A boy and his horse.

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Last weekend we moved the horses to their new home. It’s one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made and, quite honestly, I expected it to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And yet…every step of the way, an extraordinary sense of God’s love has been present. Colorado and Dakota have made themselves easily at home with Taevon, a 9 year old boy who is the reason I feel good about all that is to come. I’ve never seen the horses love anybody as easily as they love that little boy. They loved Carl, too. They melted into his arms the moment they met him. But this boy, Taevon…he brings out their gentleness and curiosity in a way that I’ve never before seen. It’s strange and downright breathtaking to watch. His mom and dad and extended family are pretty fantastic too. My heart still lives inside of these horses and I will miss them more than anything or anyone else on this side of the planet. In a way, I get to pretend that they’re still mine. But…this heart of mine knows…they’ve found happiness. They are ready for this next stage in their lives. And, truth be told, maybe I am too. They changed me forever. They healed me and are the reason I stayed around long enough to reconnect and fall in love with Carl. They’ve breathed life into me since the moment I met them. After Carl’s passing, they were the only thing that got me out of bed each day. I grew close to them in a way that I’ve never experienced with other animals. Colorado especially. I’m certain that he is the most special horse I will ever know. They will always, always be a part of me. I don’t know what it is about this little boy…but I trust his love for these horses with everything in me.

God knew that Africa was going to swallow me whole. But He also knew how much I love these horses. With an uncertain and anxious heart, I pleaded, “God, please protect my heart, especially when it comes to my animals.” I begged Him not to break me. I knew I couldn’t handle the loss of anything more.

And so God sent Taevon and his family into my life. Thank you Drew and Samantha. I’ve never felt better about anything. I know this isn’t a goodbye…but rather a hello. May God bless your new life with Colorado and Dakota. May they teach you more than you ever thought possible. May they change your lives as much as they changed mine.  ❤

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” ~1 Corinthians 13:13

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{originally posted on Facebook Dec 3, 2016}

Things found.


God works in mysterious ways. Once upon a time, perhaps 10 years ago, I left my beloved garden in the country and moved to the middle of the city. I was just finishing a master’s degree while simultaneously starting up an art business. I was obsessive and driven in my hard work, but there was a quiet side of myself that it seems was whispering prayers into a future I could have never planned for. In a little more than a month, I will finally be living in Uganda where I’ll be building, growing and living amidst model gardens. A garden that will provide my little family and our community with a whole lot of nourishment, education and encouragement. All because I was forced to walk in the footsteps of a widow…I’ve been delivered to so much more. And a quiet dream that I had all but given up on is being fulfilled in more meaningful ways than I could have ever anticipated. I love you, Abba. Thank you for taking care of me the way you do.

Testing boundaries.


Words and coffee. Who wants some? Me, I’m ready for a second cup! And I’m hungry to lay down a few words too. Writing has a way of helping me to process. I completed Phase 1 of the moving project last night at 9pm and am hereby moved out of the cabin. It is nice and clean and ready for whoever is next in line to enjoy all the gifts that place has to offer. I’m currently sitting in the middle of a giant mess at my lake studio where I’ll be staying until I make the big and oh-so-very-real move to Uganda next month. This has been a huge undertaking. I was living and working out of 3 location and am downsizing into something that can be packed up indefinitely. Last night, as I sat down one last time in the cabin, I looked around me and noticed how very little I need to be happy. Actually, the less I have, the happier I seem to be. I sat in the almost empty cabin. There was only a couch, a table, a rug and a painting. There is very little else I would have needed. My life in Africa has taught me that. It’s not the witnessing of extreme poverty that has shown me the gifts of simplicity, but rather simplicity itself. Poverty itself is not a gift. But simplicity has a way of helping one notice the details. In an oversaturated, overstimulated, overwhelming world, that in itself is worth more than gold. 
There is no running water here at my lake studio, but I’ve spent a fourth of the past year in Africa. It’s no big deal. I’m used to it! And anyway…there’s nothing better than bathing in rainwater. The peace that these woods and lake have to offer is worth the little bit is extra work that it all entails. It forces me to slow down. For those of you who have had the opportunity of staying with me here, I know you know what I mean. 

I’m going to use this time to get close to God and also to attempt to pull off the seemingly impossible. I do believe that, thru God, anything IS possible. I wouldn’t have made it this far with out Him. I’d be lost. I wouldn’t be functioning properly. I might not be functioning at all. 

Currently, I’m sitting in the middle of a great big messy dream. I’ll be continuing the sale of artwork and donating things that I no longer need. If God asked you to GO, would you be able to? He asked me to go. And what I’m realizing is that it is the biggest commitment I will ever make. It’s a process that requires all of me. It requires perseverance, resilience and, as the Finnish like to say *sisu* (grit, determination, strength, bravery). Carl taught me that word. And after his death, the entire Bratlien family taught me how to live it out. In the past year, God has begun to personalize it. He’s taking it even further. I’ve decided to embrace it.

There is nothing about this that is easy and yet there is everything about this that is so totally worth it. 

The ultimate surrender of no return. 

 


As I unpack and regroup after the whirlwind of action in these past couple of weeks, I find myself feeling stunned and maybe even a little amazed by the intensity of it all. That is, I’ve been running so fast and working so hard that there hasn’t even been time to neatly experience or make sense of things along the way. I just got back home today. It feels like I’ve been away for a long time and, in a way, I have been. As I was attempting to unearth all the clutter from the kitchen counters after the flurry of so much activity, I found a gift that my friend gave to me a couple weeks ago at a women’s retreat that I attended and had been asked to speak at. It is such a special gift from someone very dear to me and, something about finding it woven into the whirlwind of movement and change really struck me deeply. It caused me to stop. It caused a few tears to fall for no other reason than powerfully simple release.

I don’t know when it happened, the exact moment of “no turning back,” but it did happen and now I find myself moving at an ever increasing speed in that direction. I stop and cry again, even as I write this, because the truth is that I do know the exact moment of no return. It is the day of Carl’s death. The moment I gave my life to God while standing next to the Bratlien kitchen table, looking somewhere in the direction of Barbarah’s highchair, the light green wall, and the window that I was not even looking out of. It was the moment when everyone else was talking and I was somewhere else entirely…giving my life to God.

Yeah, so I guess this is what it looks like to give one’s life to God. It’s a giant mess. It’s the biggest faith leap. It’s the ultimate surrender. At its center it is truest peace, deepest purpose, a confidence that is not my own.

Eventually, I’ll get the clutter sorted. This part here in the middle is the part that simply requires all of my faith. Like the hundreds of paintings I’ve done over the past 8+ years, there is this part where it all looks like a giant mess, a failure, a weird attempt of the impossible. But I’ll do my best to live like I paint: as a channel for God. I’ve never taken credit for my paintings because I have always felt that they aren’t “by me,” rather simply “thru me.” Painting is one thing, but submitting my entire life to this way of being is another thing entirely.

For now, my prayer is this:

God bless this mess.

There’s no turning back now. I wouldn’t want to, even if I could. Abba, I love you beyond measure. I’m yours. Even in those dark places I’d rather not go, you are my candle, my light, my safety, my reassurance. Let my life be the next painting.

Amen.

The Heart of Home.

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Lillian, Sharon and Aullelia.

My tears froze before ever hitting the ground as I stepped off the stairs descending from our little small town plane and onto the ice-encrusted tarmac of the Bemidji airport this morning. At 3am we flew over the stiffly frozen tundra of northern Minnesota. Last leg of a long journey and everything felt painfully barren. Lifeless. Cold. In that moment of avian first sight, the stark contrast from the colorful equatorial landscape I left behind was almost too much to bear. The temps are well below zero, a different world than I traveled away from 5 weeks ago when I left for Uganda. The disharmony in weather feels impossible. So does the discomfort of my heart. It’s fibers are stretched too far. I struggle to find the love I once held for this place. Everything here reminds me of Carl, a cruel imitation of a life that no longer exists. I wasn’t expecting that. I never seem to be prepared for the grief that rises so unexpectedly to the surface. I don’t plan for these things because, quite honestly, at this stage I prefer to avoid the anguish of grief altogether. Ok, so it happens. In retrospect, I always remember that I’m better off if I just allow myself to flow through it.

Flying over the inky, frigid landscape of home made me realize that perhaps one reason I’ve so thoroughly fallen in love with Africa is because it offers me a new beginning in all it’s differences. When I’m in Africa, everything is new. I often think of Carl, even while I’m there, but usually those thoughts are about how much he would enjoy it. I am comforted because, in those moments, I can feel him smiling down on me, happy to see me so happy. But coming home? That’s a different matter entirely. For the first time in my life, as I walked from the the door to the baggage claim, I heard my lips utter the words: I hate this place.

As I write this, the first light of dawn is just barely starting to sift itself out of the darkness. Everything is taking on a silvery blue quality…the trees, the snow, the sky. The animals were beyond crazy with happiness over my homecoming. I was flooded with kisses and whimpers and snuggles. I whimpered and kissed and snuggled with happiness right back. The house was cozy warm and so beautifully clean and cared for. I took a hot shower and am cleaner than I’ve been since I left 5 weeks ago. I called a friend in Africa because it is still only mid-afternoon there. I made a cup of instant (African) coffee, just like I would if I were still there.

And bit-by-bit…the gratitude starts filling up the sharp, cold edges of things. I feel love even in the richly patterned red rug under my feet.

I’ve been home for approximately 4 hours. After many, many years of looking, I’ve finally found my home and, mostly, it is not here. It’s in a place filled with banana trees, mountains, red soil, malaria and a million stars. But there is that other part of home…the one that is and will always be Minnesota. In this northern landscape I remember the Jessie who loves winter. That version of myself feels like a different lifetime ago, but I know she still exists somewhere inside of me and, for that, I am grateful because she’s the one who is going to get me through this time of in-between. That resilient side of myself…the one that got me to Africa in the first place. Yeah…she’s the one I will need to call on…over and over and over again. My life got filled even fuller with even more love and purpose than I thought possible. It’s not even about me anymore. My heart beats a different rhythm now…but I’m sure I can find that rhythm even here among stiffly frozen trees. Inside the depth of winter is always the urgency towards renewed life.

Dear Abba, thank you for the map you’ve made for me. I’m happy with where we’re going. XO

Beauty for Ashes.

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This morning, I received this photo in my inbox. It was from my good friend, Moses, in Uganda. I was sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking my first cup of coffee and writing in my journal. These past two days I have been giving myself that extra time with God in the early hours of the day. I was feeling such a deep ache in my heart as I wrote…hashing out difficult dreams reflecting the awareness that entire chunks of my life have been falling away over the course of this past year–like an iceberg cleaving–entire sections of the things I once held dear have slowly fractured, then crumbled away, falling into the ocean.

I pressed blue ink to white paper asking God if there is something more He wants me to understand.

And that’s when the photo showed up.
10 women.
Widows.

Like a prayer answered in no uncertain terms. His voice was clear. The details of what has fallen away won’t matter. Yes, Carl will always matter. But those other things? Not so much. Not much at all. God is multiplying in ways I cannot yet even grasp.

Since returning home from Uganda, I have been in the beginning phase of starting a micro-lending and education program for widows in Eastern Uganda. I will be traveling back to Uganda in the near future to document the stories of these women and, in time, begin working intimately alongside them.

Wow. Would I have ever imagined my life would look like this one year ago? Certainly not. I guess this is what they mean by beauty coming out of the ashes. Oh, and those ashes…they almost suffocated me.

But there’s a reason and perhaps this is why…perhaps only just the beginning of why. I look into the faces of each one of these women and, with my whole heart, can stand alongside them, knowing that “…he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.” ~Isaiah 61:3

Dear Abba, I thank you for these women. Make us beautiful for You. Make us strong, resilent, joyous and loving for You.

Thank you, friends, for walking so steadfastly next to me on this journey. Thank you, Mukhobeh Moses and Hands of Action Uganda for partnering with me and the organization that I am in the midst of bringing into being.

Carl, I miss you into the deepest part of my being. And yet…
I have faith that there will be beauty for these ashes. In the form of 10 women, it is already true.

I love you, Carl, always and into every aching heart, may that love grow.

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Photo credit: Mukhobeh Moses :: Bukibokolo, Bududa District, Eastern Uganda.

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Photo credit: Mukhobeh Moses :: Bukibokolo, Bududa District, Eastern Uganda.

These days.

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It is Friday and, in two days, on Sunday November 8th, it will be the first year anniversary since my beloved’s horrible and unexpected death. I never expected my life to be touched so personally by tragedy. I never imagined that the unthinkable would become my reality. But it did. Anniversaries aren’t supposed to be like this. It’s not the right word, not at all. Anniversaries are meant for celebrating. One year. This is not an anniversary. It is simply a painful marking of time. A notch carved out on the stick of survival.  I’ve carved out lots of notches on that imaginary stick in the past year. Every single day.

This morning I woke up with a migraine. The muscles in my neck and back taut with the discomfort of these dreaded days ahead. What I know from the experience of grief is that, sometimes, the expectations of something are more difficult than the reality of it.

Visiting Carl’s grave for the first time.
Carl’s first birthday in heaven. He would have been 36.
This one year anniversary of his death.

I can’t believe that I’ve survived any of this. I can’t believe that I survived those first awful, awful, awful seconds/days/weeks/months. But I did. And I continue to do so.

This morning, I took some ibuprofen and went back to bed until it took effect. I was folded in tight against the configuration of three dogs. There was no room to feel lack of love. Eventually, the tension in my body eased. An hour later, I wiggled my way out from under the covers and made a special pot of coffee…with beans we brought back with us from Uganda. There were 5 of us. We each brought back 5 kilos and then, once home, had a local coffee roaster work his magic on them. From green to black.

I stood in the kitchen and cried. I don’t know why. Half of those tears were an overflow of love for my new Ugandan home awaiting me and all those who I love in Africa. The other half of tears were an overflow of love for a man that is no longer with me on this earth.

I have not cried like this since before I left for Uganda. I am afraid that these tears might not stop for awhile. And I suppose that’s ok because, honestly, I need these tears to wash me clean.

I have fallen so deeply in love with a place and, most of all, its people. I feel a sense of purpose reaching so deep into my bones that I find it blessedly impossible not to act in accordance with it. I cry, but with a complete and holy knowing that God has had a plan with this all along.

Oh, God, why did you have to break me so thoroughly?

And yet I know He had to because it is the only way I could have experienced any of this in  the way that I am. I’m moving into a future of working with widows in Eastern Africa to rebuild their lives. I’m moving into a future of loving and working with children who have lost some of the most important people in their lives.

I couldn’t understand their loss without having experienced such mind-bogglingly impossible loss myself.

I couldn’t do it without the amazing support of friends and Carl’s family standing beside me.

I couldn’t do it without God. And it was this loss that brought me straight to the feet of Him.

I’m moving towards hope and a future. And my heart fills to the point of overflow.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. ~Jer 29:11

I put my faith in those words and God has never once left me wondering about their truth. It began with a yearning. Then glimpses of a future. Soon those glimpses began transforming into real possibilities. It wasn’t long before those possibilities become actions and those actions became a reality.

With my own two feet planted on African soil,
my arms folding in a whole lot of love,
it was the first time I felt the depth of
JOY
that God had been promising me all along.

And I know that was only just the beginning. With each passing day I grow closer to the dreams that God planted a seed for so long ago.

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My sponsor child, Joy. The one who led me “home.” Eastern Uganda.

I can do this. I can walk through this weekend with a full and grateful heart. I can get through the day I have dreaded for so long. Sunday. A sacred day. Carl’s first year in heaven. So many blessings have happened in that time. Carl made me ready for God. He wasn’t just the person I wanted to spend my life with…he’s the one who, by the gift of his love for me, taught me what true and good and healthy love really means. I didn’t know how to be loved like that before him. What a gift…

a gift that led me straight to God.

And so, these days, even through the tears, I am grateful. Because life is filling with a JOY and a depth that I have never before known.

Dear Abba, I am yours. Thankfully, I am yours.
Amen.