The Journey Begins!

Ventimiglia

It’s amazing that just two weeks away can change our perspective on how it feels to be home! Returning to the familiar and engaging in our regular routine is so comforting. My favorite part of the day is waking up early, while it’s still dark and quiet, making coffee and sitting on the couch with my dog and my Bible. It’s such a peaceful and promising time. But imagine if circumstances forced us to be away from home for two years. Or twenty. Held apart from people and places we hold precious and dear. How do you think you might handle that?

Many of the refugees I met recently in Europe struggle to find a place that could feel even a little bit like home, living either in makeshift camps along a river or in old abandoned buildings. The dehumanizing effects of displacement run deep, and each year they spend searching for a place to call home weighs heavier and heavier on their souls.

As many of you know, I recently took a Vision Trip with three of my teammates from International Association for Refugees. This trip gave us the opportunity to meet with five teams in different locations across northern Italy and France, including Trento, Ventimiglia, Nice, Torino, and Bologna. We learned about the ways these teams are serving refugees, including providing Italian lessons, establishing friendships, and bringing tea and conversation to a small informal camp twice a day.

We met a group of Christians from Brazil who are engaging with the persecuted church in Trento, having cultivated a friendship with a local Pakistani pastor and his church community. The families from Pakistan fled Islamic oppression in their home country, and now find themselves once again in close proximity with Muslims in the local refugee camp. And they are afraid.

In another city, we met a group of around 300 refugees living in tents under a bridge, preparing to cross the border into France. They rely on a local Italian charity to provide their meals, and many of them wait up to a week for access to a hot shower.

A teammate and I got to speak with two young women, both from Eritrea, each one traveling without family members or friends from home. They are Christians, and they showed us the crosses they were wearing underneath their jackets. One said that if she gets the chance to continue school, she would like to become an accountant. Oh, I pray she does. It brought such a beautiful smile to her face!

As we left this makeshift tent village, we commented to a group of younger men and women how glad we were that they were safe and that we were sorry this was how it was for them. One young man replied, “But we are alive! Thanks be to God.”

ventimiglia tents
An informal tent camp located on the Roja River in Ventimiglia.

Each of these stories is a reminder of God’s mission to transform this world from darkness to light and to reconcile the division and strife between His people. In this story, death does not have the final say, and His victory is already sure! But His body is hurting, and it continues to splinter and break from the devastation of violence and exploitation, abuse and isolation.

I know there is not a single location along the refugee highway where Jesus is not already present. I was assured of that through this young man’s words. They were a bridge of light between the indignity and exclusion he experiences now and the abundant and living hope he knows he has in Jesus. But we are still called to show up!

This was a sobering experience, even though we were traveling through my happy place, Italy 😉 But this trip also provided much needed confirmation. I know I am taking steps in the right direction, and I am so grateful you and I are on this journey together!

As of right now, I am not sure what my next steps will be. I am praying for discernment as I consider each of these possible ministry locations and the work I could join the Lord in fulfilling. Thank you for your continued support, and I welcome additional prayers as I move into a new season: a new house in College Park and a new job!

In His love,
Lauren

Silent Warriors

I previously wrote a blog called “Boundary Stone” and would often share posts on social media. This one came up this morning as a Facebook memory, and as I cradled my coffee and read, I felt such gratitude for the ways God sees and cares for us as He helps us to grow.

January 2015 

I sat there watching her read from her iPad, her hands clutching the sides of the screen. She read calmly, methodically, telling us the story of how she wants to pursue personal holiness in her vocational, family and relational life. It’s something we do at the beginning of every year as a church staff, and she was the last one in our group to share.

Everyone at our table had read from their plans, repeating phrases like, “I want to watch less TV”, or “I would like a more robust prayer life”, and “I think I need to rest more this year.” My friend added that she wants more quality time in the evenings with her husband, without iPhones or catching up on shows, and more play time to invest in her young son.

And then her eyes filled with tears. She said, “I’m just so tired.”

And the two moms on either side of her also began to cry.

And my heart started beating out of my chest, watching them struggle with feeling heavy and burdened and sad.

two feathers

I’m not a wife or a mother. Years ago, I played the role of “mother” to two 11 and 13-year old boys and truly, I have never been more busy or unglued in my life. But I do understand being a woman, especially a woman in a less visible life. I exist behind the scenes in so many ways, like many women living quiet, helpful lives of raising their families, being devoted friends, working hard on the job and at home, and putting dinner on the table each night.

I am also incredibly independent. Growing up an only child forced me to learn how to entertain myself and learn on my own. So self-sufficiency is one of the big things standing between me and God, and I still rely on myself to make life successful. Quite often, this seems to work just fine. And then I will trudge through days or weeks when I’m barely seeing over the water line.

It’s on those days of nearly drowning when I realize I’ve been taking care of myself for so long, it feels like I am treading water. I’m tired of owning it all. And if I happen to hear about two strong woman who have started a non-profit to save the lives of orphans around the world, or read on someone’s blog about how her life is all put together and she bakes incredible cakes and never dirties her apron (she wears an apron!) and jars tomatoes and has raised a large family all while impacting the lives of her city’s homeless, it’s not impossible for me to shrink and feel less than amazing.

I consistently have to fight against shame and comparison – or, for me, perfectionism. I have to remember that what I read on someone else’s blog is a snap shot and what I see on their Instagram feed could be the only four foot square part of their lives that isn’t a complete mess. I have to remember I’m human. I am a sinner in need of grace. I desperately thirst for God’s love and grace and Lord, have mercy.

I was talking recently with a friend about how, as women, we spend so much time anticipating and meeting others’ needs and finding joy in being able to give and nourish. We can take friends to the airport well before “early” in the morning. We notice if someone seems a little blue at work and grab an extra Starbucks on the way back from lunch. We ask how a friend is doing and then stick around long enough to hear their most honest answer. But the thought creeps into my mind, every so often, that I would give anything to have someone anticipate my needs, just for a moment.

And maybe you do. Maybe you have someone at home who is sensitive to your needs and can not only talk with you about them but will go above and beyond to anticipate and act on them. Celebrate that person! All good and perfect gifts come from God.

I desperately want someone in my life who knows me intimately and will say, “You’re taking on too much right now. I think it would do your heart some good to slow down. And let’s tighten the reins on what’s happening there with your ridiculous calendar. You don’t have to say ‘Yes’ to it all.”

rocky dunes

I think that’s what I saw in my friends’ faces as their tears fell and we heard the echoes of our lofty plans for becoming more holy this year bouncing back and forth between us. I try to be everything for everyone. And I’m as sincere about it as I can be. But I’m often left feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.

I’ve been blessed with loyal and trustworthy friends. They have heard my story and repeat back to me the encouragement and truth I need to hear. Some know I love sparkling water and have it available when I come over for lunch. (That’s real love.) They know what I’m aiming for in life and ask how I’m doing in getting there. They are genuine. They are the jam.

So maybe what’s really missing, then, is not someone to help me get through each day, but the willingness to express my own needs.

We go through “the hard work of fighting for maturity,” as Allison Vesterfelt puts it, only to find out things aren’t easier as grown-ups and we actually have to become more responsible for ourselves rather than assume we will be cared for by others. I want to be able to say with confidence, “I could use some time alone”, or “Can I get your help with something?”, or “I’m scared to talk about this, but it’s important for me to tell you…” and then trust my words won’t wreck the relationships I’m building and make me feel like “too much”.

In the face of these verbal insecurities, I want to grow in faith by believing God will provide help when I need it and grow in trust by learning it’s okay to ask for help in the first place. It’s prideful to assume I can do it all on my own.

We were all made for a purpose and we were made to do life together. What we’re here to do might, for a season, look like raising our children, or working at a coffee shop, or being a CEO. But here’s the thing…. I don’t think anyone is mature enough, organized enough, trendy enough, smart or sexy enough to do this life alone. We are enough in the way we’ve been made by God, but we’re not enough to live completely independent of others. We are gifted in order to bless and support and make each other’s lives glimmer and shine with a little more hope.

So I’m on a mission to discover the things God created me to do and do them well. Just those things, the ones God designed personally for me. If I’m willing to do what I do well and you’re willing to do what you do well, we might be able to make this difficult thing called “life” a little more beautiful.

As my friends continued to cry and share their stories, what welled up in me was this: “You are lovely, brave women. Your gentleness and your kindness is your strength. You don’t have to be able to do it all, I promise. We end up getting cranky and weird when we try. It’s okay to ask for help. I’m learning, too. Do the things you’re great at, like being awesome moms and feeding your families and making us laugh at work. And let’s be thankful we have a loving and merciful God who picks up the rest.”

She is clothed with strength and dignity.
And she knows how to ask for help, when help is what’s needed most.
Amen.

Messy Lives, Risky Faith

If I’m honest: following Jesus is hard.

Life is messy, and faith means putting my trust in someone I can’t see and being willing to submit to a will that is not completely my own.

Living by faith means being willing to look, with ever-increasing clarity, at the true nature of who I am as a sinner. And also being willing to admit that I am in need of someone to do for me what I could not possibly do for myself. I think it is far easier for humans to agree that we are dependent on one another, and undeniably more challenging to agree that we need God.

But the glory of God’s story is that this need isn’t shameful – it is how we were designed. We were designed to know our Father, to walk with him and be in a relationship with him. Sin keeps us hiding in shame and fighting the truth with blame. But to know Jesus is to know the answers to all of the deepest, most secret, questions in our hearts: Am I lovable? Does anyone want me? Does it even matter that I’m here? Who will choose me? Will anyone fight for me?

And on the cross, Jesus made the answers to these questions clear: Yes. You are dearly loved. You matter deeply to me. I will not only fight for you – I will lay down my life for you.

The moments when we truly grasp His love and His grace, we are at peace. We are free to see ourselves as Jesus does. And we are free to love others in a way we weren’t able to before, because we recognize them as fellow image bearers of a loving and gracious God. And when people see us love those around us in this way, they take notice. Something in their world turns upside down as love is shown when it “shouldn’t” be, as friendship is cultivated with those who have been socially cast aside, and as fewer and fewer lines are drawn in the sand about who is acceptable and who is not.

Following Jesus is radical and risky because it requires a faith that moves us out of our comfort zones, turns the world’s wisdom on its head, and humbles us. Often times, we find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with someone we now call family, when under different circumstances, we might have been at odds with them or found them undeserving of our time, or certainly our love.

“Christian love”, says D.A. Carson, “is mutual love among social incompatibles.”

Following Jesus is a Christian’s life work, and while it presents significant challenges, it is our highest and holiest task. Here’s why: as we grow in intimacy with the Lord and learn to love others in the ways He has loved us, we present a beautiful picture to the non-believing world of God’s character and heart for His people, beckoning them to draw closer to Him. And this has the ability to change everything.

Ultimately, the seed of faith God plants in our hearts grows to become a flourishing tree of hope for others. And I plant my flag firmly in this: regardless of our actions for or against God’s will to bring His kingdom on earth, He will be, and already is, victorious! And that’s a righteous reason for hope. Amen.

There Is Room

After coming home from Rome in February, I thought I knew the path my life would take: Orlando > Rome, with support raising and lots of changes and goodbyes in between. For the first month, I prayed for patience and the willingness to wait through a long season before I could engage directly with what I felt was God’s call on my life.

But He had a different story in mind.

A few weeks later, I stood in the airport terminal with a group of friends from our church and their children, holding balloons and flowers. A few of us displayed signs reading “Welcome!” and “We are so glad you’re here!” in Arabic. We attracted quite a few glances while we waited.

waiting in airport

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, standing there with two case managers from Catholic Charities and holding posters scrawled with the swirls and loops of a language I didn’t understand. After the In Justice talk we held at Summit Church on refugees, my friend and I had walked up to the Catholic Charities table in the lobby and asked one of the case managers how we could volunteer. As soon as she said a family from Syria would be resettled in Orlando within a week, I said, “Yes! How do I sign up?”

The next thing I knew, I was standing in the airport, waiting to see faces I wouldn’t recognize, but that I hoped would become as familiar as the ones I see at work each day and on a Sunday morning at church. And in that moment, I knew I would commit to this family long-term, beyond just a brief moment of holding a bunch of balloons and smiling.

God calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the foreigner and the widowed among us. But what does it really look like to build a friendship with a refugee family?

Well, for starters, it can look a lot like huddling over Google Translate in order to communicate. But it also looks like preparing an English lesson so our friends have something to practice during the week. It looks like riding the bus with them for the first time to places like Centra Care and the library, or bringing a box of mint tea for us to share, or helping them understand what life is really like in America.

Our little group has celebrated birthdays together, and we’ve laughed around the dinner table about how difficult it is to pronounce words in each other’s languages. Spending an hour together at the park, climbing the ladder and going down the slide brings easy smiles. So does pulling out tall bottles of soapy water and blowing huge bubbles into the wind. These are simple moments to organize but they are so grounding to a family for whom everything is new.

In return, my friends are teaching me how to love. We can so often complicate this, thinking love must be something idealistic or romantic for it to be authentic. But loving someone is very simple. It looks like making room for them in our lives—showing up consistently, offering help or to just be present without being asked. It’s not always easy, but it is simple.

And while I am falling for my Syrian friends, I am slowly recognizing the ways their lives have been permanently disrupted.

They tell us about their home in Aleppo, how they would wake up early on the weekends and spend the entire day with their families. Their new reality is to not know if they will see one another again and they grieve. They long for the comfort and familiarity of the people who know them best. They long for the ease of independence they had back home.

Before they fled, Adnan* had just opened a brand new tailoring business. Now, he is starting all over again.

So we show up and offer to be family as best we can. They open the door and we all break into smiles. “Marhaba!” we say, the familiar greeting of hello in Arabic. Rasha* and I greet one another in a customary way—a kiss on one cheek, three on the other. We sit in the living room and wait for their two kids, a boy of 4 and a girl of 2, to move from being shy to being ready to play. Once they are, we are immediately beckoned with “Khala!”, auntie, and ushered into a world of Legos, Etch-a-Sketch drawings, and the cutest smiles.

Rasha comes into the living room, carrying cups of dark, thick coffee with a hint of cardamom. I take a cup and a saucer and I say to her, “Shukran, yisalam idayki.” Thank you, bless your hands, a common Arabic response that, to me, feels more like a prayer.

And I realize: There is not a single line the Lord did not cross to come after me. When I think about the millions of refugees who have been forced to leave their homes and live in unknown places around the world, I have to ask myself what lines of comfort and unfamiliarity am I willing to cross for them, too. And the answer for me is: every single one.

* Not their real names.

Refuge

About three years ago, God spoke to me.

He has spoken again since, but this one time was a particularly pivotal moment for me.

I have been in vocational ministry for a little over five years, holding a few different roles at my church. As part of my first job, I received regular updates from missionaries our church has supported around the world. And I had seen a number of them come through from a family serving in Italy.

“Italy! Wow, that must be nice,” is what I thought, the first two years those letters arrived in the mail.

But then, one day, another update arrived, and I opened it and began to read. Suddenly I heard a voice saying, “You could do that.” Short and simple. And my world began to take a different course.

Now, to be fair, God didn’t say, “Lauren, pack up your clothes and your dog and your books – well, maybe not all of your books – and go to the place I will show you.” No, I realize now it was far more of a possibility than a pronouncement. But it was clear He was inviting me to step through the door.

I tucked His words into my pocket and carried them with me for about a month before sharing them with anyone else. And the family whose mission updates I had been reading? They moved home to Orlando a few months later. We met for coffee and they connected me with a few people living and working in southern Italy. And six months after that, I got connected to more folks serving in Rome and Florence. And a while after that, I got to Skype with a few of them. The momentum built over the course of two years, eventually leading me to make a Vision Trip to Rome. But let’s back up just a bit….

I lived in Florence for a semester in college in mille novecento novantasette (or, 1997) and have longed to relocate there for the past twenty years. Each year, I would plan a trip to Italy, and for various reasons, they never worked out. Until this last fall, when I visited Cinque Terre, Florence, Monte Argentario, and Rome with a dear friend (whom I met during that semester abroad) and her husband.

IMG_9963

To be honest, I cried when we enter the city center of Florence and I cried the night before we left. I love her, and a strong tendril of her has woven itself inextricably into my DNA.

Over the course of the last two years, God has put a magnifying glass on two things: Italy and refugees. He led me to meet a team of people on staff with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) who are living and serving in Rome, working to create safe enclaves in the city for refugees to be welcomed, build community, and find rest.

I made a second trip to Italy earlier this year to meet the team, to connect with some of the refugees living just outside the city center, and to experience the fruit of the ministry firsthand.

God used my passion for Italy to lead me to a deep concern and care for refugees and has been guiding me to pursue my next steps in this direction. Since returning from that last trip, I have transitioned into a new role at my church. I am now a Refugee Care Coordinator, which gives me the opportunity to advocate for refugee families here in Orlando and to develop ways of effectively mobilizing the church in welcoming our new neighbors.

I love this new job, and I am amazed at the ways I am so clearly seeing God move in our community! He is stirring compassion for refugees in hearts around this city, and I pray He continues to teach us how to effectively embrace and empower the people we meet, families from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq.

Today, I am still unsure whether or not I will move to Italy and partner with refugees living in asylum there, or if I will continue working in the U.S. in resettlement and integration. I continue to step into the lamplight that God shines at my feet, moving as He guides me. However, I am sure of one thing: the local church is invaluable in the process of refugee recovery. I desire to partner first with her, wherever that may be, to bring hope to the hopeless and a true experience of belonging to those who are shut out.

Because, to me, the church knows what it feels like to be an outsider, and to be welcomed. The church knows what it feels like to have wounded hearts mended, to have personal stories that are heard and validated, to be lost in life and then to be sought and found. The church is not a building; it is a global community of people who are bound not by rules and restrictions, but by the scandalous grace we have received from God and somehow accepted.

I believe the church is the best possible recovery room for the traumatized, the lonely, and the grieved, and I pray that, across the globe, she realizes her strength and power to push back against the darkness that threatens the lives of the 65+ million people displaced around the world. There is hope. Let’s claim it!

 

Claiming Hope: An Introduction

Pull up a chair, let me pour you a cup of coffee, offer you a slice of cake or some cheese and fruit, and let’s talk. Amazing things happen around the table as we engage all of our senses. Taking bites of delicious food, hearing laughter and stories from friends, sharing details and plans and dreams of our own while looking into one another’s eyes. We suddenly find ourselves incredibly present with those around us. It is difficult to disengage while at the table without someone noticing.

And in those moments, you and I can discover what it means to make room for others. Maybe your day was incredibly full, or I am simply worn out, or we have so many other things to get to once we push back our chairs and put our dishes in the sink that it’s hard for us to focus. But I think there is an unspoken agreement when we come to the table: we will show up.

And that’s what this blog is about – learning how to show up for ourselves and for others with hope. Even in the midst of the messy details of life and the desires of our heart that struggle to come to fruition.

I have been described as a firefighter – when injustice rears up in the world around me, my instinct is to move towards the pain rather than away from it. I long for a world where people have not been pushed aside, seen as less worthy, less valuable than they are. There are many who have been wounded by greed, corruption, poverty, violence, and racial and gender inequality. They survive in the shadows, unseen and forgotten on the margins. I can’t live comfortably in the world and pretend they are not there, and I have to be reminded to pray for people who knowingly can. I can’t pretend I am thriving while they are barely surviving for lack of true relationship, an avenue to advocate for themselves, or someone to simply validate their experience and hear their story. I have to move towards them because the gospel and God’s own radically generous love towards me compel me to.

In addition to my friends and family, the ones I particularly want to show up for are the displaced, the ones who chose to move away from their homes and the ones who were forced out.

I am an American, but I am first and foremost a Christian, so biblical truths from God’s Word are the guiding compass of my life. I try to remember that my allegiance is to the Lord first, but in the big and small decisions, I admit I am not always quick to consult Him before rushing into an answer. However, when it comes to hospitality – to welcoming the stranger – God has been very clear. Abundantly clear. Painstakingly clear.

This is our role as Christians, to show up for the ones who are typically unseen, or pushed aside, or intentionally left out. God invites us into a relationship with the immigrant and the refugee and to be moved by their stories. He calls us into action through hospitality, something Henri Nouwen refers to as a “muscular virtue with the capability of disarming enemies, healing age-old rifts, and overcoming violence.”

We are called to exercise this muscular virtue because our new neighbors may be brothers and sisters in Christ whom we can’t allow to be pushed to the margins. Or they have yet to fully understand the gift of grace and the life they can have through Jesus. We might be the one person willing to introduce them to Jesus. We are called because our good God exercised this same muscular virtue when he reached out and took a hold of us.

God doesn’t want any of us to miss the chance to witness lives being changed. He desires that we will submit to discomfort and unfamiliarity so we may see others He sees as He sees them and be transformed.

So, would you be willing to have another cup of coffee and continue this conversation with me? We may not be starting at the same point, but that’s okay. If we agree to show up and to listen, I think this exchange can be mutually beneficial. Okay, hand me your cup…