Saturday, March 10, 2012

embracing change

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

It’s no secret that when I am going through frustrations, questions, struggles, sadness, what-have-you, I have to write. And most often…the things I write about are a bit too personal for me to post them on the web for all the world to see. But then there are things that I think maybe, just maybe, someone else is experiencing and might find it encouraging to read what the Lord is teaching me in it. So here it is…

I wrote last August about how I felt like I was in a “season” (which you can read here). I really had no idea what the Lord was doing with my life (which I don’t guess is something anyone ever fully figures out…) , but I was just so frustrated with how things were going. So I had to hold on to the fact that it was a season, and for whatever reason, I needed to go through that season. And while I still somewhat find myself in that place, things are quite different in my life than they were a few months ago.

I feel like the best word to describe this most recent season is "CHANGE". For six years, this is how my life looked: I was a youth minister at Harpeth Community Church and a part-time employee at Medical Reimbursements of America. I lived in Williamson County with a random assortment of roommates over the years. For the most part, I had the same group of friends from the same church, notably a family that I grew closer to than I could have ever thought possible – the Robinson family. For six years, this is how my life looked. It was like anyone’s life in that it was full of its ups and downs, but it was such a good, fulfilling, life-giving life…and I loved it. I was comfortable in it.

Within the past 7 months, almost every one of those things has changed or is in the process of changing. I am no longer doing youth ministry, which much of six years of my life was consumed with. In two weeks, I am no longer going to be employed at MRA. I now live up in the city, which has been a bit of a culture change. I have new roommates and a new dog (my first pet to ever own…). And a couple of days ago, I had to say farewell to the Robinson family (moving to East Africa) after an amazing vacation with them in Europe. I do know that much of my need to write today is a direct result of having to say goodbye to them on Friday. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to be to do that…and I’m now dealing with a bit of a broken heart. It’s hard to wrap my mind around what life will be like without them here. They have been such a massive part of the past 7 years for me. So add that to the list of pretty significant recent life changes...and there are even other changes I feel like I may be being called to make, but I think you get the picture.

I am typically one who embraces change. But when God starts to remove those things in life that have provided much stability and identity and comfort for me, I am finding that I have a hard time not resisting it. Those things in my life were good. I found joy in them. I found security in them. I found self-worth in them. I found spiritual strength in them.

But I can’t help but wonder if it was exactly at that point when God knew that He was going to need to shake some of those things. Had I found too much security…too much self-worth in those things? Did I depend on them more than I depended on Him? Did I love them more than I loved Him? Had I started worshipping the gifts over the Giver? Quite possibly. But here’s what I do know: in the removal of many of these things in my life, He is drawing my heart to Him. In decreasing (or all-out removing) those things on which I had depended for so long, He is increasing my dependence on Him, the Lover of my soul. I am seeing that Christ is truly the only solid rock on which I can stand. Everything else – even if it is good – is shifting sand.

One of my all-time favorite Matt Chandler quotes is: “…for God to leave you healthy and content, with everything going perfect for you all the days of your life right up to the judgment seat where you’re damned, would be cruel of God. For Him to give you a thorn in the flesh, for Him to break your hip, for Him to get you sick, for Him to free up your hands off of the myth of control and show you how dependent you are on Him is one of the most merciful things He could ever do.” Maybe this season of change is nothing but God's mercy on my life.

He is after our hearts. He wants all of us. And I absolutely believe that in His pursuit of us, He will cause (or at least allow) things to happen to us that show us there is only One who is unchanging, only ONE Rock on which we can stand. I have no idea what the next month or the next year or the next ten years holds…but I know that I can’t go without Him. There is only one thing that I can’t live without and that is Him. So any season that is growing my love and intimacy with Him is one worth embracing with all I’ve got.

I recently read a quote that said “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” This feels not too far off for where I am in all of this right now…I’m in the “melancholy”. And I know I won’t be there forever. I know that there are great things ahead…and that change is the only way to get there. I will celebrate and remember with joy and gratitude what the past 7 years have been for me. But I know that it is only in somewhat “dying” to what was that I can move into what is to be. And I believe that what “is to be” is going to be good.

So what I’ve learned: I must plunge into change, move with it, and join the dance.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

You are so good to me

I feel like Thanksgiving so easily comes and goes each year without me really taking the time to step back and look at my life through the eyes of total gratitude. I easily get wrapped up in the feast and the family and the football, but sometimes the day will just pass without me ever really sitting in the purpose of it all. Sure, I will send out texts to friends and family about how thankful I am for them. Sure, I may think about how generally thankful I am for my blessings as I wake up to the smells of sweet potatoes and turkey being prepared in the kitchen. And sure, when we pray before the meal, I will think about how thankful I am for the wonderful family God has given me. But rarely do I take any sort of substantial time on this day to really look at how good the Lord has been to me.

This is my first year ever to not be home for Thanksgiving. As hard as it is to be away from my family in Texas, one thing that I decided I would do this year is take some time today to really look at my life and acknowledge the Lord's blessings and mercies...something I wish I did even more throughout the year, but something that I just refuse to overlook today. November 2010 - November 2011 has undoubtedly been the craziest year of my so many ways. It has been a roller coaster beyond what I ever could have expected. And I feel like almost every day, my emotions will end up ranging from excitement to fear to frustration to sadness to peace at some point during the day. But today, I simply choose gratitude.

What am I most thankful for today?
  • Mel and Donna Carter - I didn't get to pick where I was born or what family I was born into. I didn't get to tell God, "8208 Joliet Ave. in Lubbock, TX please". But if He HAD allowed me to choose, I would have picked my mom and dad. It's so cliche, but so true, that the older I get, the more I am just blown away that God would gift me with the parents that He gave me - parents who raised me in the ways of Jesus, who showed me (didn't just tell me) that there is nothing more important than your walk with God, who have loved and supported a daughter whose life probably isn't looking exactly like what they might have imagined, a dad who has always made me feel like a beautiful daughter, a mom who has been so much more than a parent, but has been one of my best friends. Oh gosh, I could write a whole book about my mom and dad...
  • Melissa Carter - I really don't think I could possibly choose another female on the planet that I would rather have as my sister. My sister is different from me on so many levels, but that's what I think makes us perfect for each other. I just feel like everyone needs to know Melissa. She has been a source of laughter, encouragement and inspiration in ways that I know I'll never be able to express.
  • Jesus Family - I don't know if I've ever understood what relationships in Christ were meant to be more than I have through my Jesus Family here in Tennessee. These are my best friends in the world, the people who I can be with and just let down every guard and breathe, the people who make me laugh so hard that I physically hurt, the people who will listen to me and cry with me, who carry my burdens, who push me spiritually and call me out when I'm going the wrong way, the people for whom God has given me a love that I didn't actually know I could even have for other people. Oh, my heart is full when I think of my Jesus family.
  • The Minchew Family - (of course...part of my Jesus family...) I feel like the Minchews truly deserve their own bullet-point here...specifically at this point in my life :) Not only have they forever been my "Tennessee family" and not only are they the ones with whom I'm celebrating Thanksgiving this year, they have also so very graciously allowed me to live in their home during this time of transition in my life. But more than that, they have each individually been a source of so much encouragement and support over the past 6 years of my life, and are truly four of my dearest friends in the world.
  • The family at Harpeth Community Church - God led me to this family of believers almost as soon as I moved here, and these have been the people who have been my source of strength and support through life's post-college journey. I was blessed beyond words with the opportunity to minister to the youth at this church for six years - an experience that changed me forever and brought more joy into my life than I could have ever imagined.
  • My HCC small group - I had a Thanksgiving meal with my small group last week and on my way home, I just couldn't stop thinking about how thankful I was for those people in my life. God has given me friends who aren't just the greatest/funnest people to be around, but who also encourage and challenge me spiritually every week and who have been the most wonderful people to walk this journey with. Greatest friends I could ever hope for.
  • Hilary Boucher and Melanie Sutton - I have been meeting with these two women each week over the past couple of months, two women who have always been dear friends of mine, but who are now becoming partners in the gospel, sources of intense encouragement and inspiration on the darkest days, voices of truth when the lies are attacking, prayer warriors, and people with whom I have shared some of the hardest of tears but also some of the hardest of laughs. Sisters in Christ, just as I feel He desired it to be.
  • Proverbs 19:20 - I am so thankful that the Lord's purpose is always the one that prevails in my life, no matter what plans I may make. If my "plans" had come to fruition in my life, it would look quite different than it does now. But there is not an ounce of doubt in my mind that my life is more full of purpose and passion and joy and fulfillment because the Lord, in His mercy, took the reigns in my life and led me to people and places that I could NEVER have planned for.
  • Romans 8:28 - There has never been a time in my life when I could look back and say that God wasn't faithful in not only working things out, but working things out for my BEST. In some of the most frustrating and hurtful experiences, He was at work shaping me and moving me in a way that now when I look back on those experiences, I actually look at them with joy and thanksgiving. That can't be explained outside of Him. He is forever faithful.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 - As I mentioned, this has been one of the most insane years of my entire life...maybe the most insane one ever. And I will NEVER understand why, but in His grace, God has chosen to form in me a specific passion and has given me a vision for where my life is headed that I just don't deserve. He has been weaving things together and putting people in my path and is truly at work. Although the final picture is beyond unclear, I believe that the path is sure. And for whatever reason, He chooses to use me to work in His Kingdom, to be His hands and feet, to be a vessel of redemption and freedom and truth. This is a blessing that I couldn't feel more unworthy of, but for which I am overwhelmed with thankfulness.
  • Jesus - No words do this one more justice than...
In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave he rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine -
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

"Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his goodness..."
Psalm 103:1-2

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What is in your hand?

On Tuesday night of this week, I went to Kairos, a weekly worship service held at a local church. The teacher this week spoke about the story of the call of Moses (in Exodus 4) when Moses is just trembling in fear and God says to him, "What is that in your hand?". M
oses says, "A staff." And God says, "Throw it on the ground." And when Moses throws his staff on the ground, it becomes a snake and Moses runs away from it in fear. But then God tells him to pick it back up, and when he does, it becomes a staff again. The teacher talked about how the staff represented Moses' work (a shepherd). The action of throwing it down was an act of obedience, but its becoming a snake also shows how our "work" has the ability to destroy us if we allow it. But God tells Moses to pick it up because God was about to use that staff for mighty purposes in the Kingdom. So the teacher asked us on Tuesday night, "What is that in your hand?" He told us to throw it down, and then reach over, and pick it back up. Because when we surrender our "jobs" into God's hand, He can use it for mighty purposes in the Kingdom. The staff looked the same after Moses picked it back up, but it wasn't the same. From then on, God used it even though Moses carried it.

When this teaching was over, I was stunned...because of what I had just experienced that day at my own workplace...

I have been employed for the past 7 years by a company in Franklin, TN that has treated me amazingly well. This company has continually been over-the-top understanding and flexible with me as I tried to balance it with my other job in youth ministry. However, it is no secret that the nature of this job is not my passion nor is it what I want to do for the rest of my life. And although I have been very thankful for this job and for how well I have been treated there, I cannot imagine how many times in the past 7 years I have said, "...but I really don't think I'm going to be there much longer...". And then a year later, I'm left saying, "oh my goodness, I'm still here".

I don't think I would have ever admitted it out loud, but there has always been something deep, deep down in my spirit telling me I wasn't done there. And I didn't even know what that meant. But for years, week in and week out, I have been talking to students about going into their schools and going into their jobs and bringing Jesus into those places, because that is their mission field. The problem was that I could never help but take a step back in my own life and look at my own workplace and ask what I was doing to bring Jesus into that place. I made up every excuse in the world. "Well, it's not a workplace that is conducive to relationship-building." "Well, even if I tried to get something together outside of office hours, no one would come." "Well, my real mission field is in youth ministry; I just have to go to this other place so that I can pay the bills." That last one was always the one that would randomly pop into my head and would produce immediate conviction. So what, I get to pick and choose when I want to shine for Christ? And if I do, I'm choosing to shine for Him when I'm working in my "ministry" job, but not in my "secular" job? Yeah...pretty lame...

This is why there has always been this tension in me, this thing in me saying that for seven years, I haven't really done anything for the Kingdom in that place. Sure I've encouraged people here and there, but I think I have always known that God had something more. And if I had left that job at any point in the past seven years, I think I would always have looked back and regretted not really ever making a mark for God in that place.

One of the things I've always dreamed about was having a women's devo or prayer time. Problem is, I never thought anyone would do it because it would require off-the-clock time...and it's like pulling teeth around there to get anyone to agree to that. So although for years, I've considered doing that, I have never once spoken it out loud to anyone.

So a couple of weeks ago, I am eating lunch with a couple of women from the office and they were just sharing about how hard life is and long-story-short, I end up asking them if they would come to a weekly womens' prayer time/devo if there was one happening at the office. Without hesitation, they said "yes!" (with much anticipation in their tone).

Fast forward a week, and there are five of us meeting about starting this thing. We decided to not make a big thing of it and just spread it via word-of-mouth. I'll be honest, I was worried that if any of the "higher-ups" found out about it, there could be some problems because of the distraction it could cause in the office. So we just told a few women and had no idea if anyone would show this week.

Fast forward to Tuesday of this week, our first "official" meeting, and 15 women show up. I was blown away. It was a really sweet time together and there were already tears flowing from some of their eyes...and we had barely gotten this thing started! Later that afternoon, I found out that one of the women had mentioned that we were doing this to the CEO and co-founder of our organization, and I immediately got nervous. But she said that he was so excited about it and told her that we would always have his support. Again...blown away. I e-mailed him that afternoon and just assured him that this would be completely off company time and also told him how thankful I was that we had his support (and threw in that I was praying God would put it on the hearts of some men to start the same thing...:).

I came in Wednesday morning with over 15 e-mails from other women in the office asking me to add them to the calendar invite for the weekly meeting and also had an e-mail reply back from the CEO:
" actually gave me chills when she told me. Absolutely have 100% support from me. It’s sad that the world forces us to be politically correct so that we would avoid any religious issues in the work place. I really don’t like that. You should also know that along with myself, you all will have the support from the rest of the Executive Team! We will be more intentional here b/c I truly feel that it is what He wants for us and for this company. "
I couldn't help but just stare at my computer screen in amazement. I was getting e-mails from women all day telling me that they have been wanting something like this at the office for a long time, how it was an answer to prayer, how desperate they were for something like this each week. And then at my daily team huddle that morning, one of the women in my team asked if we could start praying at the beginning of our huddles. So there we were, standing up in the middle of the office, praying as a team. It was almost surreal. God is on the move.

The reason I share this story is not, by any means, to give myself even the slightest pat on the back. If anything, this is somewhat of an embarrassing thing to admit, that for seven years, I had made up excuses about why I was spiritually "chained" there and couldn't really do anything for Jesus. And I truly don't one bit deserve to be part of what God is doing in that place right now. It is by His grace alone that I would have the chance to see and join Him as He moves on hearts and lives in that office.

No, the reason I say all of this is to just encourage you, no matter where you are or where you work, to not wait for seven years before you decide to make a mark for the Kingdom in your workplace, in your school, in your community. There are people who are desperate for it, hungry for it. Be bold and courageous. What is your staff? You have one. Throw it down, and then pick it back up, and see what God will do with it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

I Had a Dream...

I really don’t dream much. Or if I do, I rarely wake up from them and I rarely remember them. Last night I had possibly the worst dream I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t like any other dream I can remember…it was vivid. It felt completely real. And it was really long. So there was never a point in it that I remember thinking, “This is a dream”. It was one of those dreams where when I woke up, I literally rejoiced in my bed upon the realization that it wasn’t real.

To get to my point, I have to share a little about the dream itself. Warning: this may be a tad graphic…sorry. I’ll spare you all the details, but basically I was in a big city and was taken by a gang (after watching them kill my dad) and most of the dream consisted of them taking me to different places and doing awful things to me...awful things…I won’t go into the specifics, but let’s just say that there were multiple times when I was begging them to just kill me.

Anyway, the POINT of me sharing this is that there was one part of the dream where they took me to a church and had me tied up. I can’t remember what they were actually doing to me, but I remember very clearly that there was a church service happening and they had me right in the middle of the sanctuary where everyone was meeting but nobody was paying an ounce of attention to me. I’m tied up and bleeding and crying out to everyone for help, but it was as if I was completely invisible. No one was even looking at me, much less attempting to rescue me.

And it wasn’t until I was describing the dream to some of my friends this morning that it all hit me.

I once heard Christine Caine (of the A21 Campaign) speak about the horrific things that are happening in the world around us today, but we just keep “playing church”. There are horrible things happening to innocent people today on our watch as the Body of Christ. And I would think that if these things were happening right in the middle of our church building, we would do something about them. But since it’s happening outside of our walls and in places where we can’t see them, it is easy for us to turn a blind eye.

I was reminded of our visit to the castle at Elmina in Ghana, West Africa, a few weeks ago. This castle is the biggest and oldest standing slave castle remaining in Africa. After touring the castle and hearing about the horrific acts of injustice that took place within those walls, we were taken to the top of the castle where there was a church. We were told that the church would actually meet there every week while right below them, people were getting raped, beaten, starving to death or dying from sickness because they were laying in their own waste. And the church would be only feet away from these people…just “playing church”.

It’s easy for us to look back on them and think, “How could the church know that this was happening right below them and not do something about it?! How could they just stand there knowing what was happening right under their noses???” But I wonder…what will future generations say about us?

"How could the church just stand by when they knew there were 925 million hungry people in the world? How could the church just stand by when they knew 27 million people in the world were held in slavery? How could the church just stand by with 143 million children living as orphans? How could the church just stand by while 1 million people were trafficked across international borders every year? How could they just keep playing church while they knew those things were happening?"

I am again brought back to what I said in my last post: it is the CHURCH that was not only called, but empowered, to set the captives free, heal the hurting, feed the hungry, BE THE HANDS AND FEET OF JESUS in this hurting and broken world. And it is only the church that has been given the authority to attack the gates of hell. Heaven help us if we choose to simply “play church” and forget the reason we’re on the planet!

So as horrific as that dream was last night, it was like God giving me this tiny little glimpse into what it must be like to be suffering and dying at the hands of another person, while the “hands and feet of Christ” turn a blind eye and just keep playing church. God, give us Your eyes so we can see!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reflections on Ghana

We landed in Nashville at 9:00 this morning, and there was a wide range of emotions going through me. Of course I was excited to sleep in my own bed tonight and was excited to eat a Blue Coast salad for lunch. I was excited to see friends. But more than anything, I still felt a heaviness in my heart, a sadness. I honestly wasn't ready to leave yet.

It may seem a little crazy that I would feel so attached to girls that I only spent 4 and a half days with, but it felt like we were just really starting to feel like sisters with the girls at Sweetwater at the very time we had to leave. As one of my teammates said, it felt like the first day was just getting to know each other; by second day we were feeling a little more comfortable with each other; by the third day we were friends, and by the fourth day we were family. And then we had to leave. I know we barely had time to scratch the surface of these girls' stories, but nevertheless, my heart was just bursting for them. They really dug themselves in deep.

I was thinking today about all that this trip meant to me, and I feel like I'm just barely getting started, but a few things that have come to my mind so far...

First of all, I have been encouraged to see that the teen girls ministry that God has placed so heavily on my heart is one that does, in fact, translate to other cultures. I was skeptically wondering whether or not the InsideOut / Girl Talk ministry would really "work" cross-culturally. And I was amazed by how much it did. As I mentioned on my first blog about the trip, we truly are all cut from the same cloth. Although the outside manifestations of it may look different from culture to culture, we are all struggling with the same lies and the same core questions. Truth is still truth and lies are still lies, whether you are in the U.S. or West Africa or China, for that matter... This was so encouraging to know, because it means that the message of InsideOut / Girl Talk is one that is important for teen girls in every culture and every pocket of the world to hear. And it works, because it is built on the Word of God and empowered by the Spirit of God...both of which stand the test of time and of culture.

Secondly, I learned that at the end of the day, Jesus is truly the only One who change hearts and changes lives. I will admit that coming in, I was also skeptical about the actual effectiveness of a home like Sweetwater house, being managed by Americans but run by Ghanaians. And I just can hardly believe what I discovered. These young girls are coming in with some deep-seated issues and pain and struggles. And after hearing some of their stories, it would be easy to think that there is little hope for them, that it will require more than what a "normal" person can give them to help them work through these issues. I myself have even said that I don't have the letters behind my name to be able to help these girls in the ways that they need.

However, God really opened my eyes this week to the truth that JESUS changes lives. Professional psychologists and counselors and doctors don't change hearts. Jesus does. The Spirit does. I saw this through the lives of the girls at the Sweetwater House. These girls are coming in as broken, abandoned, sad, hopeless little girls and after only being in the home for a year are now vibrant, strong, passionate, FUN, young women who have a heart for the Lord. And this is happening with not one psychologist or professional counselor on staff. There is ZERO explaining it outside of Jesus, the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit changing lives.

And WE, the church, have been given this Spirit. We have been given this empowerment. Not the government. Not rehab facilities. But the church itself. Jesus empowered His church to complete the mission of reaching a hurting world. As Nancy Alcorn says in her book Echoes of Mercy: "Just as Christ gave His Great Commission to the church and no one else, He also equipped the church and no one else to carry out His commission. Just as no other institution was appointed to 'heal the brokenhearted,' neither was any other institution equipped for such a healing work. Only the church has both the authority and the power to bring restoration to broken lives."

There is so much HOPE for these young women. I think I had actually doubted and wondered if these girls who had seen and gone through so much would ever actually be okay - if they would ever be whole again. I see so much promise in their eyes. I see dead hearts and dead sp-
irits coming back to life. I see beauty coming from ashes, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. It was such a beautiful thing to see...hope. To remind myself, I bought a wood carving cut in the shape of the Andrinka symbol for HOPE.

Learning all these things has done nothing but intensify the stirring in my heart for teen girls ministry, overseas work, and reaching out to hurting young women, particularly those being rescued from human trafficking. There were innumerable things that happened this past week that encouraged me or that answered questions that I had.

At the end of the day, I just continue to pray that we would seek out that which God has given us a passion and a fire and pursue it with a vengeance. That we would give our lives, our time, our energy over to eternal things, not temporary ones. After this week's experience, I don't know how I'll ever be able to settle for anything less.

I truly cannot wait until Jesus returns and there is no more of this pain and brokenness. No more tears and no more questions. But until that day comes, may we just continue to fight the good fight and keep the faith, so that what Paul said of himself might be true of us: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day..." (2 Tim 4:2).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

a very tearful farewell

I can't believe this day arrived so quickly. Today was our last day with the Sweetwater Girls. I was already dreading it going in. These girls have completely stolen my heart, and there is no doubt that I will be leaving a piece of it here as we go home.

The past couple of days (since my last post) have been just incredible. God has moved in some powerful ways in the lives of many of the girls. There have been walls breaking down, hearts being pierced, and truth sinking in. At the same time, I have been changed. I have been inspired by these girls' stories. I have been encouraged by their faith. I have been infected with their joy. They have brought me to tears and my side has hurt with laughter. My heart is full. I truly cannot wait until the day that I will see them again, whether here on earth or in heaven.

There is a sweet, sweet girl who was in mine and Monique's small group this week named Florence. I could tell all morning that she was heavy with sadness, so I went up to her and asked what was troubling her. She mentioned something about her head hurting but then said, with tears in her eyes, "When will you be able to come and see us again?" (which was when I realized what the heaviness all morning had been about). It was a heart wrenching question. I told her that I would pray to God to give us the opportunity to come back and see them one day...and I meant it. I assured her that even if we do not see each other again here on earth, there will be a day when we will all be together forever. She smiled in affirmation but could not hold back the tears. It just about ripped my heart out (...not only for her, but also for me). She asked if she could have a picture of me so that she could always remember me...

Me with Sweet Florence
(I told her I would mail it to her...)

This afternoon, we had a very sweet time of washing the girls' feet and praying over each of them. It was just such a blessed time of serving, honoring, blessing, and encouraging our sisters in Christ. There were many...many...tears.

It was heart wrenching saying goodbye to them today. I knew that our team would be very emotional about leaving, but I did not expect all of the tears from the girls. It is incredible the bond that can so quickly form when the relationship is built on Christ and centered on Him. I truly feel as if these girls have been my little sisters for years. It is hard to imagine that I have only known them for 4 days...crazy.

I am sitting here in my hotel room and their faces are just running through my mind. My heart really is heavy already missing them and wondering...hoping...that I will be back here before they graduate in a couple of years. As I told Monique tonight, it is almost unbearable to think about not ever seeing them again ( least this side of heaven...). Oh, what a very blessed and life altering week it has been. A piece of my heart is undoubtedly staying in that little house outside of Accra, Ghana.

Please say a prayer for my sweet sisters - that they would continue to move forward boldly in the Lord, that they would take their stand against the enemy's schemes, that they would find healing from their hurts, freedom from lies, and that God would continue to relentlessly pursue their hearts until they are fully His. Amen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reflections in Ghana (Days 1-3)

A few short months ago, my friend Monique Zackey invited me to a fundraiser banquet for an organization called Today's Choices. I remember specifically NOT wanting to go to the banquet that cold February night because I had had an awful day and just didn't want to be around people. But for some reason, I really felt God prompting me to go (...and today I can understand why...).

Today's Choices started a ministry called Sweetwater Ministries. A few years ago, they opened a home in Ghana, West Africa, where 24 Ghanaan girls who have been rescued from the streets and other difficult circumstances (some were purchased out of slavery) live for 3 years at a time. At Sweetwater, they are given food, clothes, a bed, education, and most importantly, Jesus. They are taught a trade of their choice (either sewing or hair dressing) so that when they graduate, they have a way to provide for themselves.

At the fundraiser that night, I learned all about this ministry and completely fell in love with it. Fast forward about six months and, only by the grace and the movement of God Himself, here I am in Ghana with a team of eight women (and two men...) bringing a girls' event called Girl Talk to the 24 precious girls at the Sweetwater House. During this time, we are speaking to the girls about their identity in Christ, their purpose in the Kingdom, forgiveness, freedom, and redemption. We play games, do crafts, give gifts, share testimonies and worship Jesus together. It literally is combining two of my greatest passions in life - ministry to young women and international missions....a dream come true, honestly.

Our team! From left to right: Monique Zackery, Dante Williamson, Margaret Callahan, Me, Stefani Johns, Karen Walker, Shayna Hobbs, Pastor Chris Williamson, Alisa Malone, Doris McMillian

I have made a pretty bad mistake in that we are already closing on Day 3 of the trip and I have yet to enter one blog post. It would be completely impossible to try and explain all that has happened in the last 3 days, but I will try and give a couple of the highlights. Suffice it to say, it has already been one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

We met the Sweetwater girls on Sunday after church and I was just not prepared for what I was about to experience. We arrived to a beautiful WELCOME sign and 24 girls standing on the porch. And then it was literally 10 - 15 minutes straight of cheers and claps and laughter and hugs. I couldn't believe the reception. It honestly felt as if we were all just long-lost friends reuniting after years of being apart. They literally stole my heart within 30 seconds...I'm already dreading leaving them at the end of the week.

Meeting the Sweetwater Girls for the first time!

I had the honor of teaching on Monday on the topic of identity. I was SO struck that day by how very similar their struggles with their worth and their identity are to ours. One of my teammates, Shayna, said that when they wrote down some of the lies that they have believed about who they are, she noticed that the young African girl sitting next to her had literally written the exact same three words that she - an American woman - had written down. Our lives may look different from the outside looking in, but the enemy's tactics never change. It's amazing...we truly are all cut from the same cloth.

It was a somewhat surreal experience speaking on a topic that I've spoken on innumerable times in the states, but teaching it this time to 24 young girls in West Africa, many of whom have been abandoned by their families, abused, lived on the streets. It was just such a humbling experience to think that God would use me to communicate this message of truth to these young girls on the other side of the world.

One of the most powerful moments of each day is testimony time. We typically have a couple of the Sweetwater girls share their testimony and then one of the women from our team share theirs. Today, the first Sweetwater girl walked up to give her testimony and none of us were prepared for what was about to happen.

It was a story of much hardship but came to a climax when she said, "You may wonder where my parents are. They are gone." And she started crying....hard....then said, "...and so is my sister". She then continued to share, through many tears, about how blessed she is to live at the Sweetwater House where she has "a bed with sheets" and how God has truly redeemed her life from the pit. She was crying so hard...and so were we.

Tears were flowing from the eyes of many of the Sweetwater girls as well...which is such a rarity in this culture. I have a feeling that they were not only crying for her, but also for themselves and the many aspects of their stories that they likely share in common. It was just this moment when it was as if we all came to this place together where we could just weep with one another over the hardships and difficulties that these young girls have experienced but also about the redemption and the healing that Jesus brings. After sharing her story, this precious girl, through her weeping, timidly started singing My Redeemer Lives. We tried, through our own tears, to join her, but it was difficult to get anything out. It's hard to explain what this moment was like, but it is a moment that I know I will never forget as long as I live.

When I talked to this sweet girl later that day, she told me that she loved that song because it has her favorite word in it - Redeemer.

There are so many things that I wish my friends and loved ones could be experiencing alongside me here - to hear the beautiful voices of these girls in the morning as they worship, to see their eyes light up as they open their gifts, to see their tears flow with one another as they carry each other's burdens, to hear their stories of how they have changed since coming to Sweetwater, to see and hear their indescribable laughter as we play every silly game in the book from Twister to Simon Says.

It's frustrating because I truly think I could fill a book with all of the experiences and all of the stories from the past 3 days. I will try to post at least a couple more times during the trip to keep my friends, family and supporters better informed. I could never begin to adequately thank those of you who have given your prayer, financial, and spiritual support for this trip. Please continue to pray for us as we are here, but more importantly, that God would continue to powerfully move in the lives of these 24 young girls. What a mighty God we serve.

We made purple bandana bracelets to represent the girls' identity as royalty - princesses of the King!