Follow Me

Undoubtedly many, if not all, of us have found ourselves in a situation, in a conversation or in a relationship that touched on the very core of a fundamental part of our belief system; those moments caused us to check on what we believe in – define it, discard it or alter it. If you haven’t had one of those moments yet … you will.

I’ve come across those “forks in the road”, those moments in our lives that make us ask, “What do I believe? What are my values? What is the true self? Is this the direction in which I want to go with my life?” Case in point, my political views.

When I was younger I was a staunch conservative. I identified myself by the tenets of “right wing” politics with a stubbornness that bordered on arrogance. Maybe that’s a function of my youth and inexperience in life. To me, everything was black or white without much gray. If you didn’t believe as I did, there was something wrong with you.  Now I’m older and perhaps a little wiser. My experiences with people, events and alternative thoughts have broadened, my political edges have softened quite a bit and there’s a lot more gray in the world. Recently, my spiritual beliefs and faith underwent a similar re-examination. I had to take a look at my faith and assess its core values.

I am Christian and as many of you know, I am a part of a wonderful, inspiring, challenging, sometimes goofy but always loving family of faith called Hopesprings Community of Faith in Bangor, PA. I first attended the gathering several years ago when I was young in my recovery from addiction. My history with “religion” was spotty and bland; I wanted and needed something more. In my recovery process I was searching for a deeper, more personal relationship with God as I understood Him. I didn’t understand God all that well at that point except that God loved me, never gave up on me (even when I was at my most despicable) and saved me from teetering into the abyss.

I began to question the old rules and dogmas, crafted and honed over millenia, and in which I was raised. They felt wrong, constraining. They felt like chains and weights that made it difficult to move closer to God. Now I understand that society creates some rules – guardrails, if you will – to keep us within a range of acceptable behavior. The rules are necessary to prevent chaos and to protect us from ourselves and others. But sometimes the rules hog-tie us and keep us from seeing the underlying value the rule was designed to promote; especially so when we elevate form over substance. So it was with me and “religion.”

So, I “stumbled” across Hopesprings one Sunday morning still hungry for something more. It felt like I had walked into an alien world.  Here was a group of people – inked, young, old, beaten, successful, broken, mending – joyous and loving on others and the community! Michael began the lesson that Sunday and by the end of the gathering I was in tears – Niagra Falls! This happened again and again, even today with Jonathan as the pastor, week after week. This was no aberration. This is what I was looking for – a community who believed in only two “rules”: love God, love others; here was a family who practiced those fundamental beliefs in real life, on the streets of the community, in small ways with lots of love.

Two rules – love God, love others. So, is this what Jesus meant when he told Matthew, Peter and others “Follow me” (Matt. 9:9; John 21:19, 22)? I mean, the very definition of “Christian” is one who follows Jesus the Christ, right? What does “following” entail? What does it look like in real life?

Todd Van Hoosear

Todd Van Hoosear

Now I can complicate the hell out of making a PB & J sandwich and I know that something as deep as my faith can be made very obtuse, twisted and overly complicated. But Jesus was anything but complicated although we do a really good job of making His message complicated. Case in point – the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The scholar knows the rule of “love your neighbor” and Jesus confirms this. But the scholar is uncomfortable with what this is asking him to do and he attempts to incorporate exceptions to the simple rule. “What do you mean when you say ‘neighbor’? Who is my ‘neighbor’?”

I am no Bible scholar and I don’t have to be in order to determine what “following” looks like in reality. I can look no further than the way Jesus lived His life. In all matters, the bedrock of His actions and His words was this: loving God and loving people, without exception! He was unconcerned about their socio-economic status; unconcerned about society’s opinions of the poor, the sick, the nameless and the voiceless; unconcerned about the rules that got in the way or obscured the people from connecting with God.

He not only broke the rules but chastised those who created the rules to bog down the people’s hearts and bodies. He repeatedly called out the elite and the pious who elevated following the letter of the law but refused to acknowledge or show mercy to the unfortunate. He shined a light on the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be religious on the outside but whose hearts were black and cold on the inside.

Act justly, love mercy and walk with humility (Micah 6:8); love God, love others (Mark 12:30-31). Simple, easy to understand “rules” to live by. For me, this is what it means when Jesus says “follow me”. Don’t overcomplicate this – when He says “follow me” He’s saying “Watch what I do, listen to what I say, see how I treat others and do the same thing. I lead by example” This is the way to live a life of connection with God and others. Don’t get caught up in the rules that will weigh you down and prevent you from acting justly, being merciful, being humble or serving your neighbor.

So many “Christians” seem to get tied up and entangled in the rules. They equate “Christianity” with a straightjacket of rules – rules about what music to listen to, rules about what clothes to wear, rules about what prayers to say, rules about what sect to belong to, rules about what TV shows to watch … and the list goes on. Too often they treat others who don’t fit in their box as “less-thans”, flawed in some way. They can be judgmental and arrogant thinking that their way is the “true” way. The same could be said of political parties, other religions and cultures. They can be harsh and unforgiving. They seem to fail to consider where they would be if God was as unforgiving, impatient and unmerciful as they were.  In short, a lot like me in my youth.

So what brought all this on? I was presented with a situation that forced me to examine what my faith was all about. I had to look at my values, my beliefs and ask “Who am I? What’s important to me? What am I made of?”

This wasn’t a life or death struggle that prompted these questions. It was a simple meeting in a principal’s office to discuss ramifications of an occurrence at school. This was a meeting where I learned very clearly the difference between law and order, rule-bound, harsh Christianity and the merciful, compassionate and sometimes uncomfortable version of Christianity. I learned that some people’s interpretation of Christianity can be focused on being judgmental, unforgiving, harsh and lacking in patience; what was even more frightening was how they seemed completely comfortable with calling themselves Christian while justifying their rigidity.

I’m all for there being consequences for one’s actions and, in this case, there were. What I was not at all comfortable with was these “Christians” who gave up on my son, who failed to see the potential in him, who saw him as one who should not expect much in his life as he will not be successful, who gave up because things got a little hard. They quit on him and in the process quit on Him; they effectively said that God was not able to do good works in him. Their lack of faith in God was both blatant and astounding!

Where would we be if God have up on us? What would it look like if God threw up his hands and said “This is too hard. These people keep screwing up. I don’t have the patience for this anymore?” What if God got tired of pursuing us? How hopeless, desperate and bleak would our lives be? I shudder to think of where I would be if God had given up on me!

Well, I don’t subscribe to that nonsensical version of Christianity. I am a member of the merciful, just, loving, forgiving and graceful family of the Christ; he has infinite patience and never gives up the chase. The God of my understanding is one of love, mercy and forgiveness.

Follow Him, I will, to the best of my ability.

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Love Transforms – The Neverending Story

“Čau. es saņēmu tavu vēstuli un izlasīju viņu. es ceru ka man noderēs tavi vārdi un tavi padomi kurus tu man biji devis. Es esmu ļoti pateicīga tev un Eileen par to ka jūs rūpējaties par mani un hariju ka atbalstat mūs un palīdzat kā vien spējat. Jūs priekš manis izdarījāt daudz ko labu un par to es jums esmu pateicīga. Jūs kļuvāt priekš manis ļoti svarīgi cilvēki manā dzīvē. Es ļoti ilgojos pēc jums un jūsu uzmanības. Mēs jūs mīlam un skūpstam.” – April 29, 2015

The above message, one of over 600 messages received via social media, was received by me in response to a letter I sent to her ( see Letter to My Daughters).  If you’ve been following along with this saga of love conquering fear you’ve been able to be a part of the journey of hosting Daniela.  You’ve been a silent witness to her very high walls and displays of fear and confusion at the beginning of this process, this metamorphosis (“I don’t understand. They say they love me but they don’t even know me. My own family does not love me.”). You’ve felt our own confusion, questioning and struggles with loving unconditionally.  You’ve also been there when the walls came down, when she allowed herself to be herself.  You’ve been there for the laughter and the tears.  So what’s the point of the story?

IMG_0912The point is in the title.  Throughout this relationship, she’s changed and so have we.  We continue to grow closer as a family, even two years after the hosting experiment ended! Looking back, “hosting” may be the technical name for what we experienced but it turns out it’s closer to finding a long lost family member and smothering them with hugs and kisses.  It’s never, ever doubting that persistent and consistent love will beat back fear every time.  It’s knowing that the tiniest light from a match chases out the darkness and that darkness can never overcome the light.

What’s more is that the impact of love drills down deep into the hurt and the fear and expands to crack the soul’s foundation of darkness and hardness.  In a few short weeks she found lightness and faith and hope and family; we found faith, love, hope and a daughter.  We never imagined at the start of this process that love could have such a dramatic impact on one life; after all, what could we accomplish in such a short period of time? Our expectations were low because, I suspect, we questioned whether love really could conquer all.  The fact is that we, as mere humans acting alone, could not breach those hardened walls … only with God’s help in doing His business could we do this  God shattered that glass ceiling and the love we share with her has now expanded to the next generation – Harry.

If you’re thinking of hosting an orphan, jump in with both feet.  If you’re thinking of coaching little league, do it.  If you’re on the fence about scouting, get involved.  If you’re doubting the impact you can have, show up and leave the impact to Him. The experiences will forever change you and them; love will leave an indelible tattoo on the soul.  Acting in love has a greater impact than just words. 1 John 3:18. Is it scary? You betcha but the rewards are beyond description!!

This is not the end of the story.  The ripples from those five weeks continue to reach distant shores and distant lives.  More will be revealed.  Keep in touch.IMG_0921

By the way, the loose translation for Daniela’s message is this:

Hi. I received your letter and read it. I hope that it will come in handy with your statement and your tips to me that you gave. I am very grateful to you and Eileen that you are caring for me and Harry for supporting us and helping us as long as you are able. You did for me much good and for that I am grateful to you. You became for me very important people in my life. I longed after you and your attention. We love you and kisses.”

I still get choked up over all of this. It truly is a miracle. How can it be that out of all that brokenness – hers and ours – that oneness and wholeness, a family could take shape?

Love Transforms (Pt. 5) – And The Dam Finally Breaks

This is Part 5 of our story with Daniela.  We’ve taken snippets of our blog, www.servingdaniela.blogspot.com, and reposted them here.  If you want the full version fell free to read it at that website.

We wasted little time heading over to Assateague island and the beach.  The Island is a National Wildlife Refuge and is home to hundreds of wild horses – not to mention herons, bald eagles and other wildlife.  The beach had been decimated by Sandy last October but is in great shape now.  The water was “refreshing” and the surf was perfect for boogie-boarding!  Daniela was a little reluctant to go in at first but when she saw all of us – including Peter – having fun in the surf she eventually joined us.  Even Pete enjoyed the pounding surf.IMG_0377

Daniela is a girl who initially says “no” to new surroundings, new adventures, new foods and new challenges.  But once she warms up to the idea and tries it she is all in!  Same was true today about boogie-boarding.  The first time she went in the sea she didn’t touch the board.  Second time’s the charm though.  She and Eileen were rocking and rolling on those boogie boards!!!  She had a blast. — July 22, 2013

What I got was a different sort of relationship; one that is complicated – very complicated – coupled with moments of simplicity. Things have happened at their own pace and in their own seemingly bumpy, twisted direction – sometimes it has been a series of fits and starts. D and I have had a rollercoaster of a relationship since she arrived on the scene. Some days have been full of walls coming down followed swiftly by walls going back up. It can be an exasperating journey this hosting business. Whew! It can try your patience and make you talk to yourself and question your sanity and laugh out loud and smile a lot and feel a connection on some level – all in the same day. — July 24, 2013
I have learned so much about so many things during this process – faith, love, understanding (to name a few). I have seen a stranger touch a young man’s heart and a young man start to break down some walls she built for protection. I see two “parents” using unconditional love and understanding to meet a young woman’s painful issues. Some days are better than others but we make progress. It is an unconventional family in the making. It’s so complicated when human frailty and fears are involved and yet it is so simple – keep meeting those fears and fragility with love, wait for those magic moments with D and stay out of God’s way. — July 24, 2013
HPIM3937[D]espite the fact we didn’t “go” anywhere we really went somewhere deep today, very deep. Today Daniela seemed the most relaxed she has ever been since she arrived. She spent the day napping, listening to her music (even played it loud so we all could listen to it), playing with Peter and doing a whole lot of smiling.
Throughout the day she was playing little games with Peter. She fed him sunflower seeds and laughed when he ate them shell and all. She gave him fruit herbal tea bags and squealed when he would pop them in him mouth and chew on them and then spit them out like a big wad of chewing tobacco. She lined up bits of french fries on the table hoping that Peter would eat them one by one. Fat chance. Pete scooped them all up in one fell swoop and shoved them in his mouth faster than you could say “finger-lickin’ good”. She was in stitches!!
We decided to go out to eat tonight. Eileen overheard one of the servers speaking and noted that she sounded Russian. Sure enough, Natalia was indeed from Russia. Well, we introduced her to Daniela, she began talking to her in Russian and D had a smile as big as the day is long. She even tried some shrimp! When it came time for dessert we asked Natalia if they had any Russian Napoleon Tort. “No,” she said; we explained that D had made some for us and D was beaming as Natalia talked with her about that scrumptious dessert.
Back at the ranch D explains she will take a shower as she heads down the hallway. Good Lord, Eileen!! Is she humming? I believe she is! Wait, wait. I think she’s even singing!! WOW!! Not only is she singing, she is using the removable showerhead as a “microphone”, stretched it into the hallway so we could watch her and going Milli Vanilli on us! She was laughing and we were right there with her, laughing and applauding.
No photos were taken today. No videos were recorded. Yet today we will not forget. Today is the day Daniela and the rest of us took this relationship a little bit deeper than where it was. It’s not Mariana Trench deep but it doesn’t have to be. The fact is the family dynamic improved greatly today, proving yet again that time, being present in the moments and love will cut inroads through the jungle of fear and pain. — July 26, 2013
[S]he gestures our sign for a small store. Mmmmm. Off to a sweet little shop where my friend Connie works and has amazing fashion sense. Another success! She selects a white sweater that sort of is a cape and sweater in one…looks beautiful! A few more items, she is beaming with joy! Arrive home and she write me a note in English, from her Latvian/English dictionary. “I would like to try lobster or crab”…. I have no words. After much haranguing and rolling of eyes over my trying to translate the process of purchasing lobster, she cuts to the chase and chooses to have Phil and Peter go in search of said items.
Not only does she want us to go get the lobster but she seems to indicate that it should be us three that goes. At first, I didn’t really understand that she wanted to join Pete and I but she repeated the gesture that the three of us should go on the lobster quest. So, this is rather unusual that she requests to be with me but I jump up and head to the car. I dare not let this opportunity pass. Off we go to the seafood vendor and sure enough they have lobsters!! D and Pete wait in the car while I pick out the lobsters and grab some shrimp. I didn’t even make it into the car with the lobsters before D started shrieking and screaming. I took full advantage of this and took one of the lobsters out of the bag so she could get a good long look at it. Oh my God!!! Her screams almost shattered my eardrums. I had an ear-to-ear grin!
Back at the house she asks if the lobsters are alive. I nod but then point to the pot of hot water, pantomiming the lobsters going into the pot and then my best imitation of rigor mortis setting in – lobster style. When I put the lobsters on the counter she shrieked a bit more but curiosity overtook her fears. I showed her how to pick it up and reassured her that she was in no danger. Sure enough D picked it up, looked at it square in the eye and practically insisted we take pictures of her while she held the lobster. Not only that … Daniela grabbed the camera (a first since she’s been here) and started taking pictures too. What followed was a veritable frenzy of claw cracking, tail eating, butter dipping and shrimp peeling that would put Daryl Hannah ala “Splash” to shame.
I am trying not to spend any effort in figuring this out. Mostly because I know that it has nothing really to do with anything I have done. All we have done for Daniela is give her the room to breath, get acclimated, trust us, set firm boundaries and love her. Today she checked in with her chaperone. In the past there has been a serious or sullen tone in her voice when doing this. Not today; today there was an abundance of animated, joyous tones, twinkling eyes, smiles and many “labi” throughout the phone call (“labi” means “good” in Latvian). She is relaxed and enjoying herself. She has surrendered to being herself while in the midst of this crazy, unconventional family and in the process has become a part of this family … forever. — July 27, 2013
Today began in beautiful Chicoteague Island Va. We have been blessed to own a vintage 1961 Marlette trailer that sits back on a quiet lane. It’s really groovy and the same age as Phil and he is also very groovy! But the grooviest thing about it is that for the past week our little family has called this home. Snuggled in probably 500 square feet we had some awesome together time. We saw a beautiful side of Daniela that she had kept under wraps. We swam in the ocean, hung out and did nothing, laughed at lobsters and relaxed.
D had a habit of waking up Peter each day by singing “PEEETER YUM YUMS”, at the sound of which he would very groggily pop out of bed and stumble to the kitchen and await her next command. So we heard that a lot…PEEEETER YUM YUMS …. and she would sometimes trick him by giving him an empty raisin box.  He would give her a look and each time try not to fall for her shenanigans. He loves the game they play and so does she. She shares with him enough food for there to be a good chance of yummys so he plays the game even if it’s an empty box of raisins.
Dinner is served. Pasta with garlic and shrimp…and ketchup for the Latvian at the table…lots of it…coming out of the bottle are sounds to rival some serious intestinal issues. She pauses when the bottle makes the squirting sound, we all look around…PEEETER!!! She sings…As if he was responsible for the symphony. We laughed so hard I though Phil was going to need resuscitation. Beautiful the sounds of farts from the ketchup at the dinner table!
Phil heads out to pick up the last dog from the sitter. While he’s gone D starts calling PEEETER YUM YUM HOTDOGS….POPCORN…..SPRITE.. she’s laughing hysterically and I am in awe of hidden English words and Peter, well, face it, he is NOT falling for this. — July 28, 2013

I Don’t Understand

I just have to vent here for today.  I just finished up a post on Presence being present the other day and then … WHAM! I got some news on Saturday that really made me take a step back and wonder if I really have any clue as to what I’m talking about.  Do I really believe what I profess I believe or is it self-delusion?

I mean, I just finished saying how God is there … in the darkness, in the light and everything in between.  Then I am told about a teenager who allegedly commits a heinous act. This teen is a good person, a kind person, a sweet person and I am left shaking my head in disbelief.  I know this because I’ve met this teen. I’ve talked with this teen.  This isn’t just some statistic, some anonymous face, some random number.  I do not understand this.  I am confused and dumbfounded.  How does something like this happen?  I mean, was God taking a nap when this was going on? Was He on another call when this call came in? Did He hit the snooze button too many times? Did this all happen when God blinked? Does God even blink? What? Why?

I don’t like these parts of the Story.  It offends my sense of right and wrong when bad things happen to innocent people, when bad things happen to good people.  It strikes me as patently unfair.  I am not one to think that these things happen because God is “testing” us; I refuse to believe that He is capricious.  Perhaps that is why I have such a hard time with the story of Job as it is written. So I ask “Why?” as I am sure all of us do at some point.3115396317_8c8c812530_o

I don’t have any answers for this and I am sure that I will not find them in this lifetime.  Perhaps mine is not to reason why. Perhaps I just have to have faith in the process of Love.  So, until the time when all will be revealed I will continue walking the walk and I will live with integrity and will do my best to finish the course.  I will continue to do my best to love others.

And I will continue to shake my head sometimes.

The Thread In Between

So, over the past several weeks the conversations at Hopesprings have been about walking, finishing the course and now, finding the thread of God in that journey. Jonathan, my pastor, has challenged (perhaps that’s too strong a word but it seems to fit me at this juncture) me through these conversations to chronicle my journey with Presence. Finding Presence in the mundane as well as the momentous. Frankly, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

You see, lately I’ve been talking about feeling disconnected with Presence. I shared with some friends how I had these “revelations”, these “spiritual awakenings”, early in my recovery. It seemed that I was having these “magical” moments on a weekly basis – you know, those moments when everything seems to click, to mesh, and a universal truth is “revealed”. Looking back on that time period, perhaps those moments felt so dramatic, so euphoric, because for so long I was spiritually bankrupt. The light always seems brighter when you step out of the darkness. Through4284919085_13c1190738_mout my struggles I felt like I was slipping further and further into the inky blackness of the abyss. The light got ever fainter; my soul was leaking. It felt like I was all alone. No Presence … at all. And yet …. the light never was extinguished. Presence was there; I was just too messed up to notice.

Some how, some way, Presence never abandoned me. It never stopped believing in me. It saw that I was worthy of “saving”, that I had a mission to fulfill, a mission that only I could fulfill. Even though I felt shameful, degraded, worthless and hopeless, Presence said I had value. Presence said, “I’ve got plans for you whenever you’re done with this nonsense.” A series of unfortunate (?) events occurred like dominoes falling, events that would break me down enough to allow me to be rebuilt better than before – jail, divorce, cars repossessed, family lost, friends leaving me, career lost. Presence was there throughout all of it, guiding me to a place where I could be reborn.

Some information was placed right under my nose – a small news article in a local newspaper that I never read very much. The article discussed a “recovery day” sponsored by an addiction out-patient facility in Bangor, PA; there would be speakers, information and free food! Yahtzee! A faint voice in the deeper recesses of my mind whispered that this would be good for me, that I needed this. So, I signed up in over 8 years ago – penniless, jobless and hopeless.

Thus began my more meaningful journey with Presence. This time it would be a much closer walk, a truer walk, a humbler walk with my leaning into Presence to help get me through the tough times and to show gratitude during the joyful times. My new relationship did not come with any guarantees in life. I faced many challenges and will continue to work through difficult situations. So what’s the difference between then and now? Here it is: I know that no matter what happens, no matter what life throws at me, I will be okay for Presence will not and never has abandoned me. Even in the darkest times it was me who walked away from It, not the other way around. Anne Lamott wrote about something like this when she describes feeling as if Jesus is sitting on His haunches in her room, waiting patiently in the dark for her to turn around and ask for help. She can palpably feel Presence. She resisted for some time but eventually broke down to Presence sitting in the corner, waiting patiently. I can relate to that!SAMSUNG

That being said I come to the root of today’s post … feeling Presence in the mundane, in the everyday routine, in the repetition of daily tasks, in the blah, blah, blah of the days, running into weeks, running into months. While I “know” that Presence always has my back and is always within me I don’t always “feel” Presence. Perhaps “notice” is a better word than “feel”. I don’t always see the “wow” within the monotony. I don’t always see the color within the gray. It’s easy to see Presence and feel Presence when things are going really great or really awful. It’s harder to find the Thread during the “in between”. I dare say I think that most of the living and loving and crying and dying happens in the “in between”.

In all likelihood I suppose my expectations were unrealistic. I may have expected that those moments I experienced early on, those moments of elation and awe when the clouds parted, the sunshine beamed down and revealed the universe’s secrets, to continue in ever-increasing frequency and intensity. I didn’t get that. What I got was a healthy dose of reality – dogs needing to be walked, laundry piling up, groceries to be purchased, bills to be paid, a job to go to and people to interact with. Honestly, I was feeling a little deflated. “Is that all there is?” I asked myself. “I thought it would be different.”

Gradually, the everyday rhythm of life and all it’s demands tempered those moments of “awe” and connectedness to Presence. I started to feel like Presence was busy in the next county taking care of someone else’s dreams. Every once in a while I would get those reminders, those “coincidences”, that Presence would send up to reassure me that I was being heard and cared for. Still, I felt like I was adrift.

So when Jonathan talked about finding God in the “Wow!” and in the “Ho Hum” I took notice and sat up a little straighter in my seat. Something clicked. While those “Wow!” moments are beyond description and are cherishable in their own right it is in the mundane, the tedious, the boring, the grayness, where the rubber meets the road.12814240514_8aaebd4df7_z

Presence was there when I marked up the apartment walls with crayon as a toddler. Presence was there when Dad dropped me off at my first day of kindergarten when I was too scared to take the bus. Presence was there when we went on picnics with my brother and sister. Presence was part of the conversations I had with my Mom throughout my life. Presence was there when my grandparents passed away.

Presence is in the satisfaction of putting in an honest day’s work. When there is laughter among friends, Presence is laughing right along with us. Presence is listening in on the phone call with Dad. Presence is in the ordinary encounters with people struggling to make it through their troubled lives. Presence sees the sparkle in my wife’s smile. Presence enjoys the sounds that come from my guitar. Presence is there when my dog greets me in the morning with a wagging tail. Presence was there when we hosted Daniela and when we met Nelya. Presence was with us in Jaycee’s kitchen when we first met Kris. Presence is there in Peter’s joy. Presence is in the kindness shown to others. Presence is in the little finch at the feeder as well as the eagle soaring high in the sky. I’ve just been to busy with16602238939_e87f048c34_m the “busy-ness” of life to notice.

No matter how hum drum or gray it may seem I will try to find the color hidden in plain sight. I will endeavor to notice the Thread working throughout my story. I will try to remember that if I can’t see God in all, I can’t see God at all. I will strive to remember that Presence is present.

Always.

Love Transforms – Part 1

The next few posts will be collection of snippets from my blog in 2013 chronicling our adventures in summer hosting for a Latvian teenager – Daniela.  They will be laid out in chronological order and I hope that you will enjoy the ride.  For a full read of these posts, go to www.servingdaniela.blogspot.com

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This is the first of many posts about our adventure for the Summer of 2013. Eileen, Peter and I are hosting a young woman, an orphan, from Latvia for five weeks this summer. We are both terrified and excited all at the same time. We don’t know very much about her except that she is 17, her name is Daniela and she is studying cosmetology in Latvia.

What we do know are several things: we are thrilled to be hosting her; we believe that this is God’s will for us to be hosting her; and, we KNOW that we will be forever changed by this experience.

We have been actively fundraising for several months now and things are going well on that front. We have also been connecting with other families across the country who are hosting other orphans through the same organization, New Horizons for Children. The meeting of other families of like spirit, heart and mission has been a blessing to us as we prepare for Daniela’s arrival. – May 19, 2013

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We continue to make headway on her bedroom (I ran the new electric and Eileen is repainting). We have an American flag and a Latvian flag for decorations. More will be added soon. We will make sure that the Latvian flag is flying along with the American flag for when she arrives on June 27th!

Friends, church and family continue to support our efforts financially and, more importantly, in prayer. God continues to confirm that this is our mission … to love and serve orphans. Frankly, we couldn’t be happier and more assured of His will. – May 21, 2013

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Ok, it is now officially the un-official start of the Summer of Hope. Slowly we are making headway in the attic (plan is to have it painted by the end of the weekend) and then it is on to finding a mattress for her bed and perhaps a dresser/nightstand. We are finding that the “things” we need for Daniela’s visit with us are easily falling into place.IMG_0129

Our prayer support network continues to grow. Our love for a young woman, whom we have never met, continues to grow as well. Our family is waiting with arms and hearts wide open for her arrival to America. It feels like she’s already there. –May 25, 2013

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Home safety inspection looms – tomorrow at 6 pm.

Eileen’s theory is to hide all the crap in the washing machine. Skeletons neatly tucked away in the closets. Dogs are sedated. Batteries changed in the smoke detectors. Bribe money conspicuously lying around (ha ha ha). Phil has promised to watch his vulgarity for a short period of time (Lord we need a miracle on this one)!

There is nothing more to do except …. pray!! — June 3, 2013

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Well, the safety inspection went very well (thank God she didn’t look in the basement). Seriously, Nancy was sweet and we enjoyed getting to know her.

We now are focusing on getting the last items done on the list before June 27th. Speaking of which, we found out this week that Daniela’s flight arrives at JFK on June 27 at 1 p.m. Sooooo excited! We have some photos framed for her room, we have a variety of small gifts and other items ready for her (mp3 player, necklace, purse, etc) and we have been brushing up on our Latvian language skills!

Eileen used her artsy skills to make Daniela’s welcome sign for the arrival at JFK. Looks wonderful! Today, the kids at Church will be making welcome cards for Daniela and learning a few key Latvian phrases to make Daniela feel welcome. More to come … — June 9, 2013

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Today is Father’s Day. As we celebrated the important role that Dad’s play in the family we heard a very inspiring sermon in church this morning. The topic of the “conversation” was Superheroes. The gist of the conversation was that superheroes, like Superman, have super-powers – x-ray vision, strength, speed, etc. Unlike our societal concept of what super-powers a superhero needs, Jesus flipped over that concept. Jesus says the meek, peacemakers, the poor, the grieving, etc are the real heroes. I can be a “superhero” by modeling my life after Jesus’ life – serving the downtrodden, the sick, the outcasts, etc with compassion, love and humility.

That struck a chord with me today. In about ten days a young woman will be experiencing life with our family here in America. While certainly we will have lots of fun and learn many things about each other, my priority is to be of service to God by taking the love and compassion and humility he showed to me and doing likewise to Daniela. We must be of service to her, meet her where she is and love her unconditionally!

By the grace of God I pray that she may know God’s love for her through our love for her. – June 16, 2013

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Words cannot begin to express how excited we are! We are down to counting the hours …. yes, hours …. until Daniela is physically with us. I know it sounds crazy to most people but for us it feels like Daniela has been with us on this journey from the beginning. And it hasn’t just been us on this journey! Every one of our friends and family have been with us on this journey, too! We are truly blessed to have such wonderful friends at work, in our neighborhood, at our church and across the country! They have made this part of the adventure so filled with love for Daniela it humbles us.

I don’t really know if we will ever really grasp the immense love and grace of God in this mission of love for Daniela. Perhaps we aren’t meant to understand it, just feel it and share it with others – love God, love others, serve the world. When I can pause and take a step back, I can see all the pieces falling into place all along the way to make this dream of ours a reality. – June 24, 2013

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IMG_0154What a whirlwind of a day!!!! Woke up at 4:30 a.m. (I did, Eileen slept like a baby) because of all the nervous energy of the anticipated arrival of Daniela. We were on the road by 9 and headed for our rendezvous at JFK Airport in Queens, NY. We hit a few traffic snarls along the way but we arrived at the airport by 12 and met up with some of the other families.

It was really quite indescribable to see all these lovely young people filled with such joy and promise as they walked through the terminal toward us. Several waves of lime-green t-shirted young people came past us but no Daniela yet. Finally, Daniela came into view and you would have thought that we were a bunch of kids on Christmas morning the way we were yelling “Svieka Daniela” and jumping up and down! She smiled and waved. Then we hugged her and welcomed her and waited for the “all clear” signal before heading out. After several pictures we said our “good byes” and headed for home We had some fun pantomiming what the car sickness bags were for and that made Daniela laugh. Daniela was whipped and fell asleep in the car.

We arrived home at about 5:30. We practiced our language skills (Latvian and English) and had some dinner. Daniela really enjoyed watching Peter eat with such gusto … she giggled at him (perhaps because she was such a dainty and slow eater). We showed her her room and how to use the shower, had her read her first affirmation, kissed and hugged her good night and wished her Saldie Sapni (Sweet Dreams). – June 27, 2013IMG_0164

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This is the Eileen version of today’s post: Phil kissed me and then left for work with Peter. It’s me…alone in the house. Wondering..when will she get up? Is it appropriate to let her sleep all day? Can I not tell Phil if she does. Can I sleep all day too? The answer was a crystal clear maybe. So I enjoyed my coffee, stalked Facebook for a while completely dependent on the wisdom of those whose host children had been awake for 5 minutes for deep and meaningful advise. I prayed and I waited

This is what I learned today:
1. She likes the same cereal as I do Special K red berry. She did not eat yogurt.
2. Apparently she likes to shop as much as I do…..we purchased….not a thing.
3. We both can go for long periods of time without speaking…we did
4. She would not eat ice cream
5. She will eat ravioli and almost spit it out while she watches P. scarf his food down like a maniac
6. I impressed her and well even myself a bit with the sit and stay hand signals for the Bouvier (read giant hairy dog) Willem, then she totally cracked up when he would not listen to go outside. Disobedience apparently is a universal language.
7 Dr. Who translates really great! We laughed at the same things, jumped and screeched in harmony at the gross things. She even said with a hand sign she wasn’t going to bed till the episode was over.
8. The jelly beans were all gone!

IMG_0163When we tucked her in tonite, she read her affirmation in Latvian and we read the English: Daniela you are light and love. Then she gave me a serious hug! I understand more of how you can love someone you never knew. It reminds me that this is just a drop in the bucket of how God loves us. – June 28, 2013

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So, Saturday the reality kind of set in … Daniela feels isolated, homesick and frustrated. She talked to her chaperone twice that day (thank the good Lord for Dace (pronounced “Dachay”). She wants to go home to Latvia NOW, TODAY. We gave her her space but there were some tough moments. Tears and anger and frustration and fear were changing it up in an instant. As if it wasn’t tough enough being a teenager, imagine being a teen in a country where you don’t speak the language and you can’t be with your friends.

We slogged through it. Lots of sullenness, homesickness, feeling alone, language barriers (she doesn’t speak any English and is resisting) coupled with teenage daughter angst and you get the picture. We’ve been shopping with her twice without so much as a pair of socks purchased. We figured out she likes jellybeans and wants to visit with her friend Jevgenija. Big pouting when we said “not today”.

After dinner, she went upstairs to her room and fell asleep. Eileen and I processed the days events. We agreed it was important to be consistent and loving. We need to be patient and give her time to adjust and never give up on loving her.

This morning I heard Daniela quietly come downstairs and then go back up to her room. When I came downstairs I noticed that the bag of Starbursts was gone. 🙂 – June 30, 2013

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The day started with tip-toes to the kitchen to root through some candy. There was a brief smile when we said our good mornings to each other and then …. we met with some resistance. When told she needed to wash up and put on some clean clothes for church she had a little bit of a tissue-tearing moment. Then she stalled and stalled until Eileen gently but firmly informed her she had five minutes to come downstairs. She came but she wasn’t pleased.

IMG_0195While at church we introduced her to our friends there which was met with sullenness and attitude as only a teenager can do. Our friend Cathy graciously offered a slew of clothes for Daniela to try on and topped it off with a lovely little card written in Latvian!!! That started the ice to melt.

The younger kids at church had made “welcome” cards for Daniela and decorated them with lots of stickers and flowers and colorful drawings. After Sunday school was over they all went upstairs and handed them to her saying “Sveika”. That brought out a smile on her face.IMG_0174

Then we went to a friend’s house and met up with a few of our friends from church. Linda and Wayne were so loving in offering their hospitality and Jana, Miriya and Alex were fantastic in helping her feel relaxed. After chowing down some pizza, chips and soda we hopped into the pool (even though it was raining at points). Daniela eventually joined us in the pool!! She laughed, floated around and swam like a fish! She interacted so well with everyone, including me, and was joking and playing with Peter!

Afterwards, when we were home, she told us that she really likes tomato juice and could we get some at the store for her. She then asked us to keep Peter downstairs while she took a shower in order to insure some privacy. We finished off the night with a Netflix movie and our new ritual – the nightly affirmation (“Daniela is a joy to spend time with”), “Arlabunakti”, “saldie sapni” and “mes tevi milu” (good night, sweet dreams and we love you).

Sigh – June 31, 2013

A Challenge: #100artworksofgratitude

Sounds like a good thing to try.

the art of breath

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Lately God has been showing me so much about what it means to live in joyful hope. And also that I suck at it.

Negativity and discontentedness are everywhere, oftentimes created in my own heart and spewing from my own lips into the reality in which I live and breathe along with others.

Gratitude is illusive and escapes me in the heat of the little aggravating moments of mess-ups and maladjustments. And so I need to make a drastic change if I don’t want to be continually dragged down deep into the negative trench of discontent and pessimism. It’s hard to get out of when I’ve been practicing it for so long, but I’m ready to fight it with the persistent practice of positivity.

I won’t waste my words with more wanton phrases of failed attempts and disappointments; I will get down to brass tacks and just tell you what’s…

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Signs of Grace

15910043680_5b040e7726_zEarlier in the week I was kvetching about by financial frustrations, demonstrating my whining self-centeredness and my general lack of faith.  Because when I get right down to it that’s what it was – a momentary lack of faith.  I forgot that my God is bigger than money problems. I forgot that my God is bigger than my joblessness.  My God is bigger than material things because it’s not about the stuff.

So later in the week I received 15881170075_aa42c0a802_msure reminders that He knows what is going on in my life.  He is paying attention and sent me small gifts disguised in the form of kindness of others.  That’s how He works, you know … through other people.   They weren’t very big gifts if you measure it in terms of dollar value.  But that’s not the true measure of kindness.  Oh no.  Because the value to me of these tiny gifts is immeasurable.

Lunch paid for unexpectedly by others,  a few pizzas that were on the house and a music lesson that was unexpectedly gratis.

Those small acts of kindness soothed my anxious spirit and provided much more than a full belly o3189923359_0e6fd886db_mr a music lesson.

They served up serenity.  They served up a gentle reminder that I should curtail my whining.  They served up a reminder to relax and have a little faith.

Random acts of kindness … signs of grace … evidence of love.

Thank you to those who unknowingly (perhaps) served as God’s messengers of grace.

The Net Is Always There

So it has been about a month since I decided to take the leap of faith and go into this freelance writing with everything I’ve got.  Starting something new is always scary.  “If I take the leap, will the net be there?”  “What if I fail?”

Wayne Gretzky said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  I’ve got nothing to lose at this juncture in my life and God seems to have me here on this road for a reason. So ….

I managed to start a new blog and created a web site.  I have to tell you that creating the web site was not a user-friendly experience but like anything else once I got it up I was pleased that I was able to learn a new skill with the help of tech support.  It reminds me of the closing scene in My Cousin Vinny when Vinny complains that he wanted to win his first case without any help and Lisa sarcastically tells him that he wins case after case with other people’s help and at the end he has to say “Thank you”. What a nightmare!

So that leads into this past week where I ordered new business cards.  I must say they look nice. What do you think?

Business Card 2015 Flip Business Card 2015

Then I garnered a couple of writing assignments.  One was an announcement/update of information for my church and distributed to local newspapers.  The second assignment was to write an article for the local papers about a Valentine’s Day dinner/music event at our church.  The third assignment was drafting a description and “promotional” piece for a new discipleship program for our church.  The first assignment was completed and drafts of the others have been circulated for review.

I have a one or two longer term projects also underway.

I don’t know why I am ever surprised by God’s plan … (He’s probably shaking His head and chuckling.  “Silly people.”).  He never fails; when I follow His lead the net is always there. Always!

In Good Faith

For most of my life I never really had much of a relationship with God.  Don’t get me wrong, I was involved in my church but I felt that God was on the other side of the universe and wasn’t interested in what I did so long as I didn’t do anything really stupid or bad … and if I did – the lightning bolts would start to fly!  I treated God like my secretary – telling him what I needed and the deadlines, etc.

When my life fell apart over a three year span I felt even more removed and separated from God.  But God was there the whole time (it was I who had turned away) just waiting for me to stop my foolishness and ask for His help.  When i finally did ask for help my relationship became a real relationship for the first time.

What a difference!  I won’t lie – there are times when my conversations are difficult.  There are even times when I am shaking my fist at the heavens but no matter what happens I know that God has my back and He loves me.  That trust has carried me through some very trying times.

I know that no matter what life throws at me, I will be okay.  I like this new relationship. I like it a lot.