Anna.

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I want to introduce you to someone. Her name is Anna. I feel like I talk about her all the time. Sometimes tho, I think I’m mostly talking about her to myself, in my heart and in my head. Anna is phenomenal. She is the reason that The Joy Collective was even started. She is the one who God first led me to. She’s a widow and that level of loss is something we, unfortunately, share in common.

And yet.

(And yet. I love those two words. They contain entire worlds of possibilities.)

Anna has become a beacon of hope to me. Maybe I’m something of the same to her. I don’t pretend to know that is true, but I do believe in the way God pairs us with people. I do believe the light I see in her smile and in her eyes whenever we are reunited. I believe it because seeing her always causes the same light to radiate from me.  I believe in the way God loves us so deeply, so uniquely that, in answering one prayer, he often answers a thousand. He connects us in ways that are too simple and simultaneously too complex for us to even fathom.

Less than a year ago Anna was almost too broken to work after the devastating and traumatic loss of her husband. I was only about 6 months ahead of her in experiencing that same sort of loss. By the time I met Anna, I had taken a “first step” out of my grief and into Africa. I was feeling a sense of happiness for the first time since my beloved’s passing. But I was still just at the precarious outer edges of of that happiness. My sight, at times, had a sparkling quality to it. A diamond, shimmering sort of light that somehow promised something good to come out of that heavy mountain of loss. This new feeling touched everything, even my soul. It felt delicate, ice thin. But I walked towards it anyway. Then there was this simple invitation to sit with another widow who was struggling. The mountain somehow folding us together and, without hesitation, I said: Yes.

When it was finally time to return home, I spent the eight hour flight from Entebbe to Amsterdam in a conversation with God, asking him, “Ok God, so now that I know what you want me to do, next I need you to tell me HOW!” I laugh as I write that. It seems like such an obvious question, but it’s also one that I must never quit asking. Although my sight was sparkly in those first days, there is also the awareness that I’ve stepped into some awfully deep waters. A place where I am quite certain I will get dragged into the undertows of an ugly dark current if I do not constantly plug into God’s plan.

One hour with a woman I hadn’t previously known, without even a common language. And yet…

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Yeah…I do believe this photo says it all. My Anna. And I am her Jessie.

I have returned to Uganda twice since that first trip. We have come SO FAR. One of the most important reasons for my visit was to check on the widows we are working with and the progress of their gardens. I was fully expecting to find at least some level of failure. Not because of them…but because there had been difficulties and challenges, as there often are in Africa. Let’s just say that I was SHOCKED when this is what I saw upon coming into the village.

I saw ABUNDANCE, RESILIENCE, DEDICATION. Anna, the woman I had met less than a year ago took her newfound knowledge and variety of seeds that we had gifted her with and completely reinvented her life. Together, we’ve taken death and are turning it into life. Just as Jesus did for us. I visited the homes of widow after widow, all of our Joy Collective members, and was amazed by the tenacity of our circle of women.

Anna has been hired on as our first Joy Collective Field Manager. It shouldn’t surprise me that she has such natural leadership skills and a profound gift for gardening. It is no mistake that God led me to this woman. I love the way it feels to not be needed on a constant basis in the village–of course, I love being there(!)–but I also love seeing these women take the initiative to create success by their own efforts. As Field Manager, Anna will check in on our members to see how things are going. What is working well? What are the challenges? How can we come up with solutions? Do any members need help due to sickness? Did a member discover something helpful to teach the others? Since most of our widows do not have phones, Anna is also our point of connection in the village. Each one of our members is such a beautiful and vital piece of the puzzle. It has been amazing to watch this program grow in such a short amount of time. And Anna…she is living proof of what is possible.

We’re doing this together. This thing called living. We’ve been given a handful of seeds from the broken pieces and, you know…it pulls me forward…this curiosity to see what might grow.

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I don’t want this blog to become a place to ask for money, but the truth is that we can’t do it alone. We need your help to get this dream off the ground. Please consider making an investment in us. I do believe that it will inspire you a million times over! Donate here.
~~~~~

 

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. 

Saturated.

At 3am I get out of bed and begin writing. One dog is snoring. There is a cup of strong black coffee to my left. After a long flight and a mid-night arrival home just yesterday, I feel rested. Very rested. I don’t feel jet-lagged in the usual sense, but apparently my heart and body still think I’m in Africa. I’m ok with that. I’m going to continue pretending that is so as long as possible. I accomplished a vast amount in the past month and I want to continue bringing out the goodness I’m finding in those accomplishments. It feels like a flower, unfurling. I don’t want to stunt this great revealing of what is to come. I attempt to get out of my own way and let the energy of this project and life-building take on its own rhythms. I’ve begun to see the world in terms of growing things. In vivid detail, we too are among this ongoing, miraculous cultivation of being. Being. Yes, I like that term. It includes a lot.

At 4am I chef up a delicious stir-fry. Purple cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms, spring onions and dark greens. I’m obsessing over an idea that came to me yesterday: a beautiful way of treating our guests that might also transfer over into all we do locally, too. I’m excited about the way things are going, in directions that I would have never previously imagined or created on my own. I feel this story being orchestrated by God. I like it that way. He’s a much more talented artist and author than me. I like the way His mind thinks. I like the way His heart feels. I like the way His eyes see things. I also like the way He surprises me. He saturates me in colors and visions that are too beautiful to contain. It’s the overabundance of  sight that forces me to live it out loud. Sometimes putting things into motion before I fully understand where it’s all leading. He’s never led me astray. There is a certain knowing and I give myself to it completely.

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The bougainvillea tree bursts with color in The Joy Collective’s gardens. Home Sweet Home. Africa, I love you. 

Really we don’t need much, just strength to believe.

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The further I travel away from Africa, the more sad I become. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to feel this way. (but of course it does.) A few days ago I was looking forward to this brief journey back to the States. I’m moving out of my cabin and back into my lake studio for the next few weeks before wrapping up details “for good.” I was looking forward to the peace of that northern Minnesota lake, the vibrant greens and perhaps even the first touches of autumn if it comes quickly. I was looking forward to a bit of ease. The sort of ease that comes with living in a place were things happen, for the most part, as expected. Nothing happens as expected in Africa. Imagining a brief reprieve from the discomfort of constant irregularity of life felt enticing. I was looking forward to high speed internet, ice cubes, a good mattress, hot showers and snuggling my dogs. I was looking forward to using my blowdryer and using tap water to brush my teeth without worry.

But now, instead, I just feel like crying. I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport. The construction has finally been completed and it is such a gorgeous place. Perhaps one of the nicest airports in the entire world. I’m enjoying good quality coffee with cream and sugar and even this is a luxury. It’s comfortable here. Morning sunlight fills the thoughtfully designed architecture. There is a flow of people from every corner of the planet. A convergence of cultures. I have 20 Euros to spend frivolously on food and drinks as I wait for my next flight. I have a long lay-over and am, surprisingly, grateful. I need time. I’m confused by how tight my heart feels to have left Africa, even for this short time.

Everywhere I look I see mothers with their daughters. Some of these daughters are teenagers, others quite young…all of them good travelers. They laugh sweetly with one another, in knowing ways. Their interactions with each other are simple and in-tune. Tears threaten again at the edges of my eyes. I’m tired of crying. I feel like I’ve been crying ever since Carl died. I find reprieve from those tears more often, but then they return and it feels like they never stopped. Tears have worn me out. I’ve become allergic to them.

I’m suddenly missing my Sharon so deeply that I can hardly stand it. Our time together was more challenging than I expected this time around. She waited earnestly for 6 long months for me to come back. True to my word, I returned. And then she stayed almost absolutely silent until her 9th birthday, just a few days ago. We went out for food and she sucked on the salt shaker. We went shopping for a new pair of school shoes and the store-keeper grew impatient. Then I grew impatient with him because I felt Sharon communicating everything to me, just not with words. People asked what was wrong with her. Is she mute? Can she talk? They asked this in many different languages. Yes, she can talk, I would answer. She is just very shy. She’s adjusting. She’s been through a lot. Give her time…just give her time. She’d look at people and frown. She’d look at me and frown. My heart wanted to break. She would occasionally allow for some ease by speaking in yeses (lifting her eyebrows) and no’s (shaking her head). I learned to ask questions in ways that we could yes and no our way to the necessary answers.

She was quick to let me know that she did, indeed, want to be with me. She didn’t want to go back home. She didn’t want to be any where else. But her silence…I wasn’t prepared for it to last so long. I found myself wondering if I had made a giant mistake. I no longer understood my role. Intellectually, instinctually, maternally…I knew that my job was to just keep loving her. Just keep giving her kisses. Just keep holding her when she allowed me to. Just keep trying my best to invite a smile to transform her over-serious frown. And that’s hard to do when you’re hot and tired and everything else is going seemingly wrong, too. Then I’d find a “love note” in the form of a drawing or a video she made on my phone, something she had recorded in the morning while I was in another room. In these messages, she’d tell me how much she loves me. Other times she’d sing a quiet song, just loud enough so that I could hear. She’d play with Ashraf, the four year old boy who we lived with for 3 weeks and eventually, while playing, she would forget herself and out would come that bright little voice of hers. It was the fuel I needed to carry on with her otherwise endless silence.

It was on her 9th birthday that she finally broke open into a flood of chatter and smiles. It was the gift of a doll that she had been wishing for that finally brought her into the sunshine of verbal communication. She named the doll Mary and a whole new world seemed to open up. The whole day opened her up.

And then it came time for me to leave. Again. I did my best to prepare her for this month ahead. Yet another change. More waiting.  Keep it light, I told myself. It felt wisest not to make a big deal about it. We did things that made her feel happy and loved. I hugged her big before she left for school early-early-early on Monday morning. She seemed ok. I was relieved. She’s been abandoned too many times in her little life. I didn’t want my leaving-taking to be as traumatic as the last. It’s too much for her. It’s too much for either of us. She was ok, but then the reality of the situation started to hit her once she got to her school yard. Just like the reality of the situation is starting to hit me now…here, two days later in the Amsterdam airport. I’ve assured Sharon that I will be back soon. I’ve assured her that she’ll be well taken care of while I’m away and that we can talk on the phone every day. And now it seems that it’s time to begin assuring myself that very same thing.

I make an effort to stop this heavy train from moving in the wrong direction. I’m tired of being sad. I don’t want to be sad anymore. I’m ready for something different. In every moment, things are being reconstructed. A new life is being formed. There is a massive amount of planning and preparing to do before I return to Uganda indefinitely. It’s exciting if I allow it to be. There was one big challenge after another during this past month in Uganda…and with each challenge, I felt the presence of God. Strongly. Tweaking details in all the right days, preparing me. Each time bringing us to bigger, brighter and better outcomes. I have a million things to write about. And, oh God, I so very much want to do just that.

There’s nothing easy about Africa. And yet…
my heart doesn’t seem to care.
There’s nothing easy about any of this. And yet…
somehow it is enough. There will always be enough.

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Enough :: by Sara Groves

Late nights, long hours
Questions are drawn like a thin red line
No comfort left over
No safe harbor in sight

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Upstairs a child is sleeping

What a light in our strain and stress
We pray without speaking
Lord help us wait in kindness

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

We are sisters. We are overcomers.

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A little over a month ago, The Joy Collective hosted our SECOND workshop with the widows we are currently working with in the Bududa District of Eastern Uganda. Soon we will be hosting our third. It’s exciting to see things literally coming to life, despite the uphill battle it’s taken to make things happen. And yet…of course things are happening. We are overcomers. That is, after all, what has brought all of us women together. We are survivors in the face of tragedy. We’ve experienced the worst heartbreaks and devastations that one might imagine and yet, even when we wanted to, we didn’t lay down to die. We didn’t give up. Not then. Not now. And not ever.

Several weeks ago, I went to my beloveds grave. I cried and prayed and was swept away by deep, dark, difficult emotions. I was simultaneously buoyed by the presence of God, a remarkable and unexplainable peace. Many times, it is God himself who offers the hand up. I was lost in my own difficulties and sadness, driving to the cemetery when, through the words of Psalm 105:1-4, I heard the Holy Spirit speak clearly, lovingly into my heart. “That’s enough now, dear heart. You can feel low forever, but you can also choose to sing praises  if you want. Watch how it changes everything.” Admittedly, I am adding words where I was given a knowing made of something that transcends language. In that moment, I saw and felt a lightness of spirit, sunlight and color. I saw and felt all of us widows in the mountains of eastern Uganda smiling and laughing and building something great together. I knew in that moment what choice I was going to make. Praises.

I’m generally reading about 20 books at the same time. I like being guided to the book that is most beneficial to me at that particular time. Lately, I’ve been drawn to a book by Margaret J. Wheatley, So Far From Home: Lost and Found In Our Brave New World. She digs deep and gets real in her acknowledgement of both the despair and joy that often accompanies the brave work of mapmaking through the landscapes of troubled times. She writes about being a warrior for the human spirit.

I look at the photos from our most recent workshop and am overcome by the beauty of these women. This isn’t a romanticized version of beauty tho. Quite the opposite really. It’s a beauty that’s hard won. It’s a beauty born of ashes. I find it nothing short of amazing that these women have somehow, so thoroughly, become a part of my life. I’ve been observing what has brought us together and how that togetherness is being formed, shifted and formed again. I feel so strongly that God has something specific in mind and He is taking care to sort out every last detail. We’ve been put through a pruning and strengthening process. I’ve never before had such strong faith in something so tenuous.

Wheatley writes in depth about a notion that she calls emergence. According to Wheatley,

“Emergence is how life changes, never from just a single cause, but from a complexity of many causes and parts interacting.”

In other words, nothing changes just one thing at a time because eventually, “as separate elements start to connect with one another, emergence begins. Individual actions that were insignificant start to have new consequences because they are interconnected.” Emergence is the opposite of reductionism. Western culture loves reductionism. It’s easy to measure. You can create a straightforward plan of action and then measure the results. But people aren’t math equations. People are complicated. We’re complicated and life is messy.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of emergence.

Working with Emergence
“As strange as this may seem to our reductionist minds, emergence is an everyday experience. Anytime we cook or bake something using more than a single ingredient, we are relying on emergence for flavor. The separate ingredients of eggs, flour, butter, and chocolate never predict the deliciousness of a chocolate chip cookie. And anyone who’s been in a choir or band knows the reliable thrill of emergence. Separate voices and instruments come together create something that didn’t, that couldn’t, exist had people not joined together.” ~M. Wheatley

Oh my gosh…sink your teeth into that one. And then let’s take it a little further…

“Emergence demands a different relationship with life, where we’re curious, open, alert. The only thing we can predict is that life will surprise us. We can’t see what is coming until it arrives, and once something has emerged, we have to work with what is. We have to be flexible and willing to adapt–we can’t keep pushing ahead, blustering on with our now outdated plans and dreams. And it doesn’t help to deny what has emerged. We need to be present and willing to accept this new reality. This is what it truly means to work with emergence.” ~M. Wheatley

Just for the record, I’m not interested in over-intellectualizing the human experience. Life is the ultimate creative experience and so it seems wise to leave room to be led by something more amazing than our minds are able to plan for.


“You think because two and two are four that you understand. But you must also understand and.”


Somehow all of this began with the most devastating subtraction: death.  The role of despair has played itself out in our lives. And. We have now somehow created, together, this option of moving forward in praises over the additions. In this sisterhood of widows, a new design has already begun to emerge. It’s made of hope and happiness, even under a hot African sun. We are in the middle of the greatest alchemic experiment we might ever step into: emergence from the dark night. And. Stronger and more confident (to paraphrase Wheatley), having passed through the refiner’s fire, we can trust ourselves to deal with whatever life challenges us with next.

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I AM
the daughter
of a king who
is not moved
by the world
for my God
is with me &
goes before me
I do not fear
because I am
HIS.

Photo credit: Harriet Nakabaale of Camp Green Uganda

In waiting.

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Backing up image files in preparation for my leave-taking. A bittersweet experience because there are soooooooo many photos of my artwork that I never even shared. I spent the past 8+ years feeling wildly behind schedule and, because of this, often didn’t share as much as I would have liked to. With success came a clamor of commissions and with that a very long wait list. I found it difficult to know how to make each person feel as special as I wanted them to feel. And so I stopped posting my artwork photos. I’m sorta sad about that. There is a beautiful story to be told in those images. I lived a life so full that in some ways it became a burden. And yet…I can’t imagine it having been any different. Such a long winded challenge that was, and yet I’m also grateful for the prolific amounts of art, travel, friends, clients, animals, life and love that my life contained in these past many years.

As I work on remaining commissioned pet portraits, I find myself feeling invigorated by the newness of the work that lies ahead of me in Africa. With each painting completed, an entirely new space of freedom opens up before me. With that freedom comes sparks of inspiration. Where will art take me next? In Africa, will I have time to paint? Will I even be able to source the supplies I need to so? I’ve already got a head full of ideas that want to be expressed. A whole life, really, that simply wants to be expressed.

Absolute uncertainty. Absolute faith.

img_5296Just when I didn’t think I could handle yet another unknown on my own, my world started filling with connections and conversations. Luckily, I have a special person in my life who always tells me that God hears my tears. And it’s true. It seems like those tears have been working their way to the surface a lot lately. I have many different types of tears, but the kind I’m referring to right now come from a deep and anguished place. They come from a place of needing God. Maybe that’s a good thing. The need be close to the Abba I met when Carl died is just as serious now as it was in the beginning.

“The beginning.” What a weird way to refer to Carl’s death. But that’s when everything changed. That’s when I truly found out who God is. I feel like I should be shifting the conversation away from talking about Carl so much. In some ways, I feel as tho I’ve “legitimately” entered some sort of “next chapter” of this story, but my self-made constructs simply aren’t holding water. My theories leak, a lot like my eyes. I’m still making sense of all of this (whatever “this” is) and, quite honestly, there’s a lot to make sense of. My world is being turned upside down…and I’m actively participating in it. Pardon me, but what am I doing?

It’s one thing to give your life to God, have him personally hand you a job several months later, and then be told that you’re supposed to pick up an move to Africa. I think that’s the part that is most inspiring and/or shocking to people. But, honestly…that’s the easy part.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” ~Isaiah 6:8

The difficulties that I never anticipated are the sheer amount of COMPLICATIONS, WORRIES, UNKNOWNS and HARD WORK that go along with the LOGISTICS and LEGALITIES of making such a move! Sorry for all the capital letters, but I need to breathe.

So far, in down-sizing and preparing to move, I’ve managed to turn my studio into a giant, unusable mess; I’ve begun the courage-requiring leap of shutting down my business (and therefore my income!); I’ve decide that I’m going to subject my pets to all the same uncertainties of health, safety and well-being (or lack of) that I’m throwing myself into; annnnd I’ve done a fine job of upheaving the life of a little 8 year old Ugandan girl who has been through more abuse and difficulty than I even want to spell out. She now calls me mum and I take that seriously. The potential to fail is mind-boggling real.

This doesn’t even address the actual issue of my original intention in moving to the other side of the world: which is to work with widows and gaggle of impoverished kids.

Oh my word…WHAT AM I DOING?!!!!!!

And that’s precisely the problem these days: I don’t know how to do this!! I’ve never run a non-profit before! I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never attempted to live overseas for the long haul. I’ve never taken a dog on a plane or figured out the logistics of extended visas. I don’t even know how, exactly, I’m going to fund this crazy vision!

As I write, I stop to put my face in my hands and simply laugh. Mind you, at any moment, my laughter could turn to tears and then back to laughter again. Tears, laughter, sleep, tears, laughter, sleep…it’s a fairly constant cycle these days. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I suck at all of this. <sigh/chuckle/sigh>. But God is good and I can only hope that He made me this stubborn for a good reason.

Today I cried out to God. And then I spent the majority of the rest of the day generally weeping or recovering from it. My tears came partly in grief, partly in feeling utterly alone, partly in a state of total overwhelm.

I’m moving to one of the most corrupt places in the world and, the closer I get to my leave-taking, the more I feel as tho I’m walking straight into the belly of the beast. Mind you, my eyes are wide open. I can’t even feign surprise.

“In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.” ~Psalm 118:5

Needless to say, I’m beginning to feel that I might have been crying for nothing. God’s got this. He’s handling it. He’s opened a door for me that no man can close. (Rev. 3:8) Even now, as I write, He is showering me in a path of verses that have a powerful effect in leading the way.

Before I gave my life to God, the bible didn’t do much for me except make me feel annoyed and argumentative. But things have changed. I’ve changed. The closer I get to the reality of moving, the more turbulent and unsettled I become. You know the old adage: change = stress. Yeah, it’s feeling pretty dang true.

I love change.
I’m hungry for adventure.
I’m in deep need of new challenges.

AND YET…oh, dear Lord, HOLD ME.

I want nothing more right now than for someone to hold me close and tell me that everything is going to be ok. Not only that, I want them to show me what I need to do. Then I want them to hold my hand and help me do it! Am I asking too much??!!

Nothing could have prepared me for so many unknowns all at once. It seems that every move I make, I’m confronted by yet another layer of challenge..and they are starting to pile up. So far, I’ve managed to find myself at the foot of a mountain that only God will be able to move. No one said Africa would be easy. In my old life, I’m pretty sure I would have questioned my sanity in choosing to paddle so hard upstream.

But this isn’t my old life. It’s my new life.

And God sees. He hears.
He really does.

Amen.