sharing faith

Journey back to Haiti: Learning to Behold

Posted by | behold, grief, Haiti, hope, One Word, sharing faith, Stories, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The moment I set foot on the new tile in the church nestled in the mountains, I could feel the buzz. Wide-eyed, I scanned the crowd. There was an excitement among the women who gathered. They greeted me with smiles and kisses and enthusiastic hugs. Many of them have become dear friends over the years. This was the Esther Women’s conference in Pignon, Haiti – three days carved out each year to join hands and hearts, to sing and seek God together.

For me, this moment felt like coming full circle. My first-ever speaking engagement for a women’s retreat was here in this place six years before. Back then, I delivered one short message on friendship as a complement to the central teaching by my dear friend who was the keynote. Hands shaking and knees trembling, I stood before those ladies, and God planted a seed.

He wanted me to speak. He wanted to use my story.

Six years later, after much tragedy and triumph in my life, I stood before these ladies a transformed woman. My friend Rici from Fresno joined me to lead worship. My Haitian friend, Walquis, stood at my side. He was my first English student in 2002. What joy for him also to come full circle with me now working as my translator!

Is it any wonder that just as I started sharing about how we can see evidence of God’s glory in Creation that a tropical downpour began? The rain played a symphony on tin house roofs and danced outside the church windows. And we marveled at the glory of His Presence inside.

Some might see rain as a sign of a storm – something to fear or deter – but I encouraged the women to remember that in the rain there is provision and abundance. The rain nourishes the crops. The rain cools the air. The rain cleanses. The rain cultivates the soil of our hearts and builds resilience in each of us.

The women connected. They nodded and called out their response in amens.

I prayed for weeks that God would provide just the right illustrations that would reach out to the Haitian women and draw them into understanding. Behold, this was preaching with props included. Let it rain.

Back in January, I chose the word “behold” as my theme for this year. I’ve discovered it’s one of those words splattered across every book of the Bible but I rarely paid attention to it before. In fact, some versions of the Bible even edit it out. The original word “behold” in Aramaic is a verb that means “to see or witness.”

Starting in Genesis 1:31, there is a call to behold: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.”

As I shared with my friends in Haiti at the conference, God took time to pause and see that all the things He made were good. We are called to do the same.

I see Him in the strong wings of the butterfly forged through pressure and metamorphosis.

I see Him in the brilliant red-orange flowers of the flamboyant tree providing shade for us in the yard.

I see Him in the eyes of my new husband, whom I met in Haiti more than 16 years ago on my first mission trip.

I talked with the women about how He is El Roi, the God who sees, named by a woman who endured much suffering and discovered great faith. Her name was Hagar.

In the Matthew 1:18-25, an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph and asks him also to see and witness. “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

That word “behold” precedes the most important announcement ever made – the coming of Emmanuel.

These last seven months I’ve been pressing in and God has been teaching me to behold. It requires I stop, look and listen. To behold is a call to slow, to rest, to marvel at how far God has brought us and trust He is working underground at all times.

On my recent trip to Haiti, I was called again and again to behold. I found myself beholding the progress and redemption I saw in this beautiful place I have called my home in the past.

I witnessed God at work as now a third generation of Haitians are rising up to lead the churches and ministry there. My late husband’s grandparents were pioneer missionaries in these parts in the 1940s. What joy to see the young people carry this torch and continue the legacy with the blessing of their elders!

I witnessed God at work as some of the women who were once on the fringes of this community were now helping lead the conference, cook the food and serve the other women of the church.

I witnessed God at work in the young people who were once fragile, malnourished children I interviewed to bring into the orphanages. Now they are confident and compassionate teenagers contributing to their community and their church. They are dreaming about future careers – a mark of lives transformed.

I witnessed God at work in my three daughters who embrace Haiti and its people as their own, who carry on the passion of their late father who grew up visiting Haiti.

My challenge and encouragement to you today is to ask yourself these key questions: How can God use your story? What are you beholding today?

Beholding beckons us to awake to the wonder of serving Him.The night before the closing session of the women’s conference, I paused with my family to pray. I had some ideas about the last message I would share but I wanted to hear from God. I wanted to listen to where He might specifically lead.

I slept well that night, went for a sunrise run, and then slipped into the church as the women began singing. I knew the finale of this conference must be about beholding God’s glory in community. I shared about how God had provided abundantly for my daughters and me after the death of my husband Ericlee.

And I unfolded the story of how God brought my new husband Shawn out of the fold of our community. It’s a story I never could have crafted or illustrated myself. The women recognized it too. They giggled and clapped. They lifted hands to the heavens with me. And that’s what beholding is all about. It’s stepping back to savor the wild painting the Master artist is in the process of creating. It’s pausing to see how He is “making all things new.”

Beholding calls us to chase His glory in every day. Won’t you join me?

 

Book Review: Remarkable Faith

Posted by | behold, book reviews, hope, identity, inspirational, sharing faith, Stories, writing | 2 Comments

 

I have always loved stories. Even from the time I was a little girl, I have been enthralled with the power of story. When I was in the throes of my elementary school years, my family attended a little neighborhood church on the south side of Chicago. I was always eager to get to Sunday School class. There were not a lot of bells and whistles. We didn’t have a fancy worship band or videos with animated Bible characters to capture our attention.

We did have two teachers who were gifted storytellers.

Every week, these teachers would take turns unfolding the details of the Bible. I was filled with wonder when I heard about the ark-builders and giant-slayers, but I was also drawn to the “quieter stories.” I was intrigued by the woman who gave her copper coins in the offering, which was a sacrifice of all she owned. I could not get enough of the stories about Jesus. I was captivated by the way he talked to the woman at the well and washed his disciples’ dirty feet.

These were not just stories to me, but examples with skin on them that eventually led me to deepen my young faith.

 

When I opened Shauna Letellier’s recently-released book, Remarkable Faith, I was filled anew with childlike wonder over the Bible stories. Like a master storyteller, Shauna draws us into eight Bible stories of “unremarkable” people who went to great lengths to get to Jesus. As a result of their faith, Jesus healed them and used them as examples of remarkable faith.

I was immediately drawn into this book because of the way Shauna reimagines these stories in such a vivid and historically accurate way. She helped me to feel the exhaustion of the father whose son was demon-possessed, to understand the wrestling in the mind of the paralyzed man, to appreciate the response of the noble centurion who counted himself not even worthy to take Jesus’ time and to see the courage of the blind beggars who called out for healing.

This is not typically the genre of book I would pursue but Shauna makes me think outside of the box. Shauna doesn’t just retell the story. She invites us to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the nuances of the culture and experience the world through the eyes of the characters.

I also appreciated her commentary after each story. Her words invite me to think about the implications of faith highlighted by each character. In her chapter on “Unworthy Faith,” I was especially challenged by these words:

“Whether you have built a synagogue, an orphanage, or a fine Christian reputation, you cannot earn God’s favor. God’s grace to us in Christ is a gift! … We cannot place God in our service by stockpiling good deeds and dangling them before him as a currency, as though we hold the carrot that makes him do our bidding.”

What a powerful reminder!

My favorite chapter in Remarkable Faith unfolds the story of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 and her “suffering faith.” Readers are invited into the depths of this woman’s story. She was not only bleeding for more than 12 years, but she was also an outcast in her community because she was considered unclean. She was alienated from her family and likely taken advantage of by doctors. Shauna’s description of her healing is visceral and dramatic. We cannot help but rejoice and worship with her.

Whether you have read these stories many times in the Bible or you are new to them, I highly recommend Shauna’s Letellier’s book, Remarkable Faith. It’s a good read that offers a fresh perspective on faith through the lens of the Bible.

 

**If you love books, we need to be friends. I’d love to slip my Glorygram into your box each week with recommendations for my fave reads. You can also check out my other book reviews here. As always, leave your comments below, especially if you are interested in Shauna Letellier’s book or have your own take on it!

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!

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.