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but God remains

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“In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” Psalm 102:25-27

The unchanging God. The constant and faithful. Though this world, this earth – our very lives - will one day perish and fall away, God will remain.

God will stay.

God will continue.

God will fulfill.

Life in Africa, while predictable in many ways, holds a great amount of uncertainty. The people here are far more attune to the realities that tomorrow and the day after that are not a guarantee. Nothing is guaranteed. Our days pass here with the constant reminder of the fragility of life.

At times that uncertainty- this fragility- weighs heavy.

We had one of the worst storms sweep through our city this past week. The pounding rainfall, the nearness of the thunder, lightening stretching out across the vast blackened sky, the wind fiercely rushing and uprooting walls and trees in its howling path, were all reminders that the very foundations of this earth are completely out of our hands. It really wasn’t until the following day that the damage in various areas of town was evident. Walls crumbled under the weight of the rain. Paths were strewn with branches and leaves and remnants from the previous night’s activity.

Sitting here this morning, taking in the beautiful yellow glow of the Malawi sunshine as it pours into this little corner of my world, it is hard to fathom that such a fierce storm whipped its way through our city only a few days ago. Still,  if I look a little more intently, I can see areas that will take some time to recover from the storm, and I find myself meditating on this one statement from Psalm 102: “But you remain.”

From the red dirt that stains our shoes and clothing to the termites that have eaten the insides out of one of our cane chairs to the basic fundamental fight for life, I find this statement incredibly comforting.

Nothing – not even the foundations of this earth – will last forever. But…God will remain.

This promise is so encouraging to me. You see, even though this life is but a breath, and the possessions we own and the things we accumulate will pass away as quickly as a pair of jeans in Africa, God remains.

And as God remains, so do his plans and his promises. The work he begins, he completes. God is constant and his plans are certain. We can have confidence that, while the world may seem to be struggling and striving, hurting and broken, God remains. He is faithful. And he will complete what he has begun.

This means that God stays: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Joshua 1:5

This means that God will continue: “Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.” Psalm 119:90

This means that God will fulfill: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6

I find great comfort in the promise that my life remains in the hands of the One who laid the foundations of the earth. In a place where life is fragile and tomorrow is uncertain, I take hold tightly to the assurance that God remains – his presence never waivers; his hands always holding, arms embracing, keeping me in perfect peace.

But God remains.

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ride the wave

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“Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his dwelling place.” I Chronicles 16:27

Transition is like watching the tide make its way in and out along the smooth sands of the ocean shore.

One minute all is calm. All is peaceful. The seas are friendly, relaxing, and smooth. There are no worries. The crystal clear waters sparkle and dance under the warmth of the morning sun. Life feels balanced and refreshing.

Then slowly something starts to stir, and suddenly there are waves and riptides; churning waters and sea foam spread out all over the coastline. Bodies in the water get tossed about as if they are in the spin cycle of a washing machine. It is difficult to find balance. It is nearly impossible to keep one’s head above the water. One big wave and the body is submerged into the salty sea. There is no balance. It is simply about survival.

Last week, the tide came in at the Slater house. From out of the calm and balanced came the crashing weight of the reality of transition. We’re still in it. Granted, we are not in it constantly (thankfully, because I don’t think my emotions could handle that!), but, like the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, we are still very much working our way through this season of change.

As I write this, the power has gone out twice. I’ve almost gotten used to power outages at the most inconvenient times. These minor interruptions to my morning might have gone unnoticed had not all the kitchen appliances dinged and whirred the minute the power came back on. I sometimes wonder if I will ever get used to losing power. Maybe that will be my sign that I’ve completely assimilated into my Malawi life.

Last week was difficult for our kids. The power – metaphorically speaking – went out for each of them at different times. The tide came in, and it nearly drowned them.

The thing about transition is the powerlessness one feels as they are being tossed about and hammered against the ocean floor. There is so much grasping with nothing out there to grab ahold of. It is a hard, lonely, and overwhelming experience. The power is out. Our children feel powerless because they can’t seem to find their footing in this new world and this foreign culture. Joel and I feel powerless because we can’t fix it. This kind of power outage, I may never grow accustomed to.

Praying for our family, as the tide of transition made its way to shore once again, I realized we have two options here. Maybe we are not altogether powerless. Maybe we have a choice. It hit me that we could choose to pack it up and leave, return to a life and a city and a school and a familiarity that our children are longing for in this specific moment. We could do that. We could say, “enough is enough”, and run for comfort and convenience rather than power outages and rough waters.

Or, we could ride the bumpy, jostling wave all the way into shore.

We could choose to leave, or we could choose to stay.

Remain.

To stay…continue…

“Strength and joy are in his dwelling place.” I Chronicles 16:27

In order to ride the wave, we need power. In order to have power, we must lean into the power Source. Strength to endure during challenging times is not something that we can manufacture. I can’t will myself to be strong. However, this Scripture reminds me that strength is in the place where God dwells, and His Holy Spirit dwells within each believer.

(Just chew on that for a minute or two…)

God’s spirit resides within us. It’s not some place out there that we have to travel long distances to, or a building that requires our attendance in order to tap into God’s presence. We are his dwelling place. And therefore, His strength is inside of us.

We remain, we stay, and we continue wading through the waters and tides of transition because God’s strength enables us to do so. Quite honestly, my children would never fully comprehend this principle if they were still living their perfect suburbian lives in the United States. I’m not knocking that life, by the way, but the treasure I am discovering in all of this chaos is that God is being faithful to guide us and give us a deeper awareness of his faithfulness and his strength.

And what is even more amazing to me is that we not only have God’s strength, but we can experience pure joy, even when the waters cover our heads.

“Strength and joy are in his dwelling place.”

Joy doesn’t mean we’re always laughing and singing and dancing and playful. Joy doesn’t always look like a happy face.

But joy, true joy, strengthens our weary hearts. It reminds us that there is purpose in this transition. There is purpose in the tide. Stagnant water gets polluted and dirty, but moving water shakes out the disease and the debris. We need the tide to keep us moving forward, to stir us up, to strengthen us for the long haul.

We remain.

With God’s strength and God’s joy dwelling inside of us, we can handle the rough waves that threaten to knock us down. We are not powerless. The safest position is not to turn our back on the waves and focus on the shore; the safest place is looking ahead for the next oncoming wave, anticipating how we may catch it and ride it to our ultimate destination.  And when we choose to learn how to swim through the transition, we find that those smooth waters and calm seas do return.

“Strength and joy are in his dwelling place.”

january 2020

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It’s rainy season in Malawi. As I sit here, looking out at the quiet morning showers as they wash the lush, thick grasses, heavy hanging trees, and cactus plants in their soft dew-like downfall – nature enclosing me as though I were snuggled up safely in a canopy of green – I find my inner self settling down into a calm, stable feeling of peace.

It is January. The first month of a new year. The first month of a new decade. And I feel that I am a little behind in the revelry of all this newness; you’ll have to forgive me. I think the slowness of the African pace has made a big impact on me. I am moving more slowly, too.

Or, maybe not.

I think a better word might be intentional. I’m not moving slowly simply for the sake of moving slow, but I’m moving slowly because I am learning to be more intentional with my time, my words, and my actions. Africa helps me to remain intentional. Africa moves to the rhythm of its own drum. It beats in tandem with the ebb and flow of nature. It works within the context of its environment. So often, in my American ways, I try to make my environment bend to my expectations, my plans, and my organized strategy. But Africa moves alongside its environment. Dry seasons and rainy seasons depend upon the other, and the African depends upon those seasons. Fruits and vegetables are produced in season, not produced on demand. Life works within the context of its environment, not the other way around.

Over the past four months, I have been challenged to be more intentional. Not by any person or event, but Africa itself has laid out this challenge for me.

One way I am striving to be more intentional is how I invest in this blog. Since I started blogging over ten years ago, my main intention was to have a place to practice writing. I needed some incentive to write semi-regularly, to record my thoughts, journal my parenting journey, and find my voice as a writer. I have had seasons where I posted weekly, bi-monthly, and annually – sometimes more, sometimes less. I want that to change. While the sporadic nature of posting has kept me from feeling constrained and pigeon-holed into a commitment that I feared I may not be able to fulfill, I am realizing that without intentionality, this blog will remain stagnant, stifled, and impeded in the growth that could be its potential. Therefore, I have decided to begin this new decade with the commitment to be intentional with the regularity of my posting, and even in its content.

For those of you who try to follow along on this journey with me, I am deeply grateful. Even miles apart we are linked, arm-in-arm, through the highs and lows of life. This post is specifically for you. I wanted you to know my intentions with this blog, and even ask for a little accountability.

Here is my “strategy towards intentionality”:

  • Each year will have a specific word or theme.
  • Each post will be reflective of/inspired by that word.
  • For the year 2020, I will post once a month, on the last Friday of the month.

It is not mind-blowing or earth shattering, but it will be consistent and intentional. Each post will come from a place where, I believe, God wants to work in my life…and I will share that with you.

This month I will actually be posting twice as I wanted to communicate my plan first, and then, on the last Friday of the month, I will post the first installment of this year’s posts.

As I wrap up this “letter” to you, and as the warm African sun is gently pushing away the slow morning rains, I will leave you with my word for the year. I hope you will stick with me on this journey.

REMAIN –def. to stay; to continue; to fulfill.

stand

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When I was a little girl, I remember being at a friend’s house playing on their big tree swing. Her dad would lift us up, up, up in the air, and we would swing so high that I really thought I could touch the clouds. It was exhilarating. I loved every minute of it, and I always felt a little disappointment when my turn was over. On one occasion, as my turn on the swing was coming to an end, and I was preparing to dismount, I lost my balance. As I was jumping off of the swing I ended up slipping and flinging my body into an uncomfortable position. When I landed, the wind was knocked out of me. I had never experienced the wind being knocked out of me before. It was a complete shock to my system, and I struggled to get back up on my feet. Breathing was challenging for those few frightening minutes and standing, difficult. Eventually I was able to calm down, the fear dissipating as I started to get my breathing back under control.

When hard things hit us from out of nowhere, and when we find ourselves straggling along for air, it is nearly impossible to stay on our feet. While we’re flying along on the tree swing of life, our enemy would love nothing more than to knock the wind out of us and watch us crumble to the ground. And he’ll use all kinds of tactics to do just that. Our children, our spouses, power outages, water challenges, no Internet connection (right when you need it the most), circumstances that have our backs against the wall, our core fears – literally anything and everything he can find to turn into a weapon against us.

Most of the time, I am discovering, it’s not the grandiose that the enemy uses to make us lose our footing. Typically, it’s the many little things that start unraveling and fall into pieces that become the catalyst for our demise. He uses the everyday and the ordinary to knock us off balance and take our breadth away.

I think he delights most in taking shots at our core fears: those oftentimes unspoken concerns that we turn into non-negotiables in our lives. At least, I know this is true for me.

As much as I would like to think that I can somehow rationalize what is happening to me, the truth is that the battle I am fighting – and perhaps the battle you are engaged in right now – has absolutely nothing to do with the every day and the ordinary, but it is truly a spiritual battle.

Every hindrance that impedes progress in our attempt to obey God is the enemy working overtime to pull our feet out from underneath us.

Every time those things that are dearest to us are suddenly threatened and attacked as we continue to walk forward is the enemy’s secret weapon to discourage and dismantle our faith.

The enemy wants to knock the wind out of us and watch us fall.

And we must take our stand.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Ephesians 6:10-13

This isn’t some spooky, look-for-the-devil-under-every-rock kind of warning that Paul is giving to us. It is a sound mind, eyes alert, be watchful and prepared, someone-sees-you-swinging-and-is-getting-ready-to-knock-you-off-your-feet word of wisdom and exhortation to anyone who professes to be a Christ follower.

Paul instructs us to be strong in the Lord, and in his mighty power. Paul knows that we are unable to handle the hard things that the enemy will use to bring us down. When we are staring at insurmountable obstacles, when that which is most precious to us is threatened, or when our bodies are weary, and we wrestle with the everyday and ordinary challenges before us, we struggle hard to stand firm. And so Paul reminds us, before he challenges us, to find our strength in the Lord.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” Ephesians 6:10

I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have fallen over the past several weeks. My heart and my flesh fail time and time again. And yet, God picks me back up, helps me find my footing, and reminds me to lean on him and his strength. My friends, we cannot fight our battles on our own. Our flesh is bound to fail. When we are weary we become a prime target of the enemy. Standing our ground may be as simple as choosing to stay when everything inside of us wants to go running away, choosing to hold on even when our hands are blistered and the rope begins to burn, choosing to lift our eyes to Jesus who is the strength of our hearts.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26

We are bound to mess it up, fall down and get the wind knocked out of us. But we don’t have to stay there. Jesus is very near. He has not abandoned us to this battle. He is fighting for us, and is constantly with us. So let us hold fast to his promises and take our place in this battle.

Let us take our stand.

Stand our ground.

Unwavering.

Unshakeable.

Stand.

two months in

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Two months in.

Two months have flown by. And, yet, at the same time, it feels like we’ve been here forever.

Time is funny that way. Adjusting, transitioning, acclimating, and discovering all take so much effort and margin that time seems to slow down and speed up simultaneously.

We’ve been in Malawi for two months, and as I sit here this morning, my head swimming with Chichewa verbs, tenses and pronouns, I wonder where on earth has the time gone?

The first week was an absolute blur. I could barely spell my own name. The sweetness of Africa embraced each one of us, and while our heads were spinning, our hearts were exploding with joy.

As the first week began to slip into the second then third, we were suddenly hit with the realization that we had no idea what we were doing. Stunned, overwhelmed, exhausted, and confused, we woke up each day knowing it would be both stretching and full, but not quite certain what that would look or feel like. Would it come in the form of a busted pipe in the ceiling, which would require a complete overhaul of the plumping in the house? Would it be the apparent hole in the wall where ants, flies, and other interesting creatures were making their way into our humble abode? Would it be power outages and generator issues? Would it be another political demonstration that required us to lay low, unable to venture out? Unpredictable became a new normal in the effort to create something familiar. What actually became most familiar was the unpredictability.

In fact, unpredictable is the most predictable part of life in Africa.

And after two months, we are learning to embrace this.

Some of the unpredictable facets of life in Africa are funny, for sure.

Case in point: those ants that keep trying to set up house in my bathroom. They are gone one day (and I dance in victory!), and then, for no apparent reason, they are back with a vengeance the next (and I wallow, just a little bit, in self-pity).

Another example: we are becoming hoarders. It didn’t take long for us to discover that just because you can find something at the grocery store or market one day/week is no guarantee that you will find it again the next day/week. And so, if we really, really love something- or use it often- when we see it at the store we don’t just buy one…we buy as many as we can fit into our cart. We are crazy Americans.

Unpredictable.

Aside from the funny, there is another side of unpredictable that doesn’t leave us laughing. There are days when the harsh realities of the ripple effects that come from the challenges we face living in a foreign context can bear down so hard that we wonder if we will be crushed under the weight of it all.

Sometimes unpredictable is a shrug and a laugh.

Sometimes unpredictable drives us hard to our knees.

We’ve experienced such a wide range of unpredictability over the past two months, and God has been gently challenging me to change the trajectory of my gaze.

In Colossians Paul exhorts us to take our minds and our hearts off of earthly things, and to put them on eternal things.

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:1-3

I have been convicted over and over again these past several weeks – each and every time I get frustrated with circumstances beyond my control – that my mind and my heart are staring too intently upon earthly things.

The lack of this or lack of that, the power outages, the plumbing and the language, the challenges of transition, the pangs of homesickness, the longing for normality, the struggles of my kids, the unspoken needs that require divine intervention…the ants. These are all earthly things – some more intense and critical than others, but still…earthly things.

God is challenging me to take my eyes off of the issue at hand and change the focus of my gaze to him. This Scripture has been a sobering reminder to me that once I gave my life to Jesus the old part of me died, and something new was resurrected. I am hidden with Christ. There is such beauty in that.

And not one ounce of unpredictability.

Because of this resurrected life, the trajectory of my gaze, the affection of my heart, must remain steadfast on that which is eternal. These present challenges begin to fade into the background when my heart is settled on a heavenly perspective; they are but temporary frustrations in the journey to eternal joy and reward.

This morning, two months in, I am surrendering my thoughts – those messages and narratives that play in my head – to Jesus.  I am setting my mind on the things above

Furthermore, I am setting my heart – each affection, each longing, each emotion that swings in and out of the deepest part of me – on eternal things.

The treasure is Jesus. The reward is Jesus. These momentary struggles are just a blip along the way.

I hope to encourage you in the same way I have been encouraged. It can be so easy to allow earthly things to distract us and weigh us down. Whether you are swimming in unpredictability or dealing with circumstances that you can’t quite get a handle on, turn your gaze in an upward direction. Adjust your eyes, and look at your life through an eternal lens.

Your faithful God will meet you there.

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Family Pictures 2019-86

Jasper and I are in a constant battle of the wills.

He wants to eat snacks all. day. long.  In season and out of season.

And I, being his wise and concerned mother, know that eating snacks all day long is neither healthy nor beneficial. So, when he cries out for – i.e. demands – crisps (chips), and I say “No” there is an all out battle that ensues. Jasper, hurling his little body on the floor and convulsing in screams and gulps declaring, “I want crisps!!!” And me repeating, “I am happy to give you crisps with your lunch, but it is not lunch time yet,” while simultaneously wrangling him into my arms to place him in his room where he can continue his fit.

We play this game consistently throughout the day. It is exhausting, and honestly, there are times when I just want to drop kick his three-year-old body into another hemisphere. But, I also recognize that it is in the tedious, day-to-day interactions, in the battles and the discipline, that character is being formed in Jasper.

As I was listening to Jasper pound his feet on the floor and gear up for another willful display of emotion, it reminded me of how often I get so frustrated with the “no’s” God gives to me. Perhaps “no” is too harsh a word, but in the immediate, when I want relief, satisfaction, answers, my way right now, but God says, “not yet,” or “this isn’t good for you,” I get so angry. My outbursts, not nearly as colorful as Jasper’s but equal in intensity, may sound a little bit more like, “I don’t want to go through this hard season! I don’t want to do this!”

I don’t think I am alone. While your struggles may differ from mine, our reactions to God’s providence oftentimes look the same. We get worked up and overwhelmed, anxious and defiant for a number of reasons, and we want God to fix it…now. We cry out for an “Amazon Prime God”: Give me what I want in two days or less.

And yet, that may not be the best for us. God sees our lives, our futures, our character with far greater scope and wisdom.

Today, as another epic battle between Jasper and I ensued, there was a moment when I could see that he was physically wearing down, so I picked him up in my arms and pulled him in close to me. As I carried him to the couch to cradle him in my arms, he continued to resist verbally. His body curled more deeply into my embrace, and I knew he was surrendering. Fatigue had taken over. By the shushing of my voice, his eyelids grew heavy and his weight sunk deeply in my arms. Eventually I walked him into his room and laid him on his bed. He resisted, of course; his raspy voice declaring that he was not sleepy, quietly protesting, “No, I don’t want to go do bed,” and then turning over and curling up in a ball. When I tried to leave his room he cried out for me: “Mommy, please don’t go! Stay with me.” I stayed.

As I sat on his bed, watching his chest move up and down slowly, with each tired breadth, I thought how precious this lesson was to me.

The person that told Jasper “no”; the one who insisted, “not yet”; the one who went head-to-head with him this morning, was the very person he wanted close to him- the one who brought him comfort and peace. He battled with me this morning, but still needed to feel my presence as he drifted off to sleep.

As much as I resist God’s “no’s” and “not yet’s”, He continues to be the one I run to for comfort. He is my refuge and my stability. When life doesn’t seem fair, when the pipes in my house burst, when I can’t seem to be able to get a handle on the ants, when it seems there is constant upheaval in the middle of settling into a new life, God’s presence is where I long to be. When I try to battle my way out of it, God says, “No”. And then I fall into his arms, close my eyes (and sometimes continue to say, “But I don’t want to…”), and slowly, as I release my grip on the way I think my life should go, I find myself giving into God’s way, God’s will. Consider Jesus’ example:

“My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?” Matthew 26:39 (MSG)

Jesus was far more acquainted with suffering than I am, or probably will ever be. At the very moment when the entire story of salvation could have taken a completely different path, Jesus surrendered his will to his Father’s.

We don’t have to like the circumstances we are in. We don’t have to try and wear a fake smile or walk around with an inauthentic attitude. Jasper doesn’t need to embrace with a sweet spirit my “No’s” and “Not yets”. But the challenge posed to each of us as we reflect on this defining moment in Jesus’ life is the surrendering of the will to a will far greater, more loving, vastly more sovereign than our own.

My will caters to me.

God’s will caters to His glory.

And God’s will is where I want to remain. His presence is where I long to abide…

…Even when surrender is a struggle.

obedience in the upside down

Everything is upside down.

We are grasping for normal, and there is no normal.

The highs and lows hit multiple times throughout the day.

Elation from successfully making a full meal from scratch (and everyone loves it). Excitement in finding out that our children’s school offers ballet (an answer to Sydney’s prayers). Peaceful pleasure in roses in bloom and fresh organically grown strawberries. Pure joy in those moments in the day where the sounds of Chichewa float in the air and bring a smile to my face, and hopefulness in the chiseling and plastering of holes and cracks in the walls in order to keep the ants (and other critters) out of the house.

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But then… defeat from random, multiple power outages, attempting to accomplish something- anything- but  only hitting dead ends, still living out of suitcases, impossible-to-meet emotional needs of each family member, fighting the urge to burst into tears at the grocery store when confusion makes it challenging to figure out how much Kwacha I need to pay the cashier, the constant cleaning and sweeping through layers of dust, dirt and grime, and the ants that come ‘a marching in one-by-one into every crevice of this house.

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One moment it feels like we have a handle on things, and the next we realize we are completely out of our comfort zone. We’re lost. Normal is too far out of reach. And I just want to quit.

I’m sorry to admit that. I’m sure I have disappointed many by the simple admission that there are moments throughout the day that I want to throw in the towel.

Yet, in the midst of the chaos- the hurricane of a house under repair, dust flying in every direction and my heart and emotions depleted and worn- there has been a refuge.

In his book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”, Eugene Peterson writes about worship being the framework for life. It is the key to bringing order into our chaotic and spread-too-thin emotional lives. I was so up-ended when we landed in Malawi and began the slow process of settling in; settling in is going to take some time. The chaos of luggage and long lists of things to do, people to meet, appointments to make, reports to file, and managing the emotional needs of the family had become a sort of metaphor for my heart. It was when I returned to worship – to digging my roots into the presence of God – that a framework for this crazy, transitional life began to take shape. There is order in my mind, in spite of all the messiness. God has been faithful to provide a framework for my chaos, my day and my heart.

And it is a daily act of obedience in the upside down.

Obedience to stay where God has planted me.

Obedience to worship in the middle of the mess.

Obedience to cling to God’s Word and dig those roots in deep.

“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” Psalm 1:3

The blessed person is planted in God’s Spirit. From the source of living water flows a fruitful life, a stable life, a powerful and enriched life. Spiritual prosperity is the overflow of a deeply rooted heart. The chaos will still come, life will continue to flip upside down, but the framework is set.

Worship creates the framework.

Obedience in the upside down is oftentimes a minute-by-minute decision. Worshipping through the tears. Praising in the midst of upheaval. Rejoicing in the learning curve.

And our fruit will yield in season.

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Transitioning from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I wake up in the morning and look around at suitcases and trunks, piles of clothes with no drawers, books with no shelves, and as I try to weave my way through the heavy fog of jet lag, I can’t figure out where to begin. Do I unpack this trunk first? Do I buy a washing machine today? How do I clean these apples again? Was it water and bleach? I think that’s right…I’ll do that.

Or maybe I’ll drink another cup of coffee first.

The kids are doing well. Africa is wooing them in much the same way it wooed me as a child. Falling in love with the sounds, the smells, the sights. The sky yesterday evening as the sun was setting literally made our hearts leap. With school starting in a few days their minds are drifting towards normal things: morning schedules, extra curricular activities, packing lunches, homework. In spite of the intermittent feelings of disorientation, the kids are doing well.

Joel has found his happy place. He is bound and determined to figure his way around this city, and is jumping in full steam. I am proud of him, and I am grateful for him, too. His energy and sense of adventure make all these new changes interesting and exciting. In spite of that “I have no idea what I’m doing” feeling, he has decided to do something.

Today I decided to do something too. Actually, Joel and I both decided to do something, and we bought an oven, refrigerator, washing machine and dryer. It felt enormous to me. One task out of a hundred that we could check off of our “to do” list. It may not seem like much, but it was a huge step in transitioning from the unfamiliar to the familiar. One step closer to making Malawi our home- not just in our hearts but in the most pragmatic of ways.

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This disorienting feeling that seems to wash over me from time to time is one that I will probably experience over the course of the next several months. Learning new things. Transition. Moments of discombobulation and confusion. Recognizing my limitations, and embracing the imperfections and the slow pace of adjustment. I really do need to slow down my expectations. And coming to grips with the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing, but by taking a couple of steps forward, I’ll figure this thing out.

Most importantly, my heart truly does feel like it has made its way home.

Transition is like riding an emotional roller coaster, but it can’t take away the peace that is holding me together.

We landed in Malawi on Tuesday afternoon, three days ago, with what felt like one million pieces of luggage and a car seat. Driving from the airport to our compound, the distinct reality that we are really in Africa hit me hard. The mamas carrying their babies on their backs with plastic jugs balanced on their heads, the red dirt, bumpy roads, bicyclists riding way too close for comfort alongside traffic, the mice-on-a-stick, and maize crackling on a make-shift grill flooded my heart with the deepest feelings of comfort. This is the life, the world, the familiarity I didn’t realize I missed so much. It is difficult to put all these feelings into words. If I could wrap Africa around myself like a blanket it would look a lot like the view I see outside my window.

Tomorrow morning when I wake up, I will likely begin the day feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing. Then I’ll pull out another suitcase and get back to the task of creating something familiar out of the unfamiliar.

I am holding onto this verse and reminding myself daily in those moments when I feel so disoriented and out of whack…

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23

ripple effect

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Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Last week, as the kids and I were climbing into the car so that I could drive them to school, Sydney asked me a question to which I responded in a short and irritable tone of voice. This set off a chain of reactions and human behavior that made the car ride, or at least the first 5 minutes of the car ride, very unpleasant for all of us. My snippy attitude hurt Sydney, and out of her hurt she then acted snippy towards her brother which left him hurt, angry, and ready to fight. This (un)lovely display of familial love, while initially triggered by my reaction, actually started the night before. I had had a very bad night’s rest which led to sleeping in an extra thirty minutes which led to having “one of those days” where I was running late, not getting my quiet time in, being the bearer of disappointing news to one of my kids about an event that they would not be able to attend (making me, of course, the unloving mom), and basically barreling my way into the day with little emotional margin. And you know what really gets me is that I knew, as the words were spilling out of my mouth in response to Sydney’s simple and non-threatening question, that my reaction was going to hurt someone and flush the morning right down the toilet.

Am I the only one who has created havoc in the home by one bad decision? Am I the only parent out there who has literally caused the the course of the morning to fall apart because I couldn’t restrain my emotions and bad attitude?

I doubt it, but stuff like this is not something we share publicly or freely. We are much better image managers than authenticity bearers. I’m not sharing this to try and prove that I am somehow more authentic than the next person; rather, I actually want to discuss (not preach) the ripple effect of shame.

It doesn’t really matter what our backgrounds are; everyone of us deals – to some degree, and some people more intensely than others due to family histories, past experiences, etc. – with shame.

Shame is that crippling feeling that something is wrong with me, or that I am a bad person.

On the morning I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was feeling bad about myself. I was feeling “less than”, and I was feeling all the ugly feelings of not having my stuff together. I was feeling shame.

Out of my shame, I shamed Sydney who shamed Jackson who then jumped on the shame bandwagon and started rolling up his sleeves for a knock-down, drag-out, verbal war. But before he had the chance to say something, he, too, would regret, I shut the shame down. I recognized it for what it was and worked hard to redeem the rest of our car ride. And to be completely transparent here, it wasn’t until after school when I had the chance to talk to Sydney again, that we were back on solid footing relationally.

This experience clearly reminded me of the constant challenge we face – day in and day out – to guard our hearts and our mouths from the ripple effect of shame. Not just in parenting, but in every relationship we engage in. Marriage, family, work relationships, can all get gummed up and broken by one act, one word, one sideways look birthed out of shame. And I think it is imperative to get to the root of where the shame is coming from, so that we can cut it off before it has a chance to land in the water and ripple its way out, touching anyone and everyone in its path.

Not being an expert, I can only share what I am learning through my own experiences and observations. There are no easy answers for dealing with shame. But one thing that I have learned for certain is that, while shame grows and multiplies in silence, it is squashed with honest transparency. Shame loses its control on our lives when we stop hiding from it. For instance, a better way for me to have handled the morning in this story is if  I would have simply admitted to myself, from the moment my day began, that I had overslept and made a mistake. If I had taken the few seconds to admit to myself that I messed up, then gave myself a little bit of grace, and lowered my expectations for the rest of the morning, I might have had more resiliency when everything else began to unravel. Maybe, just maybe, I might have had a sense of humor about the whole thing. Life happens. Sleepless nights happen. It wasn’t the end of the world. And my kids didn’t need to suffer because I was feeling bad about myself.

Another thing I have learned is that sometimes shame is thrown at us, not because of something we have done, or a mistake that we have made, but from another person who, in all honesty, is dealing with their own shame issues. When this happens, my natural reaction is to internalize what they have said to me, or how they have treated me, and to some degree take ownership of their junk. This is unhealthy, and it leads to a vicious cycle of passing shame from one person to the next unless someone says, “No.” That “No” becomes an internal barrier around our minds and hearts that does not allow the shameful message to penetrate. Try as they may, the other person may knowingly or unknowingly throw garbage at us, but it won’t land in our mental or emotional yards.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23

Proverbs exhorts us to guard our hearts. Protect our hearts above everything else, because everything we do flows from it. That means  ”good” and “bad” can flow from our hearts. From a protected heart, love, forgiveness, patience, a self-controlled tongue, faith, hope, grace and mercy will flow and create a ripple effect of peace, joy, happiness, contentedness and praise. A heart lacking protection is susceptible to any and all messages, ideas, temptations, distortions, and self-centered acts that come its way creating a ripple effect of trouble, heartache, and shame.

While there are no easy answers to dealing with actions born out of shame, I do believe that it begins with the heart. It takes more than mind over matter. Changing thought patterns begins with a heart and life hidden in Christ. If we want to see ourselves transform from shame-based responses and behaviors, then we must surrender our hearts to Jesus and allow him to begin the transformation of the heart.

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Luke 6:45

Can I ask you a bold and personal question that might make you feel a little uncomfortable and challenge you to be a little bit vulnerable?

Are you guarding your heart?

What kind of ripple effect are you creating?

This is not about being perfect people and hitting a home run in our relationships every single time we are up to bat. But what it is about is bringing shame out of the shadows and not giving it room in our hearts to fester. Calling it out, sending it on its way, and creating a ripple effect of truth, love, honesty and vulnerability.

bloom

Photo by Meric Dagli on Unsplash

Photo by Meric Dagli on Unsplash

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” John 15:4

Have you ever fought with God regarding the place where he has planted you?

Have you ever looked over at another garden and watched another flower beautifully growing, robust and fragrant, and wondered, “Why couldn’t God plant me there? Why has he planted me here?”

Have you ever argued with God? “I could be a much more beautiful flower if you planted me someplace else? Is it really necessary for you to plant me here?”

As much as I hate to admit it, I have asked all of these questions, wrestled my way to exhaustion over the why’s, and compared my garden to that of many others. I have discounted the place of my planting because I couldn’t see the bloom yet to come.

What we don’t see behind every flower, every blossom, every fruitful display of God’s wonder, is the winter that preceded it.

We can’t bloom without the winter.

Seasons are critical to the health of the produce. There is a season for planting, growing, harvesting, and preparing. So often we compare our spindly stems in the early stages of growth to the fullness and richness of a flower ready to be plucked. And sometimes, due to the nature of the fruit we will one day produce, our season of preparation may take longer, which means it may take quite some time before we see a bud appear.

Seasons are cyclical, and sometimes we need to let go of the produce from a plentiful harvest and allow the winter to prepare us for a new planting.

A good winter is necessary for a good harvest.

Winter is quiet and bare, sometimes lonely and unseen. Winter may bring disappointments and challenges. And it can certainly open us up to the trap of comparison. The question begins to form in our hearts, “Why plant me here?” Here seems to be the enemy of our souls. But here is a place where every blossom begins.

We can’t bloom without the winter.

Spring, summer, and early fall allow the soil to absorb heat and moisture. This will sustain the ground for the winter to come. As the ground begins to get colder and colder, and as each layer of soil begins to freeze, under the surface life is buzzing and whirling. There are microbes, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that continue to live and thrive all winter long, producing nutrients necessary for the spring. While all may look dead on the surface, life is still stirring deep below.

And those plants that have deep roots, that reach beyond each layer of frozen ground, will survive the harshest of winters as they continue to be nourished by nutrient rich soil.

Deep roots and patience. Without these we may not see another bloom.

Winter appears barren, but the roots that dive deeply into God’s presence, God’s Word, and God’s soil will survive and one day bloom beautifully. Soil that is teeming with life and hope and truth and grace is soil that will feed those roots and bring life back into the garden.

The key to blooming in the spring is abiding through the winter. We can not produce a harvest if we have not abided in the winter.

When you look over at another’s garden, and if you see beautiful blossoms and fruitful branches, just know they didn’t get there without a winter.

And when you look at yourself and wonder when your moment to bloom will come, reach those roots deep into the winter soil, beyond the frozen ground, and abide in the soil of God’s presence. Your beautiful garden will come, but not before your winter. Have patience. Let God do his work in you.

God planted you here because here needs you. The garden is coming, the buds are forming, and the beauty of the bloom will reflect the beauty of the gardener who planted you here.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” John 15:9


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