A Connected Colony

Images are so powerful. Recently I have been fixated on the roots of Aspen trees. I have been unable to stop thinking about how the root system is actually a grand colony that began with a single seed. On the surface we see single trees standing side by side, but underneath the ground is an intricate and deeply connected colony of roots that grow and work together. Recently I learned…when the root system dies…the Aspen forest dies.

Karen was one of the first people we met when we arrived in western Uganda. She had a wide smile, heart of gold and helpful hands. For two months she was a bright spot and a dear friend on what was a rainy season of our lives. We not only were given the chance to get to know Karen, but also met her adorable son Lordrick. I will never forget the day Lordrick began to have an epileptic seizure in Kylee’s 9 year old arms. It was so very frightening and my heart sank because I knew medically options were limited for Karen and her precious baby boy. A group of teens in the states heard stories of Karen and Lordrick, and they wanted to make a way for him to see a physician. They covered the cost of medical bills and Lordrick’s much needed medicine.

Over time a friendship bloomed between Karen and my American friend Janine. She realized there might be a way to invest long term in Karen and Lordrick’s lives. She carried that vision to her core team: a small group of teens and adult leaders in her church. Together they committed to sending Karen to university. Janine and her team believed an educated young woman will provide for her family, stay healthy, save money, start a business, empower her community, and lift her country. They were right. Karen has spent the past four years in school, recently graduated, and is well on her way to doing just that: providing, saving, building, empowering, and lifting others up. I know this because this is the kind of woman she was before this opportunity was given to her and so it will all the more be who she will continue to be moving forward!

So back to my Aspen trees. I have always been incredibly struck by the beauty of the Aspen tree: the golden heart shaped leaves sparkle against brilliant white bark. Though from the surface it appears as if there is one singular tree towering toward the heavens, we find actually underneath the ground an entangled colony, deeply connected to the roots of it’s brothers and sisters. I am no biologist so forgive my preschool understanding of this phenomena; but that said, I was deeply struck by this image and the many many amazing people who have intertwined with my life, strengthened me, at times held me up, and who have made me who I am today.

Image result for Aspen Roots image

I could not help thinking of Aspen roots as I reflected on Karen’s graduation. The intersecting of lives that have been strengthened as they have strengthened Karen and Lordrick. Moving forward, so many all over Uganda will be blessed by Karen and Lordrick’s lives. We are better together. We need one another and will forever be changed when we grow where we are planted and allow ourselves to be intertwined for the strengthening of the forest.

Love, Peace, and Aspen Roots,

 

Jenni

 

 

 

The Grace of a Rebuilding Year…

Sometimes we are simply not kind to ourselves. A new year signals hope and new opportunities–but often voices in our heads spout:  “I should be farther along…I should have conquered this by now…I should start…I should stop… I should have a stronger faith to overcome my fear, grief, loss, or temptations. I should…I should…I should.”

One of the most staggering shocks to my system was my inability to recover quickly from loss. I was confident that my faith could hold up under the pain and grief, but instead I was laid out…flat. The recovery process has taken many years–which was too long in the minds of most…myself included: “I should be okay…my faith should be able to carry this load.”  Worse, at times I would self-medicate and then louder voices piled on shame: “I should not emotionally eat, I should workout more to increase endorphin levels, I should stop numbing with things that absolutely will attack my health and wellness and keep me trapped in this cycle.” Though the second group of  voices carried elements of truth, unfortunately they didn’t matter because frustratingly, the darkness of depression wasn’t willing to negotiate with the light of logic.

I’ll never forget the day when a tiny portion of my personality resurfaced; a part that I was pretty certain was irretrievable. I remember greeting her with warmth and surprise. In that moment a glimmer of hope rose up and I wondered if maybe just maybe two years of hard core grief was not a waste–but the only option I had to find my way to the other side? Could it be that I was being too hasty expecting a full recovery just a few months after losing two children? Yes…I believe I was.

Recently I heard Jon Acuff explain that the NFL is one of the only places where we extend grace and recognize that it takes TIME to recover. We  brilliantly dub it: a REBUILDING year. Some teams take multiple years or even a full decade to regain real footing within their programs. But in our day to day lives we expect to recover, change, start over, grieve, create new thought, or build something amazing in a matter of weeks or months. And when we don’t…we believe we have failed…or worse…that we are failures.

I want to call nonsense on this practice. I want to give permission for a much more gentle and loving approach to change. Everyone told me it takes time to heal a heart and this is so very true. The footing I have established on my journey has been remarkable–but I had several agonizing rebuilding years–hours of counseling and therapy–loads of book reading/podcasts–long walks–powerful prayer and faithful friendships that carried me through those dark days. Imagine the work that goes in to rebuilding an NFL franchise…we have no problem patiently supporting our teams…fully understanding it will take time and effort to re-enter the game at a championship level. Yet it seems far more comfortable for us to speak words of failure and shame upon ourselves.

Instead, what if we were to we extend the same kind of grace to ourselves and those we love? If this year needs to be a rebuilding year for you–take it. It will not be easy, but start by telling your fans. Tell them you are in a rebuilding place and wake up each day telling yourself the same. It may be daily small steps (literally or figuratively), it will likely require a support system, it may look like gathering tools or teachers, counselors and positive words reminding you of your identity, value and worth. It is crucial to recognize our lives will not be different next week–or even next month–but if you are committed to a rebuilding year–this just might be the permission you need to embrace this year with joy and not dread.

As I completed this blog I realized my “word” last year was rebuild…it was like I intuitively knew what I needed: (another) rebuilding year. We start wherever we are. We survey the rubble and damage and we decide it is only going to be rebuilt brick by brick. We speak kind words over ourselves and our story.

It is slow, arduous, yet sacred work. 

The bricks look like grace layered upon grace. There are also bricks made of kindness and love. Love for self and reminders of God’s love for you.

If you feel stuck or like you need a word of encouragement…please feel free to comment below or private message me so I might be able to be a fan as you launch in to your rebuilding year.

 

 

May We Live Life the Way We Hope to be Remembered…

Her Christmas cookies were simply peanut butter sandwiched in between two Ritz crackers dipped in milk chocolate–but they were legendary and didn’t last longer than a day or two sitting on our kitchen counter. His voice was quiet and deep, his words were few. Yet I hung on any and every childhood story he would tell of his life on the farm.

After church one Sunday, at the tender age of six, I boldly approached this couple and asked what might be the strangest question a child could ask: “Would you be my grandparents?” They took this request seriously and included me in their nightly prayers and watched me when my parents went out of town. Grandma sewed clothes for my Cabbage Patch dolls and Grandpa carved wooden cars for my brother. They taught me to ride horses and yearly would host elementary students on their farm introducing them to their ponies: Chocolate Drop and Spot.

I realized they not only set the bar very high for what I hoped grandparents would be like in the life of my children…but they showed me a model for marriage.

When Chris and I were dating we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa. I would “shush” him as we tip-toed through the front door, briskly walked through the kitchen; then we would crane our necks to peak in to their simple living room. It was 3pm and I hoped to catch them doing something I had witnessed many times before: an adorable couple…married for over 50 years…spooning on the floor eating popcorn and watching a random black and white television show. The volume was turned up so loudly and their backs were turned; they could not hear us enter their home…and just for a moment Chris and I were frozen in this tender moment. Two people in love…still doing life together after all these years. It may seem creepy as we invaded their space and their “moment” but for me it was a window in to something I longed for in my future marriage. Captured on the rug was an innocence and intimacy that eludes many marriages after the kids are gone…or even before. The connection and commitment to this ritual spoke to me.

Recently I received a gift that reminded me of the deep impact this couple made on my life. I realized Grandma and Grandpa modeled what I hope to provide in my marriage and my home. A safe place and the gift of presence. Grandma and Grandpa had PLENTY of biological grandchildren, yet they made room in their hearts for a few more. They treated us as if we were their own and held out a Light of Love that drew me in and shaped who I am.

Strangely…I had almost forgotten. We often are given relationships for only a season. This time of year I become reflective and my heart expands in thankfulness. I realize that I am not the sum of a few but it took a village to raise me (in Indiana) and another village who helped me grow in my adult life (in North Carolina). Dozens of people showed me how to be a parent. Chris and I had spiritual guides, mentors, neighbors and friends who have molded us in to who we are today. I wanted to pause here and say we are thankful for EACH one of you.

I wonder if we all might take a moment between the busyness of the Christmas season and the start of the new year to reflect and give thanks…may we say a prayer of thanks for those who have shaped us? Maybe a text or phone call to express our gratitude…whether we are related or not…we are designed to be in relationship and do life together…and we are better together.

Grandma and Grandpa lived simply and loved well. They did not strive for wealth or fame. But they will be forever lifetime heroes who have made their mark and left a legacy…in my heart…and in the hearts of many.

May we live life the way we hope to be remembered. 

Merry Christmas…and Happy (Almost) New Year,

Jenni

(Image found courtesy of… imgur) 

If You Really Knew Me…

Before two very tragic and public deaths occurred last week–I penned this blog. I realized after re-reading my words–they felt even more relevant today–as we truly do not know the battles that can often rage within. After hearing a powerful message this week surrounding suicide at CoM–I realized this was an important time to share what I had written:

Over the past few years I have witnessed college folks playing an intriguing game called, if you REALLY knew me. When I first encountered the game I was slightly disturbed by what was being shared as I was concerned that it might encourage forced vulnerability. Pushing participants to disclose intimate stories from their very real lives. But in a culture that is chocked full of perfectly polished Instagram stories; where we continue to post our highlight reels, maybe this is exactly what is needed to remedy all those shiny selfies. We rarely reveal what often is just under the surface. I realized that this little game of “if you really knew me” is actually a helpful tool to allow honesty to be shared in an (ideally) safe space. We can take off the mask and allow others to peek in to the window of our humanity…revealing our hurts…and  provide a place where others can respond with a hearty, “I see you…I hear you…you are known…you are loved.”  When culture is carving out online space for us to daily consume the very best portrait of others’ lives–no wonder we are hearing reports of deep depression and loneliness? We actually are craving someone who “REALLY KNOWS US”…and things would be better off in our own psyche if we really knew others stories because we would feel way more NORMAL and certainly not alone.

So to celebrate my 42 years of life I decided to get as raw as I possibly could–and share 24* things you may not know and might not believe about my life. (*42 would be WAY too boring…but 24 is digestible!)

Continue reading

Baking Worship…Not Bacon Worship

Have you ever had someone prepare a meal for you that was made with love?  You could tell with each bite it was more than mere calories and nourishment?  Maybe you have witnessed a last second shot taken from half court…all net no rim? Have you ever been moved by words written on a page? Or walked in to someone’s home and been encircled with a warmth…complete with coffee and cozy couches? There is something that stirs within us when we experience or encounter these things…

Recently, while she was bustling around the kitchen, I told Kylee I believed baking was actually one of her spiritual acts of worship. She looked at me as if I had two heads! Such a foreign concept that something so “mundane” and something that brought her so much joy would be considered “worship”!?! This made my heart a little sad. I think we need to re-frame our understanding of worship and properly align our mindset around what it truly means.

When we hear the word worship we often think hymns, sitting solemnly inside of buildings with steeples, praying prayers with heads bowed and hands folded. Sometimes we imagine furrowed brows, sermons or an hour gathering on Sunday mornings…

But here is what a wise teacher said about worship:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday,        ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.  (Romans 12:1,2 The Message*) 

Writing and reading do something similar within me that baking and dancing do for Kylee. I feel so very alive in those moments. Sitting with others listening to their stories feels (at times) like a spiritual act of worship. For too long I have compartmentalized these worlds thinking they were separate. But it is in our every day, in the ordinary daily doings of life, that God is active and moving and we are worshipping.

There are times when reading and writing feel indulgent. Sitting with another sharing “heart stuff” feels almost too sweet. But having been on the receiving end of a delicious meal prepared with love, enjoying fresh baked cookies, or being welcomed to a home with cozy couches and copious cups of coffee, make me wonder if I might be experiencing a life-moment where I am encountering another’s spiritual act of worship? Was the half-court shot that left me in awe and the song lyrics that left me in tears someone else living out of their very best life?

The wisdom is loud and clear…

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.*

In my every day ordinary life…may I live reminded…the every day things I do are all opportunities to live a life of worship. And may I recognize, see those things and call them out in others. May I not think worship happens simply on Sundays. May I teach my kids the things they do and the ways they do them are so very often a spiritual act of worship. I am sure many worship bacon…or create a pretty mean bacon-wrapped meatloaf as their spiritual act of worship; I want to suggest that baking, dancing, writing, creating safe space and listening are all acts of worship. We should celebrate and lean in to our daily activities…embrace the things that seem mundane…they are ways we love others and life our best life!

May You Worship with your Every Day Ordinary Life…

Jenni

 

 

 

The Sea Glass Speaks

Nothing’s fine…I’m torn…I’m all out of faith, this is how I feel…
I’m cold and I’m ashamed…lying naked on the floor.*  

Sea glass is the litter left behind, then drug out to the ocean by the wind and waves, only to surface again busted and broken in to somewhat smaller pieces. When discovered on the beach days, weeks, months, or years later, this glass has miraculously become quite lovely. It has lost its jagged edges. It is frosty and softer in appearance. One can tell the original state from which it has come; yet, it is…in a sense…new.

It is no wonder I identify so deeply with the sea glass I collect. I am full of jagged edges, yet, God is softening me, making me lovely, and making me more lovable. Through my life, I have endured hardship and have been tossed by the waves of despair. The sea glass I find has also endured much to become the beautiful gem it is today.

While walking along the shores of this place, in this time of deep grief, I am longing for a message of hope, a message of love. Trying to make sense of my life while asking the unanswerable questions. God seems silent, but the Sea Glass speaks. Her transparency allows the sun to create a shine unlike any shell on the sand. I am drawn to her…I lean in…I listen. She tells me a story of significance. She tells me of the time she was thrown out, ugly, unwanted. She tells of shattered dreams and a fragmented life. She tells me of her hope being lost. She tells me of the hardship she endured while at sea. She tells me she wanted to be buried at the bottom of the ocean; begging for the tossing and turning and churning to end. She tells me I am not alone. She tells me I am seen, and that some day…some day…I will emerge, not tossed away trash…but His treasure.

*Thank you Natalie Imbruglia (for giving words to describe what we all have felt or feel at times in our lives)

Excerpt from my mini memoir: Oceans Between Us (The Sea Glass) 

Her Loss is Not Lost on Me.

I wrote this blog yesterday and realized in light of the precious lives lost in Florida this was worth sharing today…

Kylee and I decided to read the Hunger Games trilogy. I don’t read a ton of fiction, but Kylee devours it. To avoid her 7 book series that contains 600-800 pages per book…I suggested a more digestible option. We  had a playful  discussion surrounding Team Katniss/Gale (Kale) vs. Team Katniss/Peeta (Keeta)…but I was most profoundly struck by the gritty humanity and life that Katniss lived.  The author caught me off guard with her side conversations about the physical death of her father and emotional death of her mother. But I was most astonished by how well she covered the heavy themes of loss and (importantly) survival after loss.

Initially, Katniss’s relationship with her mom caught my attention.

“Slowly mother returned to us. She began to clean and cook and preserve food I brought in the winter…Prim was thrilled to have her back , but I kept watching for her to disappear on us again. I didn’t trust her. And some small gnarled place inside of me hated her for her weakness, for her neglect, for the months she had put us through. Prim forgave her, but I had taken a step back, and put up a wall to protect myself from needing her, and nothing would ever be the same between us again.” (Hunger Games)

Unexpected…nothing I thought I would find in this book and yet so very raw and human. Any child who has had a parent who has hollowed out (become a shell of who they were) understands these words. A parent who due to life circumstances or choice has become unable to function…and the child is left to take the place of the parent. Any child who’s parent endured hardship/loss (themselves) but was not able to recover…understands. Any child who watched their parent choose drugs or drinks to cover their anxiety or pain…and in so doing became unavailable to the child they brought in to this world…he resonates with Katniss’s words. The words grip us…and (like Katniss) we the little survivors make vows. In one fell swoop Katniss lost her father to death…and her mother…even though she remained alive. So many children live this way…little survivors.

But certainly Kylee could not be as impacted by words like this or others. We were both enjoying the story but I was finding deeper meaning and a story that I think Suzanne Collins absolutely intended to tell. The story of loss and coping with unfathomable grief drew me in. I felt the disorientation that Katniss felt as she returned to a district that had been destroyed. I understood the sedation and how her raw pain truly could not cope with all that she had seen and endured in her short lifetime. I was reminded of the dark world we live in with similar greed, hunger for power, control, violence, and war. Where oppression is very real and poverty and gluttony exist in extremes. No one is exempt from the depravity of this world…fictional or otherwise. In those moments of utter despair where confusion sets in and all truth seems twisted…Katniss did an incredible thing…she spoke reminders over her life:

“I start with the simplest things I know to be true and work toward the more complicated…I am Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped…” (MJ, 4)

Isn’t that our best bet for our lives? When we are most disoriented, broken, confused on who we are…on who God is…on what we believe about ourselves or others? What a beautiful reminder to return to the simplest truths…and if we cannot remember them for ourselves, it might be wise to find a friend or loved one to help us make our list. I have desperately needed those reminders over the past few years post-Uganda. But any phase of grief, loss, or pain; any time we feel stuck or unable to recover, it would best serve us to return to simple basic truth. So very wise. Again…was Kylee grasping this? I hope so.

The songs of the survivors were disturbing. How does one endure the unimaginable…and live to tell the story? Day in and day out it is the story of the survivor that inspires us. How were they not crushed by the weight of this world? I think of my friend who was abducted and forced to serve as a child soldier in the LRA. How does he escape and then re-engage in this world…as a husband and father? Survivors endure unthinkable pain, loss, grief and they live to tell the stories. Speaking of stories, I was reminded of Peeta’s book…with art…telling the stories of the games and the lives lost. And the book they created together to never forget. Oh this is a beautiful picture of grace and how I believe so many of us are transformed…through expressing and not repressing our pain. 

I appreciated the epilogue reminding us that Katniss’s nightmares remained. There are things that create permanent damage, scars, and there is nothing this side of heaven to fully wipe away the tears or restore us to wholeness. But in the end Katniss shares what she does to survive those nightmares…and what she will tell her children on a particularly hard day:

“…on a bad morning, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.” (MJ, Epilogue) 

I have a list too. My list is a list of all the things I am grateful for…and daily I write it. The words lifts me…they take the tight grip of grief and despair and loosen one finger at a time. It seems to keep some of the haze and darkness away…it is a necessary list for survivors.

I am so thankful for this trilogy and the words that jumped off the page and spoke to my pain and story of survival. I am convinced that this author knew and understands loss and pain in ways many may have missed. We enjoyed the story…the love triangle…the conflicts and the guides who carried our heroine through. But I can only imagine…with the heavy themes of loss, grief, and survival…the author’s story (or the story of someone’s she loves) is embedded here in these pages…and I am so very grateful. Her loss is not lost on me.

Grateful for you,

Jenni

(photo cred: http://hiconsumption.com/2017/07/best-survival-schools/)