The Notebook (no, not THAT one)

I loved Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook.” The movie was great, and the book was even better. But that’s not the notebook I’m writing about today.

IMG_5616In December 2012, a friend of mine gave me a journal. I decided it would be my “spiritual journal,” where I would take notes during church.  It was a hot pink notebook with a Jane Austen quote on the cover: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

The notebook even came with me to Uganda when I moved there in 2013. Unfortunately, my pen DID dwell on a lot of guilt and misery, especially during my year overseas. And when I returned to the United States in 2014, I decided that it was time to be done with the guilt and misery in that notebook, and I bought a new one.

This new notebook was the same style as the other one. It had a soft leather cover, an elastic loop that kept it closed, and a shiny ribbon to keep my place. The only difference with this one was that it was teal instead of pink.

My first page of notes in this notebook was on January 10, 2015. The church was Emmanuel Community Church. I always put the date and the location in the upper right-hand corner. The notebook is flooded with notes from sermons, devotions, conferences, and, rarely, journal entries about how I was feeling.

What I love about these notebooks is the fact that I go back to them when I’m in search of wisdom or guidance, or when I want to remember something from a specific sermon. If there was something I really liked, or something that convicted me, I would circle it or star it, knowing that I’d want to read it again later.

IMG_5615As we approach 2019, it’s time for another new notebook. This little teal notebook has treated me well over the past three years, but it’s time to move on. Before I do, though, I decided to flip back through it and share some of those circled verses and notes that I took. Maybe they will inspire you as much as they did me.

“Jesus was showing once again that He values RELATIONSHIP over RULES, and that the new way of furthering God’s kingdom is through COMPASSION.” 

“Jesus + Nothing = Everything”

“Our Heavenly Father is kind, and He is merciful, so we should strive to be the same way.”

“Understand that you don’t deserve God’s grace, but treat everyone else as if they do.”

“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” John 3:17

“God is not my boss, He is my Father.”

“Christians need to understand that God is still in control.”

“Faith is not a ‘magic feeling’ that makes us do great things. Faith is believing that God will do what He said He will do.”

“Stop trying to be like other Christians and be like Jesus!”

“We need to spend much more time seeking the FACE of God, and less time seeking the hand of God.”

“True freedom is living according to God’s design.”

“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex. Your workmanship is marvelous.” Psalm 139:14

“Mercy is undeserved forgiveness and unearned kindness.”

“Jesus is more willing to give you mercy than you are to receive it.”

“Stop trying to prove who you are to people and God.”

“Stop assessing God’s goodness by how your life feels at any given time.”

“People who do not believe are living all around you. Live such good lives that they will see the good things you do and will give glory to God.” 1 Peter 2:12

“His love isn’t based upon who YOU are, it’s based upon who HE is.”

Happy New Year, everyone! May God bless us all with another year of joys and wisdom to better serve Him.

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Confessions of a church hopper

2016-10-07_12_fullWe were loved. Important. Respected. We belonged. No doubt about it- the Trout family was a major part of the Celina First Church of God from 1982 until we moved away in 1996.

And I haven’t felt like I truly belonged at a church since.

Hi. My name is Natalie. And I’m a church hopper.

Here’s how it usually goes: I start attending a church. It’s exciting. I like it. I like the people. I learn from the pastor. I decide to get involved. I start to feel like I don’t belong. I convince myself that I don’t belong. I leave.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

“It’s not about you,” I’ve often heard from blogs and articles I’ve read and comments from friends and family. “It’s about God. People are messy. No church is perfect.”

Because, you know, I wasn’t aware of those things.

I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking for belonging. And I’m not alone. I have a number of amazing, Christ-following friends who change churches every year or two. We just keep moving. We can’t find a place where we really belong.

There are many of us who could win a gold medal in church hopping.

Part of it is my fault. Part of it is the fault of the church and other Christians. My biggest takeaway from my year and a half at a Christian college was that there was no room for sinners among Christians. I now know that isn’t true, but I carried it with me for a long time, and still often struggle with, “I’m not good enough to be here,” no matter how unbiblical that is.

It’s interesting. I hear family members and friends talk about “church hoppers,” and they roll their eyes, not even taking into consideration that I have lived in Fort Wayne for ten years and been a regular attender at four different churches in that time frame.

I left the first church because they royally screwed me over financially concerning a mission trip. Trust me, it was bad. And they knew it, but never made it right. Someone can only say, “We’re sorry you fell through the cracks again, we’ll be sending you the money we owe you this week!” so many times before you give up.

My next church was heartbreaking to leave. I begged and begged to get plugged into a small group for years, but was repeatedly told that there were “no openings.” I had to start my own group or wait for an opening if I was to be in a small group. I prayed about it, was not even remotely led by God to lead or start a group. So I was pretty much out of luck. I decided I needed to find a church that DID have room for me in a small group.

I searched all over the city for months until I found the most recent church I left. It was dynamic, exciting, they were doing so much to reach the unchurched! But as time went on, something was… off. I can’t explain it. I’m sad to say that most of the people I got to know there have since left as well. I believe it’s a good church. I believe their mission to reach the unchurched is needed in our community. But for me, I wasn’t getting what we call “spiritually fed.”

Time once again came to go church shopping. Ugh. Finding a church where you fit in is no easy task. While I feel like I have found one now, I am fearful and guarded.

And like most things, the internet makes you feel like an awful person because of it.

“Church hopping is dangerous and will cause injury to your spirit!” one article says.

But so many of us keep doing it. And here’s my take- isn’t it better to church hop than to give it up completely? Should those of us searching for belonging just give up? Because if we don’t, if we keep looking for a church where we belong, we’ll continuously be judged and labeled as a church hopper.

Grace for the broken. Grace for those with addictions. Grace for the pastor who has an affair. Grace for the pregnant teen. What about grace for the church hopper?

I’d rather jump churches for the rest of my life, hearing God’s word at each one, than to give it up completely. And no matter where I go to church, I do have Christian community and accountability in my friends and co-workers. I simply need somewhere to worship and hear God’s word.

I will say this about the most recent church I left- they are the only church in my 38 years on this earth that noticed I stopped attending. They have reached out to me multiple times to welcome me back, say they missed me, etc. etc. WE NEED MORE OF THAT. Jesus talked about leaving the flock to find one sheep. Shouldn’t churches be doing the same to some degree? To at least say, “We miss you?” All it takes is a card or an email.

The truth is I realize, I don’t need to “belong” to any church. I belong to Jesus, no matter where I go.

If you’ve got a church home that you love, good for you. If you haven’t experienced the discomfort of not belonging somewhere, consider yourself lucky. And please, have a little grace for those of us who are still searching for where we belong.

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Matthew 18:20

Closure: When the timing is right

grace2I remember being curled up one night in my bed in Uganda in 2014, under the protection of my mosquito net, a fan trying its best to keep me cool as it oscillated around my room. I was crying, which wasn’t unusual considering some of the things I had been through during my year as a high school English teacher at an international school in Kampala.

I had but a few months left to go, and I was wrestling with whether or not I should return for a second year. There were so many reasons to leave: I’d been spitting up blood for ten months, the Uganda dust was doing a real number on my sinuses, my administration was shady, I was thousands of miles away from friends and family, hardly any of my friends were coming back, and I’d been fighting a deep depression. But there was one reason to stay: my students.

The battle was fierce, and I was at a loss. So I cried out to God, “You have to tell me! I can’t make this decision on my own!”

readinggroupsThe next day at school it was like God hand-delivered my answer on a silver platter. It was time to go. I simply could not put in another year. This certain situation was handled so poorly that it even gave someone else the final push to not return.

I left Uganda an emotional mess. But there was no time to think about it. I came back to the US, where I was living with my parents because I’d sold nearly everything before leaving for Uganda a year prior. I was unemployed. I was trying to fit back in to a society and friend groups that all seemed so different now. Things were happening quickly, and I had little time to process my year overseas.

All I knew was that I was hurt, and the taste in my mouth for Uganda was a really bitter one.

Eventually, I began to see things more clearly. Through prayer and reflection, I began to see the part I played in some of my hurts from Uganda. And while that helped to ease a bit of my resentment, it didn’t completely erase it.

kidsThat part came in the past few weeks. My dad and I went on a mission trip to Uganda. My prayer was that God would give me the closure I needed. I didn’t know what He’d do, but I knew He could and He WOULD do it.

Over two weeks, I rediscovered Uganda and why I wanted to serve there in the first place. I fell in love with a country that deserves endless love. I was reminded of the Ugandan people, who are so loving and welcoming. I even met up with a former student who used to be an atheist. He’s accepted Christ and is now a light for God. He thanked me for the part I played in his dedication to the Lord, even though it was years before he accepted Christ.

It had been five years since I arrived in Uganda for an emotional and life-changing year. God knew that a return any sooner than this wouldn’t have been beneficial. I needed to grow, forgive other people, and forgive myself.

We tend to want closure immediately and on our terms. But God has His reasons for not giving it to us immediately. Like all things, God’s timing is best. The day I left Kampala in 2014 in complete shambles, He knew I’d be back in four years. He knew that’s when He’d help me heal my wounds.

If there’s an area of your life that you’re waiting for some closure on, don’t give up hope. Keep praying, and trust that God will give you the closure you need at just the right time. 

When I look back at Uganda now, I smile. I see the good. God took a hurtful and tough area of my life and made it special again.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.
The old has gone, the new is here.”
2 Corinthians 5:17

hut

 

A letter to my dad before we go to Africa

Dear Dad,

In two days we will embark on our greatest adventure yet- traveling overseas to Uganda, where I spent a year of my life just five years ago. I know my passion for Africa has somewhat perplexed you over the years, but it has never stopped you from supporting me. That means the world to me.

IMG-9963 (1)I wonder if you remember that we took our very first mission trip together. You, mom, and I went with our church to Gamerco, New Mexico for a week the summer before my 8th grade year. We did Vacation Bible School for the many beautiful children at the Gamerco Church of God. As you know, that trip impacted me so much so that later in life I went on mission trips to Niger, Nicaragua, Zambia, Thailand, and of course, the year I spent in Uganda.

You have traveled many places: a trip to Alaska, and all around Europe and the Caribbean multiple times. But this trip is very different. It will be unlike anything you have ever experienced.

I know you’ve seen some beautiful things around the world. This will be quite a different beauty. There’s a reason they call Uganda the “Pearl of Africa.” Yes, we’ll arrive in Kampala at night, and you’ll wake up to a bustling city and wonder what I’m talking about. But once we get out of the city, you’ll see what I mean. There is so much natural beauty in Uganda.

When we get to the village where we will be serving, you’re going to want to “fix” things. Remember that you’re in a culture vastly different from your own. Trust the people who serve there every single day. They know best how to serve the people.

fathersday2018Finally, I hope you will be open-minded. The fact that you’re even going on this trip shows your willingness to experience another culture. You know that the world is so much bigger than just Fort Wayne, Indiana, and even the United States.

Thank you for doing this, Dad. God continues to bless our family in wonderful ways. It is so exciting to share His love in Uganda, and you won’t ever forget this adventure. I love you, Dad!

Your daughter,
Natalie

Sometimes, God sends you away from Africa

IMG_4864As I sit here in Indiana looking at photos on Instagram of the smiling children and missionaries who live in the village I’ll visit in Uganda in just a week, my heart hurts.

My heart hurts because I thought that would be me.

When I moved to Uganda in 2013, that was supposed to be it- be my calling. God was calling me to Uganda to be a missionary! I would teach at Heritage International School for a few years, and then God would move me to a village where I’d be a full-time missionary. The issue was, He didn’t.

Some people fear God will send them to Africa. (There’s even a book about it.) But for me, my fear was that He’d send me back home to the United States. And He did.

I don’t regret leaving after only one year. I know, for various reasons, that I couldn’t return for the second year I committed to. Still, I see other women my age serving the Lord in Uganda and other places in Africa and I wonder, “Why couldn’t that have been me?”

Even more so, I see these women living the best life ever (or so it appears) in Uganda, and I wonder why my experience wasn’t the same. Why, for me, wasn’t Uganda some ultra spiritual journey of helping others and following God? Why was my year in Uganda plagued with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and lots and lots of tears?

1482753_10151871483561573_2088816754_nI look back at my photos from that year in Uganda. You’d never know I was in so much pain. You’d never know the battles I was fighting, both internally and externally. You’d never know that at one point I felt so worthless that I didn’t see a reason to live any longer.

Oddly enough, as much as I don’t regret coming back to the US after one year, I also don’t regret going over in the first place. And this journey I’m about to make back over, I am praying hard that it gives me some closure to the emotional and gripping time I spent there.

I’ve been uneasy for about a month now. My stomach is in knots. My heart is heavy. What if I go there and once again want to live there? What if I realize that I screwed up, and I should have stayed? My anxiety is through the roof.

“I needed to do this to see that it’s NOT what I’m meant to do for a lifetime. Had I not come to Uganda, I’d always wonder, “What if?””

 

I’ve been going back through Facebook private messages from when I was living in Uganda, as I work on my memoir. The statement above is what I must rely on as I make my trip back. “…it’s NOT what I’m meant to do for a lifetime.”

10334337_10202468687703087_3077441966965500961_nSometimes, God sends you to Africa. And sometimes, He sends you away from Africa.

He sent me away.

I trust His plan is what’s best. So as I return to the Pearl of Africa for two weeks, I will embrace everything I love about it- the welcoming people, the beautiful hills and trees, the melodious sounds of the many birds, the incredible food, and even that scorching equator sun.

I am thankful that God sent me to Uganda. I’m also grateful He sent me back home. But a part of my heart will always be in Africa, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store in the coming weeks.

The search for identity

Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Never-ending social media posts about mom and dad and how great they are or how great it is to be one.

fathersday2018But within the past few years, people have been very vocal about the “other side” of these commercial holidays- the “Don’t forget, some people don’t have their dads here on Father’s Day,” and the “Some women really want children but can’t have them.”

And I get that, but I don’t think it’s insensitive to simply talk about your dad on Father’s Day. You shouldn’t have to censor your love for your mother or father.

Think about it, everything we post on social media, there is someone out there who wishes they had it. That amazing trip you went on? There’s someone out there who can’t afford it but would give anything to see the world. When someone posts pics of their husband and how incredible he is, I certainly wish I was married! But no part of me thinks they should stop publicly loving their husband simply because God hasn’t given me that yet. He may never give me that.

Here’s where the true issue lies in the so-called “offensive” Mother’s Day and Father’s Day posts: when you make it your complete identity. When you talk about being a mother in a way that makes it sound like no woman can be complete without children, THAT is when it’s hurtful. Not only is it hurtful, but it’s downright wrong if you’re a Christian.

“So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them;
male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27

Your identity isn’t in being a mother. It’s not in being a father. It’s not in being a wife. It’s not in your career or your travels (speaking to myself on that one). Your identity is in Christ. And oh how thankful we should be for that!

Because unlike motherhood, fatherhood, married life, traveling the world, or having an awesome career, Christ is available to EVERYONE. At any time. In any place.

You don’t have to wait for your identity in Christ. You can have it right now. And you’ll always have it. It’s the most important identity you’ll ever have, and it’s the only identity you will ever need. Child of God. Favored. Loved. Forgiven. Righteous. Blessed. That’s what it is to find your identity in Christ. And you can celebrate it every single day.

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us,
that we should be called Children of God…” 1 John 3:1

If you were hurting on Mother’s Day or hurting on Father’s Day, my heart breaks for you. I do realize how lucky I am to still have both of my parents, but I know a day will come that those two holidays will be rough for me. But I will never once want others to not honor or thank their mother or father in front of me. I will never want my friends to stop talking about their husbands and how great they are.

But if you’re finding your own identity in motherhood, fatherhood, your career, or anything other than Christ, you’ve got a lot to work on. I know I’ve got a lot a lot to work on, as I look to worldly things for my identity all the time. We can find great joy in those things, but not our identity.

And when you make it sound like anything other than Christ is all that’s acceptable to find your identity in, THAT’S when it becomes hurtful. That’s when people who literally can’t have what you have will feel in an impossible place. For example, I don’t even want biological children, but I am often made to feel I will not be complete, as a woman, until I do.

An identity in Christ is all that’s necessary. For anyone. You will have many wants in life, but you need nothing else in life.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

Strength and hope: not found in Michael

2496cd262b1d857060d03844ebc7d599--cassette-singers“I wanna start a party up in heaven,” I sang along with my cassette tape. The cliche 90’s beats and synthesizer sound filled my headphones. And I loved it.

I was in fifth grade, and my parents had just returned home from a long weekend at Praise Gathering with more than 10,000 other people in Indianapolis. It was a weekend full of concerts from Christian music’s greatest artists and was hosted by Bill and Gloria Gaither, two of Christian music’s elite.

My mom always returned with gifts, and this particular year, one of them was an autographed Michael English cassette tape. I was an instant fan.

Michael, whose song “In Christ Alone,” (not to be confused with the modern praise song by the same title), was an anthem for Christians across the globe, became my favorite Christian singer. I loved the lyrics from “In Christ Alone” that were, “My source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.”

But it became clear, not just in 1994, but many times after, that often my source of strength and hope wasn’t in Christ alone. It was in people like Michael English.

Just two weeks after winning the biggest awards in Christian music at the Dove Awards, Michael English announced that he was leaving Christian music. He was a married man who not only had an affair with another Christian music artist, but he also got her pregnant.

My world exploded. How was that possible? How in the world could my favorite Christian artist do something like that? He had an obligation to all of his fans to be pure and godly! I almost felt personally victimized. I felt like his songs no longer held meaning. They were a waste.

A few weeks ago, I saw a Christian man and recovering addict post a photo of him and his girlfriend with a caption that read, in part, “I am so grateful for the hope you have given me!”

My stomach dropped. When I hear statements like that, I’m always brought back to Michael English. To Amy Grant. To Jim Baker. To more recently, Bill Hybels. I’m reminded of some people I personally looked up to in churches I’ve attended.

Our source of strength and hope CANNOT be in any human, because humans sin. Humans fail. Humans make mistakes. If you find all of your strength and hope in a person, you WILL be disappointed. They will let you down.

It’s ironic that the words in Michael English’s song so perfectly sum up how we’re supposed to live: “My source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.”

Don’t put your hope in people. You can love people, they may even give you hope, but they cannot be your SOURCE of hope. That can only come from Christ.

“Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.'”
Luke 4:8 (NIV)