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.

 

Dream Bigger.

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“When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.” ~Leonardo Da Vinci

Earlier this week I was given guidance to dream bigger. I’m already a pretty big dreamer and so…to dream BIGGER? Yeah, I’m willing to give it my all…even if I don’t entirely know what that even means just yet.

This morning I have been looking through images from Bududa. I can’t seem to get from Point A to Point B in my editing endeavors in any linear fashion because I get distracted by the sheer beauty that so many of these photos contain. This little girl’s name is Mutenyo Evelyne. She hung out with us a lot while we were working in Bududa. She was as curious and sweet as her eyes might lead you to believe. I’ve had her photograph open on my computer since Tuesday because her eyes have captured me, her expression creating a peaceful stillness buoyed with possibility.

Dream bigger, her eyes say.

I want this girl to dream as big as she possibly can. And I want to dream right along with her.

When I left for Uganda, I didn’t really know where God would end up leading me. I knew I was going there to photograph, document, and tell the stories of a particular group of kids and their community. I went there as a Hands of Action volunteer, but the entire time leading up to the trip and even during the time of my stay, my deepest prayer was, “God, plug me into where I am needed most!” I wanted to find my place in this great wide world of need. I wanted God to use me. I trusted that He would. I wanted more than a 3 week experience doing short-term mission work. There were moments when I prayed, “Oh, dear God, please don’t leave me hanging without a sense of place after this is through.” There was a bit of desperation under the surface of that prayer, but He listened to my heart on that one, too. He has a plan.

And you know what? I am falling for His plan hook, line and sinker. lol I’m laughing as I write that…only because it’s true. I’m not even aware of when, exactly, “it” happened. It was incremental, perhaps a bit like the way a baby grows. You don’t notice how fast it happens when they’re in your arms all day long every day, but eventually you turn around and and can’t believe the change that’s taken place!

I left for Uganda with a backpack full of camera gear and several journals. Included in all that gear were a few point and shoot cameras that had been donated after a last minute moment of inspiration to capture photos from the kids’ point of view. Little did I know how important those inexpensive little cameras would become! Actually, I have a feeling that even I still don’t know the full potential of this new journey that I have so divinely been sent on.

This is what the good stuff is made of. Meet my Camera Crew (below): Emma, Emma (a common boy’s name in Uganda) and Godfrey…just three of the fourteen kids that became a committed and integral part of a photography project that I haphazardly pulled out of thin air just days before leaving. God is GOOD! That project changed everything. As my dear friend Moses would say, it is giving me the way forward.

I’ll tell you more about the camera project in future posts, but for now let me just say that the kids took it seriously. Very seriously. It was also my doorway into getting to know the community in a much more intimate way. Those involved became my special crew, my students, my interpreters, sherpas, guards and best friends. They were eager to participate and learn in every way possible. We were a team. It didn’t matter that we sometimes spoke a different language; it didn’t matter that we came from opposite ends of the earth. We found a common thread and I daresay it has woven our lives together for good.

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Emma, Emma and Godfrey, eager students learning how to use a camera tripod.

Since the moment I left African soil, I’ve been obsessed with getting back. I keep saying that I can’t wait to dive into the work that awaits me there. My friend Poppy finally asked me, “Jessie, what IS the work you are going to be doing now?”  Ahhh, such a simple, yet powerful question! Leave it up to Poppy to get down to the brass tacks.

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I believe in these boys. This is the look of limitless possibility.

The short answer is this:

  1. I am working to further develop the camera project as a means of creating continued education and opportunities for the kids involved.
  2. I am working side-by-side with Hands of Action Uganda to grow a micro-loan lending system/cooperative group to help widows get back on their feet after significant loss.
  3. I am helping with the photography, rebranding and websites for Hands Of Action Uganda and Hands of Action International as well providing social media and content in the form of photography, stories, and video.
  4. Last, but not least…I am sooo drawn to work with orphans on some level. I will give that time tho. I have a feeling it is something that will come to me if and when it is meant to be.

Needless to say, all of this seems like as good a place as any to start. When I asked God to use me, He didn’t hold back! In all honesty, I am overjoyed. Meanwhile, I am preparing for a solo exhibition of canine painted portraits with my whole heart. This show is over two years in the making and it is also what is going to propel me into the Whateverafter.

See those kids in the photos above? I believe in them. I believe they can do anything. Emma (left) has a heart of gold. He is gentle, observant, and thoughtful in ways that make him stand out like a shining star. Godfrey (right) is quieter and a bit more likely to go unnoticed in the scheme of things…oh, but that boy, more than any of the others his age, has an eye for detail! Every single one of the kids that emerged to be a part of the camera project is remarkable in some way.

Let this be just the beginning of limitless miracles. It is my hope that the camera project will cause those involved to see the world with new eyes. It is my hope that it will forge a path towards continued education…perhaps someday even creating an opportunity for a university education. If given a chance, what might these kids be capable of? How many other lives might they touch in the process?

All I know for sure right now is this: I want to find out.

Dear Abba, thank you for this journey you’ve set me on. Make me Yours…over and over and over again. You have touched me to the current of new water. Everything before this led to now and everything beyond this leads to what is still to come. May Your grace be limitless.

Teach me how to dream BIGGER. Teach us all.

Dear Abba, I love you.
Amen.

A letter to Joy.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

this easter is different.

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Carl’s bible.

This Easter is different than any before. I haven’t been able to stop crying all week. It is Saturday. The day before. And the closer it is to tomorrow, the harder I cry. I wasn’t expecting this. The depth, the richness, the waiting this week has taken on.

Easter has become so very real to me. Carl was about the same age as Jesus when he died. I think of Carl. The memory of him takes shape in the sunshine before me. I can still see his smile and that goofy walk he’d do to get the dogs excited and make me laugh. Carl. So capable, so happy. I rest my hands on his arms and they are still so strong. I look up, way up (because he was so tall), and I smile. But I am just remembering. It is Saturday. The day before Easter, the hours of in-between. I begin to understand how Jesus, like Carl, was once a real man. How do I even begin to describe the way this changes things? I’ve never truly understood what this (all of it) was all about…until now. I wish I could have understood sooner…but here I am.

Just beginning. In the face of so much loss. Here I am: just beginning.

We stand in the Light of what we’ve seen, even when it is dark all around. We stand in great Hope, even when it feels like all Hope is lost.

We stand at the grave, longing, grieving and yet, holding out hope that the One who said he is Messiah will somehow make a miracle out of the mess.

And so, like the women, we come to the grave, broken.
We come to the grave, prepared.
We come to the grave, longing for the King and a Kingdom that is not of this world.

We stand, even when we feel lost.
We stand when all we see are broken bodies.
We stand. We stay. We hope.

Today is Saturday. The day of the long walk.
The day of the long believing.
Today is the day of faith.

~Excerpted from “Today is the Day of the In-Between” by Idelette McVicker

I wait to see where tomorrow will take me. And all the tomorrows after that, too. I give in to not knowing. Over and over I pray: God, I am yours. I look over my life and realize that I’ve been catching glimpses. All along. These glimpses. And so here I am, standing in faith. Available to whatever is to come. Dear God, use me. I am yours.

I Believe

There are so many things about you I don’t understand
But I believe
I keep moving forward when I’m holding your hand
I believe

The truest things I know
Are those I cannot see
From my birth to my dying day
I believe

When I’m old I’ll talk about the things that you have done
I believe
Brokenness made beautiful
The wars that you have won
And the storms you calmed in me

The truest things I know
Are those I cannot see
From my birth to my dying day
I believe

I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands
I’d rather be led by his nail pierced hands
I’d rather have Jesus than anything…

The truest things I know
Are those I cannot see
From my birth to my dying day
I believe         ~JJ Heller

I love you, Carl. Without you I would have spent a life and everything after…so lost. When you went Home you showed me the way. And I love you, forever and ever, I love you.

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For breakfast: coffee steam and candles.

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I’ve been obsessed these past two days with getting this blog up and running. Everything published before this post was originally written and shared on Facebook. I’ve gathered those posts here for the sake of congruity and perhaps even for safer keeping. I’m grateful for the space and connection Facebook originally provided, but at some point, it became difficult and inappropriate to share my heart on such a haphazard platform. I had entered a desert. The lowlands. It stretched out in front of and behind me, in seeming infinity. It was a place of dirt and dry earth. There were mountains, but they were in the distance and only served to contain me in that low spot. I needed to walk alone for awhile, in that deep valley of sadness. And, in doing so, my faith walk got deeper, too.

As I write this, it dawns on me that Jesus also spent 40 days and nights in the desert. This was about the same amount of time that I spent in my own dusty barrenness. I’m not saying that I am like Jesus, but it should not surprise me that there is something to be said for the sacredness in this time of desert walking and wordlessness.

It has been 4 1/2 months since Carl died. It seems like an agonizingly long time and yet, as the days and months and years will continue to pass between us, I know that someday I will look back on this day and realize that the distance between now and then was miniscule. But time stretches. It shrinks and expands and then doubles back on itself.

For over a week I have found myself, for the first time, suspended in a place of happiness, inspiration, hope, even giddiness. I have felt energized by some strange and unexplainable joy. It felt like God. It was God. It is God. It felt impossible to feel so much joy in the face of so much loss. I don’t fit the mold of what I imagine grieving “widows” of unexpected tragedy to look like.  Yet I also know that is what Carl loved about me. That is, he loved my optimism and passion for life. And that is what I loved most about him. Of course, God knows that even the unspeakable loss of the man I loved with my whole heart could not stop this life force within me, even tho, at first, I so badly wanted it to. I am both devastated and satisfied in a way that I’ve never before experienced. I cry as I write this. I feel like a conundrum, an oxymoron, an absurd paradox. All last week I was on the verge of breaking out of my skin with a renewed sense of euphoria and hope. Today I simply feel like I’ve made it to the edge of the valley where I will sit and rest for a moment before continuing my walk into the foothills and, eventually, someday, maybe even the mountains.

I created this blog so that I might have a space that I can more openly write about my journey through grief. I’ve been a wanderer my whole life, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would travel through a landscape like this. All I know is that, like Jesus after his 40 days and nights in the desert, I am hungry. But it is a strange hunger. Not for food, but for more of God.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” ~Matthew 4:1-4

As I write this, I once again notice how Carl’s bible smells like him. Somehow, in drawing close to God, I feel closer to Carl, too. I draw close, not for Carl, but because of him. I draw close because this is what was meant for me all along.

“I am a bow on your hands, Lord.
Draw me, lest I rot.
Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break.
Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break?” ~Nikos Kazantzakis

For those of you who have found me here and are reading these words, thank you for journeying with me. I pray that, even in breaking, grace might be found.

with love and honesty,
Jessie

Audacious.

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He would send a photo to me.
I would send one to him.
He’d say he wished I was sitting next to him.
I would send him a picture of our two photos together and say: “I am!”

Our love. It was such an audacious thing. Full of hope and faith.
From a man who spoke profoundly of these things…

“I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and…inevitable setbacks. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered. … Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future…” ~MLK

I love you, Carl, even more completely than this audacious distance.

{originally published Jan 19, 2015}