community

Learning the language of goodbyes with kids

Posted by | community, death, family life, finishing well, friendship, grief, Haiti, kids, parenting, relationships, Stories, transitions, world travel | 4 Comments

The original version of this article was published on my ministry blog, Gilmores for His Glory, on August 8, 2012.

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We have said a lot of goodbyes in our lifetime. Sometimes it feels like too many for my heart to bear. This is one of the sacrifices of building a life in two different countries and befriending people from around the world.

I still remember our first full summer in Haiti. My girls were so little. There hearts were so fragile. We kissed and cried in the Fresno airport when we said goodbye to grandparents and dear friends. Then we began our long journey to our new home in Haiti.

That summer my girls bonded with new Haitian friends and many Americans too. The kids at the orphanage next to our mission house became like siblings to them. They spent long afternoons jumping rope, eating mangoes and playing soccer. Each week a new American team would come to serve, and each Saturday we would stand in the driveway and send them off with hugs.

After they would leave, the girls and I would retreat to the bedroom. My mama instinct was to hold it together, but it wasn’t always easy. More often I would gather my little birds in my arms and we would cry together. We would lean into the loss.

Some of our closest friends live in Germany, the Philippines, Haiti, Florida and Maryland. We have cousins in Spain, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington. We visit and this necessitates goodbyes.

I used to wonder if all these goodbyes were too hard for my babies’ hearts, too hard for my heart. I strategized about ways to shield them from the sadness, the longing, and the wondering when we would meet again.

And I found myself asking God some hard questions:

Why must we always say goodbye?

Why risk loving someone deeply when parting will be inevitable?

Since that first hard summer in Haiti, my girls and I have endured many goodbyes, including perhaps the ultimate goodbye. On September 9, 2014, we stood at the bed beside my beloved husband and kissed him goodbye before he graduated to Heaven. It’s a goodbye that still sears my heart, that still makes me ache to my very core.

In this deep longing, I have dug up my answer about goodbyes.

I could draw back. I could avoid goodbyes altogether. I could keep to myself, shelter my kids from friends and family relationships. I could numb out. I could stay put, never travel, never follow my dreams.

I could turn my back on my calling.

I could keep my relationships surface so it doesn’t hurt so badly when people go away.

I could.

But is that what I really want for my life? Is that the mission? Are those the values I want to teach my kids?

Eventually, I realized that the sweet sorrow of goodbye is meaningful. I know the deepest love because I’ve risked that pain. My girls are learning to love well. Our time with people now is quality. And that is a risk worth taking.

I know Moise and Nella and Angeline and Dartiquenov and Cindy and Carla and Marcy and Jeremy deeply because I’ve said yes to the goodbyes. My kids love Gary and Rose Katia and Amanda and Esther and Corban and Hannah and Giovanni and Sophie because we’ve embraced goodbyes.

I can relate to the emotion-filled words of Paul in his letter to Timothy: “I miss you a lot, especially when I remember that last tearful good-bye, and I look forward to a joy-packed reunion.” (‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭1:3-4‬ , The Message‬‬).

When life is full of goodbyes, life is so much richer.

Now we linger over our goodbyes. They are important to us. We’ve made them into see-you-soons and meet-you-theres.

We’ve promised texts and letters and blogs and photos and Facetime dates. And when we promise, we make that extra effort follow through.

My family has learned the language of goodbye. It’s a heart language. At the close of the summer, my heart is tired, but my heart is full.

We will keep traveling, and we will keep loving, and we will keep releasing our people gently into the Father’s arms for safe keeping.

Who have you said goodbye to this summer? How do you approach this sacred releasing of people? We would love to hear from you in the comments! 

Haitian stuffed chayote squash: It ain’t easy being cheesy

Posted by | community, cooking, creativity, culture, Haiti, Main Dish, Recipes, side dish, Uncategorized, world travel | No Comments

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to hang out in the kitchen with the native cooks. On my recent trip to Haiti, I did just that and learned a new recipe for Militon Faci.

Madame Adeline, a new cook on staff at the guest house where we stay, attended culinary school in Port Au Prince. I’ve long had a love affair with Haitian food. Although I’ve tasted and prepared lots of the Haitian dishes, Madame Adeline introduced me to some dishes I’ve never had before. She was delighted to teach my daughter, Giada, and me the recipe for Militon Faci or Stuffed Chayote Squash using some French cooking techniques.


Chayote belongs to the gourd family, along with melons, cucumbers and squash. Chayote is known around the world by other names including christophine cho-cho, pipinola, pear squash, vegetable pear, or choko. I’ve tasted chayote in Mexican salads and prepared Haitian-style cut in strips and sautéed in a tomato-garlic sauce.

Militon Faci reminds me of a twice baked potato. The shell of the chayote provides a vessel to hold the cheesy mashed insides. It’s pretty dish with melt-in-your-mouth goodness. We were begging in Haitian Kreyol for more!


What’s your favorite squash dish? What culture does it represent? We want to hear all about it in the comments!


Ingredients:

-5 chayote squash

-1/2 teaspoon salt plus 1/4 teaspoon salt

-1 small onion

-1 small green pepper

-1/2 cup flour

-1 cup milk

-1/4 cup butter plus 2 tablespoons cut into small chunks

-3 sprigs parsley

-1 stalk green onion

-2 drops Tabasco sauce

-1 bouillon cube

-1/4 cup parmesan cheese


Directions:

1. Cut 5 chayote in half. Remove center seed.

2. Boil 10 minutes in salt water (1/2 teaspoon salt).

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

4. Remove soft insides of the squash. Mash squash with potato masher.

5. Chop one small onion and small green pepper.

6. Put mashed squash in strainer to drain juice. Discard excess juice.

7. Measure out 1/2 cup flour.

8. Heat pan and add 1 cup milk and 1 cup water. Heat through but do not boil. Set aside in separate bowl.


9. Create a bechemel sauce: Add 1/4 cup butter to pan. Whisk until completely melted.

10. Add chopped onion and green pepper to butter in pan. Sauté.

11. Add flour and whisk together with onions and peppers for 1 minute. Add milk and water to pan.

12. Tie together a small bundle of parsley and 1 stalk green onion to create a Bouquet Garni (pronounced “bo-KAY gar-NEE”). Add to sauce to flavor it.

13. Add 2 drops Tabasco sauce, 1 cube bouillon. Keep whisking.

14. Add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Let mixture bubble until it thickens. Add small amount of salt (about 1/4 teaspoon).

15. Remove parsley and green onion.

16. Add bechemel sauce to squash and stir together to incorporate.

17. Grease/butter a cookie sheet with sides.

18. Line up squash shells on pan. Fill with bechemel mixture.

19. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

20. Add tiny piece of butter (about 1/2 teaspoon) to the top of each squash.

21. Put tray in oven for 20 minutes to brown tops of squash.

Community life insurance: The greatest investment you’ll ever make

Posted by | community, compassion, grief, hope, marriage, Personal Stories, Stories, struggle | 6 Comments

This year my family has faced the most beautiful and painful season of our lives. My husband was diagnosed with stage four melanoma cancer in May. The news came like a sucker-punch to the gut, but it was no surprise to God. In the weeks that followed, we experienced God’s presence and provision in the most profound way and I began to understand how critical community is to our lives.

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Book Review: At Home in the World

Posted by | book reviews, community, culture, family life, friendship, identity, outreach, serve, Stories, Uncategorized, world travel | No Comments

My first real venture out of the United States was a study abroad program in Central America during my senior year of college. Our home base was San Jose, Costa Rica, but we also spent time sojourning through Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

I still remember that moment.

I was sitting around a rugged wooden table with a diverse group of Guatemalans and a group of college students from across the United States. The table was spread with billowy, soft bread, crema for dipping, sliced avocadoes, juicy steaks, rice and beans, and a pitcher of some kind of icy, hand-squeezed citrus refresco. We bowed our heads to pray before our meal, and my heart swelled a bit.

I was home.

Mind you, I don’t have any Central American blood. I had never traveled to Guatemala before. But something deep inside me felt at home. The warmth of the people, the bright colors of their woven clothing and wall hangings, the rich flavors of the food, the passion of their praise and worship, the abundant affection of the children – all of it felt like home to me.

In fact, I felt more at home there than I had ever felt back home in the U.S.

Less than three years later I found myself surrounded by hundreds of Haitian children in the middle of a soccer field in the Northern mountains of Haiti. I was there with a group of young career singles from my church in California to put on a Track and Field camp. In the sweltering July tropical heat, we marked off the field like a circular track and we watched these kids race joyfully around it in bare feet. Somehow by the end of that week, I had learned enough Kreyol and cross-cultural sign language to communicate with these kids.

I felt it again. I was home. I was far from home, yet I was very much at home.

When I opened Tsh Oxenreider’s recently-released travel memoir, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. Tsh understands what it is like to feel At Home in the World. She, too, is a mama fueled by wanderlust but also longing for a sense of rootedness, a sense of community, a sense of home.

This book is unique because it takes readers on an adventure with Tsh’s family across four continents in nine months. She and her husband are not your typical world travelers. They are not trying to escape responsibility or drop out of college or avoid a withering relationship. They are happily married and have three kids in tow. They limit themselves to one backpack each and endeavor to stay in neighborhoods and homes where real people live across the globe.

This is not a fancy vacation. This is “worldschooling” at its best.

I was immediately captivated and intrigued by Tsh’s storytelling and reflections. This book whispers, “Come along” without pomp or pretense. We adventure with this family through the bustle of traffic in Beijing. We join them to snorkel the magnificent Great Barrier Reef. We linger with them over Thai food in Chiang Mai. We celebrate a summertime Christmas with them in Queensland.  We join them for a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia and mint tea at the market in Morocco. We coast the Nile River with them in Uganda and stand in awe before Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We buy bacon together at the boucherie in France and sample gelato more than once a day in Italy.

I love Tsh’s reflections on home throughout the book. She challenges me with this: “Travel has taught me the blessing of ordinariness, of rootedness and stability. It’s courageous to walk out the front door and embrace earth’s great adventures, but the real act of courage is to return to that door, turn the knob, walk through, unpack the bags, and start the kettle for a cup of tea.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book purely for fun. I savored every chapter of At Home in the World. I tucked it in my tote and took it with me to the beach in Malibu, a café in Fresno, and on a camping trip to Soledad Canyon with all my people. I devoured every delicious word. And when I got to the last page I was faced with the dilemma of either starting the book again or booking tickets for my own family of five to somewhere new.

**If you are an avid reader, I encourage you to check out some of my other book reviews. These books have carried me through seasons of tragedy and triumph.

I often serve on book launch teams as a way to get to know authors and their message better. I had the privilege of being part of Tsh Oxenreider’s team for At Home in the World.

Up next: I’ll be reviewing Remarkable Faith: When Jesus Marveled at the Faith of Unremarkable People by my friend Shauna Letellier for July. Pre-order it today!

What are your favorite summer reads for kids or adults? Comment below and let me know what you’re reading! Also, I send out a weekly Glorygram with stories, reading and podcast recommendations, and my recipes. I’d love to deliver it to your inbox. Opt in here.

Journey of the heart: Haiti is calling me home

Posted by | community, compassion, culture, friendship, gifts, grief, hope, outreach, sharing faith, social justice, Stories | 12 Comments

 

It’s been more than two years since I’ve tasted Haitian fried chicken with plantains cooked over a charcoal burner.

It’s been more than two years since I’ve hugged the necks of the children in the orphanage who are now careening into their teen years.

It’s been more than two years since we have seen those goats on spindly legs grazing in the fields and stood at the edge of the muddy-red river.

It’s been more than two years since I have cupped the faces of my Haitian sisters and shared stories of God’s amazing grace.

This summer I’m going back.

I’m returning to Haiti to speak at the Esther Women’s conference at the end of July. I’m delighted to be taking my family, my daughter’s best friend, and my dear friend Rici Skei, who is also a pastor and dynamic worship leader from Fresno. This will be my third time teaching God’s word for this conference, which draws women of from four churches in the Northern Mountains of Haiti as part of Christian Friendship Ministries.

I can’t wait.

My first trip to Haiti was in the summer of 2001. That trip was led by my first husband Ericlee. In those 10 days, I absolutely fell in love with the Haitian people. I still remember looking out from the little prop plane as we departed the mountain town of Pignon. I gazed over the undulating hills and sapphire sky, and I knew deep inside my heart this was not my last trip to Haiti.

Haiti was home.

As many of you know, that was just the beginning of my relationship with Haiti. After quitting my job as a newspaper reporter for The Fresno Bee, I returned to the Northern mountains of Haiti the following January to teach English to some of the leaders I had met the summer before. Living there full-time was far different from a week-long mission trip but I was hooked.

I honed my language skills, wrote letters home to my friend Ericlee, and learned to embrace the solitude that is implicit when living in a country where so few people speak your native language.

The following summer of 2002 I helped lead another short-term trip to Haiti with Ericlee. As God would have it, Ericlee proposed to me at the top of one of the nation’s most well-known landmarks, the Citadel. This country that he visited every year since he was a child had brought us together. We started planning our wedding. Little did we know that God would call us to invest full-time in serving the Haitian people just a few years later when a devastating earthquake hit. We sunk in roots and cultivated long-term relationships.

My passport is full of stamps from this Caribbean island now.  For much of our marriage, we took one or two trips a year – sometimes staying for as long as three months as Ericlee served as the Director and I focused on Communications/Marketing for the non-profit we helped start. My girls have Haiti embedded deep in their hearts. They have grown up with the kids in the orphanage next to our house. They learned to jump rope, braid hair, and suck on chicken bones from their Haitian friends.

Our last trip to Haiti was in spring of 2015 with my Haitian-born mother-in-law who grew up on the mission field. This was a very different kind of trip. After burying my Ericlee that September before, this was an extension of his memorial. We returned to mourn with our friends and family. I discovered on that trip that cancer may have snuffed out Ericlee’s life but it could never steal his legacy of faith. The Haitians honored him and loved on me, encouraged me and prayed over my future.

After leaving Haiti in 2015, I felt very clearly that God was calling me to step away from my work with the non-profit. I was entering a new season, living in Fresno, California, and raising my three daughters as widow. I needed my family and community in Fresno.

I needed time to grieve and heal.

Although I was confident in my decision, I didn’t anticipate the secondary loss I would experience leaving the ministry and my people in Haiti. I sat in the brokenness for months – grieving the loss of purpose, the death of dreams, the separation from community Ericlee and I had cultivated there.

These past two years, God has been stitching back together the wounds of my heart. He’s been growing in me a new sense of purpose. He’s given me permission to rest and dream again. He’s brought beauty from our ashes.

I’m also returning to Haiti because I have a story of restoration that I must tell. I know God is calling me to walk those dusty streets, to drink in the memories and to declare to the women of Northern Haiti that these dry bones have life again. I long to be an encouragement to them as they have been to me.

Now is an important time to return to take my daughters back to the community they so dearly love and to experience the legacy of their daddy anew. My oldest, Meilani, is excited about bringing her friend Tessa Schultz to experience Haiti with us. I also need to introduce my Haitian friends to my new husband, Shawn.

I actually began my friendship with Shawn back in 2001 in Haiti. He was part of that same mission team from our church that was led by Ericlee. Shawn and Ericlee were friends from high school. They were both runners and crossed paths many times through the years. On that trip, Shawn was assigned to be my prayer and coaching partner. We taught the Haitian kids how to jump hurdles and run sprints for the track & field camp.

Of course, I had no idea how God would thread together our lives all these years later and bring him as a kinsman-redeemer to our family. It is our joy to return to Haiti together as a family July 22-30.

Haiti is calling me. She’s calling me home.

 

There are three ways you can partner with us this summer:

  • Join our prayer team. Simply comment below or send us a private message and we will keep you posted on specific prayer needs along the way. Your prayers are vital to us.
  • Give a financial donation. This year’s plane tickets cost $1,200 per person so you can do the math and figure out the cost for a team of seven of us traveling to Haiti. It’s not cheap. Your tax-deductible donation is an investment not just in us but also in the people of Haiti. Whatever we raise beyond our travel needs will go to the women’s conference.
  • Collect toiletries. Each year the women who attend the Esther women’s conferences look forward to the little “goodie bag” they will receive at the conference. This year, I’m collecting travel-sized toiletries to share with the women. If you’re at a hotel, save what you don’t use. You can also buy the travel sizes at your local drug store, Target, etc.

Follow our journey on Instagram! And please attend our community night to hear more about our trip. Details below!

In the Shadow of the Giant: How to be a Glory Chaser

Posted by | behold, community, courage, finishing well, flourishing, laughter, running, self-care, Stories, struggle | 6 Comments

There is no gun to signal the start of this race. Just a voice bellowing “Go!” that echoes throughout the forest. I start up the trail. When I say up, I mean straight up. My trail shoes hit the rocky path, and I feel the strain. I lift my knees and pump my arms. My lungs burn for the first few miles because of the elevation, which soars above 5,000 feet.

I run today with a band of 10 mama runners (with 30 kids among us), who have become my tribe this year. We all run at different paces but we cheer for each other along the way. I’m not sure how it happened exactly. A few of us said we were going to try a trail race. Then several more signed up. And a few more stragglers registered at the last minute. And the rest is history. They remind me that I can do hard things in community.

This race is called the Shadow of the Giants, started in the 1990s by a notorious trail runner known as Big Baz. We’ve been told the now-75-year-old likes to harass runners out on the course.

This is my first trail 20k. I’ve run marathons and half marathons but this is the longest distance I’ve tackled on the trail. I’m a road runner. I grew up in the city racing 5ks and 10ks with my daddy and then eventually joining the high school track team when my soccer coach told me it would be good cross training.

The trail is different.

It taunts and charms me at the same time. The trail requires embracing the unknown. The trail experience is less about pace and mileage, and checking my Garmin watch, and more about lifting my eyes to drink in God’s glory around every curve.

I once heard a preacher talk about how we are called to be “glory chasers.” Pastor Mitchel Lee’s phrase sparked something deep inside me. He argued that we humans were put on this earth to discover God’s glory and reflect it back to God and those around us.

We have permission for ambition but not for personal glory. We are to live and work and run for God’s glory.

I pray for God to show me ways I can be a “glory chaser.”

I started this back in 2014 when I chose the word glory as my theme word. I had to train myself to notice His glory around me through the tragedy and the triumph. That was the year my husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was the year I experienced God’s glory in sunsets and along the coast. That was the year He showed up for us through our community, who served us, fed us, collected money for medical bills, and lifted us. That was the year my lover leaped into Heaven – the ultimate Glory – leaving me a widow with three children.

Now three years later, I’m still a glory chaser. I’m still looking for God in my every day. I’m tracing his faithfulness through every piece of my past. I’m leading others up the trail to unearth His glory for themselves.

This trail through the famous Nelder Grove not far from Yosemite National Park is the perfect teacher. The first four miles of our race is uphill. The battle on the trail is always against the mind.

My mind zigs and zags as I fix my eyes on my feet. So many rocks and rivets to navigate. Can I do this? Will my knees hold up? Do I have enough water? Will they leave me behind? How will I finish?

I start to lift my head when I hear my running buddy say, “We need to remember to lift our eyes up from the trail.” She, too, is driven to see the glory.

My eyes can’t help chasing up the trunks of the majestic sequoia trees – each one pointing toward Heaven. I am reminded of a Creator God who took time to plant every tree in this grove and design every bird and beast and flower that call this place home.

A glory chaser lifts her eyes to see God’s glory even when the trail is uphill.

I am overwhelmed by the beauty of this view – miles upon miles of trees and sapphire sky. My soul is calmed by the sound of water dancing down little waterfalls below us. We are in the shadow of the Giants and the shadow of the Most High God.

My friend just read Psalm 91 to me. I meditate on these words as I run: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” I whisper a prayer of thanks.

Thank you, Lord, for the shade provided by these trees shielding us from the heat of the sun and strengthening us on this uphill track. Thank you for lungs that can breathe and legs that run. Help me not to take these for granted but to see them as part of your glory too. Amen.

Before long, we have been running 7 miles. We hear water rushing below us and we know the river crossing is near. This is the X-factor, the uncertain part of the trail I have been most anticipating. After a heavy rain fall this past winter, I have heard this crossing could be as high as my waist. I debated for days what to wear and how to carry my gear.

When we arrive at water’s edge, I look at my friend. “Well, here we go.”

A glory chaser runs through the water instead of around it.

I think about Moses in Exodus 15 and how he followed God’s command. He led the Israelites straight to the roaring Red Sea. They ran for the water and the rapids parted.

A voice sings through my ear buds: “Your grace abounds in deepest waters.”

I step into the ice cold and begin to blaze a trail. I am filled with laughter as the water rushes over my legs and splashes my arms. I anticipated this as a difficult obstacle to cross but it proves a refreshing and memorable part of the race. Baz is on the other side of the shore with his white beard and broad smile.

“You made it, darling,” he says, warmly. “What did you think of it?”

“It was glorious,” is all I can say.

My friend Amber is behind me. She catches up and we continue on the trail. We feel a rush of excitement that we have survived the river and we are almost finished with our 20k.

We can breathe again without burning lungs. We chat about books we’ve read and travels we hope to take one day with our families. The trail offers a mix of companionship and solitude. I am grateful for my friend on these long miles to keep me going.

Her knee starts to hurt. We walk a while. I try to encourage her. We give ourselves no pressure to make time goals like I might in a road race. We want to savor every step. The sun crosses our path in patches but just when I put on my sunglasses we have ducked back into the shade. The temperature is perfect – another glimpse of God’s glory today.

My watch tells me we have finished 12 miles. Amber urges me that I must go ahead. She wants to walk and insists I run to the finish. I concede. The solitude will serve us both well, I know.

A glory chaser always runs with the finish in mind.

The trail turns from a wide road big enough for a fire truck to a single track of switchbacks headed downhill. I can’t help it. My feet take me faster and faster. I jump over logs and duck under tree branches. I am chasing the finish line now. I don’t know where it is exactly, but I trust my legs and my God to show me the course step by step.

This is a lesson I have learned these past three years. If God had revealed the whole course – all the details of my husband’s cancer journey, his death and our grief, and even the redemptive pieces of my story like getting remarried to one of his best friends, I am not sure I would have survived. I would have been overwhelmed by His full glory. He ran just ahead of me and paced me with His presence. I always ran in the protective shadow of the Giant.

My sprinter’s heart is pounding. I want to finish well. I want to run for His Glory. I want to cross the line like my husband did with arms outstretched and hear Him say those long-anticipated words, “Well done.”

 

**Are you interested in going deeper in learning how to be a glory chaser? Check out my brand new Glory Chasers bible study here!

***Join here for my free weekly Glorygram – a more personal note of encouragement full of recommendations for you! And please feel free to share ways God has shown His glory to you in the comments below!

Left behind: Sorting through a loved one’s treasures

Posted by | community, death, finishing well, grief, Stories, transitions | 8 Comments

 

I pull in the driveway after picking up the kids from school. They’re giggling and talking in the back seat. I hit the button for the garage door. My girls emerge from the car with arms full of backpacks, art projects and library books. I somehow balance my own laptop, this morning’s smoothie cup, packages from the mailbox and my youngest girl’s lunch bag.

The girls race inside but I hang back. I walk slowly through the garage past the rows of boxes, the bikes and the stacks of framed pictures. My heart trembles again with a mix of shame and heaviness. I feel shame that we still have all this stuff in our garage despite moving here more than a year and a half ago. The heaviness hangs stagnant in the air because I don’t really want to face the task of sorting again.

I live in one of those neighborhoods where most people pull into their pristine garages with polished concrete floors. Meanwhile, we have a garage full of junk. At least that’s what I imagine people thinking. Someone driving by would never know there are treasures in those boxes, remnants and keepsakes of another life, the traces of a husband and daddy gone to Heaven too soon.

This is the remainder. The stuff left behind.

My husband was diagnosed with stage four melanoma cancer in May 2014. Our little rental on Harrison Street was the hub for family and community gatherings. We had an amazing backyard where I hosted my weekly workout group, volunteer meetings for the non-profit we ran and countless play dates. That summer, our home morphed into a medical care facility. Our master bedroom transformed into a hospital room, a visitor center, a resting place.

My husband graduated to Heaven less than four months after his diagnosis. I knew I couldn’t stay in that house but I needed time to sort through the grief, the memories and the stuff we had accumulated together over the years.

A little more than a year later, I found myself signing the papers for a new home across town near our favorite regional park. I put my name on stacks of paperwork – each page reminding me that I was indeed a widow stepping into a new life without my beloved. Was it any coincidence that the name of the man selling the house to us had the same rare name as my husband? Tears streamed down my face as I signed my name next to his on all those papers. No mistake. No accident. I was reminded of God’s perfect and wild provision for the girls and me.

After signing the papers, I went home and got to work. It was time to begin sorting.

I didn’t anticipate how difficult this part would be. Moving is hard at the base level. It’s exhausting to pack up your life when life is still moving forward. Whether you are married, have kids, or are single, it takes time to categorize and put things in boxes. In my move from the Harrison house, I discovered the work and emotions are magnified when grief is tangled in the process.

I tried my best to simplify things. I organized things in three rough categories: stuff I wanted to keep, stuff I wanted to share with others, and stuff I wanted to donate. Of course, the process was much more complicated than I expected. While it was easy for me to give away my own excess clothes and the kids’ toys, it was excruciatingly hard to decide what things of my husband’s to give away. Should I keep his shirts, his shoes, his journals, his G.I. Joe collection, his books, his CrossFit equipment, his childhood photo albums? What would be meaningful for my girls’ to have? What would we want in the future? My mind swirled with a thousand questions and angles to look at each piece.

I had about a month to prepare for our move. I quickly discovered I needed to tackle it in chunks. It was too heavy for my heart to bear at once – not to mention parenting three kiddos and sorting through their stuff at the same time. Some days I had energy to get the job done. Other days I was paralyzed by the decisions in front of me.

I am especially grateful for a few dear friends who came to help me wade through the hard decisions. One friend came to help me sort through his office. We made a box for keepsakes and items with sentimental value. We shared some tears. He also helped me purge and shred items that I didn’t need anymore. The moral support was a priceless gift.

Another friend came to help me in the final days before the big move. She saw the weight I was carrying as I agonized over what to keep for my girls for the future. My friend grabbed a large box and handed me a sharpie. She instructed me to write the words “Daddy Time Capsule” on the side and urged me to throw in any last items. “You can save these for the girls and just sort through them in the future,” she told me. I sighed relief.

These were just the words I needed.

Some days I beat myself up because I couldn’t get through the sorting faster. Now I look back and realize how important it was to take time. It was a journey not just of the hands, but of the heart as well. I had lived 11 years with my man. It wasn’t a season to be purged in a day.

And I’ve discovered this is how grief is. It’s a multi-layered process that takes place over time. I might try to just pull in the driveway, close the garage door and move on with my life, but three years later the memories are still vivid. I have to give myself grace to peel back layer by layer to sort through box upon box.

I write today to encourage those of you who are facing the difficult work of sorting through a loved one’s things. First, I urge you to carve out time for this task. There are circumstances that require a quick move but if you can help it at all give yourself time. Schedule days when you can move through the memories. Don’t do it all at once. Invite a friend or family member to help you.

And finally, give yourself grace because in the sorting there will be grieving. And that is important work too.

 

 

Next week I’ll be sharing some practical and creative ideas to preserve items and honor the legacy of a loved one who has died.  Comment below if you have any stories or tips on how you sorted through your loved one’s stuff. What did you keep? What did you pass on? Where do you keep the most treasured items?  

Last month I did a series on “Navigating Grief When Life Moves Forward.” In case you missed it, I encourage you to check out some of the articles or share with a friend who is grieving:

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma color the journey

When You are the Caregiver – an article about navigating grief and feelings of guilt when you have a front-row seat to a loved one’s decline

When You Have to Say Goodbye to the Place Your Heart Calls Home – a guest post exploring the idea of “good grief” we experience when we are uprooted from a place or home we love

When You’ve Experienced Pregnancy Loss – a guest post sharing a first-hand experience with miscarriage and stillbirth.

Navigating Grief When Someone You Love Dies Suddenly – a guest post sharing about the sudden death of her mother.

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“?

I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!

A conversation about “Grieving Together” on the Kindred Mom podcast

Posted by | behold, community, compassion, death, family life, flourishing, grief, hope, kids, relationships, Stories, struggle, Uncategorized, writing | No Comments

 

My new friend Emily Allen interviewed me a few weeks ago for her Kindred Mom podcast. I’m excited to announce the podcast just went live. I hope you will tune in to hear our conversation. I’m chatting with Emily about navigating grief with my kids after their dad died in 2014. She asked some really sensitive and insightful questions. In the podcast, you will learn more about my story, some tangible ways our community came alongside us in our grief, and the backstory behind my children’s picture book, Cora Cooks Pancit.

This podcast conversation was inspired by an essay I originally wrote for the Kindred Mom blog called “Grieving Together.” I hope this will encourage mamas and others who might be navigating grief with littles. It can be hard and exhausting work. Believe me, I know. That’s why I’m passionate about sharing on this topic to walk with others.

In the podcast, I mention a free resource I developed sharing tips on how to navigate grief with kids. The resource includes encouragement for parents, practical ideas on how to honor a loved one after death, and a list of books and movies I’ve used with my girls to stimulate conversation on our grief journey.

Listen to the podcast here or paste this link into your browser:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/kindred-mom-podcast/id1236598848?mt=2&i=1000385429230

Last month I did a series on “Navigating Grief When Life Moves Forward.” In case you missed it, I encourage you to check out some of the articles or share with a friend who is grieving:

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma color the journey

When You are the Caregiver – an article about navigating grief and feelings of guilt when you have a front-row seat to a loved one’s decline

When You Have to Say Goodbye to the Place Your Heart Calls Home – a guest post exploring the idea of “good grief” we experience when we are uprooted from a place or home we love

When You’ve Experienced Pregnancy Loss – a guest post sharing a first-hand experience with miscarriage and stillbirth.

Navigating Grief When Someone You Love Dies Suddenly – a guest post sharing about the sudden death of her mother.

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“?

I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!

It takes a village: Letter to all the mamas who have journeyed with me

Posted by | community, death, family life, flourishing, friendship, grief, hope, kids, laughter, Personal Stories, Stories, Uncategorized | No Comments

Dear Mama Friends,

I think you know who you are. You are the ones who have walked with me over the last decade on this wild journey called mothering. You are my people, my kindred spirits, my mother blessings.

You are the ones who called me to encourage me when the breastfeeding was hard and the baby was losing weight. You are the ones who brought me hot meals and chocolate when I was adjusting to the new normal. You are the ones who ventured out on field trips and play dates to the zoo, the museum, and the park.

You are the mamas at Borders bookstore that day when our oldest kiddos were just babes. We were such a beautiful, motley crew of mamas from many cultures and many parts of the city, trying to find our footing on this mother journey. We were nursing and laughing through our insecurities and learning from each other. We were so thirsty for friendship and someone to say, “Yes, me too.”

And that was only the beginning.

You are the one who stood in the kitchen with me and tried out new recipes when our littles were racing through the house. You and I strolled through the farmer’s market and discovered fresh vegetables to offer up to our families in creative ways.

You are the ones who came every week to work out in my backyard and met me in the chaos. We sweated, we laughed, we prayed. You provided accountability and encouragement when I needed it most.

You are the grandma who takes her shopping and teaches her to love the stories of the Bible just like her daddy in Heaven did.

You are the Nana who helps my little girl learn to read, who piques her interest in poetry and science experiments. You are the one who invites her into the kitchen to measure and pour and lick sticky fingers.

You are the new grandma who takes special care to buy the perfect gifts, who praises their energy, and speaks life with words of encouragement. You have welcomed me into the fold so quickly and made me a daughter.

You are the friend who taught me to embrace the unique personalities of all three of my girls, to nurture their talents and weather the challenges they face.

You showed me what it looked like to advocate for your boy when he had special needs. You spoke up for all of us – for your child and mine. You walked the line with grace.

For this, I am grateful.

When I met you years before when we were single girls with a heart for traveling the world, I never imagined what our mother journey would look like. You celebrated with me through pregnancies and baby showers even when your own arms were empty.

We cried together when Mother’s Day was hard for you, when the questions came and the days grew long. And I was there when you arrived home on that airplane from halfway across the world with your baby boy, and when you got that call came from the hospital that another baby boy was born. I love these boys like my own girls now because that’s what mothering together looks like.

I still get choked up when I think about the long summer days three years ago when you rushed in to help me mother when my husband was battling cancer.

You are the mothers who came to fold my laundry on the big red couch, to wash our endless dirty dishes, and pick lice out of my daughters’ hair. You are the mothers who rubbed my shoulders and read me the Psalms to strengthen me so I could go back in that room to care for my dying husband.

You are the mamas who helped pick up my kids from school and read them books before bed. You are the mamas who passed your own kids off to tired husbands so you could be with my family in our time of crisis.

You are the ones who grocery shopped, delivered meals and gave gift cards months after he was gone. You are the widow-mamas who sat with me on Sunday afternoons and cried with me about how hard it was to move forward without our teammates.

You are the one who came every week for tacos and dance parties when I needed a friend. You were that voice, that reminder that God’s grace would cover me even as I learned to solo parent.

I have not forgotten. I will not forget the way you gifted us your presence.

You are the ones who invited me to your table to pray, weep and dream about a new future. You are the ones who urged me to keep writing and preaching my story even when it felt hard.

You lifted me with that late-night text when I was weary. You told me on our early-morning runs that I better keep following my passion, my convictions to the finish line. You stood long hours with me at the track and on the soccer field cheering our big kids through disappointment and victory.

You are the mamas who visited me in the hospital, who sat with me watching the sun set over ocean waves, who stood with me by the grave, who clinked glasses at our wedding and celebrated a new marriage.

Mothering should not be a solo journey. It should be a community dance. A place where we band together and hold each other’s hands and laugh long and lift each other up. We might have to stop once in a while to wipe a snotty nose or take that one to the bathroom, but we are in this mothering thing together.

I am thankful for the all the women in my life who have joined me for this glorious dance. And I am especially grateful for you.

 

**Would you like some encouragement for your weary soul? Sign up for my weekly Glorygram where I share personal stories, recommendations and recipes just for mamas!

Book Review: Never Unfriended

Posted by | book reviews, community, compassion, flourishing, friendship, inspirational, Personal Stories, Stories | No Comments

 

I’ll be honest. I’ve had this book on my nightstand for a month, and I didn’t want to read it.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore Lisa-Jo Baker and her writing. When her Surprised by Motherhood book came out, I raced through it and then bought copies for all my mama friends’ birthdays that year.

I just didn’t think a book titled Never Unfriended was for me. Gratefully, I’m surrounded by an amazing circle of friends and, if anything, my issue is not lack of friends but not having enough time to spend with these women.

As I stepped into this book, I quickly realized that Lisa-Jo had some important things to say about friendship that I needed to hear. I discovered that I do have some past hurts and hang-ups from broken friendships that have been weighing me down.

Lisa-Jo offers up a healthy mix of authentic, personal anecdotes and rich biblical teaching. About three chapters in, I realized this book wasn’t just about friendships gone awry or girl drama like I thought. This book is actually about cultivating real, authentic community. There couldn’t be a topic more near and dear to my heart.

I love how Lisa-Jo is willing to go first. She admits it’s taken her a while to get there but she’s committed to stepping out of her comfort zone for friendships. “So I’m going all in,” she writes, “I’m going to keep showing up and going first and telling my embarrassing stories because I’ve learned that it’s when we let people see the un-Photoshopped parts of our lives that they’re the most comfortable.”

Lisa-Jo models for us all the importance of vulnerability and commitment in pursuing friendships. She talks about the power of shared stories and letting people into our awkward moments and imperfect living rooms.

When Lisa-Jo starts talking about being “un-fine” in front of her friends, my mind immediately flashes back to two years ago when my husband was dying of cancer and my people rushed in to fold laundry, wash the grimy dishes, and hold me close when I was choking back the salty tears of my new reality.

This is the messy stuff true friendship is made of.

Perhaps the most challenging part of this book for me was Chapter 6, “We Can’t Control Other People’s Stories.” Lisa-Jo spoke right into my heart about some sticky friend situations I’ve endured in the past.

She wisely writes, “Every time a relationship has been more toxic than I could possibly transform, I was either too young or too vulnerable or too unqualified to be able to make anything healthy out of that environment. Because some wounds need professional, tender counseling from those qualified to speak objectively into a raw and hurting person. In those cases, God has given the protection of being able to grant forgiveness while simultaneously opening an exit for me to leave so there was still a chance to heal.”

Mic drop.

Lisa-Jo’s book whispers, “I’ve been there” while reminding me of healthy ways to navigate the ups and downs of friendship. I’m so very grateful I kept reading.

If you have ever suffered from FOMO, been squeezed tight by the clutches of competition, or wondered how to deepen your friendships in this chaotic world, this book is for you.

 

 

**If you are an avid reader, I encourage you to check out some of my other book reviews. These books have carried me through seasons of tragedy and triumph.

I often serve on book launch teams as a way to get to know authors and their message better. I had the privilege of being part of Lisa-Jo’s launch team for Never Unfriended.

Next month I’ll be reviewing a mama travel memoir by Tsh Oxenreider called At Home in the World. Feel free to read ahead! I’m already a chapter in, and it’s fabulous!

 

Farewell, old friend: When forty is the new thirty

Posted by | behold, brave, community, courage, creativity, death, family life, finishing well, flourishing, friendship, gifts, grief, hope, individuality, inspirational, kids, laughter, One Word, parenting, passion, relationships, rest, Stories, transitions | 4 Comments

 

This week I said goodbye to a good friend. She’s the friend who has walked with me through some of my greatest joys – the birth of two of my baby girls, finding my sweet spot in ministry, and learning a new language. She’s gone with me to book signings and baby showers. We have laughed until our bellies ached and sang together at the top of our lungs.

She’s also that friend who journeyed with me through the darkest days. She was there when he lost his job and Christmas was just around the corner. She was there when we were just scraping by, trying to raise a family. She was there when we received his cancer diagnosis. She stood with me by the graveside and sat by me when I wept and wailed my “whys” and “how comes” to God and the stars.

She’s been a faithful friend. She’s taught me how to love my body and stand firm in my convictions. She’s helped me to feel confident standing on a stage and mothering my three unique children. She’s the one who taught me how to let go of pretense and perfection.

Farewell, Thirties. Oh, how I will miss you.

I have a new friend now. I don’t like to replace people but it’s kind of turning out that way. Last Saturday we toasted my new friend with a full house and music spilling into our yard on Backer Avenue. We served up Indian food and delectable desserts. And my new friend swept into my life with a new haircut and a promise of new adventures to come.

Some people have jokingly called her my “mid-life friend.” I know better. I know she could be gone tomorrow.

She told me we have a blank canvas before us and handed me a paint brush. I pulled a new painter’s palette and basket of paints from that gift bag she brought. I don’t know how she knew I needed this. It’s like she read my journal or eavesdropped on my early-morning, whispered prayers.

“It’s time,” she said.

“Time for what?” I quizzed.

But I knew. I knew she was saying it’s time to remake myself.

It’s time to embrace all my old friend taught me and let go of the mistakes we made together. It’s time to stop worrying about pleasing people and start sharing this gorgeous glory story God has given me.

It’s time to move forward.

It’s time to give myself permission to rediscover, to explore, to celebrate, to rest and to remake me.

My new friend said I can run marathons, travel to new lands, jump into a new career, discover new adventures with my girls, dance wild and free with my new husband, and every once in a while linger over the memories of another life, another decade.

Hello, Forties. It’s so very good to meet you.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” ~Revelation 21:5

 

 

Would you like to read more about what I learned in my thirties decade?

Check out these blogs: 

Learning to flourish through the seasons

Personal Sabbath: How training for a marathon taught me to rest

Navigating Grief: When you have to say goodbye to the place your heart feels home

Posted by | community, culture, grief, Guest blogger, kids, outreach, Personal Stories, relationships, serve, Stories, struggle, transitions | 2 Comments

By Melissa Ens

“Good grief, Charlie Brown.” I’ve sighed a lot these last few years and wondered what kind of grief, exactly, is the good kind? True, there is godly sorrow that leads to repentance, (2 Cor. 7:10) but what I’ve needed is sorrow that would lead to healing.

In December 2011, my husband, our 3 children and I moved to Peru, where we expected to live for the next decade. Less than two and a half years later, however, we moved back to Fresno, brokenhearted after saying goodbye to our friends, our dreams, and the best golden retriever in the world.

In California and in Peru, seasons come and go. Yet even years later, memories mixed with grief can surface. I still sometimes hesitate to feel and release the sadness they stir up for fear that releasing will somehow mean forgetting.

And that’s what I really don’t want.

I don’t want to forget the wonder I felt in the warmth of our first southern hemisphere’s holiday season. The wonder of arriving in a new country with dreams of a new life there. Our kids’ first Peruvian church service. The ladies spontaneously taking Mikaela and me to see Juanita’s amazing nativity display with hundreds of animals and figurines. (How I miss those mujeres!)

I want to remember Pastor George picking us up near midnight on Christmas Eve, driving us through the plaza to see the decorations on the way to his home to share Christmas with his family. (We still laugh about Timothy falling asleep in the car and then sleeping on the couch through the whole gathering. He was sure after that he’d never been to Pastor George’s house!)

I remember the oddness of seeing Christmas decorations – snowmen, Santas and wrapping paper – on display right next to swimsuits and beach towels for the summer vacation that was just beginning. We got our kids a pool for Christmas the next year and our dog barked in circles around them as they splashed the January afternoons away with our Peruvian pastor’s kids.

Maybe you’ve seen Panetón here. (It’s a sweet cake with candied fruit pieces that Peruvians can’t celebrate holidays without.) Walking through the supermercados there, I was stunned by the endcaps stocked and shelves sky high with boxes and boxes (and hundreds more boxes) of Panetón. Christmas “chocolatadas” for the neighborhood kid ministries meant gallons of hot chocolate made over a wood fire in a huge pot in the back of Anny’s house. (And more panetón.)

And the music… It’s the music I miss the most. I fell in love with Peruvian Christmas music at that first Christmas Eve service. There was even more music in the malls and markets, in restaurants, and the town plazas all decorated for Christmas with trees, trees and more (artificial, but huge and fancy) Christmas trees.

Melissa and her friend, Claudia, pose together in Peru where they met.

 

In 2013, suspecting it might be our last December there, I bought a couple recordings of the traditional Christmas music piped everywhere during the holidays. Two years later I was back in Fresno with those CD’s in my hands.

I had yet to listen to them.

I held them that morning in 2015 and read the titles of the songs wondering what kind of flood of grief would come crashing on the shore of my heart when I heard them. (The year before, I couldn’t even stand the idea.) Now would it bring a tsunami of tears that would wash me away? Or would I just laugh at how awful some of the music was?

I recalled the Christmas program at church our last December in Peru. The kids performed and I had recorded Toby’s class on my phone. As I held the CD’s, I was terrified realizing I didn’t know where that phone was, or if the photos and videos were backed up anywhere. No matter that if I played that song Toby would run away to hide from the grief it stirred up. He couldn’t handle it yet, but I needed to find it so I could hold it in my hands and listen to it again and not run away.

I think now that’s what good grief is. It’s whatever grief we don’t run away from but are willing to run to Jesus with. It’s grief we allow Jesus to carry us through. It’s grief we allow to rain down or well up and felt for what it means – that something or someone we love is no longer with us in the way they used to be.

Good grief recognizes the good that was and accepts the sadness in holding it as just a memory now.

 Dreams, hopes, and even places we held dear in our hearts become part of us. When we lose them or have to let them go, it hurts and we need space to grieve. In our case, leaving Peru meant we all grieved the loss of friendships, the surrender of dreams, and saying goodbye to a place, people (and even a dog) we truly loved.

I finally understand good grief.

Good grief trusts that even as specifics of memories fade, it really is the love that remains. I might not remember everyone’s names, but I will forever carry love for them in my heart. Good grief trusts that carrying love and being carried by Love will be enough.

I knew someday we’d look back and marvel at the fact that we really lived in Peru. I knew it would eventually feel a bit like a dream, but the sadness helps me know it was real. The ache helps me know we really did live there, and we really did love there. I am thankful for that.

Immanuel is still with us. In many ways, healing has come. Grief (and sadly, memories) will continue to fade. But love will always remain.

 

Melissa Ens loves Jesus, singing, words, learning, laughing, watching sunsets with her hubby of 21 years and playing games with her kids. She thinks praying with a pen and journal or talking with friends are the best forms of therapy ever. She used to blog at Musing Melissa, but these days is working on finishing and sharing her story. She’s excited about visiting loved ones in Peru this summer.

 

 

Don’t miss the other articles in this “Navigating Grief as Life Moves Forward” series. Feel free to SHARE with a friend who might need these words of encouragement.

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

 When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids 

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma arise

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“? I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope. Let’s connect!

Navigating Grief As Life Moves Forward: The Garden

Posted by | community, death, flourishing, grief, hope, parenting, Personal Stories, Stories, struggle, writing | 6 Comments

 

This month I’m hosting a blog series: “Navigating Grief As Life Moves Forward.” I am working to be more intentional with my blog to serve readers like you who are navigating the winding path of a grief journey.

This series was inspired by many conversations I have had with friends about the struggle to move forward after experiencing loss. There’s not really a finish line to the grief journey but it certainly changes over time.

One of the most powerful things I’ve learned about grief these last several years is that when we share our stories vulnerably in community, we are stronger.

There’s a Swedish proverb that says, “Shared joy is a double joy; Shared sorrow is half sorrow.”

This proverbs rings true in my life. I have been blessed by a community of friends who have shared in both my joy and sorrow.

The goal this month is to create a safe place to share our grief stories. I long to encourage you, to bless you, for you to say, “me too” deep in your spirit. I want to link arms with you and say, “You are not alone, my friend.”

I’ve invited several writer-friends to share their stories in this space during April. My friend Danielle will unfold her experience with anticipatory grief as her husband Kenny faced a cancer journey that last several years. My friend Sue will be sharing about navigating the death of a grandparent with her kids. My friend Sharon will give us a glimpse into her life dealing with pregnancy loss. I hope their diverse stories will be a reminder that while every journey is unique, there are a host of us who have walked the path of grief.

I think of my friend Janine. Her husband died in a cycling accident just a year before my husband Ericlee died of cancer. I remember standing at her Jim’s funeral reception and Janine squeezing my hands tight: “Cherish every moment,” she whispered. Ericlee and I wept with Janine. We had no idea what lie ahead for us.

Janine has walked ahead of me on the grief journey, modeling for me what it means to embrace life after loss and grieve well. She has also walked by my side, teaching me to trust in God to fill in all the holes and gaps. I’m grateful for her vulnerable sharing through the process. Janine and the other widows I know give me courage.

I hope this month you will read these stories and share your comments or pieces of your own story. You have permission to grieve and process here. I imagine us all as potted plants. We can sit in the sun and struggle to grow in our own little pots or we can be transplanted into a grand garden and nourish each other. We can offer up our stories and colors to flourish together.

 

Have you missed the other articles in our Navigating Grief as Life Moves Forward series?

Check them out here:

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

 When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids 

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma arise

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“? I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope. Let’s connect!

Book Review: You Are Free to Be Who You Already Are

Posted by | behold, book reviews, community, grief, identity, Personal Stories, Stories, struggle, transitions | No Comments

I have dreamed about traveling to Italy since I was a little girl. I never imagined that I would get to experience the Sistine Chapel, run around the Colosseum, walk the steps of Trevi Fountain, and stand awestruck before the statue of David at age 38 with a new husband. I never imagined I would get to share handcrafted raviolis and tiramisu we made together in a cooking class.

I remember sitting on a train careening across the country en route from Rome to Florence. My eyes were glued to the window. The landscape was changing right before me. In a few hours, we traversed from the big city bustle to a more serene countryside with rolling hills.

On that train, God spoke to me about something more important than all the breathtaking sites and delectable food.  After so many months of deep grief following my husband’s death, after so many restless nights of crying out to Him and wondering what the future would hold for my daughters and me, God was changing the landscape. He gave me a wide-angle view of His glory.

The words of this verse breathed over me so many times in the last few years came to life: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).

He had made a way. He was reminding me that I was free.

On that trip, God reminded me who I was at my very core, who He created me to be. He began rekindling some of my passions and dreams. He was giving me permission to trade my mourning for dancing, to step into a new marriage, a new family life, a new season that I was free to create.

When I first saw the title of Rebekah Lyons’ new book, You Are Free: Be Who You Already Are, I couldn’t help thinking about my trip to Italy. It’s the place where God most recently reminded me of this important biblical message – that we are all free. I was eager to read Rebekah’s book because this is a journey I was already on.

In You Are Free, I felt like Rebekah invited me to sit down for a cup of coffee to talk about freedom and all the many ways I need to walk in it. Rebekah tells her story of rescue from striving and approval, but she also invites me to reflect on my own story.

I heard Rebekah speak at the first IF:Gathering I attended in Fresno four years ago. She was one of the teachers who caught my attention with her vulnerable, personal story coupled with her passionate preaching. Rebekah overcame depression and anxiety to step into a new place of freedom in Christ.

Perhaps the most impactful chapter for me was “Free to Grieve.” Rebekah shares about the birth of her son Cade, who had a traumatic birth and was born with Down syndrome. Her words pierced me:

“Something died in me that day: the controlled plan for my ‘perfect’ life. In return, something was born that day: surrender to an unchartered and forever-changing path.

As I have navigated my own grief journey after my husband was diagnosed with cancer and died four months later, I have found this to be true. That year there was a shattering of my dreams.

Rebekah’s perspective challenged me: “But here’s the truth I’ve found: we only find that wholeness, that unity, when we allow ourselves to mourn the death of our worldly expectations.”

She encourages all of us that we not only need to give ourselves permission to cry and mourn, but there is actually freedom and comfort to be found in grief. Jesus meets us there. This was a profound reminder. My own story serves as a testimony this is true.

I highly recommend You Are Free as a great Spring Break read or even a book to work through more reflectively with a journal in hand to answer the “Becoming Free” prompts at the end of each chapter.

 

**If you are an avid reader, I encourage you to check out some of my other book reviews. These books have carried me through seasons of tragedy and triumph. I often serve on book launch teams as a way to get to know authors and their message better. Next month I’ll be reviewing Never Unfriended by Lisa-Jo Baker.

**Do you have a favorite book you are reading right now? Please let me know about it in the comments! I love to share recommendations. Sign up here for my Glorygram – a weekly(ish) gift of encouragement just for close friends, including lots of book and recipe recommendations.

Pressing into the bittersweet {and a love letter to my widow friends}

Posted by | behold, community, compassion, cooking, courage, flourishing, food stories, friendship, grief, hope, Stories | 6 Comments

 

My love language is food, and I love sharing it with my people.  This past Sunday night I hosted a dinner party at my house. In the afternoon, my girls helped me roll meatballs, frost mini bundt cakes and dip chocolate strawberries. We scrubbed toilets and pulled out extra chairs so we could fit all the guests around the table. While my oldest prepared activities for the kids, I lit a mess of candles and arranged flowers all over the house.

The goal: to make our friends feel loved and cherished.

After all, it’s Valentine’s week, and we needed to celebrate. As the guests began to spill in the door, the pasta water began to boil. Everyone gathered in the entryway exchanging hugs and catching up. The kids found their way to our office/playroom with no trouble and started up a game of heart bingo.

The party had officially commenced.

A few friends helped me in the kitchen and we served up steaming platters of pumpkin ravioli with alfredo sauce and beef tortellini with tomato-meat ragu. We passed an antipasto salad and crusty bread with softened butter around the table. The volume rose with little clusters of friends all around the room chatting and telling stories.

You might not be able to tell it from the outside, but we all had one thing in common. We were all widows.

To be honest, this is not the kind of gathering I ever expected to have at my house. This certainly was never the story I would have written for myself. When I read my wedding vows to my beloved Ericlee, the thought never crossed my mind that I would be widowed before the age of 40. I never thought about navigating grief with my three daughters all under the age of 8 when their daddy graduated to heaven. Prior to his cancer diagnosis, all our dinner parties were with family and couples and friends with kids.

As I gazed around the table Sunday night, I experienced something surprisingly bittersweet.

Author Shauna Niequist illuminates this poignantly: “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.”

As my widow friends told stories, rich laughter rang out around the table. It was contagious. One story led to the next and to the next. An evening that could have been somber, that could have been spent home alone on the couch, was suddenly dripping with bittersweet like those strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.

We savored every bite.

I know Valentine’s Day can be hard when you are missing someone you love. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we were all surprised by joy and a few tears as we each remembered what we loved most about our husbands. Each one talked about husbands who had made them feel loved and cherished, who were their cheerleaders, their best friends, their spiritual leaders and the faithful fathers of their children.

I saw courageous mothers around that table. I saw women digging deep to rise above the ashes. I saw widows who were not willing to be defined by pity, but instead held fast to faith. Their strength buoyed mine.

We sent each of the women home that night with a bouquet of roses. As they drove away, I was struck by how, despite life’s thorns, God cultivates resilience in us through community. The blessing Sunday night was all mine.

 

***

 

Dear Widow Friend,

Today I know may feel bittersweet. I know the very thought of Valentine’s Day may prick your heart and trigger your memories. I know you will be scrolling through social media and see all the pictures of couples, and you will miss him.

You will stop and wonder how this came to be. You will ask yourself why you have to endure this holiday without your beloved. Again. I urge you to press in. Give yourself permission to grieve. Allow yourself to step into those memories. Don’t try to shut it down.

Remind yourself what you loved most about your man. Jot down some of those special things he did or the words he would gift to you on a day like today. Tell your kids about that silly gift he brought you that one year or the way he always showed up with flowers.

It’s ok to be a little sad on Valentine’s Day. It’s alright to shed a few tears – or even a deluge of tears if you have to – as you look at his pictures, as you remember the curve of his jaw and the tenor of his laughter.

I don’t want you to forget that you are still cherished. You are still loved.

I can’t help thinking about women in the Bible like Hagar who wandered in the wilderness with her child. God found her there. “Where have you come from and where are you going?” He asked her. He cared about her story. He saw her in her brokenness and leaned in close to see her, to listen to her.

Our God who sees is bending close to see you today.

I can’t help thinking about the widow, Ruth, who lost her husband and all the providers in her life. She followed her mother-in-law to a foreign land. She trusted God even in her grief. And He provided for her in Bethlehem. She was given food and shelter – and eventually a husband who brought new value to her life. A kinsman redeemer.

Widow friend, He provides for us in Bethlehem too.

I don’t pretend to know where or when or how God will provide for you, but I know He will. He is always, always, always working underground on your behalf. He may give you the gift of community. He may speak to you in a sunset. He may sing to you through the radio or the tune of a bird. Look for Him today. Listen for his love notes.

On this Valentine’s Day, I am extending my hands to you. I wish you courage and kindness and grace. And I wish you love.

Dorina

A Book Review: Nothing to Prove by Jennie Allen

Posted by | book reviews, community, margin, Stories, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

 

I am a recovering achiever. I was raised in a family of Filipino-Italian immigrants of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety. I attended a college prep school from elementary through high school. As I was growing up, I raced from piano lessons to dance lessons to theater productions to year-round sports events. I was the editor of the yearbook in high school and the newspaper in college. In short, my schedule was always packed, my homework list long, and my dreams and goals list was even longer.

This was my foundation.

None of these things is bad, of course. In fact, I am thankful for my family, my education and the way God wired me. I am also a person who thrives on words of encouragement and affirmation. Today I recognize that this combination of life experiences and personality traits can be dangerous. All that striving. All that reaching can be a perfect storm for breakdown.

In recent years, my brokenness covered by God’s amazing grace has far outweighed my appetite for achieving but I still have to be cautious about a natural tendency to strive. When I opened the pages of Jennie Allen’s newly-released book, Nothing to Prove: Why We can Stop Trying So Hard, I felt like she was speaking right into my recovering achiever’s heart.

“My prayer is for you to start enjoying the freedom that comes when we quit trying to prove ourselves, when we surrender what is out of control to the One who is control,” she writes. “We strive to be seen, to be known, to matter….We are not enough. We are not God.”

Nothing to Prove is written for the weary traveler, the woman who is overwhelmed by expectations and pressures, as well as the hidden belief that she is not good enough, talented enough or spiritual enough. Jennie shares real-life stories of her own struggle with inadequacy and insecurity, and then invites readers into a more spacious, grace-filled place.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One tells Jennie’s story of striving and invites readers “to start enjoying the freedom that comes when we quit trying to prove ourselves, when we surrender what is out of control to the One who is in control.”

Part Two focuses on the following feelings and insecurities that plague women: thirsty, lonely, tired, passive, afraid, ashamed and empty. Jennie unpacks how God is enough for each one of us in those places. Jennie uniquely starts each chapter with the retelling of a Bible story in first person. Her words make these familiar stories come alive in a new way.

I especially resonated with her retelling of one of my favorite passages, John 11, when Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus is deathly ill. Jennie writes from Mary’s perspective running through all the doubts and emotions she must have felt as she waited for Jesus to come. I’ve studied and even taught this story many times but Jennie helped me see it with new eyes.

What I appreciate is that Jennie writes the way she speaks. I have had the privilege of hearing Jennie speak live several times at conferences. I have also joined her at the dinner table with a small group of leaders. In real life and her book, I love her vulnerability, authenticity and passion. She is at once an honest storyteller and a passionate preacher.

This weekend she will be leading the IF:Gathering in Austin, Texas while thousands around the globe will watch through simulcast. I have the privilege of helping host our own IF:Fresno gathering here in Fresno, California at The Bridge Church starting at 5:30 p.m. today and 9a.m.-4:30  p.m. Saturday. This event brings women leaders and preachers from all over the globe to gather and share with an eager audience of women. I’m grateful for Jennie’s vision to disciple a generation of women.

Jennie always challenges me and calls me up as a leader. She writes, “The degree to which we believe and embrace our identity as a Spirit-filled child of God will be the degree to which His light shines through us. We are God’s and He is ours. He is in us and through us and with us. That is our identity and it changes everything.”

The lesson is not lost on me: If I am secure in my identity in Christ, I have nothing to prove.

The Ministry of Presence

Posted by | community, compassion, courage, culture, death, fear, friendship, grief, hope, Personal Stories, politics, relationships, serve, sharing faith, social justice, Stories, struggle | 2 Comments

 

Last night I woke to the sound of my 5-year-old whimpering in the next room. I ran in to check on her. “Mama, mama, I had the baddest dream,” came her trembling voice. I climbed into the top bunk bed next to her and laid down. “Mama’s here,” I assured her. She put her little hand in mine. Immediately, I felt her body relax. She drifted back to sleep. In that moment, I realized what my baby-girl needed was my presence.

That little scenario made me pause. I couldn’t help thinking about the emotions I have felt in the weeks following the election and the Inauguration last Friday. This season has been harrowing to say the least. I have voted in six presidential elections in my lifetime, and I never remember it being this bad. The divisiveness, the name calling, the character bashing, the violence, the fear, the dismissiveness of those in my community grieves me.

Immediately following the election, I read a lot of posts on social media that people should stop being crybabies about the outcome. I read more of the same after the Inauguration on Friday and the Women’s March on Saturday. These were painful to read because there is so much more at stake here. It’s not a simple, “Your team won; mine lost” scenario. Meanwhile, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have also been teeming with posts about hate crimes and sexual assaults committed, about friends with families and local businesses who fear being deported, about school children expressing uncertainty about their future.

My heart aches for my people and our country.

I have been searching for my place in all this. I have been asking myself, “How can I use my voice as a woman, as a multi-ethnic American, and as a Christian in this climate? How can I leverage my privileges to lift up the most vulnerable? How can I offer grace and love to my neighbor in tense times like these?” The answer I keep hearing is related to what my 5-year-old taught me when she was fighting her nightmare. I need to offer up the “ministry of presence.”

In this context, a “ministry of presence” means moving in close to listen, laying down our defensiveness and agendas, and offering up empathy instead. I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s latest book, The Broken Way, and she reminds me anew that Jesus always moves into the places of grief and offers up the ministry of presence. She writes, “In a broken world, isn’t the call always to koinonia, to communion with community that bears our burdens with us? Wasn’t suffering then actually a call for us to be a community, to stand together and bear under, trusting that arms of love are always under us?”

I have been offered the gift of presence several times in my life, and it has been important to my healing. When I was in college, I was walking to class one day and two men grabbed me from behind. In the days that followed that sexual assault, fear rose up inside me like an all-consuming monster. Thankfully, I escaped rape but the damage to my mind had already been done. I could not walk down the street or a hallway without feeling anxiety or going into a panic attack.

During that season, a dear friend and her boyfriend (who later in life became a police officer) decided to be present with me. They woke up early every morning and walked me to my classes. They waited around to see me home in the evenings. It was a simple gesture but their presence made all the difference in the world. Little by little – through counseling and mountains of prayers over many years – I regained confidence. I found the tools to combat my fear. Of course, it was unrealistic for them to be my bodyguards for life but their willingness to be present with me in that initial season was a powerful gift.

More than 15 years later, I faced a devastating stage four cancer diagnosis for my beloved husband. This was a different kind of trauma. During that journey, I had hundreds of people who offered to help us in tangible ways but it was the ones who offered the “ministry of presence” whom I needed the most. Friends came to play worship music for my husband in his final days. Friends came to sit with us through the long hours of the night when he faced the most pain, and I was the most exhausted. My community stood with me by the graveside, and they offered my young daughters and me a safe space to grieve in the months to follow.

One family offered us the gift of their presence just a few months after his death when it was time to buy a Christmas tree. Our family’s tradition was to go to a local Christmas tree lot and pick out a tree with Daddy. As the time drew closer to Christmas, dread heightened in my heart. Our friends asked me this question, “How can we be present for you this season? What’s something we can do to support you?” They agreed to accompany us to the Christmas tree lot.

The girls ran down the aisles of the tree lot in search of the perfect tree with their friends. The husband helped secure it to my car. My dear friend hugged me tight as we put it up in our home. The tears pooled in my eyes when a gathering of friends came to decorate our tree. We shared ornaments with all of them as reminders of my husband and his quirky personality.

This simple act was healing for our family because it was more than a “like” on Facebook or an act of service, more than a check or card in the mail. They were not focused on giving advice or urging me to get over it. These friends stepped into a messy, awkward situation full of grief and memories, and they were present. They listened to our needs and offered to go with us on the journey. We were not alone.

I give these two examples because I believe in these challenging times we are all called to the “ministry of presence.” It’s easy to mouth off on Twitter or re-post that article on Facebook that supports our views, but the reality is people are hurting and scared. The most courageous thing we can do is listen. The bravest thing we can do is stand with them.

We recently visited a family who has adopted children from Ethiopia and Mexico. A picture of Donald Trump flashed on the television behind us. Their middle son asked his mama again and again if his brother would be deported. She told me he has asked hundreds of times in the last week. His parents try to reassure him and offer up comfort, but it’s hard.

I sat at my kitchen table the other day listening to the story of a dear friend who has been working for years to get her American citizenship. The process has been hairy. She watched the election with fear and trembling, realizing the ramifications for her family after living and contributing in the U.S. for decades. I listened. She educated me. She spoke with courageous faith and prayed for God to make a way for her now.

I recently dined with a group of my heart friends at a local Indian restaurant, where we often celebrate each other’s birthdays. This group of friends represents a diversity of cultures and professions. We all attend different churches and live in different parts of the city. It was important to be present with each other, to sit face to face and listen to each other’s unique experiences. One woman’s son was afraid his grandma (who is a citizen) will be sent back to El Salvador. Another friend said one of her clients just chose to move to Mexico to escape all that is happening.

I considered my own multi-ethnic daughters, whose hair colors and skin colors vary in hue. How would these next four years shape their cultural identities? Would they endure comments and prejudice? As mamas, my friends and I contemplated: How can we administer grace, teach resilience and model peace in our communities and our homes?

My challenge to myself and to you is to ask: How can I be present for someone today? This is not just about acts of service or help. It’s taking time to listen, to empathize, to grieve alongside others.

These are some practical examples that have inspired me:

-invite friends to dinner and ask them to share their stories
-walk to school with neighbors and friends
-make something and deliver it to a neighbor from a different cultural background and ask them how they are doing
-offer to sit and be present with someone who is grieving
-read books to your children about empathy, kindness and other cultures
-stand with someone in your community who is afraid
-speak up against racist or sexist remarks

Friends, this is how we can be used by God in these uncertain times. In Matthew 1:23, an angel announces the birth of Jesus Christ: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us.’)” God chose to put on flesh and come to earth as a baby, who grew to be a man, who chose to be with people, to walk alongside them in their suffering, and lay down his life for them.

In the same way, we are designed to dwell with others in community. We need to carve out space for lament in our churches. We need to ask the hard questions and listen to our neighbor’s story. We need to set aside our political differences and be present with others, especially those vulnerable during this season. This is activism too. We need to seize the opportunity to be Immanuel – God with us – to those in our community.

**This article was previously published on www.inAllthings.org.

Move over, pumpkin! A more sophisticated squash has arrived

Posted by | community, cooking, food stories, Recipes, Uncategorized | No Comments

 

 

I am a pumpin lover. Let’s just be clear about that. I live in Central California so our weather is not always the greatest indicator that Fall has arrived. Sometimes it’s way into November before we get to pull out the cozy sweaters and don our boots. When I see pumpkin products at my fave grocery stores and coffee shops, I know it’s time.

That said, I have noticed some pumpkin backlash this year. The marketing of pumpkin products has pushed people so over the edge they can’t deal. Never fear: a much more sophisticated squash is here.

Butternut squash has long been one of my personal favorites. I love its subtle flavor in soup, chili, ravioli, lasagna, tacos or even as the more classic, roasted veggie side.

As with most squashes, the hardest part of dealing with butternut squash is actually breaking into the thing. You might want to skip your arm workout for the day if you intend to prep a raw butternut squash. I like to choose the ones with a longer neck and shorter bottom. This means less seeds to dig out and more melon-colored flesh to cube for your recipe.

Not up for veggie chopping therapy? There’s a simple short-cut. Go buy pre-cut butternut squash from places like Trader Joe’s or Costco. (It’s so worth it!)

Today I’m sharing two of my favorite recipes using butternut squash. One is considered a chowder, the second is our classic Thanksgiving first course. Tradition! (she sings loudly in her best “Fiddler on the Roof” impression…) Both of these recipes feed a crowd. It’s the perfect excuse to invite people to your table for some face-to-face time.

I don’t know about you but I’m longing for in-person connection these days. Everything feels so tense and nasty online. It’s difficult to wade through the newsfeed to really hear each other’s stories. I’m pushing myself to make space for community, for processing around the table, for asking the hard questions, for pressing in to engage with family and neighbors. Won’t you join me? Please share about your gathering over butternut squash in the comments!

 

The proof is in the pot

 

Fall Squash & Corn Chowder (serves 10-12)

 

Ingredients:

10 slices bacon, chopped (We prefer turkey bacon but you can choose!)

4 tablespoons organic butter

2 medium onions, chopped (1 yellow & 1 red.)

2 chopped bell peppers (red, yellow or green)

1/4 cup flour (I use gluten-free flour or whole wheat pastry flour.)

8 cups chicken broth

4 cups 1/2-inch cubed, peeled, seeded butternut squash (You can use a whole squash measuring about 1 3/4 pounds or get the pre-cut packages of squash in the refrigerator section of Trader Joe’s or Costco)

4 medium russet potatoes or sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 1/2 tablespoons oregano

2 16-oz. bags frozen corn or 4 cups fresh corn kernels

1 cup whipping cream or plain yogurt

2 chicken breasts (Save time and buy a rotiserrie chicken & shred)

1 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

 

Directions:

  1. Add butter to a large pot and melt.
  1. Chop bacon and saute in butter until crispy.
  1. Add chopped chicken to pot and saute with bacon until golden brown.
  1. Add chopped onions and 1 bell peppers. Saute until onions and peppers are soft.
  1. Add flour; stir 3 minutes until flour starts to bubble.
  1. Mix in broth, squash, potatoes and oregano; bring to a boil.
  1. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered until veggies are tender (approximately 15 minutes).
  1. Add corn, cream/plain yogurt, remaining bell peppers and simmer additional 10 minutes.
  1. Add green onions, 1/2 cup cilantro; Simmer 5 minutes.
  1. Add salt & pepper.
  1. Ladle chowder into bowls and garnish with cilantro.

Prepping butternut squash aka the best arm workout ever

Thanksgiving Butternut Squash Soup

 

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

2 medium butternut squash, peeled & cubed

2 tart granny smith apples, grated

1 cup celery, chopped

3/4 cup white wine (sherry or chardonnay)

Organic chicken broth (48 ounces)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon parsley, for garnish

1/4 cup heavy cream

 

Directions:

  1. Melt butter in large pot. Add butternut squash. Saute in pot for 15-20 minutes until soft.
  1. Meanwhile, prepare other vegetables and apples. Add to pot and allow to sweat until soft.
  1. Add wine, broth and spices to pot. Bring to boil and cook 5 min. Lower heat and cook for additional 45 min.
  1. Puree soup using immersion blender.

 

*For fancy garnish, drip small amount of heavy cream on top of each bowl of soup. Use toothpick to drag cream around in curly designs. Top with fresh parsley.

 

Serve with cornbread muffins, crescent rolls or other hearty bread.

How Living in Community Helps All of Us Flourish

Posted by | community, flourishing, friendship, gifts, grief, kids, Stories | No Comments

I believe God designed each one of us for community. He himself embodies community. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three in one – our model of community working seamlessly. He has designed us to live in relationship, to work out our insecurities and use our gifts in the context of authentic community. Living in community is messy and hard, but it is also rich with opportunity to taste His glory.

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