Thursday, May 28, 2009

the dance.

Everyone who knows me knows that I love to dance... around the house, down the street, in the car, or with a group of friends. It all started when I was three years old and my mother so graciously decided that I was going to become the world's next ballerina star. Turns out I only affirmed her dreams for my life when I took the stage in a tutu at age four and apparently made up my own dances in place of those I had been taught. I simply listened to the music and found freedom in moving whichever way I could. What can I say: I was a free-spirit, and undoubtedly still am today.

That's right... I love to dance. One of my favorite parts about spending four months in Ecuador was having those rare, few-and-far-between nights when a group of us went out to a salsa club and just moved. It felt as if I was constantly begging my friends around me come dancing with me, despite the fact that I could hardly move my hips the way most Ecuadorians could. Did that stop me? Absolutely not! For me, it wasn't about perfection. It was about letting go of my inhibitions and learning how to just be. Whether I knew the right moves or not was irrelevant. I simply listened to the music and danced without a blueprint for my feet, just like I did when I took the stage as a preschooler.

Unsurprisingly, this same desire followed me to West Palm Beach, so when I finally was blessed enough to meet some friends even semi-interested in going salsa dancing with me, I jumped at the opportunity. My friends were going to take me to City Place, which is known for its booming night life and crowds, especially on a Saturday night. Our plan was to go to a place that was a bit more sophisticated; one that was not filled with drunken perverts trying to hit on you or barely dressed girls bearing it all in hopes of gaining something for their souls. We wanted to go and dance, not immerse ourselves into an environment that so many of us knew we had no place in being.

You see, the majority of my teenage years and well into my college years, I was a part of the "night-life" scene. I am a redeemed party-girl, one who has pursued life in drunken chaos and mini-skirts, only to find out the hard way that it does not exist. For me, the glitz and glamour of getting drunk every weekend faded as time went on. I did not realize this until my freshman year at the College of Charleston when I lost everything I thought was my life and was left alone to process the pain. My "party buddies" did not care about my heart condition, for if I was not the life of the party, I was nothing to them.

People say that it is during these moments when God's grace can be seen most profoundly in a person's life. I can testify that this is the absolute truth. I cannot tell you how many nights I spent weeping on my dorm room floor during this season of my life, wondering if I should just end it all to make the pain go away. I remember thinking to myself, "If God really loves me, where is He? Why would He let me fall so far and then leave me here to suffer alone? Maybe it's all a lie. Maybe there is no God. There can't be.". If I chose to believe in God, I somehow had this belief that if I was not worthy of being loved based upon my actions, then He wanted me to suffer and pay for it. I thought I deserved pain because of the decisions I had made and who I had become. I did not know that God held out His hand to prostitutes, murderers, and adulteresses; I thought He loved only those whose lives could be wrapped in a box and tied up with a pretty perfect bow. I thought He only loved those who went to church and had never said a curse word. Damnit...my messy, sinful, shameful life had no place in the kingdom of God, and I was sure of it.

If you know my story, you know that God's grace finally did lift me up off of that dorm room floor and it pushed me to become the woman I am today. The love of God turned my hopelessness into a mustard seed of faith that led me to consider what my life would be like if I chose to let Him love me. I chose to stop viewing myself as damaged goods. I began to pursue good things: honesty, purity, and love. The most imperative part of my journey was when I made the choice to set myself apart from the life and the environment I used to "belong" to. While this may not be what every person needs to do, I knew that in order for my heart to heal, I had to let God show me that I indeed had an identity apart from being a party girl. I wanted to believe that this was possibly, and so for the sake of my heart, I broke free from these places and pursued hope in brand new ones.

With all of this in mind, let's backtrack. My friends and I decided to go dancing, so tell me how I could possibly end up in a night club with barely-dressed showgirls running around and serving champagne at the sound of every beat? Our innocent desire to dance had quickly catapulted us into an environment whose elements felt like spiders crawling on my skin. From the moment I walked through the doors of this place, I knew in my spirit that I had no place being there. I was surrounded by my past and saw reflections of my former self in the faces of those around me. The emotions were stirring while quick swift reminders of the baggage I used to carry were rising to the surface and being thrown into my face by my own conscience. Words that had been spoken to me at the College of Charleston were being rehearsed in my head: You'll never be more than who you were. You'll always be that girl. You are not worthy enough for true love. For the sake of my heart, I knew I needed to leave.

We left the club and headed towards the parking garage. I remember feeling so small in those streets, surrounded by groups of people who seemed to be having the time of their lives, as if they had never been happier and were truly fulfilled in who they were. Perhaps some of them were genuinely content; I truly cannot say. For me, I knew better than to be moved by the apparent glitz and glitter of this environment; I knew how empty it was when I attempted to find my security and worth in it. What I thought would make me secure, fulfilled, and happy left me scarred, shamed, and without hope. Perhaps for the sake of my heart today, I needed this to happen in order to be reminded of this piece of my journey and how far God has brought me from this season of my past. I have by no means reached perfect or the heights of awareness about my self worth and security in Christ today, but I can say that God's grace has brought me a very long way.

Needless to say, I never truly got my dance that night. Something that had been done in such pure intention had quickly evolved into a slippery-slope of actions and thoughts that led most of us to discomfort and uneasiness with not only where we were, but also who we were. Do I dare say that these places are wrong for everyone? Absolutely not. If someone can be in these environments and not be affected or moved by them, more power to them. I have met people who minister in strip clubs and gay bars for the sake of love and hope. How could we possibly say that Jesus would not have been in these places, reaching out His hands to those who cannot see that they have an opportunity and a calling to become something more than this, something truly beautiful? Tell anyone from any background or system of beliefs that they have an opportunity to become a part of God's story and they will undoubtedly rehearse the many reasons why they don't "deserve" heaven, or to be loved, or to attend church. I'm too awful to go to church, they argue. Actually, we are too awful not to go to church. Thank God that His grace is real, and as depicted in my story, it has nothing to do with who we are and what we have done. If we let it, it can pour into our hearts and change us. It can take the old and make it new again. It can bind up wounds and reduce the appearance of scars. It can give us new passions and new dreams; new direction and new hope. Who in life does not need such a transformation?

I began this post in conversation about dancing to share with you this very thing: Sunday morning during the 11 am service at Grace Fellowship, I finally got my dance. Let me just tell you that I am not generally one to be found dancing during a church service. Somewhere I learned that you are "supposed" to close your eyes, fold your hands, and meditate upon the words of the music being sung; worship God in reverence and humility rather than make noise and make a scene. Let's just say that this particular morning, something came over me that I simply cannot explain. Maybe it was because I was wearing a long, flowing dress that looked like an African tribal dress. Who knows. Whatever it was, it was as if every note being played or sung was flooding through my soul and pouring over into every limb in my body. I had no choice but to move. I remember thinking to myself, I should probably stop dancing or else these people are going to think I am extremely weird. Think about it, I was brand new to their congregation and had just come from Ecuador, and here I was dancing in the middle of their service next to my new friend's entire family, and a few sets of grandparents to the right of me. For a brief moment, I imagined in my mind that the set of parents behind me were glaring in my direction and burning wholes into my feet with their smirks; or perhaps they were covering their children's eyes and whispering in their ears that they should not grow up to be one of those people who spins around during worship. Needless to say, these thoughts did not captivate my heart for long. I was simply caught up in grace. I closed my eyes and forgot that there was a crowd surrounding me; I was dancing in complete and utter freedom, for God had given me my dance.

While I realize so much has been discussed in this post, I would like to end with one important truth: God is real. His grace is real, and it truly does change lives. If you are skeptical, I will continue to bear my soul and share with you how much of a mess I was before I knew the love of God in my life. If you don't believe me, I'd be more than happy to tell you of the many stories I know of others who have been transformed by this love. It may not happen "all at once," but if you begin to open your heart, you too may be able to experience what it means to dance with the Creator of the universe in a way that frees you to be more than you ever imagined you could be. I sure have.

serving you in Grace,
me

Saturday, May 23, 2009

reflections on joy.

I have been thinking a lot about joy lately; maybe because I have been reading John Piper's "When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy," or maybe because I have yet to grasp what I am supposed to do now that I feel like my joy is fading. John Piper argues that we are to fight for our joy in God; reach for it, scramble for it, kick and scream for it no matter what obstacles we are faced with. But here is my question: what do you do when you just don't have the strength to fight? What do you do when you don't know where your passion has gone, but you just don't desire the fight anymore?

If there is something that I have known in my life, it is passion. Real live, heart-throbbing, jump-out-of-your-seat, talk-for-hours-upon-hours passion. In my life, I have loved more than I can even put into words. I have been moved by love, and I have gone to great depths for this love. I have moved across the world for this love. I have sacrificed my security for this love. I have forgiven those who have torn my heart apart for this love. I still remember returning from Young Life Camp in Lake Champion, NY at age sixteen; it was there that I had had my first real encounter with God. I knew it was real, for all the sudden I had new desires, new dreams, new pursuits, new passions, and most importantly, a new love that had changed me from the inside out. I was completely in love with God, and everyone knew it.

There comes a point, or a season perhaps, when we find that our passions have run dry and what was once the love that fueled our soul has somehow become mere routine or regulation. Perhaps you are a mother, for example, and you find that you have simply accepted your role, rather than embraced it; perhaps you are working in a job that you find is mundane, however you remain in chains for the fear of being uncomfortable with change; or perhaps you are like me, one who has found that the object of her passions that at one point brought her alive has somehow stirred up a battle in her heart. What was once the air I breathed has now left me struggling to breathe; what was once my everything has somehow been pushed aside and traded for less-significant things.

To both see this in my life and to admit it, let's be honest, is surely difficult. We love to have it 'all-together,' and while I do not like to admit that I am wrestling, I do it because I want to fall in love with Christ all over again. I want my faith to be real again; I want the delight of my heart to be Him and Him alone. I have tasted and I have seen. I have been radically changed by His love. I was once such a broken, scarred, and insecure girl with wounds all over my heart and life. God reached down into the depths of the pit and lifted me up with His own hands; had He not, I'd probably still be there today and I guarantee I'd be in a much worse condition. God's grace is beautiful, and in response, I want to move my feet because God alone takes my hand to the heights and the depths that He calls me to walk through. Because I have experienced God in a real way such as this, it makes it all the more difficult to 1.) accept that my joy is fading and 2.) find that it is a struggle to obtain it once again.

So what do we do when joy cannot be forced? I believe I was given a brief example of how this is possible when I found myself deep in conversation with a new friend over Starbucks tea in downtown West Palm Beach. We were not supposed to end up in this place, however we began to share our stories and I am confident these moments were divine. My friend had boldly encountered Christ and responded by leaving his life in Spain to come to West Palm, where he now serves in the church, leads worship, and has started an after-school program in one of West Palm's poorest and most at-risk communities. He shared so many encouraging things, yet more than every single word that he said, what spoke the loudest to my heart was the fact that he radiated with genuine joy in the Lord. I'm not talking phony or religious talk about delighting yourself in God; I'm talking genuine, heart-felt, life-changing hope, passion, faith, and joy. He was like a sponge, wanting to soak it all in; this summer alone, he is planning to go on missions trips to India and Nicaragua. Why? He says his life means nothing else than to do work for God. I needed this fresh encounter with someone genuine; I needed to see someone else in love in order to remember how beautiful this love truly is. God so clearly used this friend and his story to open my eyes; I saw so much of myself in his passion, and it reminded me of the joy I used to know so deeply in my own heart. The joy of the Lord was so clearly emulating from His life and from His testimony. I found myself achingly jealous of it, so much so that I was led to this post and a clear opportunity to process all of this in ink.

We can only fake it for so long, and then there comes a point when you realize it is simply not there like it used to be. When we find ourselves in this place, we must allow God to transform our hearts and solidify that we will continue to fight, whether the desire is there or not. The fight is everything, because without joy, this life is mundane. Without knowing God in a real and genuine way, we can never experience the fullness of what it means to truly live. Though we try, we still feel empty; maybe we hit rock bottom, as I have done so many times in my journey, and we find that the only one who has not abandoned us is God alone. We reach our hands to the sky, not knowing what we are asking for, and we speak a few simple words: If you are truly there, God, please help me. The blessings that we find are that He is there, and He will respond to our tears because that's just who He is.

See David's prayer in Psalm 51:12 - "Restore me to the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit." His joy needed to be restored, so what did he do? He asked God to restore it. If I sit here tonight and simply accept the fact that I am in a season of joylessness, I will never fight for that which is better. I will somehow find an aching, yet numb comfort in this state of being. The key is determining in my heart that I will not settle; I will get on my knees even though it hurts, I will love others even when they reject me, and I will fix my eyes on God, even when they seem to desire that which is in their surroundings much more than that which is perfect and divine. For these things, I will fight.

As Piper explains, true joy is not based upon facts, but upon the beauty of the facts. It is having a pleasing sense of Christ's beauty. Genuine love for God and for others. Sacrificial love. Life-changing and beautiful truth, that like my dear friend, emulates from our hearts and pours out upon those we encounter.

Take this as my promise that I will fight. Joy will fill my heart once again; I am confident.

until next time,
me

Sunday, May 17, 2009

one month.

I just realized that today marks "one month" since I have been in West Palm Beach, FL. It feels like just yesterday I was saying goodbye to Guayaquil and making my way to Lynchburg, VA, where I was met by my dearest friend Ashley who drove three whole hours in the middle of the night just to come pick me up. We made a stop at 7-11, my first re-entry experience with ridiculous prices (compared to Guayaquil), and made our way to Lynchburg from 2 am - 5:30 am, all the while just chatting about all that God had taught us over the past four months since I had been away. Ashley too was about to take a bold move away from Liberty and onto Australia for a DTS program with YWAM. It's been her dream, since....well....forever it seems. I am thrilled for her :)

Anyhow, today I attended the Spanish service at Grace Fellowship and let me just say that THOSE PEOPLE CAN WORSHIP. I was reminded so much of the faith-filled genuine worship I witnessed at the house churches in Guayaquil two years ago. These people just get it; they weep, they kneel at the altar without being told to do so, and they praise God with loud voices and sing with their entire hearts, exactly as we should. It's amazing to see God moving amongst these people. Their faith is truly contagious!

After service, me and a few friends went to a Cuban restaurant, where we just talked about our travel experiences, our favorite music, and even danced a little in our seats to the latin grooves :) Turns out one of the guys with us was from (drumroll please).... GUAYAQUIL, ECUADOR. What a sweet blessing to talk about our favorite places, foods, and customs in Ecuador. He knew exactly where I had lived while I was there, and it felt good to have a fellow 'hermano' who could relate to the place that has changed everything about who I am. Next on our list is SALSA dancing! I seriously can't wait. International music just does something in my heart I can't explain.

This is a short post that is a lot different from all the others. Less serious, I suppose. I guess I just wanted to take a minute to 'mark' this one-month period and say that God is doing a lot in my life. He has brought me to this place that I am starting to call 'home.' I assumed that I would not find any culture here in West Palm, but God has surprised me completely! I find more and more opportunities every single day to meet people that bless my life.

In the spirit of 'dancing,' I thought I'd attach a sweet memory of my friend Maike from Germany and I 'breakin-it-down' in the streets of Ambato, Ecuador about two months ago. The guys reaction to the right is unfortunately not uncommon and one we got pretty used to! :)



hasta pronto,
me

Thursday, May 14, 2009

taken by surprise.

Have you ever walked into a room and just felt loved? It really is a bizarre yet divine feeling and one I most certainly did not expect walking into Grace Fellowship's young-adult service last Wednesday evening.

You see, if you read my previous post, you'd know I was looking for a little connection here in West Palm; a church home to call my own, passionate and caring friends, someone to walk beside me on this journey towards knowing God and learning how to enjoy life without wearing a mask of perfection. After my Panera incident, I promised myself I'd just let things happen on their own. To my own surprise, they actually would.

I had ventured out with my two year old, Gianna, for a fabulous Monday morning at Walmart (ever try sticking to a mental list and trying to make decisions when you have a toddler flooding your cart with maxi-pads she decides to use as a giant seat?) I really am not familiar with much of West Palm except for the essentials: Walmart, Target, Panera Bread, Barnes and Noble, and more recently, the Wellington Community Center where I take the toddler for her swim lessons. After all, my GPS (Betsy, as the girls and I have named her) tells me where to go, and I just follow; no questions asked.

On our way home, I had made a wrong turn onto a road called 'Okeechobee' and Betsy immediately started yelling at me to make a U-turn when possible. I had every intention of doing so, except for the fact that half of me was vicariously living through the Cinderella movie playing in the back seat, and the other half of me was trying to make sure I stayed on the road and did not fall into a ditch trying to maneuver a mini-van the size of a tank. Definitely not my VW Cabrio. Before I could reach an off-ramp, a small sign off to the right caught my eye: Grace Fellowship Church. Services at 9:15 and 11:15 am. Spanish Service at 9:15 am. Wednesday Night Bible Studies. Berean Christian School.

I can't really explain why, but I was immediately drawn to this church. Perhaps it is because the only real "home church" I have ever really known shares the name of Grace Fellowship. Perhaps it was because of the Spanish service, or because it was new to me and had not even been considered on my list of churches I had been planning to visit in the next few weeks here in West Palm. For whatever reason, I could not get Grace out of my mind or my heart.

Being the go-getter that I am, I rushed back to our house in Wellington, put my already snoring toddler in her bed, and jumped onto my computer to find the church's website. I was really excited and I wasn't even sure why. I checked out the churches ministries: Young Adults, Spanish Ministry, A missions minded church who is passionate about people and the world.. I wanted to know more, so I filled out one of those "contact me" forms and shared a (very brief) part of my journey and how I ended up in West Palm. Soon after that, I received a very warm, welcoming, and open email from the Young Adults Pastor at GF, who also happened to be a soon-to-be LU Seminary Grad. Turns out, there's more LU alumni here than I even knew about; what a blessing to my heart! He invited me to their Wednesday night gathering for young adults and for the first time in a long time, my fear about visiting a new church and being in an unknown place left me. Se fue. What I had been so nervous about before had transformed in my heart into a boldness and excitement that enabled me to be ready to embrace yet another opportunity to "put myself out there" and make the most of this experience God has provided for me. In this process, I recalled more than once the precious words of my six-year old Mikayla when recounting how she mustered up enough courage to stand in front of a restaurant full of people and sing an acepella song about how God is her Father and loves her: "I knew God was by my side, and that's how I had the courage to do that. He's always with me, and that's how I know I can do anything." Ever been humbled by the faith of a six year old? Child-like faith is such a beautiful concept, and with that in mind, I decided in my heart that I was going to the service on Wednesday...even though that meant I was going all alone into a sea of faces that I assumed would not even notice that I did not quite belong. For me, it was sink or swim. I was choosing to swim.

Sure, I was nervous, however to my absolute surprise, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and the hearts of those I met at this service. People came up to me and introduced themselves, they introduced me to their friends, they flooded me with phone numbers and email addresses, and before I knew it, I had been invited to every single event and small group and get-together that their church and ministry offered. My fear of being the "new girl" was overtaken by their compassion and genuine love. People cared that I was there, and person after person went out of their way to make sure that I knew that.

What blessed me the most was to be reminded of my recent undergraduate Acts class and how the early-church existed in complete love and in unity. While I do not yet know this group in depth, that's truly the impression I got from them. They loved God. They were growing together. They understood outreach. They welcomed 'outsiders' with open arms, which obviously in this context, meant the absolute world to me. I was drawn to their genuine natures. I even saw a few people with care-free holes in their jeans. Made my heart skip a beat! I reckoned in my mind that there was simply no way I could not return the following week for fellowship. However I knew it, I simply knew that this a place where I wanted to be.

This being said, I am excited, more than ever, to watch as God unfolds His perfect plan for me here in West Palm Beach.
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9). My heart rests in this precious jewel more than ever today as I watch Him continue to write my story with a pen that my mind cannot even begin to grapple with.

oh, and P.S., if anyone is wondering, I wore my muddy sandals :)
oh, and here are two pictures that have nothing to do with this post, but are sure to make you smile!



hasta pronto,
me

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

the church will find you.

So, minutes after I posted my last post the other day, I proceeded to drink my hazelnut coffee at Panera and flip the page of my Genesis textbook... only a few more chapters until I was done, I reminded myself. I had a mission and a plan... I had to finish this assignment.

It amazes me how often God uses 'interruptions' to speak to me. Let's be honest here... my first reaction to someone or something interrupting me when I have a 'plan' is to get frustrated or stomp my feet like a child. This day in particular, I'd get a lesson in humility and how to stop and listen to those around me, because more often than not, God has put them in my path for that very purpose.

I remember the man's voice was gentle... very subtle, almost muffled beneath the families gathering around us for morning brunch and coffee. He was a short little man, sitting at a table by himself right next to me. When I realized he was asking me a question, I turned in his direction.
"Are you still studying?" he asked.
I sighed... (admittedly frustrated, in my 'plan, gotta-get-this-done-asap-mind').
"Yes, I am," I replied, "I am studying at Liberty University."

Now, what I have learned is that once you drop the Liberty name, you are always bound to get into an interesting conversation, whether it's "Where's Liberty and how you'd end up in a small town like Lynchburg?" or "I know that man Jerry Falwell who hates the homosexuals and the teletubbies and blew up the political scene with his overly-blunt comments," or, as this gentleman simply stated, "I love Liberty. God is really moving in that place."

What a blessing to be reminded that Liberty, while it may have a negative reputation amongst some circles, overall, is making a wave amongst mainstream Christian circles, and even now, in the secular world. With the rise of publicity from Kevin Roose's book, The Unlikely Disciple, people are buzzing to understand what Liberty is all about and how there can possibly exist a place where twenty-somethings really, I mean really love God and want to live for him. For the first time in long time, I was proud to be able to say that I was a soon-to-be Liberty graduate, which was made perfectly clear by the smurk on my face as I held up my school textbook. "Genesis," I bragged.

We talked about West Palm, and I shared my frustrations about finding a church and fellowship. He told me he had been involved in missions work in Honduras and was part of a Southern Baptist church here in FL. A few minutes later, we shook hands and he slowly stepped down from his seat and snailed his way towards the door. An eighty-seven year old can mobilize himself like I can. I watched him and smiled as he walked away, so blessed by even a moment from someone who cared enough to say hello. Then, I saw him stop in the middle of the street and proceed towards the doors of Panera once again. He opened the doors, walked right up to my table, looked me right in the eyes, and said this...

"I know you're looking for a church and for other things, but I promise you one thing... you are not going to find a church... the church is going to find you. Gotta love God, and move forward....that's all I can tell you."

I sat there in silence, as he seemed so passionate about what he returned to share with me, as if he had a message for me and felt it absolutely crucial I hear him out. Just love God, he said. Chill out. Just focus on the blessings. Don't try to maneuver your life around. God brought you here for a reason, and He WILL provide for you. My heart wrestled, but upon hearing his words, I begun to see for the first time in a long time. I reckoned in my heart to wait for God to open doors and show me how He wanted me to use my time here in West Palm, even though I knew it meant loneliness, waiting, confusion, and even sometimes bitterness and frustration.

God works this way in my life more often than not. A simple word here, a song in the car on the radio, a conversation with a stranger, an 'inconvenience' turned into a blessing. My journal from Ecuador is filled with these moments... some of the most precious to me being conversations with strangers on the streets or in the markets who had no idea they were pouring into my life during my time of greatest need. I will never forget these moments, as they are etched onto my heart like nothing has been before.

I left Panera that day, encouraged to allow God to bring exactly what I needed into my life in His perfect timing. Even though I had been struggling to understand why I had come to West Palm, and when I was going to find a church and make friends, I was confident God knew what He was doing. After all, my God does not make mistakes for He who began a good work in me will perfect it until the end. (Phil 1:6)

Love,
me

Sunday, May 10, 2009

hope, just a word.


What do you do when hope has become just a word, and faith nothing more than a feeling? How do you pick yourself back up again and find what you need to persevere and move forward?

In Ecuador, I lived amongst perseverance. I lived amongst people in destitute situations, must worst than my own, yet somehow and somewhere, they found exactly what they needed to muster up enough courage to take a step in some direction. Me, on the other hand, I find myself pretty dormant, not knowing where hope truly lies, and not able to see purpose in all of my circumstances.

I find myself wanting; longing for something that has never been mine, yet convincing myself as each day passes that perhaps it someday could be, or even will be. I find myself hopeless and afraid; like a scared little girl who has been beaten down to the ground by a force much greater than she is. I know this place all too well; it's the story of my past, and a mess that God has had to bring me out of more times than I'd like it admit.

As I am writing these words, I cannot help but be in a bit of shock at the implications of what I am verbalizing. What happened to my hope? What happened to my boldness? I remember being on my flight away from Guayaquil, Ecuador while tears streamed down my face as I cried over and over again that I never wanted to forget the person that this place made me. I never wanted to forget that feeling. Somewhere amongst my chaotic re-entry, becoming acclimated to life in the US, and scurrying to start a new adventure, I lost it, or as they would say in Ecuador, se fue.

My heart se fue. My hope se fue. I won't say that I thought this would be easy or anything; I guess I just never realized the state of destitution leaving Ecuador would create in my heart. Destitution, indeed; that's a perfect word to describe the state I am in, and though my knowledge of destitution cannot even compare to that of other people less fortunate than I, it still feels pretty empty.

I say all this to reiterate my question in the beginning of this post: what do you do when hope has become just a word, and faith just a feeling? What do you know when you "know" what to do, but you cannot find the strength to do it?

Usually at the end of these kinds of posts, I offer up some kind of hopeful solution to the pain. This time, I'm stumped. There is no cookie cutter answer that I can slap over this one; no superficial quote or witty saying that can make this feel better. It's deeper than I realize; very real, and very difficult to be admitting. I believe it is also one that more people than just myself are experiencing. I pray that my honesty can help others to admit they are in a similar state of being. If not admit, maybe they could begin to ask themselves these very questions and seek the answers their hearts are longing to find.

We can't do this alone, I'm confident, and for that reason I write and continue to bear my soul.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

muddy cargo pants and rugged sandals


Today, for the first time in a little over three weeks, I pulled out my green, dirt-soiled cargo pants and my rugged strapped sandals. This may seem like an insignificant incident to most, however to me, it reminded me of four blessed months spent in my sweet Ecuador... months in which freedom was the stirring of my heart, and not once did the pressures or the voices of others insist that I fit in or even "make sense" to the world around me. You see, I loved bumming around the streets of Ecuador in my cargo pants and a messy bun; in fact, I fell flat in the incan-mud in these pants and to this day, have a stain down the right leg of them. I'd rather they stay that way for the sake of not forgetting the moments that taught me to let go of the fear of "not having it all together." Such a valuable lesson, I believe, yet I will be the first one to admit that I took complete advantage of its implications in Ecuador, in that a few times, I "forgot" to brush my hair or care to match :)

These sandals, I have had since middle school. I remember packing in December for my trip to Ecuador when I came across this pair of old and rugged, yet equally fierce sandals that looked like they could trek their way through the mud and not even care. Now, I love them because, well, they are just "me;" the transformed me, perhaps. They made their way through four months in Ecuador and now, I am certain they do not belong anywhere else and most certainly not in West Palm Beach, FL. I got a few glares down at my feet today, and I'm pretty sure it had less to do with my bright Barbie-pink toenails than the fact that I was wearing ugly, muddy, non-name brand sandals. I guess that's why I love them. I've never been one to "fit the mold" anyhow.

On a side note, yet related all the while - all of this talk about freedom, dreaming, graduation, the future, embracing life, and living freely have really got me thinking: what would I do in this world if money could never be a hindrance? That's where people say our dreams are born, when we let go of the word "no" and truly let passion, not "what-ifs" guide us as we strive boldly for our dreams.

John Maxwell, Teaching Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach, FL SPOKE to my heart this past Sunday. Here is what he had to say about dreams: "We should never let someone talk us out of our dreams, but we should also never let someone talk us INTO our dreams." We need to make sure our dreams are OURS and OURS alone. That's a revolutionary concept, especially for the ones of us who are graduating and find ourselves relying on what we "should do" according to tradition, or what someone else thinks we should do instead of what we, in our hearts, know to be our passion and desire.

My real dream, as everyone knows, is to travel the world and capture culture and life with my words and my camera; maybe not even in a professional manner. I'm actually not very good at either, but both are what make me come alive. Isn't there a quote about this concept? "Don't ask yourself what you can do for the world, but rather ask yourself what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is people who have truly come alive."

Honestly, I'd shine shoes for the rest of my life if I could just experience a glimpse of what I experienced during my time in Ecuador. Since no one is jumping at the opportunity to pay me to play in the dirt with little children and have tea with indigenous women in any market overseas, I need to find a practical channel for my passion. Practical? Scratch that. I know it's going to break the mold. What I meant to say is that I am waiting for God to show up and lead me in my life as I continue to test the waters and take bold steps forward into the adventure He has for me :)

Who knows, maybe sooner, rather than later, these rugged sandals will know the soils of yet another beautiful country that will scar my heart and life for eternity... or perhaps, they'll make their mark here in West Palm until it's time to trek elsewhere.

until then, I'll keep trekking and embracing the journey in the process.

love,
me

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

gratefulness & waffles.

This morning, I had my first real encounter in a while with ungratefulness. Mind you, my encounter was with a four year old, and while I realize she is young and has not seen the poverty that exists in the world enough to realize how blessed she really is, I have to be honest it kind of shocked me. I realize I should not expect a child to understand what I have seen and how it has impacted my life, but nonetheless, the situation stirred something in my heart that I didn't really realize was there.

It all had to do with waffles. Yes, waffles. 7:30 AM, and there I was, making sure that the girls were well-fed before getting off to school for the day. I thought I would do something a little 'extra' for them by making waffles. Waffles in the toaster, check. Syrup AND whipped cream on the waffles, check (mommy would most likely not approve). Pass the butter knife and fork to the six year old, check. Cut up the waffles for the two year old and four year old, check. Everyone was happy, or so I thought.

Turns out, the four year old didn't WANT her waffle cut. Her response was to put her head down on the table and refuse to eat it. At first, I told her to leave the table if she didn't want to eat, and proceeded the make the girls' lunches. Within four minutes of her pouting, I knew I had to respond. I walked over to the table and knelt down beside her. Something in my heart just snapped. I looked her dead in the eyes and said this: "There are little girls in Ecuador who would do anything for that waffle, even if you threw it in the dirt and stepped all over it. You need to be thankful. You are making me really sad and I expect you to eat this waffle or else you will go to school hungry like they do."

She ignored my comment and proceeded to pout. It wasn't important to her, and long story short, after a few more minutes of pouting, a time out, and an intervention from her parents, she was eventually given her un-cut waffle, just as she wanted. Lesson shot. Wasted words. I decided in my heart to remove myself from the situation and just accept what had happened, seeing that the point I was trying to make could not stand against a pouting four year old. The mother understands this concept, but I suppose at 7:30 AM, it was just easier for everyone if we just forgot about it and gave her what she wanted.

What I have taken from this experience is that concepts such as gratefulness and gratitude can only arise from knowing concepts such as destitution, poverty, and great need. I am fully convinced, and have certainly seen, that you cannot teach these ideas in a text book or through mere words. I fully believe that you have to know the depths in order to see how wonderful the heights are; in the same way, someone who has known great heights will experience their lows in life a little harder, knowing in their hearts that the places from which they have fallen were ones of great blessing and most certainly worth the fight.

I am over the situation, for I realize it is not one that I can win. I cannot change the world by trying to convince everyone that there are people who live with next to nothing. I cannot make anyone understand poverty, or care to reach out to those who are in need. I cannot make anyone love their neighbors or befriend a foreigner who lives in their midst. Only God can open someone's eyes and heart to respond in such ways, not I.

I am blessed by dear friends and the few people I know who understand this, or at least try to. It is not something the world wants to understand, because it is uncomfortable. It makes you care a little more, conserve a little more, and love a little more. It makes you self-indulge a little less, which is most certainly NOT the message our day and age feeds us.

Maybe we'll try waffles again tomorrow, and I will remind them once more of how blessed they truly are.

Until next time,
Shelly

Saturday, May 2, 2009

new beginnings.

I should be writing more. So much has happened since I left Ecuador on April 3, and in fact, it has all gone by so quickly that I fear I have missed so many of the lessons I was meant to learn. My decision to leave was not an easy one. In fact, before I made the decision to head back to the States, I had just been approved for an eight-month Visa to remain in my photography class and possibly get a job in Ecuador. Funny how God works, I suppose.

I am not going to take the time to elaborate on my perspectives of re-entering the United States once again. Let's just say I was hit smack right in the face with a whole lot of prejudice and ignorance very quickly. One month later, even today, I struggle with similar mentalities and attitudes. The way our country rejects people of other cultures and beliefs breaks my heart in a way I cannot even put into words. I will save these emotions for a later post, in which I explain the prejudice I both witnessed and even faced myself within ten minutes of stepping onto US grounds.

Anyhow, my main focus of this post is to "update" everyone on my whereabouts and the new journey God has placed before me. Long story short, About two months ago, I joined an Aupair website in an effort to find a nanny position overseas in a country. I was looking for yet another opportunity to embrace a new culture, use my Spanish language, and of course continue to love on kids. I never really expected much to come of this, however before I knew it, I had come in contact with a family in West Palm Beach, FL. Obviously my first reaction to this opportunity was a conflicting one-- I had lived in poverty and had seen the way people were suffering as a result of being in physical, emotional, and spiritual need-- how could I possibly go live in riches?

Over the course of the next few weeks, I remained in contact with the family and we discussed the options of me coming to Florida. They were a beautiful, fun-loving, and cultural family with three girls (5, 4, and 2), with one on the way. Both the mother and father were doctors and had their own family practice. They were passionate. Driven. They desired that their children be influenced positively and led spiritually. They wanted their girls to understand culture and learn gratitude. They wanted their girls to learn Spanish. So many of my passions combined into one. I began to consider the opportunity, until March 9 when I wrote them and told them I had decided to stay in Ecuador. I thought I was making the right choice at the time, and left it at that.

She responded stating that this was unfortunate news and that they had felt pretty confident about me as their nanny, so they'd be in touch if something did not work out with the person they eventually chose. Then, they attached a recent picture of their family, taken by a family friend in the West Palm area:



I opened the photograph and my heart dropped. There I was, in Ecuador, amidst so many blessings and opportunities, yet for some reason I could not understand why I had made the decision I did. I remember turning to Leeana (my dear friend from Pittsburg who fortunately has been a part of so many of my rants, raves, confusions, etc) and I showed her the picture. I'd like to say my heart decided then and there; I'd be packing up my things and heading out onto yet another adventure.

My reasoning was this: I was about to graduate college and I knew that I could easily get caught up in the mindset that once a person graduates college, life needs to "settle down." So many people forget the adventure; they forget to take chances and take advantage of God-given opportunities that are placed in their path. I settled in my heart that I could never conform or do something "just to do it." I wanted to experience the freedom, adventure, and heart-beat that I had experienced in Ecuador every single day of my life after I left that soil if I could. While I realize some things in life are going to be mundane or ritual, for the most part, I'd like to be able to look back and know that I made the most of these years and truly found my passion in the process.

How crazy to think that just a few short months back, I truly believed I needed to settle down. I believed I needed to have it all figured out in a pretty little box with plans, schedules, and timelines. These days, I'd be lucky if I knew the date or even carry my cell phone or watch. I truly am living an adventure... an unpredictable, fun, spunky, adventure. I'd be lying if I said this was the easiest thing I've ever done, but I am learning nonetheless. There are times when I feel alone, times when I miss the places I have been and the people who have meant so much to me, times when I wish I knew more of what the future held, times when I wish I could just grab my backpack all over again and travel unknown grounds.

For now, I am here... sometimes barely hanging on, but for the most part doing all that I can to enjoy this beautiful experience God has given to me for His purpose. I have much more to say, but for now, I will close with a picture of me and the three girls who have stolen my heart.



Blessings,
Shell