Led.

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“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’” ~John 18:36

I’ve been a woman walking in two worlds. I travel to the village after the recent landslide in Bududa via car, then motorcycle, then a bit further on foot. On one hand, I am there to survey the damage and needs of the area and its people. On the other hand, I am witnessing all of this from a realm not of this world.

There are four of us together in total. One companion has gathered some beautifully soft, warm blankets, as well as nearly 100 pounds of maize flour, sugar and even money cards for those in need. I intended to join her in gathering supplies until God showed me that, in going to the village, I was to instead “be still and observe.” I refrained from any preemptive fundraising or making purchases of potentially needed supplies. I prayed a lot and, each time I did, God spoke easily, peacefully, quietly, clearly. In the process, God managed to create a small church out of our seemingly haphazard group. One in which we were each given a very specific role to play. In the end, I was so grateful to be orchestrated in just the way we were.

In many ways, these days, I’ve been editing myself into silence. The combination of words, circumstances and cultural differences between the actual experience and my varying audiences is complex. This particular bout of silence, though, is the handiwork of the devil. Why? Because God asked me to share certain aspects of things. It’s just that I haven’t known how and, in the course of trying to let the words emerge, my thoughts became increasingly cluttered. I’m backed into a corner with my process of reasoning, my sense of expression drowned like nonsense in the water, causing my mind to become messy and scattered, at best.

Last night I dreamt of the landslide. There have been other dreams of the same. The details are vague; I only remember that I was there. In waking life, there was an aspect of me that simply shut down, like a weary reporter who has grown overly accustomed to war. Things felt illusive. Fake. I was guarded. In that dreary, weird, confusion of what was real and what was a lie, I seemed to have carried home a certain amount of residue from with all. I didn’t see anything awful. No dead bodies or mangled limbs. Unfortunately, these are images I saw in the form of videos before my arrival. I saw things I wish I could un-see. Instead, what I did see were freshly dug graves and a lack of authenticity.

I refuse to be a source of more misinformation and under-researched news. I also don’t want to hold the handle of a shovel whose only motive is to pocket the profits of tragedy. Lies, corruption, death, manipulation, stealing. It is woven into so much. It’s cumulative, like the buildup of mud and logs and debris that came roaring down the mountain. It’s dangerous. And perhaps not even surprising. I don’t want to discourage eager hearts, so willing to help. I need God to help me say anything at all.

These days, the girls are on reading sprees. I don’t know what lit these book-bound fires, but I sure am happy for it. Sharon has moved a little deeper into the literary waters and is now reading Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. She leaves it on the dining room table each morning before setting off to school. She doesn’t realize it, but each day I am reading too. I read as far as her bookmark leaves us, letting her lead the way. I like being quietly on this journey with her. And–wow–what a wonderfully written book, it is. It opens with a quote that one would not expect to find in a children’s book.

“The heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.”
~Stanley Kunitz

It makes me think of Bukalasi (the landslide village) and the end of its road. That place where we got off of our bodabodas, already so familiar from news footage and photos posted online. Familiar, even, because of pretenders. “Heroes on the scene,” sharing selfies of their “good” deeds, “rescuing” others from the deadly event. But, upon arriving, I saw that their photographic location was no place to dig, rather just a dramatic and muddy backdrop. In other words, a good photo-op. Their too-clean clothes give them away. Sometimes discernment is nothing more than common sense. In some ways, I knew what I was walking into before I ever got there.

Because the bridge has washed out, this particular spot is where most people stop. Getting to the other side of so much broken wreckage means trekking a slippery path a short distance downstream and then crossing a precarious set of bouncing eucalyptus logs strung across the fast-flowing river. Joy was walking ahead of me and turned to cover her eyes saying, “I can’t!” She was afraid. This option forward was potentially disastrous, but before I could say even one word to comfort or encourage her, she was already half way to the other side. Her bravery amazed me. Sometimes I see the light of Jesus in that girl, as real as a tree or sand or sunshine. It wasn’t until I came to the edge of this improvised, unsteady crossing that my own bravery left me. I was the last one to cross. In the end, I also don’t totally understand the heavenly presence that got me to the other side. But I do have faith in it. There would be, after all, no turning back.

For ineffable reasons, it is hard to tell this story. The weight of it has been burdening me for days. It’s only now that I’ve stepped into its center that I find any relief at all. Perhaps it is the relief of fulfilling even just one small portion of a godly assignment. You see, I fail on a regular basis. Today though, I needed to make some headway. I guess this slogging through mud and bushwhacking with words has been necessary, if only to get me to here.

Still, there is further to go. What I experienced that day can only be described as both frustrating and celestial. How can disappointment and holiness exist together all in one breath? With each interaction, my eyes, my heart, my mind and spirit scanned the inner and outer landscapes of those we were meeting and talking with. This is the part where I struggle to find words so that I might bring you with me. How could something be so devastatingly ugly and yet so shockingly beautiful all at once?

But wait. Lest you think I’m romanticizing a desperate situation, I fumble with words to share with you: what I was experiencing was both heaven and earth’s hell. One reality overlaying the other.  As I stood surrounded by common-looking liars and thieves, I also held presence next to the Truth of one woman and her grief. In that, I saw a glimpse of heaven. God. Even as I search for the language to communicate any of this, I am reduced to tears. I’ve heard stories of people who have died and then come back to share their extraordinary, but too-brief experience of the other side. Even when Carl died, God allowed me to journey half-way with him. The closer I become to His presence, the thinner the veil becomes. I stood outside, next to the closet-sized mud house of a newly widowed woman with too many young children to care for by herself. What I saw–somehow inside and yet beyond all of it–was made of the most extraordinary light. It sparkled and glowed and somehow reached into all the folds of the mountains, its vanishing point intermingling with God himself.

Everything in me wants more of that Light. I don’t yet know what’s next. But I do have the greatest faith that, at the right time, the next steps will be revealed. I also sense, in a deep way, that I was never intended to make this journey alone.

And so here we are. In unknown territory. Touched by heaven, even here on earth.

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~   ~   ~

Honestly, I don’t know how to do this.

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Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
~Psalm 105:1-4

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It’s a beautiful drive to the place where Carl rests. Curving roads lined in a million shades of green. It’s a landscape of poplar and pine trees, soft-needled tamaracks and trails that wind deep into forests that go for a long, long time. I drove past low-land swamps and deep, deep lakes. Past the place I used to live, the house I built with my very own hands. The house with the bright red roof, it’s back turned to the world, overlooking a wilder beauty. The place where I first met Carl when a friend called to ask if he could lend a hand with the construction. Later, Carl returned many times to sit on the porch, along with friends. We made music, lots of music. But it wouldn’t be until another 15 years later that life would do enough work on both of us to cause us to fall into a love that, before then, I didn’t even have the capacity to experience. It’s possible that our love was never simply our love. Perhaps it was God’s love, all along. A love from God, belonging to God.

Yesterday, as I drove to the cemetery, the words of Psalm 105 were spoken over the radio. I knew those words were meant as a gift to me. To remember. Things have gotten hard again. After a brief reprieve, the wave of grief has raised itself over me, long and hard. But it’s time now to begin shifting into a brighter place…

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced ~Psalm 105:5

For a moment tho, I need to just sit here. To gather my energy, to allow my earthly self to disintegrate in the salty pain of all these tears. Sitting in that place where even the dogs gave themselves to grief. They know, as I do, this is no easy road.

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I lost much to gain much. I lost Carl to gain God. And here I stand, at my beloved’s resting place. The place where I first met Jesus. The place that I also tend to avoid for fear of coming unravelled all over again. But then I finally get there and what I instead find is a most profound peace.

I’m moving to Africa in just over a month and it is so difficult to imagine being so far away from this beautiful place that holds the body of the man I love.

the middle distance.

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I’m enthralled. I’ve only made it to the xviii page of the introduction of this book and I’m afraid my highlighting pen is going to run out of florescent yellow juice in its trail of interest.

Oh my God, where do I even begin? It feels like it’s been a hundred years since I’ve truly written something here. I’ve been so hungry to untangle the words from my experiences and place them on the page where I might see them better. But life keeps coming at me and, quite frankly, sometimes its messiness and confusion is not meant for public consumption. Other times, the days are simply ticking off more quickly than I can get my fingers to the keyboard. Ahh, but today? I’ve taken the day off, or at least mostly. Something I have only done a couple times since I returned home from Africa back in January. As to be expected, the quiet of today has been good for me.

I’ve been feeling a multitude of emotions lately, but one that seems to be the most consistent is anticipation.

[an-tis-uh-pey-shuh n]

1. the act of anticipating or the state of being anticipated.
2. realization in advance; foretaste.
3. expectation or hope.
4. intuition, foreknowledge, or prescience.

Oh, but my very most favorite definition of anticipation is musical.

5. a tone introduced in advance of its harmony so that it sounds against the preceding chord.

As I consider the nuances of that last definition, I can practically hear the notes rolling off of Carl’s guitar. I miss him like crazy and am also grateful beyond measure to have him as my Best Angel, always at my side–with me, watching over me, working in my behalf–a connection allowed by God alone.

That “tone introduced in advance of its harmony so that it sounds against the preceding chord” has been causing a certain amount of pressure, as if walking into the wind. It’s a feeling of “tipping into.” It requires a strange stamina to hold such deeply gorgeous, tenuous notes as my life moves into the cusp of this very tangible transition. An unfolding. It’s a stamina built of complete surrender. Were there ever two more opposite states of being? And yet it seems to be what this song is made of. I seek some sort of harmonization in the balance between being effective in my forward motion and malleable in God’s grace. Often, lately, there seems to be some sort of pressing: between action and stillness, confusion and certainty, inspiration and doubt, clear vision and mystery, strength and softness.

I’ve been referring to this time in my life as the middle distance. Thankfully, it’s no longer that horrible valley I found myself in all those months after Carl’s death. No, that place was a low, dry, dead, anxiety-ridden place.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. ~Psalm 23:4

This middle distance is made of higher ground. And yet it is neither here nor there. There are greener things awaiting growth in this space. There is hope and possibility. There is also a fair share of impatience and discomfort. There is disorder.

As I prepare to wrap up my life here in the States and move to Africa, I find a whole mess of emotions to sort through. A couple weeks ago, I managed to go through most of my possessions. I sold much of them and, believe me, it was no small endeavor. Memories of Carl are written into so much of it. Going through my things is much more difficult than a simple move. There’s not a whole lot about moving to another continent that is exactly simple, but doing so after you’ve unexpectedly lost the love of your life, well…it comes with its own sort of exaggerated doses of both freedom and pain.

Carl is woven into all of this; I can’t undo him, nor would I want to. That in itself leads me to a place of both sadness and comfort. Ah, but then there is Sharon, waiting for me on the other side of all that needs to be done. I have never in my whole life felt so motivated by another human being to accomplish so much. My dear Sharon…oh, that girl. She has changed me forever. What a beautiful song this would be if I could just hear it played out loud with these earthly ears.

This desire to live out God’s call on my life is strong. I find myself willing to walk any landscape to do what I feel is being asked of me. There’s a part of me that would like to think that, on the other side of this middle distance, there is some sort of Ugandan tropical paradise just waiting to wrap its arms around me and tell me I’ve finally come home. But I know better than that. For the first time in my life, I understand why people are willing to lose their lives or go to prison for their believe in God. I’ve become one of those people. I find myself willing to traverse those places, if it were asked of me. I’ve come up against a hard reality: and that is in realizing that not everyone wants to see this work succeed.

And yet…

I know God is protecting me. He has been putting me through the rigors of some deep pruning, even now. Already. I feel the adventure hasn’t even TRULY began and, wow. Perhaps I’ve underestimated what this next chapter might entail.

God continues to draw me forward with incredible amounts of learning. He’s planted within me an excitement to see things grow. Really grow. Plots of land abundant in food and resources. As I begin working on permaculture projects with a group of Ugandan woman, I find myself stepping into a whole new world. The vision of this draws me forward. My work with Harriet and our sisterhood of widows awaits. Building a home and a family with my little Sharon awaits. Mentoring women and children to step into their fullest, God-given potential awaits and is already being knit into being. Even from the middle distance: I can see something worth walking towards on the horizon.

God has asked me to be a part of something extraordinary. And, still, I say YES.

 

God Light.

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IMG_4320Sharon went to the doctor today. I can’t help it…these photos take my breath away. Look at that light! I feel that God was in that room with her this morning. Sharon’s tests all came back negative (malaria, typhoid, ect.). The HIV test also came back negative (thank God)!!! And so it seems her earlier flu-like symptoms were simply just that and her earlier bout with Malaria is also gone. She was, however, diagnosed with a severe allergic reaction. To what, we do not yet know. James took these photos as Sharon was getting injections. My strong, brave, skinny-armed girl! She also received a prescription for medication and medicated cream. We are giving her a week to see how she responds, but also took a referral and are making arrangements for her to see an allergy specialist so that they can do more thorough testing.

I’ve been praying hard for this girl. And I know many of you have too. I can’t help it, I feel like something has shifted in the power of all these prayers. God feels mind-boggling present, even in these challenges (*especially* in these challenges). It’s starting to sink in…the power of one little girl’s life, the way God might use her well beyond anything I might imagine for her.

This light breaks me open. Just two days after Carl died, I stood on the side of the road where tragedy brought his life to an end, and I EXPERIENCED heaven. I felt him so strongly with me. I felt his sadness in having left me. I felt the impossible weight of my own disorienting grief. But something in me knew I had to let him go. I told him in prayer-like words that, as long as he would stay with me as long as I needed him, it was ok for him to go. I felt God blessing us in that connection. That was the moment it happened. Carl went Home. The sheer immensity of love and perfect peace that I was touched by as heaven swallowed him is a feeling that will forever defy words. It is an experience I will never, ever forget. And when I look at these pictures of Sharon…I feel it all over again. God. My eyes can’t hold back the tears.

My world has changed in these last two days. I think, perhaps, Sharon’s has also. I thank Carl for being our Best Angel. Perhaps he was in that room today, too.

Abba, you fill this world with so much love. If only we could see past our frustrations and anxieties. Needless to say, Sharon will be fine. I thank Uncle James for helping her get all the care she needs on this earthly side of heaven.

{Originally posted on Facebook 03.24.16  :: Reposting here as a testimony to God’s grace in our lives.}

It’s time to grow.

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Photo Credit: Godfrey. Age 13. #theJOYcollective #CameraCrew

This morning I’m attempting to finesse the details for Phase One of the Widow’s Project. Priority #1: FOOD. All of my widow’s are mamas and some of them even grandmas. They are not only trying to take care of themselves, but a whole house full of children, too. Without exception, these families are only eating one meal a day which consists almost entirely of posho (corn meal) and beans. Not only are they only eating one meal a day, but many of them are also going 2 and even 3 days a week without any food at all.

Many of these widow’s husbands have died from ulcers. And something I’ve learned? Ulcers are a result of malnutrition. I look at these mamas and see in their faces and bodies how often they don’t eat just so that their children can have a little more.

This photo was taken by Godfrey, one of the kids who became a part of my camera crew back in August. I didn’t know until going on a home-visit last month that his mother had also been selected to be a part of the widow’s project. This widow’s name is Oliver and she is the first widow out of 12 who I met with. To say that these worlds between my widows and camera crew kids overlap in some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking ways would be an understatement. And yet…this is how community is formed. These are how relationships are built. This is how love occurs.

Oliver is the same age as me and her husband died just 2 months before Carl. As we talked, our hearts broke together. We don’t even speak the same language and yet, somehow, that never seems to matter. When I finally got up to leave, many hugs were exchanged. A new friendship had been formed. We left one another feeling encouraged in a way that only God can do.

Interestingly, Godfrey took more photos of farms and gardens than any of the other kids. I love seeing the world through their eyes. This particular photo is of some of Godfrey’s siblings in the bean patch. I already know his sister, Metridah, from my first trip to Bukibokolo. I love these kids dearly and to think of them not having even their most basic needs met has now become a reality that I can’t shake. Hunger is no longer an abstract thought to me and that motivates me beyond words to learn everything that I can so that I might be able to share.

I’m grateful beyond words for the people that God has been placing in my life to help this project along, including Harriet Nakabaale, an amazing Ugandan woman and green thumb extraordinaire. She’s more than just a good gardner tho. She is letting God use her to change lives. To have someone like her alongside us in this first phase of the project? All I can say is: thank you, Abba. Thank you.

Miracle thinking.

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Yesterday I went to the post office for the first time since returning home from Uganda. I’ve been home for a week and a half now. I guess you could say that I’ve been avoiding certain aspects of my life. For unknown reasons, the post office was one of them. BUT then a dear friend, Jean, told me to keep a lookout for something special she was sending. I’m glad. I like the way God answers our prayers in such clever ways. As I drove towards the post office I prayed for grace. It was late. I felt anxious and depleted. I was not yet aware of God’s cleverness in that moment. Instead, I was making a grocery list in my head, considering the idea of cookies or brownie mix, even tho I really don’t need to be eating either. I realized that I was missing sweetness in my life and I asked God to help me with that, too.

Truth be told, the only thing I was expecting to find in my post office box was bills and junk mail. I found plenty of both of those…but what I didn’t expect to find was a box filling to the point of overflowing with Christmas cards and even a few packages. Wow! Christmas…and it’s nearly February! Needless to say, the discovery made me realize just how long I had been gone. No wonder my life here in Minnesota still feels so weird. I opened one of the packages right there in the post office. The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. I love books, but this one is special. The package didn’t have a name on it, but I knew who it was from: Jean! What an angel. After losing my Kindle on the flight home, she sent me this second copy of the book in paper form. I went home and opened up the next box, this one was from my friend Lyndsi. It was filled to the brim with love: a beautifully warm scarf, a soft hat, some delicious winter tea and, my favorite (although she didn’t even know it) pure maple sugar candies! Dear Abba, thank you. I asked for grace and sweetness…and what did I receive? Yep, you guessed it: exactly that.

This morning, I cracked open the pages of my new book for the first time. I read it while drinking my first cup of coffee. Afterwards, I went outside to feed my two hungry horses and, because the brittle winter temps have risen just enough to be considered enjoyable, I meandered slowly down the long driveway as my dogs ran through the snow and looked for things that only dogs know of. I thought about my presence here in these northern woods, in this place called winter, in this land that I once called home, but now feels so foreign and strange. I was in a pretty good mood, despite these feelings of ongoing displacement. I was making a list in my head. There were two columns. On the left was my life here in the USA and on the right was my life in Africa. This was broken down yet again into another two categories: advantages and disadvantages. My preferences were starting to weigh heavily in the direction of Africa and, it was then that Albert Einstein’s words echoed in my head.

There are two ways to live your life.
One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is a miracle.
~Albert Einstein

I began working on evening out my two lists. Before I was even 10 steps further down my driveway, with refreshed eyes, I began to see my time here in the United States between now and moving to Africa as being equally advantageous in the grand scheme of things. In doing so, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. An acceptance of the now, just as it is. I heard a wood-pecker tapping on a tree just to my right and, although I couldn’t see my woodsman feathered friend, Carl’s presence filled the moment. I felt encouraged. As I walked back to the cabin, a sense of God’s orchestration settled in around me. Peace. A juxtaposition. My dog Ella ran past, kicking up white snow with cabin-fever glee, dodging the black stumps of pine trees along the way. Perfectly imperfect. It’s all up to us how we approach the details.

Gifts and hardships seem to walk hand in hand. This morning I breathed into that reality and settled into the miracle of what is. I lift my head with a new sense of willingness to be here now. God’s grace is needed in every step, no matter what side of the earth I might find myself walking.

 

The beginning of a new life.

IMG_3320I wish I knew where to start when it comes to sharing the the journey I’ve been on with Sharon. You see, she’s not just a story. She’s not just a photo. She’s not just another kid. She is my heart. She is somehow my other half. She is and always will be my first daughter, even if she’s not biologically mine.

Her story is long and complicated. It is filled with abuse, hunger, abandonment and suffering. But those are words that speak only of her past. Today, Sharon is walking towards an entirely new future. Let’s not over-simplify things tho. There are still struggles, there are threats…but more powerful than any of that, we’ve found a resting place of HOPE. We are finding the first glimmers of HAPPINESS and believe me, for this little girl, the simple gift of happiness is something worth celebrating.

Yesterday, “Uncle James” was able to help me take care of the details of making sure Sharon’s school fees were paid. You see, Sharon has moved. She’s starting a new school. She’s starting a new life. I don’t know what it is about Sharon’s quiet, giggly self…but she breaks open hearts in the most beautiful ways. James is a dear friend of mine from Uganda. He is my brother, truly. We met in August the first time I traveled to the village of Bukibokolo. I don’t mean to throw these terms of family endearment around lightly. I’m not sure when this familial relationship of brother/sister began, but even Sharon instinctually picked up on it and dubbed him with the honorable title of “Uncle.” You see, James loves Sharon, too. As a child, he walked the same rough road that Sharon has had to walk. And now? It seems that God is transforming James’s past pain into a love for children who need it most. Sharon loves her Uncle James and I do too. He’s making sure that her school fees are being spent as they’re meant to. He’s checking in on her on a regular basis. He is a source of constant love and support for both Sharon and I.

I’m attempting to say too much in one blog post. It makes it hard. It’s impossible to contain this much love and difficulty in one sitting. Perhaps I should have been writing more all along, but you see…I couldn’t. Because it’s complicated. It’s a story about real people with real feelings and, in some ways, living in real danger. I tread lightly with all of it. There is still so much untangling and praying to do.

I want to tell you everything and yet I don’t know how. Perhaps there are pieces of this story that aren’t meant to be shared in its entirety, at least not yet…or maybe ever. But for now, I rest in knowing that progress is being made. Sharon is with her mother. The woman who I thought had abandoned her own daughter had her own side of the story. While in Uganda, I made arrangements to meet with her and I’m glad I did. Her story is also complicated. And yet I want to believe that she is doing the best she can. I want to help her to be the best mama she can be. I want to give Sharon and her mother that chance. Because I love Sharon and every child deserves a relationship with their parents if at all possible. The situation with Sharon’s father is dubious, violent and heartbreaking at best. Sharon’s mother is another matter. Now that Sharon and her mother have been re-united, there is potential for goodness to increase, mature and maybe even flourish. For the first time ever, Sharon’s mama has a network of support in a way that she never had before. In the way that she’s needed in order to even be a mama to her daughter. God has blessed me in that Sharon’s mother wants me to be Sharon’s mama, too. The genuineness that is growing out of our gratitude for one another brings tears to my eyes, even as I write.

Sharon has a whole family of people here in the United States that already love her, especially my Bratlien family, who already think of her as a granddaughter, niece and cousin. From that family, she has a very special aunt and uncle who have helped me to cover her first semester of school fees. With each person that becomes a part of my life with Sharon, I become more amazed by the way God moves in our lives…how He changes and heals us in ways that we never imagined. We’re all so broken, but God knows, He sees, He hears, He understands…and He uses us to help heal one another. It is turning out to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.

Sharon begins her first day at her new school on Monday. Let’s pray for her, please! May this be only the beginning of an upward looking life.

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Sharon and I the day we had to say goodbye-for-now. It was a hard day, indeed!

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Sharon and her biological mama, Christine.

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Sharon and BOTH her mamas! 🙂

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Sharon and Joy. They are like sisters. And, to me, both are my daughters.

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Uncle James and Sharon. School starts MONDAY! 🙂

I love you, Sharon! And dear Abba…I thank you beyond measure.
B-E-Y-O-N-D  M-E-A-S-U-R-E!!!!!

Amen.