Peace to translate so we could talk with our fellow shuckers. We regaled them with tales of trees with leaves that changed colors, of cold white powder that fell from the sky and covered everything in sight, of salt water that stretched too far to see across. And of course, we backed up our fantastic stories with photos and videos! The children especially loved the videos I had of my friends and I cliff jumping or dropping from rope swings into water – the sound of a colossal splash was hilarious to them! A funny conversation for me happened when one of the young men had Peace ask me what he needed to bring as a gift to American parents in order to marry their daughter. I haphazardly explained that dating didn’t really work like that! I told him that American girls also wore pants and shorts, that they had jobs and worked just like men did, and that they didn’t necessarily enjoy shouldering all the household cooking and cleaning. His response was “Oh I don’t care about that, as long as she will love me!” Apparently American women are quite the dream! In addition to fun cultural conversations, a few of us tried out the Rwandan baby slinging technique. A baby girl in cookie monster jammies was wrapped up on my back, and Hanna carried an umbrella to cover us and keep the baby from getting too hot while the 2 girls from the previous day followed us around. We made quite the little family! I was nervous not being able to see the baby, but her mother didn’t seem to have any qualms so I enjoyed the different experience. Between cooking and baby slinging, we were either honorary Rwandans…or muzungoons. At long last, the women from the church came back and we presented our Bible studies to them. Our second time around with the studies allowed us to be more succinct, and also to be more vulnerable. Some of my team shared about hard situations in their lives through which God carried them. In response, some women from the church shared their experiences as well. Possibly the most special moment of that time together was when the pastor’s wife shared that before we came, she had been asking God: “Why do they come so far to be with us? Why do they love us?” The resounding answer from the Lord was: “Because I love you. They love you because I first loved you.” His love makes the way. Across cultures, across languages, across time zones and oceans and a myriad of differences. We all had to choose a day to blog about, so that MCC’s outreach page could be updated every day with news of our trip. I was blessed that I was able to write about this day in particular, about this divine revelation.

We still had 2 and a half days. Our early morning safari day, with baseball caps and shorts (finally!), Karen yelling into the quiet African bush “HEY THERE’S BUFFALO” when it turned out to be a warthog, me seeing actual buffalo and frantically whisper-yelling “STOP THE JEEP IT’S REAL BUFFALO THIS TIME”,  Vili’s desire to see snakes in the wild (why???), our tour guide Denise referring to lone male antelopes as ‘loser antelope’, gazing at giraffes and zebras and waterbuck and hippos, our deep desire to see elephants finally and somewhat anticlimactically fulfilled at the very end of 6 hours (they were so far in the distance that even with the binoculars they were gray blobs, although they were surrounded by herds of other animals so it was a straight up Circle of Life event), and intermittently napping and watching the beauty of the land unfold on the long drive back to Kigali. Our day of Compassion kids and the unholy thrills of market shopping, with Angel and Hanna and me touring Kigali with Patrice, going to the Hotel de Mille Collines on which the movie Hotel Rwanda was based (it was right up the street from our own hotel!), our American space bubbles undergoing extreme pressure while we bought elephant pants in the crowded market, and ending the evening with a taste of Rwandan ice cream at an Asian restaurant. Our last morning waking up under mosquito nets, having our last group pow-wow on Rwandan soil and our last Rwandan breakfast, our trip to the tent church in Kigali to meet with and give a few Bible studies to a group of women (some of whom were former prostitutes that God had called away from that life), listening to them and singing for them, the last time holding a Rwandan child, and our last meal before piling both ourselves and our luggage into vans, and playing uproarious games of Telephone on the drive to the airport. It broke my heart to leave Rwanda, to leave Brenda and Peace, to leave the churches and the children and the beautiful land. It broke my heart to witness the poverty in the rural communities, and wonder if our short-term trips were doing enough. But God taught me that HE is enough. He is enough for Rwanda, for every man and woman and child.

I’m not saying that God plays favorites, but I think He has a special place in His heart for Rwanda. Scripture says that He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. So do they.

Green Pastures (lay your burdens down)

You would think someone with a college education and assisted vision would understand the color spectrum. I certainly thought so. As an ocean-frequenter, I am familiar with the shifting shades of blue, and as a sun-adorer, the varying degrees of red and tan. I’ve seen a few funky yellows in my day, too (although I do my best to steer clear of orange, it’s just vile). Black, white, gray, it’s nigh impossible to not have a Masters in the nuances of these that flood our politically undulating society. But green…if we’re talking mint or olive, I can spot these trendy shades in a densely packed Forever 21 at a range of 20 yards. But a real, vibrant, dazzling sort of green? Never had my eyes beheld such a sight until they beheld Ireland.

True story: at 26 years of age I had never flown out of the country. (I say ‘flown’ because my parents claim that when I was 6 we drove into Canada to what was then known as Marine Land. All I remember is a single orca.) And with my fever for seeing the world in all its raw glory, I thought it was about time to go. My youngest sister thought so too. And not just go anywhere, but to the land of our forefathers. Or the land of our mother’s mother’s father’s father. Either way, there was no second pick for us, so we booked our flights, sent out for our passports and began lurking on AirBnB, with our excitement bordering on maniacal ecstasy. There is something so hopeful about the stages of planning. You are imagining wonderful moments, dreaming of being overwhelmed by beauty, preparing to mesmerize the Irish country boys with suave American charm. Planning is fun. Planning is great. Planning is, sometimes, ridiculously idealistic. Vacation is a time to chill out and enjoy the left lane driving, right? As with any journey, it’s a good rule of thumb to expect the unexpected. And sometimes the unexpected is somewhat unpleasant.

After months of joyful expectation, it was finally September. Our bags were packed, our dollars were euros, and our parents were advising us to not talk to strangers. (“Pa, you do realize that the entire country will be strangers?”). We had a red eye flight from Boston to Dublin, about which we had mixed feelings. My sister is slightly aviophobic, whilst I am comfortable even during turbulence (it’s my Slytherinistic capacity to enjoy controlled chaos), so I planned to sleep through the night and wake up refreshed in the land of our dreams. But right after boarding the plane and posting my daily Instagram, the plot thickened. Or rather, the passenger next to me thickened (Emily had an aisle seat), and spilled over into my already tiny seat. Immediately, it were as if I had been cast into the third circle of hell. Forced to sit at an uncomfortable angle for 6 hours, unable to sleep and practically unable to move at all, the joy I had fostered for months quickly began to evaporate. And there wasn’t much patience and graciousness toward mankind on my mind either. By the time we landed at 8 am Dublin time and 3 am Boston time, I was groggy, in pain, and just plain angry. And on zero sleep, I had to drive in a European city for the first time. Wrong side of the road, wrong side of the car, wrong side of me. Lord, Lord, help me Lord.

If only by the prayers of the Northeastern saints, driving wasn’t that bad, even in the city. And while we expected a forecast of drizzle, our first day was sunny and cool and crisp. The sight of our first castle assuaged my vexation, and the sprawling gift shop filled with rich woolwork and Irish crest coasters put my mind on blessing others with trinkets rather than on my bemoaned state. We had our first Irish meal in the adjoining café (putting American cafés  to shame since ye olden days) – tea and pastries and a lot of standard American gawking. Trinity College was also beautiful in its stony grandeur, albeit rather small, and Dublin was as diverse and busy as we had hoped a European city to be. Finally, we left the last roundabout behind and cast our weary selves onto our hotel bed. Despite my confusion over how the bathroom light worked and the realization that Europe’s Netflix cut out all my favorite shows, I went to bed eager for more adventures. Not cheerfully, but still eager.

The next morning I woke in tremendous pain. Sitting at an awkward angle during our flight had over-stretched the muscles under the left side of my rib cage, and for most of our trip, every time I laughed or coughed or breathed more deeply than normal I would be lashed with pain from my lungs expanding toward the inflamed muscles. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, but it was so sharp and sudden that I was gasping and clutching my side every time it was aggravated. Which, of course, was enough to trigger the Liz-hulk now and then. At least I blended in with the countryside, right? And yet God was gracious through the pain. Before making the 3-hour trek to Galway, we drove north to tour Newgrange, and while the beauty didn’t diminish the pain I was in, the beauty is what I remember. Newgrange is likely the most ancient of anything my eyes have seen. The day was windy and drizzly and chilly, but the vistas of green and the colossal monument captured our imaginations. Our tour even brought us inside the tomb, and since pictures and flashlights were not allowed, we slid up a narrow, cramped passageway to stand in the darkness with 15 other tourists, underneath a meter of stone as we listened to the history of this remarkable feat of engineering. The interior was filled with light only twice a year, when the sun rose on the equinoxes to pierce the doorway and filter up the passageway, then it was plunged into darkness again. And that was only if the persistent clouds were elsewhere! How mystical. How marvelous.

After a long drive broken only by a castle pit stop, we arrived in Galway. A bit of shopping on Shop Street, swooning over Irish chocolate and passing by the original Claddaugh ring shop were enough to tide us over for the afternoon, and we flabbergasted our first AirBnB host by going to bed early after tea and a chat. We would regret not experiencing live music in a Galway tavern, but at that moment we wanted sleep more. And the next day made up for it. Our dad is quite possibly the biggest John Wayne fan under 60, and Galway is 45 minutes from the town of Cong where the film The Quiet Man was set. It was a sweet little town, with colorful houses and shops and the magnificent ruins of an abbey gazing over the village. Along the river there was the remnant of a monk’s fishing hut, which caused my internal age to retract to 4 as I scampered all over it! Another unfading delight of that day was our lunch – we chose a café called Puddleducks, and the chicken and brie toasted sandwich with cranberry relish was the single most delicious meal of the trip. And the crowning glory of that day was Ashford Castle. The night before, when researching what to do in Cong should the town itself run out of adventures for us, I saw pictures of a massive castle and thought it looked familiar. Suddenly I realized that it was used for several scenes in one of my favorite historical drama shows on Netflix! (When I say drama, I mean straight up badly written white girl drama – I do not watch Reign to learn anything.) Megan Follows had walked there! Ashford was huge and gorgeous and breath-taking, and I was in full geek-out mode. We spent hours traipsing over the extensive grounds, listening to helicopters landing, marveling at falconry lessons, and trying to creep up on various farm animals through the enchanting woods. What a day! It was Emily’s favorite of our trip and a close second for me. Yet still more and more marvels awaited us.

To say we had our phones in hand to capture every possible moment is very nearly true, but some of my favorite moments happened without snapping pictures. The next morning as we packed up for our drive to Ennis, two young boys (maybe 7 or 8 years old) were playing outside and saw us bringing our suitcases to the car. I had assumed that American tourists were fairly commonplace, especially in the cities, but apparently we looked interesting enough for the more extroverted of the boys to ask what we were doing. “We are packing up our car,” I said. “But what for?” “We are going on an adventure!” (I admit I felt a bit like Bilbo at this statement.) ”An adventure! Do you go on adventures a lot?” “Well, you can make anything an adventure, really, so yes we do.” “I wish I could come on an adventure too!” At this point, Emily had finished stuffing the last bag in the trunk and was giving off signs of embarrassment that her sister was making small talk with a foreign child, so I said something very adult-ish like “see you later” or “may the road rise up to meet you, kid”, and waved goodbye as we drove off. All our interactions afterward were with adults, and while everyone we met and stayed with was friendly and inviting, the open and artless manner of children made that memorable to me. Another phone-free memory was made that evening at a farm where we spent the night. After a full day of gazing at the picturesque Dungaire Castle, braving the hordes of tourists at the magnificent Cliffs of Moher, and fending off naughty alpacas and ducks (a duck bit me!) at the Moher Open Hill Farm, we arrived at our second AirBnB home away from home. The family, comprised of older middle-aged parents, a teenage daughter and a family friend, were sweet and earthy and welcoming. After we were settled, the mother asked if we wanted to ‘go see the ponies’ (umm, YES), so we put on our specifically packed mud-resistant boots for the farmyard terrain and ambled down a stony lane as she regaled us with the evils of wall ivy and their plans to build a dilapidated barn into a summer house. The ponies were relatively uninteresting, but the real adventure happened soon after. The mother, Lena, asked us if we wanted to go through the back cow pasture (the reason for why escapes me), and on our way she explained that their cow was currently in a vehement mood, as her recent pregnancy resulted in a stillborn calf, and the family had bought an orphaned calf for the cow to nurture, which the cow was not taking to. The bovine’s stress over having an unfamiliar calf introduced to her udder was apparent as we reached her – the calf had been removed from her for the night but she was lurking at the fence, watching us with accusing eyes. If ever I were afraid of being mauled by a cow, it was then! Luckily, an electric fence separated us from the wrath of the bovine, but Lena’s attempts to dissuade the cow from moving made that entrance impossible. Our only way through was to climb over a stone wall – avoiding bits of the electric fence – and jump onto the other side of the pasture. We had boots on, yes. But also dresses. We were anything but nimble in the process, but get over that wall we did! And after a muddy walk there and back (the cow lost interest and moseyed off), Lena picked us fresh mint leaves for our morning tea. No phone to record anything, but it is still quite vivid in my mind.

That night I was in immense pain. All our outdoor activities and even the strain of being the solo driver had aggravated my side, and even with ibuprofen and an ice pack, I could barely breathe. Pain also nettled my cranky side, which proved to have nasty results. The next morning, we had our first homemade Irish breakfast – tea, homemade bread, jam, and fruit – complete with a sweet Yorkie as company and a glass wall view of the garden and fields. We had another day of driving, 2 hours from Ennis to Killarney, and Lena had given us a huge map and plenty of advice for stops along the way. Although the day was drizzly and a bit cold, we decided to spice up the ride with castle hopping! Dromoland Castle’s exquisite walled gardens were completely empty and seemed like a secret meant only for us, and King John’s Castle was another geeking spot, as my most favorite Russell Crowe shot scenes for the film Robin Hood before its walls. In between those two was Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, a gem of a find off the highway. Not only was there an impressive castle which we craned our necks to see the top of and gazed out from the battlements after seemingly hours of climbing white winding spiral staircases, but the park itself! We wished our parents were there to see the tiny thatched houses with ye olden original furniture and dishes, where the farming families lived and worked in the shadow of royalty. One such house had been converted into an open air café, and Emily and I had a healthy lunch of tea and hot chocolate and cake. Sitting on picnic tables while eating double-layered chocolate cake on elaborately designed china is the way to vacation! To Emily’s horror and my delight, the openness of the café (in the middle of farmland, mind you) attracted meandering chickens, and they strutted in one door and out the other as we ate. One rooster came near enough to strike fear into Emily’s heart, and proceeded to shake its head in her general direction. I was amused, she was not! We had delightful moments and fun memories, and by God’s grace, that is what is most prevalent in my mind. But even with all our adventuring and the beauty and culture absorbing into every pore, we were both a little on edge. Emily and I are good friends as well as sisters, and we do enjoy spending time together. But we also need time alone to recharge, and this was day 5 of spending every single moment together, and we still had 5 days to go. And let’s be real. Sisters get on each other’s nerves after awhile, especially when you don’t get a break from each other. So after the last castle that day, my irritation built up over 2 hours in the car until it exploded once we reached Killarney.

I won’t go into the details of my angry outburst, but suffice to say that it put a bad taste in my mouth and my attitude posed a danger of damaging our whole trip. My anger even led me to cancel on our early morning boat ride the next day to Skellig Michael (the island on which the last scene from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens was filmed – again, prime geeking spot), partly out of exhaustion and the dread of waking up before 6, and partly out of spite. We had reached an absolute gem of an AirBnB – our host had been rated as number 1 in southern Ireland, and our lovely room came not only with our own private bath but with a view of the highest peak in Ireland, Carrauntoohil. We were an easy drive from various peninsulas and the Ring of Kerry was practically on our doorstep, but that night I was too consumed with anger and pain to focus on anything but my own misery. Lord, have mercy on me in my foolishness.

The crazy thing was, He did. God extended graciousness to me and to Emily over the course of the next day. Upon waking up, my mood hadn’t changed much, and we ambled around Muckross House and its fields without having much of an idea for the day. Finally we decided to set out and drive around the Ring of Kerry, and as we did, the clouds that had been ever present melted away under the most stunning blaze of sunlight we had seen since crossing the Atlantic. And the views! At our first sight of the shimmering ocean under the newly unveiled sun, we were dumbfounded by its beauty. The dazzling green of the land contrasting with the sparkling blue was like sweet incense to our spirits. I was especially amazed at how the mountains we were skirting around came right down into the sea! Along the drive, we saw a beach far below us and decided to turn off to find it. The self-proclaimed ‘beach road’ was long and windy and in most places, not wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other without some slight concern. But the beautiful expanse of sand and water bordered by mountains was worth the hazardous drive. For a time we just stood and drank it in. I can’t begin to describe how brilliant it was. And only one other person was there! It was like a secret haven that God had led us to, where He called us to lay our burdens down and be refreshed. All that day we were greeted with vista after shining vista. We even drove out to Valentia Island and saw Skellig Michael in the distance! My eyes have beheld Star Wars Island! And as if our daylight wanderings were not enough, upon arriving at the house after dinner, we stood in rapt amazement at our windows as the most magnificent red and orange sunset shimmered and stretched to touch the purple peaks of Carrauntoohil. O beauteous day. O gracious God.

Our trip had another 3 ½ days, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was led by God and blessed by Him. From cool misty mountains where pink-dotted rogue sheep escaped their fences, to the hidden lake surrounded by mountains that contained the tiny chapel of Gougane Barra that was more beautiful to me than even Ashford Castle, to Cronin’s Café where we thought of our mother and grandmother (our grandmother’s maiden name was Cronin), to the unexpected chocolate shop that we found tucked in the mountains, to the horse that I befriended (it nuzzled my face!) in a lonely field in Kenmare, God ordered our footsteps. From the beautifully ruinous Blarney Castle and its vast gardens (we opted out of kissing the stone) and exotic pathways through pools and waterfalls, to more cafés where we stuffed our faces with fish and chips, to castles on rivers teeming with poultry that converged on a young family at the sight of bread, to mystical ruins that we wandered around and gazed through broken walls at the majestic Rock of Cashel high on the overlooking hill, to a tea room in downtown Kilkenny where we had breakfast for dinner and discovered our mutual love of Bailey’s Irish cream coffee with whiskey, to our last AirBnB host home where we learned the origins of AirBnB and heard the last of “did you hear that Hillary has pneumonia…oh the poor woman…Trump has land in Ireland you know…planning to build a golf course and put a wall around it…that man likes his walls…(seriously, everyone there was obsessed with American politics! We are on vacation, people!), God did not leave us. From the Scottish landscape of Glendalough and catching falling ice cream in my hand (Emily had a heyday laughing at that), to our somewhat sketchy hotel for our last night, to our last minute decision to ditch the hotel restaurant for a tavern and a pint of Guiness (which I found horrendous, but I had to try!), to another impulse decision to drive to the Irish sea and the rainbows that flanked our path, to the blue beauty of a foreign ocean at twilight and our last goodnight to the Irish moon, God was beside us. And from our last morning of packing, last café for breakfast and last gift shop vexation after laying eyes upon the Book of Kells and mock-flirting with the busts of stuffy scholars in the Long Room at Trinity College, our last drive through Dublin and our last wait before customs and our flight back to American soil and our family, God made the road rise up to meet us. And what is more, He met with us. He quieted our anxious hearts, healed our pain, and restored our souls.

The earth is the Lord’s and so is everything in it. Even Ireland. Even us. Even green pastures.

 

Seeker of Joy

I used to dread the summer. After months of school and cold and non-negotiable routine, you’d think every kid on earth would be ecstatic to be released into the wild freedom of summer. Not I. Summer meant change, meant being older, meant loneliness. Summer meant hope deferred, again. While I am an eager sun-worshiper, the heat was simultaneously soothing and oppressive, and as I’m not a fan of AC (no pun intended), there was no escaping it. School schedules were abandoned, yes, but to have work replace school is a raw deal. And always, always, the pang of loneliness. Add a gnawing absence of purpose, blend it together in an angst-y teen to 20-some girl and you get a annual rise of depression. It’s like the circus coming to town once a year. Except it sucks. And this overwhelming weight continued for years until I convinced myself that I had grown accustomed to it. Like a mooching roommate that no one wants, depression made its grand entrance on my birthday and set up shop until the bitter dregs of August were drunk. The suckiness didn’t taper off, but through each summer, it was what I knew.

Now I want to explain two things: 1) depression is not merely a big word for ‘feeling unhappy’. It is a deep dullness, a groping darkness that casts a shadow over all that you hear and see and experience. It is not an excuse, nor is it to be lightly excused. It is confusion and being lost and the inability to hope all rolled into a heaping mass. It is dangerous, but what I also wish to explain is that 2) depression does not have the final say. Just because, for me, it crept in with the heat, does not mean that it still holds sway over my life or even my summers. There is always hope, even if you can’t seem to find or feel it.

Between fall of 2014 and spring of 2015, a radical change took place in my heart and in my perspective. God healed a lot of things that I had allowed to rule over me: hatred, the need for control, spitefulness, anger. And God is so good, because He doesn’t just remove the crap from our lives. In its place He pours in Himself, so that the old stuff doesn’t make a reappearance so easily. No matter what negativity you’ve let yourself be controlled by, He’s got a glorious opposite to refresh your spirit and make you new. You need it, He’s got it. Or more appropriately, He IS it. And that is precisely what happened for me – ‘beauty for ashes’ is more than song lyrics, folks! God really truly does create that change in us! The one drawback is that while we are made in His image, we are nowhere near His level of holiness and perfection. Temptation happens, sin happens, and we fall. And I had another year to go before I cast off other vices and shadows.

Flash forward (or backward) to my birthday in May. What should be a joyous celebration of life and growth is unfortunately a sore spot for me. And because of my vulnerability about it, it makes a great time for a spiritual attack. This year, I had just been at my new job for a few weeks and I was loving it; my coworkers had all signed a card for me and I was feeling fabulous. But upon arriving home to celebrate with my family, something or other ticked me off and I immediately became unapproachable. I withdrew from everyone and gave in to a dangerous downward spiral of brooding. I was livid that no one was seeking me out or trying to comfort me, but at some point, you have to choose for yourself which path to take. Finally, humbled and broken, I asked my family to pray over me. Now the heavens didn’t part and angels didn’t sing, but something lifted from my heart and countenance. Because of that choice, the door to that oppression was shut, and the doors of possibility were flung wide open.

This has been one busy summer. From a new job to becoming involved in a new church, to my grandmother’s passing and dating revelations, God has been at work. I’ve been exhausted and discouraged and have even had moments of loneliness, but the focus has not been on any of that. The focus has been on worship, on thankfulness, and on joy. I love my morning commute (maybe not the traffic-laden afternoons as much), because it is my time with God before the day’s work begins. It is the time I need to talk with Him and ask and seek. Some mornings with Him are a bit teary, and sometimes I laugh like a maniac. But when I reach the parking lot there is always a settling of quiet contentment. Circumstances don’t change who He is or what He has promised. There is a lifetime of hope in that, and I am just starting to understand a fraction of its truth.

On the cusp of a new season, it has been incredible to look back and see how no matter what has happened this summer, my perspective has been radically different. There is far less ‘well I wish I did that/didn’t do that’ and far more of simple gratitudes. Knowing there were unpleasant moments does not tamper the brightness of the lovely ones. God hasn’t changed from one summer to the next. But He changes US, so that we may learn to share in His joy. How marvelous is that!

Depression may try to raise its head again. But now I know how to combat it, and I know that it is my choice TO combat it. And in the meantime, God has taken it away, and replaced it with a deep longing to seek joy in all things. Not because the goal is mere happiness. Joy is much deeper, much sweeter than that. For me it is found in the power and mystery of the ocean, the fantastic designs of flowers and birds and fish, the miracles God spins when people trust Him for the impossible. I’ve been known to weep with delight over a brilliant sunset or the intricacies of jellyfish (not even kidding) or the soundtrack to Gladiator or the story of Mother Teresa’s beginnings. And yet, I really don’t know how to find joy in and of itself. What I do know is that it begins with seeking Him. So, perhaps, He is Joy after all.

Inheritance

Once upon a time, in the land of Estonia, there lived a man named Waldeck Talvi. Waldeck (pronounced Vall-deck) was born in 1909 or 1910 in the town of Narva, nestled against the Russian border, and lived there into adulthood. He was a talented actor and singer, dashing and handsome; so dashing that a young woman named Marjie Wilbourne ran away from her first husband, a doctor, to be with him. He and Marjie suffered several miscarriages and only one child survived, a son named Matti. Perhaps their little family would have stayed in Narva forever, had it not been for an impossible choice.

As World War II raged across Europe, more able-bodied young men were needed on either side, and as a result, were forced into the fray. As a 30-some year old, Waldeck was required to choose between serving the German or Russian armies as a common soldier. Although both options were doubtless repulsive to him, the Estonians hated the Russians vehemently and longed to end Russian rule over their land, and this hatred spurred him to fight for the Germans. The exact repercussions of this decision are unknown, but one day a Russian babushka met Waldeck in the street and pronounced a curse over him and his family. At this part of the story, we turn our faces away and whisper a prayer of forgiveness, of deliverance, of redemption. We are too small, too weak for these evil times. But the story is not over.

Near the end of the war, Waldeck took his wife and teenage son and escaped. Leaving all they had ever known, they sailed to America and began a new life in New York. All the family they left behind were killed in the war. While Waldeck and Marjie retained traces of their birth culture, Matti was eager to assimilate. He learned English and cast off his native accent, only speaking Estonian with his parents. In 1957 he married Alicia Cronin, a girl from a Roman Catholic Irish family with a deep love and respect for God. From their union came five children, two sons and three daughters, all raised in the faith of their mother, all aware of the double-sidedness of their father. For the curse that had been spoken over Waldeck had not faded away in Estonia, but had followed them, and it manifested in Matti bouts of philandering and drunken violence. Here, again, we cry out to heaven asking why, why Lord? How could this be allowed to happen? Yet in the midst of our angst, the reason for hope has already been given. The story has more to tell.

Following Marjie’s death in 1974, Matti left Alicia, running off with a 19 year old girl, and leaving Alicia with five children between the ages of 4 and 17. As a single mother, her church, which she was devoted to, could have stepped in to help Alicia. But as divorce is viewed as a sin by the Catholic church, Alicia was all but shunned, and at the time was excluded from receiving holy communion. The church had forsaken her, but she knew that despite her circumstances, God had not, and she clung to Him through this lonely and heartbreaking time. Without remarrying, Alicia worked and raised her children alone. And the prayers she spoke over them were heard, and answered. One by one, after years of deposits of Alicia’s faith, her children began accepting Christ as their Lord and Savior, marrying godly people and raising children to know God and have a relationship with Him. For, you see, a curse cannot merely ‘go away’. A curse lingers or is broken in the name of Jesus. And the curse that had latched itself to the heels of Waldeck Talvi was broken. We do not know exactly what he did for the German army during World War II, and we hate to imagine why the curse was pronounced. But because of the blood of Christ, his firstborn great-grandchild sleeps under the Israeli flag and wears the Star of David every day.

I am that great-grandchild. My siblings and I, my mother and her siblings, all of my cousins, we did not inherit the curse. We inherited Christ. My grandmother Alicia went before us and handed down a legacy of truth and hope and love, and redemption sprang from it. She recently passed, and a few weeks ago we all gathered to grieve and to celebrate her life and her faith. In some way, we celebrated our inheritance as well, and our joy in knowing where she is, our joy in knowing God will lead us from here.

Waldeck Talvi, my Isa (pronounced ‘ee-sah’, Estonian for ‘father’, my mother and her siblings were taught to call him that and so were my siblings and I) died in 2001, so my siblings and I met him and visited him a few times. His accent was so thick that I could not often understand his speech, but I remember him referring to my burly father as a ‘football player’. On one of our last visits before he passed, my parents saw that my Isa had a Bible on his nightstand, the same that my mother had sent him. It was next to a bottle of vodka, yes, but the Bible was open. Perhaps Waldeck chose to inherit Christ, too.

If

Fun fact: I am the High Empress of Procrastination. Not a princess. Not even a queen. High Empress, y’all. Allow me to prove this fact: I put off getting my license until I was 17, didn’t bother with asking for my first cell phone until after graduating high school, decided I had no real need to get my first car until I was 22. I waited till almost a month before becoming ineligible on my family’s healthcare plan to look for a job with benefits. And – my personal favorite – I put off doing my 2014 taxes until March…of THIS year. So things get done, but not when perhaps they should be done. Even with something that I love as much as writing, I still procrastinate. Summer is halfway through, and I am only now writing about my dream for this year. You might say this dream has had some time to simmer, to expand, to even blossom somewhat. That somewhat blossoming is ‘what if’.

Now I say it is my dream for this year, but God actually began turning the gears of ‘what if’ in my mind and heart prior to January 1st. Around Thanksgiving, my aunt gifted me with the book “If” by Mark Batterson, one of my favorite Christian authors. It was a special gift for me, as I had asked for the book for Christmas. Also, my aunt had already read that copy, underlining particular phrases, and even managing to snag Mark’s signature at a book-signing event! From the first chapter it has been radically inspiring me to change up the status quo of my faith. After reading a chapter on fasting right before the turn of the year, I determined to spend the first ten days of 2016 asking ‘what if’ of God through a Daniel fast – giving up all manner of sugary, processed delicacies and maintaining a simple diet of fruit, veggies, nuts and water. For anyone who doesn’t know how much I love pastries, it was no easy decision, and it took me a few binge-y failures to make it past the third day! But despite the hunger pangs and the nearly overwhelming urge to tackle any cakes I saw, it sharpened my will to pursue God, to ask Him what He wanted me to do, where He wanted me to go. And He is still answering.

Another way I pursued ‘what if’ was easier than giving up toast and more in step with social media culture: Instagram. Since January 1st, I have taken and posted one photo every day, adding a quip about certain events or moments, sometimes sharing memories from past adventures and special times, or getting creative with video montages. Not for the sake of likes of followers or anything, but with the purpose of asking myself everyday, “What can I do to make today an adventure, to make it memorable?” And the results speak for themselves! From my many hikes, either with friends or just the pup, to getting out of my comfort zone by joining different Bible study groups and meeting new people, the memories continue to pile up! If anything, asking ‘what if?’ of God has shown me that God isn’t in the business of regulating our lives into a monotonous, go-here do-this thou-shalt-not kind of guilt trip, but rather He is in the business of making our lives beautifully extraordinary! And it’s not just the destination that’s worthy of awe. It’s the entire journey.

My most recent ‘what if’ was on the more painful side, but I believe the momentary pain will make God’s answer all the more brilliant. After nearly two years of putting hope into what I could not control in the way of relationships, I finally surrendered everything to God, finally said “Thy will be done”, and not mine (because let me tell you, His will is good and perfect, and mine is a bit imbecilic at times). Giving up stuff that you really desire, even when you know it’s not what God has for you, well, it freaking sucks. But the peace and hope that comes in giving everything up and putting your trust in the Holy One is far, far greater than the sucky moments. And I am looking forward for that hope to continue to be realized, and someday realized fully.

One last ‘what if’ – writing. Something I love dearly and feel called to pursue, yet my time always seems to be taken up by more important things like adulting and Netflix. Yet God finds ways to inspire. Just a few days before starting my new job in May, a coffee date with a girl friend ignited a poetry flame, inspiring some creativity that same day. Not only did the act of sitting down and writing remind me of what I love and WHY I loved it, but it also  reminded me that anything can be a form of worship. What an incredible God, that He gives us wonderful gifts, and we can turn around and use them for His glory! So the poem I wrote that day was for Him, and the one I wrote just a few days ago is too. And funnily enough, they both begin with ‘If’. The first one, you can listen to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj0BL543smo. The second, you can read here:

If I can tread the journey of each day

Pass through the blur of work and play and rest

And cling to sweet moments along the way

Perhaps in part I’d be considered blessed.

Or if I chose a more enlightened path

Of kindness and goodwill to humankind

My selflessness helping sorrow and wrath

Might bring contentment to my heart and mind.

Or…if I claim the power of the cross

The name of Christ above all earthly things

Then treading will be dancing, what was lost

Will be found, and joy in all shall spring.

If holy radiance dwells in my heart

Then through my life may God inspire new starts.

It’s not Shakespeare or Keats or Frost, but it is God-inspired. It’s my ‘what if’. And the year isn’t over yet.

Fear not

After experiencing the moutaintop, living in the valley is not easy. The saying “it’s all downhill from here” may strike a positive chord if brutal upward hikes are not your cup of tea, but after the glorious views from the mountain’s peak, going back down is laborious and disheartening. For reasons I’m still not sure of, I left the mountain sometime in October, about a year since God called me onward and upward, and I seem to have forgotten how to climb back up. Valley girl life (not to be confused with California valley girl life) is no picnic. The last few months have been fraught with frustrations and disappointments and unhealthy distractions, many of my own making. In my head, I’ve traded God’s promises for lesser things, traded waiting on His glory for instant happy meals that leave a bad aftertaste. It’s not the consuming muck from before the mountain, but it is some weird, sticky mess. But the mess is where Christ enters, both today and 2,000 some years ago. He left the eternal mountaintop to come to our desperate need in the valley, and He still comes.

Christmastime and chaos are the tiniest bit synonymous in the Curry household. If we can manage to avoid a holiday meltdown during Thanksgiving, then chances are good that we’re in full swing in the weeks afterwards. Between putting together gifts at the near-to-last-moment and trying to fit in events and seeing people while everyone is home (the week before Christmas I had 3 parties and a wedding to attend, thank goodness 2 out of the 4 had alcohol), and the discombobulating strangeness of having no snow (which I was glad of, but it was still weird), I was running on nearly empty until a few days before Christmas. The craziness of the season coupled with my frazzled, distracted mentality had me thinking less about Jesus and more about how many times I could hit the snooze button. I knew all about Christmas, I knew the story, I knew the holy significance. But I just wasn’t there. The birth of Christ was about to be celebrated and I was too wrapped up in all the wrong things. And I was afraid. Afraid that my choices to pursue distractions had pulled me in too deep, too far away from all that I thought God had spoken to me. Afraid that I had settled for the mess. And as luck would have it, all that fear reached its climax on Sunday morning right before I sang “Stille Nacht” to a festive, crowded church. Lord, Lord, help me Lord.

Well, He did. In the midst of trying to ferociously pray away stage fright, the words “fear not” rang out from my immediate right. In between songs and readings of Scripture, my mother recounted the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth and their prayer for a child. Old age came but still no child, and it seemed that their long-awaited miracle would never come, until an angel appeared to Zacharias and said “Fear not. God has heard your prayer.” It was like ointment to my soul. The things I cared about deeply, God still knew. Even though I had become discouraged and frustrated and had stopped praying, God still knew. His memory is a lot longer than we often give Him credit for. He hears us, and He remembers.

On Christmas day, my family celebrated a little differently than in past years. Instead of opening gifts in the morning, we waited until the evening to do gifts and filled the time with a trip to the oceanside. Driving through neighborhoods in New Hampshire and Maine, it seemed to me that a sort of hush had fallen over the world. There were still cars on the road (we even passed a family playing croquet on their snowless lawn), but there was a stillness to the day that gave a sense of the sacred. While viewing the quiet, I wondered if Mary had imagined the significance of that day, of what the birth of her firstborn would mean in years to come. A pregnancy before marriage, a journey while heavily pregnant, no room for them anywhere fit to give birth, bringing a child into the world in the smelly, noisy awkwardness of a stable. If she were as classy as me, she would have been thinking “this freaking sucks”. I wonder if somewhere in the midst of that day, God whispered to her “Fear not. I have heard your prayer.” That is the turning point in perspective, in faith. We cannot see past where we are right now, but God can. We cannot see how our prayers will be answered, but God can. Nothing beats the mountaintop, but my prayers from the valley do not go unheard. And as this full, vibrant year draws to an end, that is enough for me.

The Choice

Making mistakes and getting discouraged or even panicked as a result is fairly common. Normal, even. And when making mistakes becomes almost routine, what else do you feel but pretty freaked out? If you keep messing up in something, it can quickly become disheartening. It weighs you down, breaks you down. It may seem like to keep trying would only result in failure. But how often, when you make a mistake, do you feel peace? Overwhelming, unexplainable peace? I don’t understand it, but incredibly, that is where I found myself last night. Up to my neck in mistakes and disappointments, but completely at peace. How is that possible?? A year ago, the mistakes I’ve been making regularly would have left me a nervous wreck, and my attempts at making amends would usually make things even worse. But that has changed. My perspective has changed. Because it is not about my mistakes, my weaknesses. And it is not about my strength either. It is all about God’s.

A verse I have been holding near to my heart recently is 2 Corinthians 12:9 – ‘But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.’ This GREATLY encourages me, especially with all the weaknesses I have let trip me up lately. I have boldly taken hold of this promise, praying constantly that God will make good on it in my life. While I certainly want to become holier, to be more like Christ, I think for God to take my struggles and show His power and strength through them will be an amazing thing! So when I find myself thinking “wow, that was a dumb decision” or “I should have not have it get that far”, instead of pulling out the woe-is-me attitude, I give it all to the One who is great enough to heal and redeem. I used to be ashamed of bringing my mistakes before God. I used to think that my wrong decisions made me unfit to approach Him, to ask for forgiveness and help. Now I know better. Shame should not drive me from Him, it should lead me to His throne in humble repentance, with the knowledge that He will help me up again.

It is wonderful enough that He bends to lift us up, but He does more than that. He inspires us! In the midst of seeking Him last night, He inspired me. Somewhere in the middle of prayer, I started thinking about…and this may be weird but hold on…my hair. I recently cut a lot off, making my cascading locks stop short in a longish bob. (Strangely, I have yet to regret it or experience any mental trauma…this is also due to God’s grace.) What I thought about was this: why did I cut it? Chopping off a significant amount of hair is more than just a current trend, you know. And that question sprouted tendrils of thought that brought on some late night creativity which I finally fleshed out this evening. And it is about more than hair. Far, far more. It is about a choice I made a year ago, that I am still making, that I will always be making. Now and forever for His glory.

1.

I have cut my hair in mourning for the loss of hope and way

for my sorrow, deeply buried, haunts me through each night and day.

I have left my beauty tattered, painted darkness o’er my eyes

so the gloom in looking forward meets the brokenness inside.

I have cast away my longing for a love that seeks and finds

all the heartache in the waiting prove that dream will not be mine.

I have clothed myself in ashes, wept in silence through the night

waking to each bloodshot morning with no wish to see the light.

2.

I have cut my hair in gladness for the joy of being freed

freed from anger, hate and sorrow, once was blind but now I see.

I have given up my burdens, turned my face toward the light

sang and danced in sweet abandon, leapt without fear on the heights.

I have lifted up my longings, prayed with faith and holy peace

holding onto every promise, asking boldly for all these.

You have taken off my graveclothes, clothed me in the purest white

made your strength shine in my weakness. Lord, I will worship all my life.

To quote a well known song: He has given me beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, peace for despair. That is the way I will choose to live. He is the One I will choose to worship. May His strength be made perfect in my weaknesses.