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!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

in every season...

When answering the question, “So how are you doing these days?”, conversation seems to eventually lead me to say, “It’s just been quite a season”. And I’ve noticed other people in my life saying these same words about their own lives – “it’s just a season”.

Of course Scripture tells us in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a season for everything – to laugh, to mourn, to dance, to weep, to search, to give up, etc. But what I’m realizing is that usually when people (present company included) say, “it’s just a season”, that’s usually code for: “I don’t like how life looks right now, and I know that it won’t be like this forever, so I just have to get through this and hope that things will change.”

I write this post for those who find themselves in that place – discontent, frustrated with life, frustrated with God (or maybe outright angry with Him), impatient, fearful – or at the very least, anxious – about the future and the unknown. These are all places where I’ve found myself over the past few months. Everyone’s “seasons” are going to look a little different, but here’s, for example, what my season has been looking like:
  • God called me out of a job that I loved, that I was comfortable in, and in which I had developed innumerable deep relationships. But he called me out of it without giving me a clear picture of what was next. It was the whole Abraham “I’m-not-gonna-show-you-exactly-where-you’re-going-but-I’m-telling-you-to-move” call. This has proven to be really difficult.
  • Over the past few weeks, He has given me these small tastes of what He wants to use me for in the Kingdom and has shown me what makes me come alive, when He is most at work through me, but I haven’t really seen them come together or come to fruition yet. These “small tastes” have done nothing but intensify my desire to be able to spend my time and energy in them while also intensifying my discontent in doing anything less.
  • There is a heaviness in my heart for all the chapters in my life that are closing and the relationships that are forever changing as a result. I am so thankful that He has given me friendships that have turned into “family”, but many of those people are leaving as permanent fixtures in my life.
  • Various circumstances continue to remind me of unrealized desires in my own life as most of my friends are all married and now having children. I am becoming the only one in my “circle” not building a family, and the possibility of this dream never being realized is continually difficult for me to try and accept.
  • I have been blessed with a free home to live in and in all honesty, if I were to hand-pick a family to live with, I couldn’t find one more wonderful than this family. But to be in my late 20’s living in someone else’s home with most of my belongings in storage is another thing that feeds into this dissatisfaction / unsettled feeling during this season.
As I was reflecting on all of these things yesterday, I realized that the common denominator is that my life is just one massive question mark. Nothing is sure. Nothing is settled. Nothing is certain. There are fears and anxieties about the future and the unknown.

This was when God gave me a powerful reminder that it is in this place that I have no choice but to rest in those things that I KNOW are true and are constant: that God is faithful. God is good. God is at work. He will never leave me. He will never forsake me. He will finish the work He has started in me. He has not forgotten me. He is always out for my good. With ever-changing circumstances all around me, with all of the unknowns and all of the questions, I can know that He is still God. He is still on the throne. As one of my favorite songs says:

All of my life
In every season
You are still God
I have a reason to sing
I have a reason to worship.

I am thankful that in an ocean full of questions and unknowns, there is a rock on which to stand. And at the end of the day, this is all I can rest in. This is what allows me to stand in this season. I have to pray daily for the grace to rest in what I know that I know that I KNOW is true.

God brought back to mind a lesson that he taught me on a trail back in Febuary of this year. I didn’t even realize at the time how desperately I was going to need to understand this lesson over the coming months.

I was walking on a trail at Tims Ford State Park. The first half of the trail was paved and close to the main park road. The second half of the trail, though, was not paved and went down into the forest of trees. There was NO ONE out there.

There were these moments while walking when I would look down ahead of me and couldn’t see a path at all. I would start to worry that once I got up to that point, the trail would just stop and I would have no idea where to go and would be lost in the middle of the woods. It happened a few times. I would look ahead, not see a trail, and start to freak out a little bit inside. But it never failed…once I got up to that part that I was so worried about, there would be a path – it’s just that I couldn’t see it earlier from my vantage point.

Eventually, every time I would look too far ahead and start getting worried, I would literally have to tell myself, “Melanie, stop worrying. There will be a path.” And then I realized that if I would just stop trying to look so far ahead, I wouldn’t even be tempted to worry! So I had to start telling myself, “Just focus on the next step or two ahead of you, enjoy the scenery around you, and there will be a path.”

So God has again brought me back to that place and reminded me to stop trying to look so far down the path, because from my vantage point, I can’t see the whole thing. It’s ridiculous to try to lean on my own, limited understanding. I just need to focus on the step or two in front of me and enjoy the scenery, enjoy the journey, enjoy HIM, and trust that He will make my path straight. And I’m trusting in something much more reliable than a trail in a park; I’m trusting in the Almighty, ever-faithful God.

These are the things that are helping me survive “the season”. And I pray that they might be an encouragement to those of you who find yourself in a season as well. When life is not what you want it to be, is full of questions, or is full of fear, you have to stand on what you know that you know that you know. Trust in He who is same yesterday, today, and forever.