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)

God isn’t your Grandma

grandmatroutWhen you’re a child, and mom and dad say, “No,” who is likely to say, “Yes”? Grandma.

Mom doesn’t let you have ice cream for breakfast. But grandma probably would. Dad won’t let you jump on the sofa, but grandma might.

So, you start to learn that it’s easiest to just ask grandma first. Do whatever it takes- bat your eyes, maybe even shed a few tears, and beg if you have to. Grandma will give in. That’s why grandmas are awesome!

And while God is awesome, too, He’s not your grandma.

God isn’t there to say, “Yes!” to everything you ask Him for.

There’s this belief with many Christians that if you just pray “hard” enough, God will answer your prayers in the way that you like. If you BELIEVE enough, if you just have enough FAITH, God won’t let anything painful happen to you or those you love.

I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense. And it’s not Biblical.

The notion that God will grant you your every wish if you have enough faith is preposterous.

In case you forgot, there’s a story in the Bible of a man who prayed to God about a tough situation. His name was Jesus.

Jesus prayed, to God, three times, that if it was God’s will, He not be crucified. (Matthew 26:36-44)

Again, with emphasis.

JESUS prayed to GOD, THREE TIMES, that if it’s God’s will, He not be crucified.

JESUS. Son of God. The only perfect being to walk this earth, PRAYED for God to take away the task of Him taking on the sin of the world on a cross in an agonizing death.

And God said, “No.”

God. Told. JESUS. No.

And yet there are people who believe that if they just pray hard enough, they will get what they want from God.

It didn’t work for Jesus. Why would it work for you?

Why do people even believe that it would work in the first place?

It’s because we don’t understand what prayer really is. It’s not about begging God for things. It’s not about getting our way. It’s about telling God that we trust Him, and that we want to be in the center of His will, because we know that His will is what’s best.

“Prayer does not change God; it changes me.” 
– C.S. Lewis

True faith isn’t just believing that God can cure your friend of cancer. True faith is believing God is still good after she dies.

Jesus told us how to pray. His example was all about trusting God’s will, forgiving people, and asking God for strength to resist temptation.

God isn’t your grandma. You can’t talk Him into or out of anything. You can’t bat your eyes, shed a few tears, and hope that just maybe He’ll change His mind about something. God’s will is God’s will. Sometimes it’s not what we want, but THAT is where faith steps in. We still believe He is good.

This Easter, I encourage you to remember that the only perfect and flawless person to walk this earth asked God to take the pain away, and God said, “No.” Was there ever anyone who had more faith than Jesus? Jesus’ true faith was ultimately revealed when He accepted God’s will and died on the cross for our sins.

It’s not wrong to let the desires of your heart be made known to the Lord, but remember that no amount of “believing” is going to change His mind and make your will, His.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6

 

Two years at one job. For me, that’s huge. And that’s OK.

10389726_10152082108416573_5815621699821138411_n
Natalie the teacher.

Newspaper reporter.
English teacher. (at four different high schools)
Marketing Assistant.
Customer Compliance Administrator. (I still don’t know what that is)
Communications Coordinator.
Director of Marketing & Donor Engagement.

You’d have to be crazy to look at my resume and not see a lot of perceived red flags. Some might argue that I’m a risky hire. I’m only 37, and I’ve already had three different careers. I haven’t worked at one location for more than two years since I graduated from Indiana University in 2004.

Until today. Today I have worked for two years at The Rescue Mission, a homeless ministry in Fort Wayne, Ind., and for the first time ever, I hope there are many years to come. I work at a job that I absolutely love. I love the people I work with. I love what I do each day. I love the people we serve. I’ve attained something few people in this world have: job satisfaction.

So was my job-hopping and searching for the right fit for me worth it? Absolutely.

There were certainly some rash decisions in there. For example, I was so determined to get out of teaching in 2012 that I accepted a job that paid almost half the annual salary I was making as a teacher. My debt skyrocketed that year. But I believe all of those crazy decisions led me to where I am now.

24131365_10154864673246573_7216643921817659447_n
Natalie the Director of Marketing & Donor Engagement.

My career is important to me. It’s been more important than starting a family. Would I rather have my own family right now, or a job that I love? I can say with certainty, a job I love. Granted, now that I have that piece in my life, I would love to have my own little family, but finding job satisfaction was apparently something I needed to attain first.

I would probably never tell a young person that job-hopping is a good idea, but if you can sit in an interview and explain each hop in a way that makes sense, you can certainly get somewhere. Clearly it never stopped anyone from hiring me. And because I never gave up on finding a career and employer that I love, I wake up every day happy to go to work.

Your career moves are your own. You can get a lot of great advice from other people, but it is ultimately your decision. Some decisions deemed “career suicide” are not always as bad as they seem.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the part my faith has played in all of this. God has always made it clear to me that what I do with my career should be honoring to Him. He also gave me the patience and perseverance over the years to not give up on finding work I love.

Today I celebrate two years at The Rescue Mission. It hasn’t been perfect. There have been days when I’ve cried in the bathroom. There have been times I’ve had to leave and go to Starbucks just to get away from someone who was irritating me. There have even been days I’ve hopped on Indeed.com.

But I haven’t touched my resume. It still reads that my most recent job was the one I was at two years before The Rescue Mission. And I don’t plan on updating it anytime soon.

Two years. For me, that’s huge. And that’s OK. I’ll never regret my journey to finding a job that I love and the fact that I never gave up on finding it.

The issue with “keeping Christ in Christmas”

IMG-3593“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him at Christmas, shall have everlasting life.” John 3:16

“And do not forget to do good and to share with others in December, for which such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

Wait a minute… those don’t seem right…

I love Christmas. I love what it stands for, I love making cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I love Christmas music and cheesy made-for-TV Christmas movies.

Christmas is just the best! But I’ve realized something odd about Christmas, for me, the past five or so years: it’s become less and less about Jesus (whose birth we are celebrating). Do I blame commercialism, or society, or this sinful world we live in?

No.

I blame the fact that my relationship with Christ is as strong as it’s ever been.

The issue with “keeping Christ in Christmas,” is that so many people literally keep Him right there in December and ignore Him the rest of the year.

My spiritual journey is an interesting one. I’ve always “been a Christian.” Mom and dad did all the right things raising me and having me involved in church. Christmas was always so spiritual, as I’d be a part of the church pageant each year, the family would go to Christmas Eve communion, and dad would always read the Christmas story before I went to bed on Christmas Eve.

Christmas continued to give me this happy Jesus-y feeling throughout most of adulthood. I would feel especially close to Christ at Christmas, causing me to make more donations, give more gifts, and maybe even talk about Jesus more. After all, Christmas is when Christians celebrate the Virgin birth.

It wasn’t until my early 30’s that I really “got” what it means to be a Christian. It’s not a set of rules to follow, it’s a relationship with Christ. And since that relationship with Christ has grown the way it has, Christmas doesn’t give me that ultra-mega-Jesus-y feeling anymore. That’s because for the past five years or so, I don’t keep Christ locked up in December. I keep Him in my every day life.

I realize the saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas” is typically meant for those who dismiss Him completely at Christmas, but I encourage you to look at it another way: Are you keeping Christ in Christmas, but ignoring Him the rest of the year?

Are you emotional about the miracle of Jesus’ birth in December, but could care less in June?

Do you notice the poor and homeless around Christmas, but forget about them in the spring?

Do you volunteer your time to help those less fortunate this time of year, but find you don’t even consider the less fortunate once January hits?

I realize we’re each on our own spiritual journey in this lifetime, and trust me, Christ loves you even if you do only acknowledge Him at Christmas. Even if you keep Him there. But I’m here to tell you that each and every day can be like Christmas if you build a relationship with Him.

The magical feeling of Christmas each and every day?! Absolutely.

I’m not suggesting we remove Christ from Christmas, but spiritually, for me, it’s not the huge religious deal some people make it. I often fail miserably, but I try to make Christ a huge deal every day, not just in December. I am thankful for His birth every single day.

The things God has called us to do as Christians do not have an expiration date. They do not have a timeline other than living for Him each day. And trust me, when you do, your life will change in ways you can’t even imagine.

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,
just as Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

“In the same way, let your light shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and He will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17