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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Offer Up Your Hearts

I read a very interesting article the other day. It was a short article in Time’s online edition. Short on length but long on depth and meaning. The article discussed Pope Francis’ different perspective on the traditional Lenten fasting. Most of the time when we give up something for Lent, it’s a personal sacrifice; that’s true but rarely does that sacrifice translate to benefiting someone else. That’s where the Pope’s calling upended the traditional view.

The Pope’s call for Lent? Fast from indifference towards others.

Indifference by Son of Groucho

Image by Son of Groucho

What does it mean, indifference? Mirriam Webster defines it as a “lack of interest in or concern about something.” So what is His Eminence asking us to “give up”? Well, give up being apathetic to others’ problems; stop walking past the derelict on the street; give up our complacence towards others’ pain; stop the coldness, hard-hardheartedness and callous disregard toward the plight, the anxiety, the homelessness, the hunger, the poverty … the fear of our brothers and sisters. We need to show concern for others. “Concern?” “A marked interest or regard usually arising through a personal tie or relationship” is how the dictionary defines “concern.”

So what the difference? Simple. Let your sacrifice have some depth, some heart, some meaning. Let it not be just a veneer – let it sink in a permeate every nook and cranny of your being. We need to hear those inner voices that trouble our conscience; something that causes us to squirm from discomfort.

Indifference by quoteseverlasting

Image by QuotesEverlasting

The longer we harden ourselves to the world outside the more our hearts and souls become encased in and encrusted with hardened steel and barbed wire, impervious to the needs of others. We become incapable of feeling compassion, sympathy and empathy for the troubles and pains of others. We tend to believe and act as if “all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” That belief tends to reinforce the hardness and coldness of our hearts and further distances ourselves from those around us. In the meantime the suffering of others gets progressively worse and unbeknownst to us, our own suffering of spirit spreads like a cancer. Our souls leak as our humanity rusts and withers. Finally, when we are alone we wonder why no one seems to care, no one seems to notice that our hearts are as black as night.

Look around. Take notice. Take action. Give up the indifference to the plight of others. You don’t have to solve the problem – you just have to let them know they’re not alone. Just be their friend. The effect is more long-lasting than giving up chips or chocolate for Lent.

Indifference by Erich Ferdinand

Image by Erich Ferdinand

So eat your chips and chocolates, keep binging on Netflix. Give your heart and attention instead.  Rend your hearts not your garments.

Mission Bells

I was heading into a smaller version of a big box mega store with Kris. It was the midpoint of the Christmas season and the shopping frenzy was in full swing.

We had already passed by several monolithic monster stores, noticing the extraordinary amount of cars in the parking lots. “No way” I thought to myself. Visons of madness at the checkout lines danced in my head. By today’s standards, the one we chose was tiny.  So there was hope that we could get what we needed with a minimum of stress.

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Kris the Elf meets Elsa

 

Our mission that evening – find a few gifts for Peter from Kris.

As we walk from the car toward the front doors, we discuss the types of things Peter would like for Christmas. We decide that cookies and Goldfish crackers would be good choices. We can hear the familiar jingling of the Salvation Army bells.

“What is the story of those bells? Why are they ringing?” he asks.

I explain what the Salvation Army does in God’s name – help the poor, prepare hot meals for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and special Christmas and Thanksgiving meals.

He takes in what I’ve said. “Hmm, that’s good.”

We purchase our items and as we walk out the doors he asks me to carry the packages. I comply and walk ahead of him toward the ringing bells. I make a small donation and head to the car. Kris follows a few steps behind me.

“That man was very happy with me.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“I gave $10.”

“Why did you give $10?”

“Because I like to help people.”

I smile.

Yes you do, Kris. Yes you do.

Contagion of Hatred and the Risk of Love

No amount of laws can change a hardness of heart. No law can overcome the abyss created by hate, a hate that threatens our humanity, our existence. No amount of hand-wringing or committees or speeches can bring forth what is truly needed to bring about a fundamental and lasting change of how we treat others. No law, except one – “Love others.”  The only thing that will stem the tide of hatred towards others is changing how we see others – not as different or enemies but as the same as us.  That change in perspective comes from love.20643335423_8d8419abfd_z

But that requires us as members of the human family to go far beyond our comfortable borders.  We think “if we just bar the doors, shutter the windows and stuff cotton in our ears we can keep the wolves outside while we remain safe inside.”  We delude ourselves into thinking either the crisis doesn’t really exist or worse – that someone else will handle this mess.  “A boat is safe in the harbor but that is not the purpose of a boat.” – Paolo Coelho.  There is no one else!! The crisis is here, now, and it is not going away unless we each do our part in some small way.

21203320479_88c451465c_mAs a Christian I am called to be like Christ, a follower of Christ.  His early command was simple – “Follow Me.”  But what does that mean? Here’s what I feel it means for me.  It doesn’t mean to just walk behind Him, to be shielded by Him (although there are times when I need that shield).  “Follow Me” was a calling to live like Him, do like Him and love like Him.  It was a simple instruction on a way of life.  Do as I do … this is how to live a whole, healthy, connected life with God and each other.  Love God, love others … without exception!

Aahh, if only it were that simple, right? Loving others is easy if the “other” thinks like me, looks like me and believes like me.  It gets real up here when I am confronted with “others” who are different from me.  That asks us to take risks, to live on the fringes not because it is comfortable but because that is where the need is.  That’s where the hurt is. That’s where the war is. That’s where the sickness is. That’s where the fear and desperation are. That is where our neighbor is.

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Is it easy? Hell no, it is not easy but nothing worthwhile is ever easy.  “But I am only a small, insignificant force.  What can I possibly accomplish?”  I used to believe that rubbish, too.  I used to think the problems of the world were too big for one person to tackle and perhaps they are – for one person. However, when I try to make a difference I notice that there are lots of other “insignificant forces” doing the same thing and together a new world can be forged.  I just have to look back on history to see a long, long line of “heroes” – both ordinary and extraordinary – who refused to remain silent, refused to shutter their eyes, ears and hearts, refused to allow evil to go unchallenged.  Go ahead, think back yourself and you’ll see them too.20953116739_335c5fd0c8_z

Perhaps if we can manage to remember that we are all made in the image of God, we can remember those tragedies are happening not in some distant land. Those horrors are not happening to some faceless, nameless stranger.  The brutality and tears and desperation are those of our neighbors, our family, our friends … and it’s happening right here in our neighborhood.  Perhaps then we’d be a little less fearful and more courageous in righting wrongs. Perhaps then we’d pause before committing acts of violence against others in our homes, in our schools, at our jobs. Perhaps we’ll pause and see them as our brother, our sister, our pets and perhaps we’ll think twice.

Maybe what really scares us more than the differences is facing the possibility that we don’t really “believe” what we say we believe.  Because now we have to apply those beliefs (political, religious, spiritual and otherwise) not in the comfort of our hymns on a Sunday morning, bathed in stain-glass colored light; not in the comfort of the insulated halls of justice or government.  Rather, those beliefs get tested by fire in the trenches, in the back alleys with the addict, in the refugee camps, in the homeless shelters, in the Ebola wards, in the orphanages.  “Follow Me.”3039401455_92581783fb_z

If we don’t, we’ll have to face the uncomfortable, ugly truth – maybe we don’t believe the Gospel! Yikes!! We modify it to fit our comfort zones. “Jesus didn’t really mean for me comfort the dying in the hospital. He didn’t mean for me to open my home to refugees.  He really didn’t mean I had to feed the hungry at a soup kitchen.”  Really, He did.

35 You shall be richly rewarded, for when I was hungry, you fed Me. And when I was thirsty, you gave Me something to drink. I was alone as a stranger, and you welcomed Me into your homes and into your lives. 36 I was naked, and you gave Me clothes to wear; I was sick, and you tended to My needs; I was in prison, and you comforted Me. – Matthew 25:35-36

The only way to combat the plague of hate and darkness of soul is through the light of love, without exception.  Will you do your part to chase the darkness? Will you help make this world a little nicer, a little kinder? There is no such thing as a small act of kindness, a small demonstration of love for even one small match will chase out the darkness.

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 Part 6 – The Heartbreak

This is the final installment of our recap of our adventures with Daniela.  There will be one additional post that follows that will bring this story of 2013 into the present day.

Today I started to feel the end approaching.  I was sitting in my office with my eyes closed praying silently.  I was praying that god would help me to be his hand and feet.  I was praying that God would help me to be aware of the opportunities to be of service.  I was praying for all those families whose hearts were breaking because they had to let go of a “stranger” and trust BIG TIME that God really knows what He is doing – knows way better than we can know what the future holds for these families and these kids.

As I was sitting there reading these posts of my friends – my brothers and sisters – strangers to me a mere two months ago, I started to get choked up.  These kids had such a dramatic impact on the lives of all whom they had touched.  They profoundly changed all those moms, dads, brother, sisters, friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles of all those families all across this country.  They created this gigantic hemispheric tidal wave of love, caring and hope that united a Hodge-podge group of people that had only one thing in common at the outset of this journey – we were all hosting an orphan through New Horizons For Children.  We didn’t know anything about each other. We were scattered from New England to the Great Lakes to the Northwest and California to the Midwest and the South – from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.  We came from all walks of life and with all sorts of talents and abilities to become one – One Family. One Big, Beautiful, Loving Family.  We are strangers no more.  We are forever linked and forever in each others hearts and prayers.  All this due to these rag-tag bunch of kids in lime-green neon t-shirts.

So as all of this starting washing over me today I became overwhelmed by this miracle – this tidal wave of love that washed on our shores at the end of June, 2013.  These little souls came here to spend time with us “crazy” Americans and hoped to experience something really amazing this summer – and they did.  But perhaps unbeknownst to them they have indelibly written on each of our hearts.  I know that the thread of Daniela’s story, the thread of God’s story for Daniela, is now interwoven in the fabric of our lives, our story.  Her presence here has marked each us and nothing will ever erase that – not time, not distance, not events.

This journey was not a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. At times it felt like a walk through Jurassic Park but we kept walking.  We slogged through the muck and the darkness and made it through to the sunshine and the smiles.  It took a lot of work to trust God and to keep the faith that there was something worthwhile on the other side if we would just have the faith of a mustard seed.  We did and it was worth all the struggle.  Love won out and fear and pain was vanquished.  How do I know?  Here’s a small indication: at the early stages D wanted to return to Latvia “right now” and tonight her mood is somber at the thought that this phase of her adventure is drawing to a close.  Her bag is packed but she does not want to weigh it.  She wants to prolong this miracle for as long as possible.  She wants to enjoy this for a few days more.

Today although it felt like my heart was about to break from the strain I was able to reflect for a moment and realize that my net was not breaking.  In fact, my net was overflowing with blessings and grace.  Overflowing with blessings carried by an unsuspecting young woman from Latvia.- July 30, 2013

She is torn.  She has been alternating between alone time in her room to laughing and joking around with us in the living room.  She is torn.  She does not want to make the long trip back to Latvia but she also wants to be among her familiar surroundings and her mother tongue.  She is torn.  She does not want to enter the room where our church lifegroup is meeting to pray so the group came to her and she smiles, basks in the limelight and laughs as each member of the group reads aloud the final affirmations (in Latvian) from her paper chain.

Her bag is packed. She laughs as I try to lift her bag and bring it downstairs. Feels like it has rocks in it but it is 4.5 pounds under the limit. She has packed away all the clothes we purchased.  Candy and snacks, too.  Memories are stored away in there as well.  There and in her heart.  She is ready to go but she isn’t.

She asks to download some music from the internet and we happily agree.  She shows me some pictures from her phone.  Pictures of some friends, of her, of her boyfriend, Kenny.  She does not show them to Eileen … only to me. Hmmm.

We exchange gifts.  She brought a beautiful hand-painted scarf from Latvia.  It is exquisite, lovely and delicate.  She receives an mp3 player, make-up, ear buds, a necklace and a hand-crotcheted sock monkey winter hat. More than that was the whole exchange process itself.  It was almost surreal yet the love around that kitchen table was very tangible.  We gave her a key to our front door.  We explained that we are one family, Viena Ģimene, and when she comes back she is welcome with open arms and open hearts any time.

The final hours slowly ticked away while we were at church lifegroup.  At the end of lifegroup all the loving members of our group – the same members who threw her a surprise birthday party, let her swim in their pool, gave her lovely free clothing – gathered around her in the living room and poured out their love and God’s love.  They drenched her in it.  They read some affirmations to her in her native tongue and we all butchered her language.  She didn’t care.  Once again the love that was surrounding Daniela was palpable, present and perfect.

God was in Bangor, PA of all places!   Of course He was.  He was also present when the pillow fight closed out the festivities.  He was present when Daniela surprised me by throwing a few pillows at me while I was taking pictures.  (The girl has a heck of an arm!)  He’ll be present with us as we take her to the airport tomorrow.  He’ll be present on that plane with Daniela and He’ll be present with us as we sob and grieve our girl going home.  God will be right there with Daniela every second of her life, every step of the way, in every moment of joy, in every moment of sorrow.  Just like He will be for us.

We are ever grateful for Daniela being a member of our family!  Tomorrow will not be an easy day but we are nevertheless a family and will send of our Daniela with all the love and blessings we have.  We will see her again someday. – August 1, 2013

Phil:

As I sit here staring at the screen I realize that it is very hard to put this last post together. I don’t know where to begin. So much has happened during this long, strange, glorious, frustrating, miraculous trip.  It has been five months since we first started looking at the photos and short descriptions of the kids.  Yet, when I look back on all of this it has been much longer than five months.  My whole life has been a dress rehearsal for these few short weeks and what will happen as a result of this journey.

As far as the last day goes it went much better than expected.  We had secretly stashed a card with a letter to our Daniela in her duffle bag.  That was no small feat as she had packed away EVERYTHING we had given her (including a few empty candy wrappers).  She had transferred all her music to her mp3 player and was listening to that on the ride to the airport.  Upon arrival we met up with the other Latvian cherubs and their chaperones.  Daniela immediately hooked up with her friends Kristine and Zhenya and started sharing stories, snacks and looking through photo albums.  Kristine and Zhenya are two marvelous young ladies and we were blessed to make their acquaintance during this visit.
The biggest surprise of the day came from the most unsuspecting source … the little kids.  Honestly, if it hadn’t been for their joy, laughter, curiosity and boldness I doubt I would have been able to hold it together.  In the last post I shared about the palpable presence of God during our last night with Daniela.  Well, that real presence of love was also at JFK.  It was a privilege to be a witness to these precious last hours for all of these kids before they headed for home.

Love seemed to pour out of their very pores.  For anyone who was paying attention, these kids were changed as a result of their experiences.  They are aching for someone to accept them, love them, hug them, guide them and inspire them.  They are the forgotten ones, the unseen, the outsiders – tucked away out of sight by the world.  But not by us and not on this visit!!!!

For the past five weeks they were kings and queens.  On this visit they were given hugs.  During their time with us they were guided, inspired and loved for who they are – not outcasts, not throw-aways, not less-thans – our sons and daughters.  They were shown unconditional love and acceptance perhaps for the first time in their lives.  The results were astounding and real and tangible.  The love of God was shown to these sons and daughters.  I’m not talking about some esoteric, ethereal love; I’m talking about hugging them at night love, going swimming with them love, sitting around a campfire love, laughing with them love, crying with them love, holding them accountable love, being a parent love, welcoming them into our hearts and homes love.

It was by no means all lovey-dovey.  There were plenty of gut-wrenching episodes, struggles with homesickness, behaviors problems and withdrawal from interaction.  Many of our sons and daughters were paralyzed with fear and had built up very high walls for protection.  But we parents would not give up on them.  We kept at it and held firmly to the belief that love does conquer all, that consistent love will wear down those walls of fear, that God will get into those dark places and shine His light.

I think that of all the things I will take away from this grand experience the biggest one is this: the power of unconditional love can change the world.  I have never really seen that in action until this summer.  These kids taught me that when I have faith, when I trust that what I am doing is God’s work, when I am fearless in applying God’s love even in the darkest of places, when I am resolute in my commitment to God and these kids even when it would be much easier to quit, when I love God, love people and serve the world I will be rewarded ten thousand fold.

My reward came in a little package of a curious, bold, blond-haired kid named Sasha.  He was fearless .  He came right up to me as I was sitting down and plopped himself in my lap.  He shared his gum with me and with Peter.  He shared his granola bars with Peter.  He reached up and gave me a kiss on the cheek and called me “Papa”.  He told me he wanted to take pictures with my camera and I let him (he took some great pictures).  He said, “Sasha likes french fries.”  He played peek-a-boo with me.  He had me from the first smile!!!  For a few hours we bonded with Sasha and his friends, Artjoms and his friends, Daniela and her friends, Inga, Dace and Laima and the list goes on.  One big happy family.

In the end that’s what we are …. one big happy family.

In closing, I do not know where this journey will take us but we know that this is not the end of our ministry for orphans.  Thank you to all our friends and family who prayed for us and helped us emotionally, physically and spiritually.  We could not have done this without you.

 Eileen:

Orphan hosting is not for sissies.
I have run a marathon. I have completed 2 triathlons. I have a special needs guy and work with challenging behaviors. I am not afraid of much.
Except maybe this: A teenager….a girl….5 weeks…no English…16
My husband and I jumped into the deep end of the pool….. and came up forever changed.
We prayed that we might be the hands and feet of Jesus. Never really thinking of the path those particular feet walked. We learned what unconditional love can do for a broken and unwanted child. We saw a fatherless girl learn to trust an adult man. We learned to be patient and wait. We learned to be gentle with ourselves and give her the time and space to find her way into our family.  We learned that our God loves us in a way so disproportionate to what we deserve and how can we even begin to show this love to a child?
This is not all hallelujahs and halos. This is the nitty- gritty of God’s tangible love for a child. It meant that I could not be offended at being called disgusting Americans. I needed to see God’s child thrashing out in anger and hurt.  I believe that when my heart breaks for what breaks God’s, that crack makes room for more love.
It’s hard and heartbreaking. It’s beautiful and breathtaking. You will never be the same… jump in, the waters great!
These were some thoughts I wrote to the me before hosting from the me after hosting. I am not sure what comes next. It has been two days since we took D to JFK for her flight home to Latvia. She was very ready to go and yet I could tell that something had shifted for her as well.
We got a chance to talk with and hang out for a few hours with some of the other kiddos waiting for the flight. Many had connected from other airports so didn’t have the host families there. One boy plopped himself in Phil’s lap and looked up and said “Papa”! These little souls want families to love them.
Another girl, friends with D, couldn’t wait to see her photo album but D was reluctant to look excited around us … soon after we saw them snuggled up in a corner pouring over the pics.
The house feels different. Some of the things around me seem so insignificant compared to what these kids face. I know God has changed my heart for orphans. It is very hard to be comfortable when I think about the future for these kiddos. I know that we are called to continue to serve them I just don’t know exactly what that will look like. But we will blog about it! It has been an honor to share our journey with our friends and families and some friends we haven’t met yet.
This would not have been possible without the many, many prayers and thoughts and blessings that rained down on our family. And for those who ask would we do it again the answer is absolutely! – August 3, 2013

Busy Signals

I haven’t posted anything in a while. Stating the obvious, I know, so I thought I would write about being busy.

Do you remember when you were a kid? Do you remember the exhilaration and joy when school let out for the summer? Summer seemed to go on and on. A seemingly endless series of warm summer days filled with swimming, arts and crafts, bike riding, exploring and just plain hanging out with your friends.

Fast forward to adulthood. Set the scene: George Jetson is out walking Astro on the treadmill sidewalk. Astro sees the cat and jumps off the treadmill. Poor George is left scrambling as he gets whipped around and around screaming “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” That is how fast my life seems to be moving as an adult. Hurtling along at breakneck speed until one week runs into the next and before you know it another year has vanished.

2288775081_e835759c7e_zIt seems that my life is filled with the busy-ness of “noise” – appointments, work, school activities, yada yada. Before I know it, it is Sunday evening and another week begins. I’ve tried to slow things down without much success. Kind of like that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – they are hurtling along in that little mine car, going faster and faster, and the brakes are useless. The frenetic pace was taking its toll on my well-being, physically and spiritually. I felt like I was so distracted by the “terrain” of life that I got bogged down in the swamp, way off course. Was my life nothing more than a collection of To-Do lists? 10519508175_f3ced9dfc2_m

How do I get back on track with fulfilling my purpose? How do I break out of this briarpatch, this sticker bush?

Not too long ago I went to a meeting and heard this guy I know talking about some stuff going on in his life. He turns and looks at me at one point and starts talking about how he doesn’t want to “lose himself”. Hmmmm.

Shortly thereafter I was having a conversation with Dad. We were talking about how I was coming along with my continuing legal education requirements (I need to earn some credits before I can apply to reactivate my law license). I explained that life was really hectic now. “You have to make the time. Make it a priority.” Words of wisdom from Dad.

Finally, the other day I opened a daily devotional book that I had not read for some time. When I opened it to the day of August 10 the topic was the necessity for regular prayer and meditation as part of my new way of life in recovery. BLAM!!!

So I have been doing my best to set firm boundaries for my time and attention. I am making a better effort at carving out quiet time for my spirit and working on my connection with God. The past few days I’ve noticed a softening of the edges of my spirit. My life is better balanced and it is sorely needed!

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.