Letters To Me

Life is so funny. One day you are great, the next you’re not. Seasons change in a split second. Sometimes they last a month, sometimes a year, and sometimes they never seem to end.

I’ve tried to figure it out, like there is some algorithm for which days are going to be good ones and which are going to be… not so good. I’ve been in the midst of a more difficult season of life for a while now, and I knew there was nothing I could do to make it better or fix things happening around me.

Those were lies I told myself for the past 138 days and believed—that I couldn’t change anything, because I did not have that power.

Back in July, while I was attending a writer’s conference, one of our instructors had us write letters to our future selves. She took them and told us she would mail them out in October.

October came and went and I waited for the letter; it never came. I forgot about it.

The past couple of weeks I have felt something inside of me telling me to keep going, despite the fact that it was hard, and despite the fact that I had given up on myself and despite the fact that I honestly didn’t care anymore. I saw the days unfold in front of me and I felt a new season, a season of change, approaching.

Thank God, I thought to myself.

I had been so anxious after having that initial feeling; I wanted a sign—I wanted to know I could trust my own intuition.

On a Tuesday evening, I walked into the kitchen and saw a letter with my name on it sitting on the table. It was in an ivory, card-sized envelope with no return address, a pink rose stamp, and a seal from a post office in Denver, Colorado.

As I picked it up, confused, I said aloud, “Who would send me a letter in Colorado?”

I looked at the handwriting on the address line, and it felt so familiar.

In a split second, I knew: it was mine.

This was the letter I had written to myself, the one I had waited expectantly for all October. But now that it was in my hands, I was filled with an overwhelming fear. I couldn’t open it. When I had written the letter, I was in a great season of life, and I remember having felt so joyous and peaceful as I took my pen to the paper—like I could achieve anything.

What if I had written goals, dreams, or aspirations that had long been left behind? What if I had failed myself? What if I let me down? I was so afraid of not meeting the expectations I had for myself 138 days ago; I put the envelope, unopened, in a book, closed it, placed it on my shelf and walked away.

Wednesday, I was sitting at my desk reading an article, and a quote on the page stabbed me in the heart, because I knew it was meant for me.

“Today, will you choose courage or comfort? You cannot have both. There is nothing comfortable about being brave with your life.”

Ugh. Brené Brown and her convicting words made me feel guilty

But I knew she was right.

I got up and went to the bookshelf, then (admittedly, somewhat reluctantly) opened the letter. To my surprise, I hadn’t written this letter to myself after all—I had written it to God.

This next part, I debated sharing, but decided that sacrificing my own vulnerability was necessary to claim a spirit of bravery and blatant honesty, and to tell a complete and true story.

The letter read:

Dear God,

I surrender my expectations. I surrender my thoughts and feelings on how the outcome should go. I know you are always working in the meanwhile. I give up trying to be perfect, because I am like you, but I am not you. I give up trying to plan out my future. I give up trying to write my own story; you have already written it for me, to me, and delivered my life, and I do not need to be the author of that story. I surrender control and I surrender laziness, I surrender sin and I surrender anger and frustration that comes from my own unmet expectations about college, money, love, writing, travel, family, and life. Help me to live in the story you wrote for me so long ago, because it is so much sweeter than the one I am trying (and struggling) to write. I am nothing—a blank page, waiting for the words to be typed and the story to form. I have hope because I know all you have to do is move a finger.

I was worried about expectations I had already surrendered. Those lies I told myself before seemed really silly, because I realized the only thing that had to change was my fearful, hopeless, bitter attitude. God would take care of the rest, because it was in His hands. I just got tired of the waiting, and gave up on what I thought He was going to do—what I thought He should do.

Waiting is excruciating. But God’s timing is perfect.

I wanted to be successful and I wanted to write this a long time ago, but I didn’t have all the pieces to do so. If I would have ignored that feeling to wait and done what I wanted, this story would be incomplete. Not knowing what is coming next, or why God makes us wait for things, like I waited for my letter, can be painfully hard, but I have learned to see the experience as more of a blind adventure, one where I am forced to rely on Him at every turn.

On the other side of my letter was a verse: Hebrews 12:1-2.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is seared at the right hand of the throne of God.”

That verse brought to mind a few others—the verses that say “He is good”, and “Trust in the Lord”, or “Wait on the Lord”… and my personal favorite, “Be joyful through trials and tribulation”.

The thing is, when life is going good, it’s easy to say that He is good, and that you trust Him, and are patient and joyful. But when things aren’t so good, He may not seem so good, and we may not feel like trusting anymore or waiting for Him to fix things—and we (or least I) definitely did not feel like being joyful.

I have to remind myself daily that I trust a God who allows hurt. And if I only have patience and hope and joy in the good times, then I don’t really trust God. Part of me wishes I could forgo the hardest days of life, but another part of me loves to see how God takes all of these broken pieces and creates something new and holy, and beautiful.

Not long ago, I heard someone say that allowing God to break the thing you are clinging onto so tightly is the best thing you can do, because when something breaks, it multiplies. When we give things over to God, he is able to do more than we ever imagined, to multiply the gift.

Breaking hurts by nature, but letting God break my expectations, actually made it a lot easier for me to achieve the things I wanted, and to have a joyful mindset about it. I know that in the midst of hurt, rejection, depression, and tragedy, the last thing anyone wants to hear is that they just have to trust blindly.

It seems irrational, but that is exactly what faith is: trusting blindly. The important thing to remember is that even when we grow tired of being faithful to God, God is always going to be faithful to us, and he will show up, even if it isn’t in the way or time we expected. He will send your letter, so keep waiting—hopefully, joyfully, blindly… faithfully.

Live Colorfully

 

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For months, I have avoided it. I tried to stay off of social media, and I didn’t want to read the articles or watch the news broadcasts. I continued to push aside any thoughts or feelings brought on by the never ending airing of the culmination of life. I knew these weren’t my stories to tell, but a piece of my heart tugged consistently, asking why I suddenly had so little to say when the opportunity to speak something meaningful had finally presented itself.
Still, in a very human attempt to remain in control, I ignored the whispers, and expected them to pass with time. The problem is, they did not. In fact, they only grew louder and more frequent. I finally found myself in an unwilling surrender as I stood in a narrow clearance aisle with a set of candles in my hands, looking down at the words spelled out in front of me. The box was plain and white other than two simple words: Live Colorfully.
The purse I carry every day is Kate Spade, the sleek phone case I hold for endless hours is Kate Spade, and the navy cross body I pack on every trip is etched with her name. The media has since found new and more exciting ways to attract attention and cause controversy, but her story, her pain, and the pain of every other person struggling with mental health issues have certainly not disappeared. I didn’t know Kate at all, but I was a fan of her work; it was the thing that connected us to one another… or so I thought, until I was standing forever as time seemed to halt, reading and re-reading the words on a box of candles, realizing our mottos for life and work were one in the same.
I’m no expert on politics or mental illness, or even fashion design, but I do have some experience in the area of living colorfully. The first thing to note about life in color, is that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Ironic, isn’t it? There will be days clouded grey, and times when life feels more black and white than a shade on the spectrum. But the truth is, life has to have ups and downs, or it wouldn’t really be life.
In terms of color, however, I think we are wrong to define depression and other forms of mental illness as the black and white of life. In fact, it is the absence of all color: not black and white, but transparency. Suffering from complete hopelessness feels as though anyone could walk or see right through you, like you didn’t exist at all. It is not a feeling of pain, but an absence of feelings altogether—it’s nothingness.
I would argue that it is in our very nature to make lists. We write out the things we want to accomplish, the requests we have, the things we need to pick up at the store—even praises. I am not trying to imply that lists are not helpful, but I do think they have the potential to be harmful. In making lists, we are setting expectations for a life that—whether we care to admit or not—is out of our hands. No matter the amount of planning we do, or millions of lists we write, or even the hundreds of lists we actually complete, there are things we simply cannot account for.
You see, the reason we make lists in the first place is not because we are concerned with proficiency and accomplishment, it’s because we want to foretell the outcome. We are so obsessed with the ending that we forget to trust God in the process.
Life is unpredictable at best. And even though I can’t have things how I want them all the time, and even though I don’t know why the most difficult of things happen, and even though there are things that I cannot change, I still have hope.
Disappointment isn’t anything new. Pain, shame, and guilt have been filling the cracks of brokenness since the first sin of mankind. It wasn’t originally supposed to be this way, but we are less than perfect; all the wrongs we have committed cannot be undone. This is the reality we live in.
We have to let go of the expectations and shed the misconceptions about the way our life and the lives of others should be. One of the largest failures of our society as a whole, is the inherent lack thereof; we are too busy, too selfish, too preoccupied to actually become a community. Simply, we do not care enough about other people.

Van Maanen once said, “We need now more than ever precise, complex, concrete images of one another if we are to continue to occupy this planet as a species.”

If we do not understand one another, we cannot empathize with one another and we cannot connect to each other on any level—whether mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual. It seems we are unable to resist the urge to compare our pain and our problems with the sufferings of others. Pain is pain is pain. And it doesn’t validate you to act inconsiderately. Most importantly, it doesn’t fix the problem or promote healing to focus on the issue of who has it worse.
Mental health, or more accurately, mental un-health is becoming more prevalent in society by the day. Perversely, there a still a large stigma surrounding the issue that only prevents us from addressing the matter. Even further hindering, is the truth that few are ready to talk civilly, few are prepared to venture into the unknown in pursuit of a solution, and many are at the ready with arms bared to fight—even if they have no idea what they are fighting for.
In the same way that we write lists thinking it’s about the aftermath, we live life believing that it’s about the end destination; the reality is, the end of life on earth is just that, the end. The important part, is what happened on the road to the finish.

We must remember the words of S.B. Merriam:
“The interest is in the process rather than the outcome, in context rather than a specific variable, in discovery rather than confirmation.”

Everything that happens in the process of life determines the aftermath of life; the ending itself is actually only a miniscule moment in respect to the complete timeline. We say that in the end it will be alright, and that pain is only momentary, but when pain is all we have ever known, it can be near impossible to see past it.
Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide. The point of humans constantly changing and developing is to increase our abilities and stabilize ourselves and our society.

“To become mature is to develop the power to represent one’s experiences as hunches, words, thoughts, or other symbols. A growing person becomes able to reflect on his past and current experiences, to imagine, anticipate, plan, and hope.” —Heath

I believe that this description of maturity and mental health are interchangeable. Perhaps the root of the problem is the lack of maturity in society. As a child, I couldn’t wait to be an adult. In my mind, grown-ups knew everything, and they didn’t have to face problems; to them, life simply made sense.
Now that I am grown, I realize my momma just had the world’s best poker face.
Most days it feels like life is actually getting more complicated each time I open my eyes and sluggishly reach my arm out to snooze my alarm. I know less and less, and face difficulties more and more. Nothing makes any sense and everything is confusing. And the world is unjust.
I started writing this on the twelfth of June, thinking it was going to be about one person I didn’t even know. Now it’s the twenty-third of August and approximately 6,393 more people have lost the battle raging against their own minds. Some of them I knew, most of them I did not. But every time, it hit a little closer to home. I still cannot believe all that has happened; it honestly doesn’t seem real. The only thing I can think now is: how long until it gets us too?
It’s here and thriving. I can’t tell you how to fix it or make it better. The only thing we can have is hope for ourselves, and love for one another.
A couple weeks ago, this statement in an article I was reading caught my eye:
“I’ll be the first to admit I sometimes bring God into what’s wrong before I thank Him for what’s right.”
This is true. So true. But it’s difficult to approach life in this way when it seems that the ‘wrong’ grows each and every day while the ‘right’ only continues to shrivel. Maybe all we need is a change of perspective, but it is hard to have hope in a world that appears more like a hell than a heaven.

img_8288I don’t have all the answers, and most times I don’t know what to do on those days, but I know that today I still hear a voice behind me saying, “This is the way, walk in it”, and all I have to do is have the courage and the bravery to take the next step.

The Purpose of This

I would argue that in life, it is easiest to overlook the small things, the short things, and the seemingly meaningless things. After all, how can something so tiny have such a big impact? While I am completely guilty of overlooking the simplest lessons of everyday life, once in a while God will open my eyes to something that I have looked at a million times before, but never actually seen.

This past weekend was not one of those times—it was huge, to say the least. I went to a conference where I was surrounded by powerful women (and a few men) who brought the best of what they had to offer and did it all for the glory of Christ. I made connections, and friends, and did all of the things I was supposed to do; I even took away significant lessons from influential people. But when I returned back to my ‘normal’ life,  something started to happen… something very small.

All the little details of the weekend came flooding back, and I realized the true significance of all the people I met and the speakers I listened to; my takeaway was not the big thing—it was the four word sentence that fell randomly into a lecture, it was the miniscule piece of advice that I got from the woman sitting next to me, and it was the feedback I got in the form of rejection. Those little things are what stuck, and they are the lessons I am most likely to recall, and to take action on.

Tucked in the book of John, at the end of chapter twenty, is a short section containing only forty-eight words and two verses. It reads:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of this disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

     The fitting title of this section is “The Purpose of This Book”. Now, I cannot tell you if ‘this Book” refers to the book of John, the Gospels, the New Testament, or the entire Bible— but I can tell you that I have never read that section before today. It was so small; I skipped it. Right in the midst of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—the literal climax of the Bible—are two of the most important verses of the entire story. And I skipped them.

Every writer knows that a good story answers the staple questions: who, what, when, where, and why? The recounting of Jesus’s life story gives us the who, the what, the when, and the where, but these two verses give us the why. Without it, the who, what, when, and where would be meaningless. If Jesus did not preach, teach, come into the flesh and die a criminal’s death, then rise again—you and I would be paying for our wrongdoing with our own lives.

Every person I spoke with through the course of the conference asked me, “What are you writing?” And of course, I could tell them. But when one women changed the question to, “Why are you writing?” I was at a loss.

During one of my sessions, my tired mind was drifting in and out of actually listening—until I heard something that I knew God meant for me.

     “You are putting too much of yourself in your writing…” she said.

Talk about convicting.

I tried to come up with an excuse in my head: “Well, of course I am going to put myself in my writing. I’m telling my story.”

No. I knew it was wrong as soon as I thought it. He corrected me so quickly and so gently.
This is God’s story. I’m not writing for me or about me. If I were, my words would become mere stems of pain in you or the world, because I don’t know how to use them of my own accord. Hire a carpenter to bake your wedding cake and you’ll be eating sawdust.

When I read those verses (30-31) in John 20, it clicked for me.

Jesus is performing miracles all around me, every day. Not all of them are on this blog, or even in writing, but the ones I include and the ones I share are so that you may believe and live life to the full in Him.

My why is you. And His why in choosing me to share my victories, shortcomings, and lessons learned, is you too. He wants to win your heart and your life.

So I challenge you to evaluate the thing you do—writing, singing, dancing, loving, mothering—and pay closer attention to the little things you might normally overlook.

What’s your why?

 

 

The Bookshelves

The final days of my trip to Uganda consisted of pure, lighthearted adventure. The other voyagers and I traveled up to the northern Nile and stayed in Murchison Falls National Park. The African savannah is absolutely beautiful and nearly surreal. To physically be in a place I had only read about as a little girl was dreamlike. It took a minute for my brain to realize that I was actually seeing baboons playing, giraffes eating, elephants walking, and even a few lions basking in the sun right out my window.

Each place I stayed in Uganda was brilliant. I kept thinking to myself that it surely could not get any better, and then we would move on and I would be proven wrong again. Our final stay was at Paraa Safari Lodge, which was so nice I felt like I was on a high class vacation and not a mission trip. It sat right along the Nile River and personified the perfect tropical paradise.

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(The view)

 

One part of the lodge that stood out to me, however, was the bookshelf in the main lounge. It was just a normal bookshelf, but all of the books were the wrong way. Now, when I say ‘the wrong way’ I do not mean that their spines were facing inward and the pages outward; they were all lying down horizontally on their covers in carefully arranged stacks.

 

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(The shelves)

 

I had never seen a bookshelf organized like that in my life. I found it odd, but so very intriguing at the same time. Maybe it was simply for aesthetic, or as a means of artwork; it was a talking point by my terms at least. Perhaps it actually was done for functionality and with purpose.

In my contemplating thoughts, it hit me. Why did I automatically assume the way the books were lying was wrong? For something so inconsequential, I was very quick to judge and label that wooden bookshelf as erroneous.

I think entirely too often, we get caught up in our own ways—how we like to think about and act upon things—and instead of taking the time to acknowledge others’ opinions and ideas, we automatically assume they are incorrect.

Knowledge is the root of wisdom, and is acquired by an awareness of supplementary matters, philosophies, and designs floating in the lives of others. Proverbs 24: 23 reads:

“These are also sayings of the wise. Partiality in judging is not good.”

I evaluated the bookshelf in partiality to my personal accumulation of knowledge. After all, that is the only information on which I have to make judgements. The reality of prejudice is that it is always laid upon a foundation of individual knowledge; in twenty years of experiencing and witnessing bigotry, I have concluded that we are all simply too obtuse and senseless to pass judgement on others, not because we are lacking, but because we are human. All the knowledge in the world could not save us from ourselves.

Who knows? It could be I am the one arranging her books in a peculiar manner. The thing I think we all need to appreciate is the distinction between being wrong and being different. The way that bookshelf was structured was in fact different than what I was accustomed to, but nothing about it was wrong. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of books lying on the shelf in sideways stacks. It was visually very interesting, even though there were some functionality quirks I still had to work out.

In the end, as homage to the message evoked, I decided to change my own personal bookshelf around a little bit. Now, every other shelf is lined with books the way I have always had them, and the remaining shelves are stacked with books the way I saw them in Uganda. It is a reminder and signifier to myself that integrated ideas are, most often, much more effective and better than the ones living alone in my head. I have to listen to what others have to say, consider their views, and take them seriously, just as I hope someone would do for the ideas I have to bring to the table… or in this case, the shelf.

 

Little Red Dots

It is mind-boggling to me how quickly things in life can change. In a matter of seconds, everything can be different: one moment you are a child, the next an adult, one moment you are single, the next engaged, one moment you are a renter, the next a home owner, one moment you are a couple, the next a family—and the list goes on.

 
While I haven’t experienced all of these changes particularly, I have made a few of my own split-second decisions, which led to prompt changes. Each of them is significant, and each of them has shaped the person I am becoming.

 
Something I feel we often forget is that many changes in life can be undone: you can sell your house or car, change career paths, get divorced, or even return a shirt you bought at the store. Undoing changes can be a good and bad thing; they can bring healing and they can bring hurt.

 
On the other hand, just as many changes in life are permanent: the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the pictures you post on the internet which seem to continue showing up no matter how many times you have removed them. Permanent changes inherently carry more weight, merely by definition.

 
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a long-time friend and I sat in a booth at a local coffee shop eating pastries, sipping javas, and laughing in a carefree fashion. It was our first semester of our freshman year of college, and I suppose that single large change wasn’t quite big enough for the both of us. As one topic led to the next, our conversation by some means steered to the subject of tattoos.

 
I am unsure of how exactly it happened, but not even a half an hour later, we were sitting in opposite chairs at a tattoo parlor down the street, completely ready to be inked. The crazy thing is, I do not remember having any hesitant feelings at all—I was wrapped up in the whimsy and fun of it all.

 
We walked out of the tattoo parlor together feeling independent, valiant, and larger than life. My friend had chosen to get a small hummingbird tattooed on her ankle, while I went for something literally larger than life:

 
On my left forearm, sits the entire world. What I mean to say, is that I got a tattoo of the world map flat-laid across my arm. I love travel and I love adventure, and it seemed completely fitting.

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The part of getting a tattoo which I failed to take into account, was the various reactions of others which ensued immediately and continue to this day. Of course, my family member’s responses were among the first: I still cannot forget the wide-eyed look my mother had on her face—it was one of sheer disgust and horror. My brother cried, my uncle teased me, my sister was completely speechless.

 
Not all the feedback was destructive. My tattoo has proven very popular among friends, barista’s, and frequents of vinyl stores. And over time, my family has grown to fancy it too.

 
The completely dippy element is—everyone has an opinion to report on my choice. Random people I pass in public or complete strangers at literally any place in the world feel it necessary to give their outlook on my left arm—positively and negatively. Sometimes people are vivid with their words, and other times their expressions and body language do all the talking.

 
My whimsical decision to make a permanent change has taught me an important lesson: our choices and actions will have an effect on the people interacting with us whether we intend for them to or not. If you choose to have a child, the person sitting in the office waiting room is going to have an opinion of that child, whether it is crying or sleeping or laughing. If you choose to get divorced, the person across the counter at the drug store is going to have an opinion of you when you take your hurt out on them in the form of frustration.

 
Picture the ocean for a moment.

 
It is massive and bluish-green and waves are crashing against the shoreline. Whatever the context of your imagination, I can tell you exactly what you are envisioning: the surface.

 
We have only ever been accustomed to see the shell of the largest piece of the earth. Beyond our vision is more natural life and activity than we can know, but we continuously and instinctually see the surface.

 
I don’t think the solution is to change that part of ourselves; seeing the ocean as merely the surface has much to do with the functionality of our eyes and the messages they send to our brain. Altering our biology is not the answer.

 
What we can change, is the way we judge, treat, and react to others—even over something as insignificant as a tattoo. We have no control over the feelings, emotions, and responses of others in part to our own actions, because they only see what is on the surface. It is entirely frustrating, I will admit, but the only way to subdue adverse reactions, is to become exceptionally wise, humble, and forgiving in our own actions.

 
I am a rather carefree person; it does not bother me when people give their opinion of my tattoo. I know it is in human nature to be curious, candid, and even concerned.

 

To avoid conflict, I have to focus on my own ocean—not just the part that people see.

 
In an age where it is easier than ever to give an opinion, it is more difficult than ever to find common ground. Escaping conflict does not mean that we dodge everyone who has a different opinion than we do. I seriously doubt there would be very many people left if that were the case.

 
Do not let your own insecurities keep you from freely engaging with others.

 
I know that the reactions to my tattoo will likely never stop. That is okay. What I see when I look at down at my arm is not just some ink, some art, or even some mistake; I see my life in experiences. I see little red dots on all the places I have been, and those dots remind me of the incredible memories I have made, beautiful things I have seen, and remarkable people I have met. I look at my tattoo, and I see my story; I recall how it has intertwined so perfectly with the stories of others, and I am able to identify the hand of God throughout.

 
My permanent decision, while having somewhat naïve beginnings, cultivated a treasure and some fresh perspective. Upon reflection, I have concluded that the biggest changes often do happen in the shortest amounts of time—whether that be by the signing of some papers, the flip of a switch, or even the fleeting pinch of a needle, hastily producing another little red dot.

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The Pain of the Plant

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Of all the lessons and certainties God has made known to me, there is one which seems to stand out above the rest. I do not believe this is because it is the most important, but rather the concept I have the hardest time accepting. Whenever some plan or dream goes awry the Lord reminds me of his sovereignty and instructs me to remember; pain is a necessary and nonnegotiable part of life.
Experiencing pain doesn’t mean that we are doing anything wrong, or that we are being punished—it only means we are alive. I have to repeat that to myself constantly, and I know it is nothing to be ashamed of. Keeping faith afloat is like tending a garden: both need to be watered and fed, cared for and maintained, given ample amounts of sunlight, and most importantly, time and space to grow. Eventually, if we do our part and tend to the garden well, we will reap a bountiful harvest.
When I picture myself as a gardener, I see a blissful, smiling me surrounded by beautiful blooms engulfed in sunbeams with butterflies flying all around. The only problem is this is a storybook fantasy. Real gardening is hard work; it takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication.
I am going to be brutally honest here—all my plants die. Every single occasion in which I try to prove my green thumb, I end up only proving my incompetence. Most of the reasons my plants die are completely carless and avoidable; once I planted a tree that never got a chance to grow as I placed it in the one spot which never received sunlight. On another occasion I sat my rosemary bush outside in the fall to get more direct sunlight… and forgot about it until spring.
My efforts are miserable at best, and I empathize with those who care for their own plants. It also makes me a bit envious of those who are actually able to keep any sort of vegetation alive.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I was just a plant in this world—that we all are. You and I require the same food, water, time, care, and supplication to grow. From beginning to end, our lives are as fragile as all of the plants I have murdered in the past twenty years. It actually scares me to even think of myself as the gardener of my own life; I would not have lasted through the first winter if that were the case.
So many times, the Scripture uses sowing, plowing, harvesting or another agrarian metaphor to portray a point, and so many times I believed I understood those metaphors. By the hand of God alone I was able to discover just how out of touch I was with the world around me.
We live in a society that does not know where the majority of their food comes from; instead of farming and harvesting, we go to the supermarket or worse—the drive-thru. We do not have to labor for our food in the way every citizen of Israel, Rome, and Greece did in Biblical times. When God told the masses the Parable of the Sower, they could relate on many levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. If they did not plant seed, they would not have food to live. If they did not toil in servitude to their crops, they would not reap a harvest. If they grew impatient and walked away, they would not see the fruits of their effort.
Stop for a moment and take a look at the creation surrounding you.
To understand the Lord’s metaphors, I had to gain a knowledge of nature like those had by the Israelites. This may seem very basic, but the only way to plant a seed is to dig a hole.
We have to take an instrument of steel and pierce the ground over and over again, opening it like a fresh wound. To plant a seed in us, God must first open a wound.
Expect to be hurt and cracked open, because it is the only way to plant the seed of life. Take God’s words to heart and recognize that you will not see a harvest overnight. Be patient in your efforts; know that God is not wounding you, he is working you. He is the gardener who waters, feeds, and pulls the weeds.

“Be patient, therefore brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until is received the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”               – James 5:7-9

The Lord speaks through his handiwork: he made the plants and the land, and he uses them as such. If you want to know God, pay attention to the green; pay attention to the world he made.

The Beauty of Grace

Through times of hardship, days of joy, trials of life, and every experience in between, there has been one fact I have come to accept as truth: our God has a matchlessly glorious sense of humor.

This, of course, is not Biblical—at least I don’t think it is. The scripture does not say that God’s plan will always prevail by way of irony seasoned with hints of satire, but in my understanding, it sure seems to happen that way more often than not. The wonderful thing about this though, is it makes our God more relatable; everyone loves a good humored leader. Through the way his plans unfold, we are able to gain familiarity of his character, which is laced with light heartedness, mercy, love, and justice.

Often times the great comedians of society—the night show hosts, SNL members, social media stars, and stand-up comedy regulars—are recognized by a signature, whether it be a funny wink, voice, skit, or routine. The Lord has a signature too, and the more time we spend with him, getting to know his voice, his face, his routines, the more we will be able to identify his work.

Last October, I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar faces, foreign landscapes, and exotic ways of life as I journeyed through an entirely new place—Uganda. A small country in Eastern Africa, Uganda is bursting with culture and littered with hope. Most people have this picture in their heads of third-world countries being nothing but poor, sorrowful, and itching with pain and hurt. I would be lying to say I had not had the same vision in my mind a time or two. The truth is, there is poverty and so much pain and hurt, but there is also a massive army of people filled with joy, humility, gentleness, faithfulness, and a bone-trembling fear of God.

This was a special kind of trip. Many assume a trip to such a place, led and organized by a nonprofit, is in fact a mission trip—that is what I assumed myself when I signed up to go. Love Does, the organization which sponsored the trip, however, does things a bit differently. Our days there were not spent building churches or installing wells, or repainting classrooms. Instead, we saw Uganda: I and the other (amazing) attendees were consumed in the people, conversing with them, loving them, knowing them, and gaining awareness of their culture and livelihood. It was all about the people, many I am now thankful to consider my friends.

The education I was getting from these new-fangled relationships silently began changing my perspective and even more, my heart. The organization itself has aptly named these adventures, Vision Trips. I am not sure I would have entirely understood that, had I not gone to try it out for myself. Yet, as I sit and reflect on my time there, it makes all the sense in the world. It changed the vision I had in my head of what underdeveloped parts of the world are really like. I think as Americans, many of us find ourselves afraid of the unknown that awaits us there; the reality in my case, was that I felt more peaceful, safe, secure, and loved in Gulu than I ever had in an American city, because it was so obviously and tightly wrapped in the arms of the Lord.

One day during our visit, we experienced a very unique project launched by Love Does with the mission of installing literacy and Jesus into the lives of some of the neediest in the country: the witch doctor school. Now, I was told by some of the students attending the Restore secondary school, that the correct and more common name for these people was “traditional healers”. My mind liked the idea of spending the day with traditional healers much more than it did witch doctors—the term gave them less menacing qualities and calmed the anxiety swelling in my chest as I recalled stories I had heard and read about witch doctors in this exact part of the world.

IMG_5312The students of the witch doctor school dancing for us, with us, around us.

Once again, the vision I had in my mind was shattered. We arrived at the witch doctor school and much to my astonishment found… dancing. And singing. And smiling faces. They welcomed us so warmly and genuinely and as their lesson for the day began, they sat with us. The woman next to me clenched my right hand in both of hers as if we were already lifelong friends. The men and women began saying their ABC’s aloud, followed by reciting the sounds of some letters and pronouncing the words written on various pieces of paper taped to the wall. At the end, their teacher asked if the visitors had any English words they would like to teach the students. One of the girls in our group suggested the word “beautiful”.

I turned to the woman still grasping my hand and introduced myself as Alyssa.

“I am Grace,” she said softly. Her eyes were deep and yellow and her skin showed the wear of hard labor.

In my mind, I was trying—and failing miserably—to come up with the words to accurately explain to Grace what the word “beautiful” was. I realized quickly it would be difficult considering she knew very little English and beautiful was such an extensive word: it can have many meanings, some poetic and difficult for even the scholarly to understand.

I said a few things in attempt and she looked at me, very confused, watching my lips move as I talked. Then I noticed she was wearing a bracelet around her wrist; it was hard plastic painted silver with fake colored gems placed in a flower shape inside—the kind one would buy for a child to play dress-up with at the dollar store. I took my other hand, pointed to it, and very slowly, with emphasis exclaimed, “Your bracelet is beautiful!”

Her face erupted in a warm smile and she began to blush and giggle like a little girl—almost like she didn’t believe me, almost like she already knew. Then she looked down at me in the same way one would look at their own child and slipped the bracelet off her wrist. She took my hand and clasped it around my arm and said, “Now you be beautiful too.”

I didn’t know what to think as she sat embracing me. I was trying to hold back tears, but it was proving quite difficult. This woman, who most likely had nothing, was willing to give one of her only possessions to a complete stranger, who had everything, at the drop of a hat. I knew that was not the kind of generous love I would get to experience often in my life.

It became clear to me that Grace was a healer. She may not have always been. Perhaps she was a true witch doctor at one time, who sinned and practiced evil witchcraft as according to the name. Whatever her background, she had somehow ended up at this place in this time next to me. She was being transformed, just like many of the students there. God had placed new desires in her heart, and she was learning how to accept perfect love for the first time in her life. With a new and holy fountain of audacious love flowing deep within her, she was finally able to give some away.

2 Corinthians 12:9 reads: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Grace came from a place of weakness, but she let the Lord use her frailty and mistakes to transform her into the beautiful healer I saw her become that day.

As we prepared to leave the school, I tried to return her bracelet, but she shook her head. Then she leaned into me very closely, placing her hands on my shoulders, pressing her cheek against my cheek, and softly whispered, “You keep. Take with you and make you beautiful, make world beautiful.”

I sat, amazed. I still am really—by her generosity, her gentleness, her tenacity, her humbleness, her… grace.

But isn’t that what grace does? God gave us the gift of his son, to keep with us in our hearts, to carry with us everywhere, to make us beautiful and to make the world beautiful.

When I think of her, I am reminded of the verse Ephesians 2:8—

“For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

This is the part where the humor of God I discussed comes into play.

I was literally saved by the faith of Grace. She gifted me with a bracelet most would pass off as worthless, but it is so very precious to me. I did nothing to deserve or earn her gift, but she gave it anyways, out of love for her new sister in Christ.

Like all things, I believe God planned this run with irony. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were sitting on his throne up in heaven, giggling like Grace at his cleverness– that is certainly what I would be doing if I were him.

I still have the bracelet, by the way. I don’t wear it out for risk of losing it, but it sits on my bedside table as a reminder of Grace and the things she taught me.

When I returned to America, I showed the bracelet to a few of my friends and told them the story of where I had gotten it:

Wait,” one of them said in disbelief. “You got this from a witch doctor?”

I nodded.

“What if it’s, like… cursed?” she asked, wide eyed and completely horrified.

I laughed and thought to myself, “Ah, the sweet curse of Grace—a signature of our comedic God.”