the other side of birthdays

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this evening thinking about how much pressure I feel as a mom to make my kids’ birthdays exceptionally special. Dave and I are pretty low key about holidays. We try to limit the presents, the consumerism, and the attitudes centered on “stuff” and instead attempt to teach our kids about celebrating the person or the reason for the holiday. This weekend we had a small party for Nathaniel in which three of his friends and his brothers ate pizza, went swimming, and played on the playground at the Rec. There was not a theme, no organized games, no grand fanfare. Oh, and I made gift bags for our guests. Which ended up ensuing in tears by jealous brothers. Fabulous. Very low key (except for the tears).
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We’ve done the other kind of party with the theme and the games and the whole class of 25 kids invited. But, we’re kind of over it.
So, why did I wake up this morning thinking of ways to please my sweet SEVEN YEAR OLD boy? Certainly because I love him, but there’s something else. It’s the expectation of a birthday that puts the pressure on me as a Mama.
I remember, vividly, the tears I cried myself on many a birthday. It had nothing to do with my mother (although I probably thought it did at the time). It had to do with the expectation of a perfect day. Everyone sings to you. You get presents and cake and icecream. You’re the center of attention (very important to people like me and also my middle child).
We tried to celebrate Nata’s birthday on Saturday because we knew that Mondays aren’t super easy. We all go to school. We rush home to eat lunch around 1. I have a staff meeting at 3 at my school. Sam has TaeKwonDo at 4 at Nata’s school. Nata has art at 4:30 at a third location. I come home; Sam gets dropped off at home; Someone hopefully remembers to go get Nata. We shove down dinner, study spelling words, and it’s bed time.
Add to that a perfectly frosted cake which the birthday boy has diagramed in great detail, lasagna made from scratch, presents to be wrapped and unwrapped. Oh, and also last night and today we have had a turkey problem (long story) and had to kill 6 turkeys. So we roasted 3 turkeys and froze 3 turkeys today. Oh and my car died today (and was also repaired). Dave shopped for presents and lasagna stuff AND picked up Caleb’s new passport up from the Embassy. AND we had to call the plumber to fix the kitchen sink.
On the way to pick the boys up from school at noon today I was trying to think of ways to make this day special for my boy. I want him to know I love him. I love him so much. I some how squeaked 8 extra minutes out in which I made a mad dash into the supermarket to buy CHICKEN NUGGETS (the first I’ve EVER purchased in Niger), Pringles, Fanta, and Coke. Because this mama shows her love with sugar and fake chicken byproduct. And whatever is in Pringles.
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But I can’t quite explain to you the feeling of gratification when I set the table for lunch and called the boys and my Nata IMMEDIATELY honed in on the special treats, “Oh thank you so much for making this SO SPECIAL!!” he squealed enthusiastically. It didn’t matter that there were 6 dead turkeys, a plumber, and sink full of dirty dishes going on in the next room. My boy felt the love.
And that’s really the point.
Some times (many times) my day gets to be so full of all the stuff and the coming and going that I don’t even have time to see what really matters. Today, somehow, through the craziness we sat down in front of birthday cake and lasagna and special presents sent by each one of his grandparents and we talked about why we love our Nata. And I got to think about what it is about this boy that makes him so special.
Yesterday Nathaniel said that the two great gifts God has given him are, “art and viciousness!” This pretty much sums up my boy’s personality. He is intensely creative and yet somehow all tough boy. He loves to dance and sing and draw and paint. He’s emotional and sensitive. He’s also courageous, fearless, and determined. He swims so well that his friends think he should have to play pool games with a handy cap. And if any one ever explains to him about Parkour we are in trouble. Most importantly, he really loves Jesus and wants to be like Him. He comes home from school with proud stories of how, “I did not repay evil with evil, Mom. And that kid was really mean.” He’s growing into a boy that cares about doing what is right and defending those in need. He has a heart full of compassion, full of adventure, sensitive yet fearless. He listened intently as his daddy prayed a prayer of blessing over him tonight. He hung on every word spoken by his father to the Father because he believes that those things are so important. I can’t wait to see what this kid has in store!
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Our day was full of all the things that make us a family. Including spelling words coupled with hot tears dripping down Sam’s face as he quietly confessed that his heart was full of jealousy. “I miss my birthday,” he mumbled. Because sometimes it’s not easy to watch your little brother be so special. And we loved him, and we hugged him, and we encouraged him to go to his brother and apologize. And we talked about our hearts. And Mama whispered that she used to feel jealous of her sister too. What an honor to sit with him as he recognizes something so raw and so real. How profound that he was able to voice that to us instead of just having an attitude.
As I sit here tonight and reflect on my day. As I sigh about the struggles and wonder how many other Mamas feel this way about birthdays, it hits me that this is a good parallel to life. It’s busy and crazy and all kinds of things go wrong, but it’s beautiful and joyful and FULL; there’s so much good to be found in the growing and learning. As we struggle to survive, trying to thrive, it’s the things we can learn and the things we see when we step back that make all that running around worth it.
These boys (including Dave) are such amazing people. I am so honored to know them the way that only I do. Any day that I don’t stop and think about that is a little bit wasted.
That’s why I love the joy and the tears that come with birthdays.

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life giver, mountain maker

Today I had a moment where I wanted to throw my hands in the air and scream and cry. I am tired, so very tired, of waiting.

I have chosen to live in Niger because I want to minister to women and children. The funny thing about this is that sometimes I put this first in front of, “Whatever you ask of me…” I have this ideal in my head of what my glamorous life should look like, and sometimes I just get disappointed when things don’t go MY way. Today was just one of those days. And then that still small voice (how many of my days go like this….. this is my life people)…. that still small voice reminded me of all the good things that He has done.

And I looked directly in front of me. And I saw this….

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And I decided that it’s been way too long since I have celebrated out loud- TESTIFIED- about all the things that He is doing. Because, I know the one who created the mountains. And just because this mountain in front of me (the one named Holding Babies And Hanging Out With Ladies) seems so impossible right now, that doesn’t mean that His beauty doesn’t surround me. It does. He has given me life. Abundant life. So today, in honor of all He has done, I want to tell you a story. And I want to keep telling these kinds of stories forever. Until I don’t have anything left to tell.

This story begins more than thirty years ago when a little girl named Hope Egliht lived in Houston, Texas. God knew. He gave me two sweet neighbor friends named Amy and Jennifer. Amy and Jennifer were pretty great, and I learned a lot from them. We’ve stayed friends and my friendships with these girls continue to bless me. God has given both of them amazing children to love. Jennifer has three awesome kids and shares openly about how Autism has changed her family life. She speaks about the trials and the successes, the joys and heartaches of parenting children with special needs. God used Jennifer to prime the pump, so to speak.

Last year I was at our church in Niamey and I watched as a friend of mine interacted with her 10 year old son. We’ve known this family since we moved to Niger and the older Osse, her son, has grown the more his special needs have become noticeable. This week I watched as he walked up and down the isles of the church banging a plastic soda bottle on people’s heads. Some of the people he knew and some he didn’t. Then I turned to see the look on his mother’s face. And my heart stopped beating. I knew she had prayed and struggled without anyone to walk beside her. For years. I thought of all the resources available in my country through the school system, healthcare providers, therapists, and the like. I immediately thought of my friend Jennifer as I saw her hopeless expression. And I knew that this friend didn’t live the same life with the same kind of aides. I began to pray for my friend. I asked God to help her, and I felt Him say that together we could help her.

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I know very little about helping a boy with symptoms like these. So I set out to find someone who did know. I prayed, and I trusted that the Mountain Maker knew what to do. I felt it down to my bones. He wanted to help this boy. He sent us my friend Reilly. A speech pathologist who had worked with Autistic kids. She’s amazing.

Now, about a year later, Reilly and I visit this family every week. And it is simply. amazing. I can hardly put into words what God has done. He has changed all of our hearts. Instead of feeling hopeless, we are watching in awe as God works miracles in the life of this little boy. Today his momma told me that she thinks there isn’t anything he can’t do. It might take him longer, but if he wants to do it, he can. A year ago he was speaking very little, but we have listened and watched with delight as his therapy sessions with Reilly have build a huge vocabulary. Joyful was the day that he spoke the names of all his family members. They laughed and squealed in delight. Now he is recognizing colors, numbers, shapes, animals, people, emotions. He is learning to express himself.

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And I am learning too. In this place where “special needs” kids are literally seen as cursed, I am learning how important it is to stop and take time to love them, see them, talk to them, minister God’s love to them. And to their siblings. And to their parents. Osse’s father told Dave that we were the first people EVER to ask them if we could help in some way. This shocked me. We’ve known them for almost eight years. For all that time we did nothing. How many other families with special needs kids are there in this place needing someone to just reach out and show them the love of Jesus?

What an honor to answer that call. It is all part of His grace. I know the Mountain Maker. He made me, and he is giving me life- abundantly.

Please pray that God would continue to show us those whom we should stop for. As we pass people on the street, as we go about our lives, I pray that we would hear His voice speaking to us about the needs of others. We struggle to share these stories that don’t even feel like our stories to tell. We so want to glory to go to God and not to us. We tell these stories to lift His name high.

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what I want to say about Ebola.

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Dave pulls up to the side of the road. I hop out of the passenger side door and into another world called “Petite Marche”. I am looking for fabric to give a friend for her birthday. As my family waits in the car, I walk past an alley way filled with bras and a booth of hair care supplies. I dodge the sludge and step into a stall with breathtaking African print fabric hanging from ceiling to floor.

“Mate arang go!” I greet the shop keeper hoping that the Zarma greeting will work like a magic code for “I’ve been here a while. Give me a good price.” The men begin to chuckle and talk quickly in the local language about the white lady who speaks Zarmasani.

I gaze at the beautiful fabrics before me and try to think carefully about which would be best for my friend. I’m distracted by the bartering that will soon commence (in a language that uses numbers based on 5 and not 10). I’m ashamed that I still haven’t mastered this system. I first learned it more than 2 years ago. Math is not my thing.

I ask the shop keeper the price, and he tells me in Zarma. I didn’t catch the number. I ask him again in French. He says, “7,000 francs.” Deal. I think this is a good price. I tell him I’ll take it (6 yards for about $15 USD.)

Then I notice a little girl sitting in the corner of the stall. She looks sad, and I greet her in Zarma. She says nothing. “She must be tired,” I say to the man in French. It’s about one in the afternoon, and I notice her forehead is covered in sweat. “No, she’s not tired, she’s sick.” He replies. And then I feel the Holy Spirit say, “Stop for this one. “ I ask if she has Malaria and he explains that he knows it’s not Malaria. It’s something else.

“Can I pray for her?” I ask. He smiles at me.

“I am a Christian, and I believe that that Jesus Christ can heal your daughter.”

“You can pray for her,” he says.

I sit beside her, and ask if it’s ok for me to touch her. As I lay a hand on her sweaty shoulder, I begin to pray that Jesus will heal her little body, take away her fever, give her peace, and that this family will know the love that he offers to them. It’s a simple prayer. I start in French and switch to English when I get frustrated at my inability to express myself clearly. The moment is over just about as quickly as it started.

I thank the man, grab my purchase, and hop back in the car.

*****

Life is moving along, here in Niger. October is always hot, and I usually feel a bit disconnected as I read about autumn in my homeland. Recently, I felt God pointing out to me how important it is to Him that I “Stop for the one.” This is an idea, or a movement, prompted by a video I recently watched about how God is calling us to take time out in our busy lives to see the individual and their needs. Some days I am better at this than others.

Dave also had the opportunity to help someone who was sick this month. He noticed a boy that recently moved to our neighborhood and suffers from a severe deformity. Dave offered to take the boy to the hospital in hopes that they could figure out what was wrong. Long story short, this boy has been suffering from tuberculosis in his bones for most of his life and was never diagnosed. He is twenty-one years old. Now that he has a diagnosis, he is receiving free treatment provided by the government. While this is a blessing, he is also enduring a new problem. There’s such a stigma about disease, that his diagnosis is causing problems within his family.  They want him to leave because they are afraid.

Fear is such a strong thing. It’s almost hard to put into words.

I have been thinking lately about the threat of Ebola. Will I be afraid to stop for the one if this sickness that is now thousands of miles away comes closer?

There has been lots of news lately, and it all seems a bit like a “virtual reality” to me. My friends in the US are dealing with an avalanche of fear led by the major media outlets. I’m not hearing the constant worry here, as we go about our lives in the Sub-Sahara. Those issues feel kind of far away. People where we live are aware and cautious. We are all left to wonder, watch, and wait and see what happens.

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When I am asked if I am concerned about the risk of Ebola to my family, I don’t know what to say. Do I feel there is a risk? Yes. Do I feel that my risk is greater than if I lived in Virginia? Maybe. Am I afraid? No. Not even a little. I understand that “risk” is a factor playing into all of our lives. What makes one place safer than another? Statistics, I guess.  1925pd7oihnlzjpg

One thing that helps me not to worry is an understanding of just how large this continent is.

imagesWhen we decided to move with our family to West Africa, I knew we would face the threat of scary diseases. That’s something that I laid down in front of God a long time ago. We see people here every day whose lives have been greatly effected by illness and disease. I believe, however, that God’s  invitation to live the “Great Adventure” far outweighs the risk. I know that I could build for myself a plastic house surrounded by Clorox Wipes, but I don’t know if that house would protect me anymore than the cinderblock house I live in. My faith does not come from my location. My faith is in The One who makes the weather, has the power to heal disease, and who created me in His image to love others in His name.

Does that mean that we will never leave if this thing spreads across borders and enters our city? No, it doesn’t. But to leave this place and leave this people would break my heart. Our West African neighbors really do need help to conquer Ebola. If we do not help them, the threat will turn to us.

“There s no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4: 18

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whatever you ask in My Name…

The posts have been sparse around here.  You may have guessed why.  The road, here lately, has been paved in painful thorns. We’ve been limping, and crawling, and surrendering, and repenting, and struggling down that road.  The crucible is a hot place, and the refiner’s fire is not always fun.

But the blessing after that makes it all worth it.

He is so beautiful.  His grace really is enough.

At this point, there are things happening that we don’t know how to put into words, and there are miracles in our house that we can’t share with you yet (no I’m not expecting a baby).

God is so faithful.  His gifts to us are so sweet.  We are all thick in the middle of enjoying the relationships that He has so sweetly brought to each of us at Chez Jo.

And here is what I can share with you.  There is a literal harvest happening right now on the land that God has given us.  We bought the seed. We hired the hands.  We thanked God for a place to start.  We prayed that the investment -the seed money- would come back to honor and bless His plan for this place.  So that (eventually) the orphans and the widows and the hurting could be healed and restored and made whole through His goodness.  Because His plan for this place is good and His power and favor is enough to make it great.  We prayed for the harvest to be plentiful and abundant.  IMG_2551

And it is.

Today we visited the spot.  As of today our friends have harvested enough millet off of that land to feed 10 people for a year.  And we are no where near a quarter of the way done harvesting the millet.  And that’s not all we planted.  We planted beans too!  It’s so hight that it’s over our heads.  And higher than all the fields around it.  And we’ve had to hire boys to run around and yell and bang pots in the fields because the birds see fruitful abundance and they want some too.  IMG_2550

The people in the village want to know what we’ve done in the fields.  The man (who isn’t YET part of our flock) who is living on that land to hire the hands and watch over it, he knows the truth.  His eyes glittered when we talked about it today.

Our God is good. He is faithful.  He makes this GROW.

Life Giver. Abba Father.  My Keeper.  Creator.  Beautiful.  Abundantly More.  That’s who our God is.

We now have so many turkeys living in our yard that we literally don’t know what to do.

And that’s just God’s favor and blessing that we can talk about. Tomorrow morning in church I am sharing my testimony.  Please pray for me about that.  It literally scares me to tears to think about sharing in French.  I am a very weak jar of clay, and I want God’s story to be told to His people so that they can share in my excitement over how faithfully He has answered my prayer, my cry of JUSTICE for the hurting and lonely.  I cried out to Him, and I am watching Him answer that prayer in my very own home.  I want them to know that in God NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE.  And very, very soon it is my hope and fervent prayer that I will be able to share this testimony with you as well.  For now I’ll say that in our daily life- full of chaos and joyful play- God is showing us a special grace and a special goodness that we will treasure our whole life long.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” from John 14

We heard back from that Minister’s office this week.  The one who has been holding the papers that we need to do the work we really want to do.  ….sigh… We were sent (for the fourth? time) back to another ministry’s office.  This time with a glimmer of hope that we could be weeks away from the end of this ping pong game.  I don’t like ping pong at all.  But if it all ends in a yes.  If this is somehow part of His plan and His time…. well.  ok God.  I just finished saying that NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE.

In the process.

In the waiting.

You’re making melodies over me.

And your presence is the promise for I am a pilgrim on a journey.

And you will lead my head above the mighty waves.

You are able to keep me from stumbling.

And in my weakness You are the strength that comes from within.

Good shepherd of my soul, take my hand and lead me on.

And so I pray, here and now… God, you promised that you would not leave us as orphans.  You promised you would come to us. And God I ask you that you would set the captives free in this place.  Those who are neglected and abused, would you set them free? Those who are left alone, would you provide a place for them?  Raise up your Church in this place.  Break their hearts for the things that break your heart.  And do it now God.  Don’t wait.  Help us to share your Grace in the same way that you have lavished it on us. We love you Father.  We lay our lives down before you and we ask that you would use them for your Kingdom.

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home is where the heart is

Greetings from Grafton, Massachusetts. We are here, in Dave’s home town, enjoying some time with family. We planned this visit to celebrate with Dave’s parents who have been married 50 years this summer.

It has been a time full of the joyful chaos that ensues when large families gather.

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We’ve had scavenger hunts, family photos, lots of food, and slumber parties full of cousins who don’t want to sleep.

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This has sparked some difficult conversations, as it always does, about why we choose to live where we do and what we are accomplishing through our lives and our ministry. It has challenged us to think about the American dream and how we fail to measure up to that kind of success. Here, in the middle of a supportive family, we have asked ourselves if we are crazy for trying to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal. We have struggled with spending money on going out to eat and visits to Legoland and new toys and new clothes and all of this luxury because of the poverty and the life of simplicity that have surrounded us in our “other life.”

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When I look back at this past year, I see the mark of God’s faithfulness all over the story of us. We’ve grown in our language skills and in key relationships, we have found a piece of land where we can get started, we have submitted paper work to the ministry of women and children, and we await the good news that approval has been granted. We have increased our involvement with a local church in Niamey that wants to minister to women and orphans. We have even fostered our own sweet babe and watched in joy as he grew to be a thriving infant.

And yet the enemy waits like a hungry predator to rob us of the joy that comes from Christ. He wants us to believe that we are not prepared, not able, and not doing the right thing. He wants to confuse and discourage, and destroy.

Would you join us this week in a prayer that God would speak truth deep into our hearts?  

We know that God can overcome the battle that rages in our hearts and minds. We know that He is stronger than reverse culture shock and depression. We know that He wants us to leave American feeling refreshed and not stressed. We know that His plans for us are good and that He wants us to effectively minister and accomplish good things for His Kingdom. We want the clarity and peace that comes only through His spirit.

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