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

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.

 

Overflowing.

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It’s amazing. These prayers. Over the course of the past several months they seem to be flooding into my hands. They are prayers for the widows we’re working with. Prayers for the children, our Ugandan “Camera Crew.” I have been gathering these prayers for weeks now after inviting others to pray for and connect with an individual a world away, someone to walk with on this journey called life. These prayers feel powerful, as they build a bridge from here to there and back again. When I return to the village in Uganda, I will hand deliver these prayers to their recipients. And you know…I think I will never tire of being the messenger of so much love. 💗

My hands become empty so that they might overflow with something that was meant for more than me. Amen.

 

Forehead kisses.

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I miss my girl, Sharon, so much that I can hardly stand it. She would become especially snuggly the closer it got to bedtime. If it was just the two of us, she’d crawl into my lap and snuggle in as close as possible. An 8 year old that snuggles? Yeah…it’s just about the best thing ever. Sometimes there were tears that needed to wiped away. She didn’t want me to leave. Not ever. I would rock her in my arms and sing sweet songs, giving little kisses on her forehead. Maybe we never really outgrow a need to be loved like that. Never in my life has it felt better to bring comfort to another person. My heart yearns to hug and to be there for her in ways that simply defy words. This must be what it feels like to be a mother. My God…how does one survive this kind of love?

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.

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.