April 18th, 2015 was the day that changed everything. It was the day I met joy. It was the day that things shifted–a cellular sort of shift–the kind in which you instantly know: there’s no turning back. It was the sort of shifting that happens very few times in a lifetime, the kind that swallows a person whole. A radical rearrangement of…well, everything. On that day, God handed me a map in the shape of Uganda. Along with all of its pain and beauty, the whole achingly immense, impossible, perfectly imperfect lot of it, He slid it into my heart like putting a memory card into a camera and, from the moment it snapped into place, I knew that God had just given me everything I had been praying for. On that day, I took on the sponsorship of an 10 year old girl named Joy. Yes, there is obvious goodness in her name, but it was and is about more than that. It is a story that I someday hope to tell, but for now, I will say this:
The day I met the kids of Uganda was the day I met Joy…
and that was the day my heart started coming back to life.
JOY noun \ˈjȯi\
: a feeling of great happiness
: a source or cause of great happiness : something or someone that gives joy to someone
: success in doing, finding, or getting something
: a source or cause of delight
And now? It seems I’ve handed my life over to Africa. A lot can change in 3 short months. Then again, a lot can change in a millisecond. As I write this, I feel the horrible moment of Carl’s death saddled side by side with the gift of God so thoroughly transplanting my heart to that red soil so far from home. One might have never happened without the other. Oh God, I wish it could have happened any other way, but in my heart of hearts…I know this is the story that has been written for me all along. My job is only to follow it. The great big question is this: What do I have to lose?
There is immense freedom in immense loss. In a lot of ways, I can see that God was preparing me for this all along. At times, this is difficult to admit. It’s an acknowledgment that makes me want to kick and scream at all the pain and heartache I’ve traveled through to get here. And yet…here I am. I’ve been given two things: an invitation from God and the freedom to follow it.
This past week, I finally started working on my first letter to Joy. On an allegorical level, my writerly brain spent quite a bit of time contemplating what one might write if the emotion of joy could be a real and living being. I can get as clever as I want, but the lovely thing is that Joy IS a real and living being! I found myself writing a letter to both joy and Joy all week long. One was to myself (sometimes my younger self, sometimes my current self, sometimes to my older self and sometimes to an imaginary entity all together), the other was to a young orphan girl in the mountains of eastern Uganda.
In other words, it wasn’t just a letter. Something else was happening. It was (and is) God gently knitting things into place. To be honest, I’ve been a bad sponsor “mom.” I should have wrote to her a couple months ago. Then again, maybe the timing was just right because the letter turned into a portrait and, with every extra minute spent in communion with Joy, I felt my heart softening in ways that I might not have been able to experience earlier. I found myself starting to truly care for this little girl whom I’ve not yet met. I found myself falling in love.
As I continue to work on painted portraits for clients, it was easy to sneak in short breaks to play with Joy’s portrait whenever I had time to spare in the in-between moments of my schedule. I found that I enjoyed mixing colored pencil with the monochromatic effects of graphite. Mind you, oil on canvas is the medium I normally work in. Everything else feels foreign! But it was good to stray off course for awhile. I find that the map God gave me has a significant number of routes leading me OFF-ROAD on a regular basis. The map I was once using has become all but useless. No problem. My old map played a fantastic role in all of this. Abba’s got this figured out perfectly.
As joy begins taking up more and more space in my heart, I feel my energy returning. I’m not as easily run down. I have a better ability to put in a full day’s work in the studio. I’m not as easily overwhelmed. I’m eating much healthier. I’m getting more exercise.
When Carl died, I died right along with him. Wholly. Completely. Friends and family and faith kept me on some sort of supernatural life support. My heart broke. It broke wide open. And then God gave me this. Joy and a new life. He took this mess and turned it into a gift of grace.
God’s grace has a drenching about it. A wildness about it. A white-water, riptide, turn-you-upside downness about it. Grace comes after you. It rewires you. From insecure to secure. From regret-riddled to better-because-of-it. From afraid-to-die to ready-to-fly. Grace is a voice that calls us to change and then gives us the power to pull it off!
When grace happens, we receive not a nice compliment from God but a new heart. Give your heart to Christ, and he returns the favor. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezek. 36:26). ~Max Lucado
In a few short weeks my lungs will be breathing in the air of Africa. As relationships deepen and connections accumulate, I realize that this is just the first step of many ahead of me. And yet, through the grace of God, I feel ready. I feel strong enough. I feel resilience creeping back in. I feel a continuous flow of happiness and joy, enough to bolster against the bad days and heartache that I’m almost certain to experience again in following this path.
I liked the blank space of Joy’s portrait. I liked that it still had something left to tell. I like the way we’re all in this story together. And yet I decided to fill the blank with a spill of bright light. Because JOY is a colorful space. It lacks nothing. May the same be true for this girl who I am only on the cusp of very barely getting to know. May there be enough light to spill over the edges.
“May the God of hope fill you with all the JOY and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” ~Romans 15:13
Dear Abba, ease our pain. Put color in our lives.
Help us find our way, fill our hearts.
I love you, I thank you, I am forever yours.