I will not apologize…

IMG_2961On Sunday I turned 37. There’s lots I could write about.

I could write about how 36 was spectacular. I could write about how 36 was awful.

I could write about how 36 saw love, heartbreak, melanoma, surgeries, a cat, Las Vegas, new friendships, broken friendships, moments closer to God, a few times of anger with God, the passing of my final grandparent… the list goes on and on.

But instead, I’ve decided to write about things, now that I am 37, that I will not apologize for. That sounds harsh, but it’s not meant to be. For my birthday, a good friend from work got me Brene Brown’s book, “Braving the Wilderness- The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone,” and after just the first chapter I’m already inspired to be myself more and stop trying to please everyone.

Basically, I won’t apologize for being me. This is how God made me, and as a newly 37-year-old, I will not apologize for, or feel bad about, the following:

Proclaiming that I follow Jesus
Sometimes, I do want to apologize for being a Christian. We don’t exactly have the best reputation these days (I’m sure Jesus is thrilled about that), and many Christians are on more of a crusade to preserve their rights than they are to actually lead people to the Lord. But I will never, ever apologize for loving Jesus and talking about it. He is my hope. My strength. All I need.

Drinking Starbucks (especially PSLs)
It’s amazing how society has taken a drink, the pumpkin spice latte, and created a stereotype around the people who drink it. It’s a drink. It’s a coffee shop. It says literally nothing about who I am as a person. I love Starbucks coffee, and pretty much everything else they have to offer. I will not apologize for my taste in coffee.

IMG_1925Being a “cat lady”
I’ve wanted a cat for years. However, I never went through with it because I didn’t want to be that single girl in her 30’s with a cat. As I grew to care less and less what people think, in July I decided to get a cat. Mr. Glitter Sparkles might make me a cat lady, but that little ball of fur brings so much joy to my life! As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, getting a pet was one of the best choices I have ever made for my mental health.

Dating outside my race
I’ve dated white guys. Black guys. Hispanic. Korean. Ugandan. If I’m interested, he loves the Lord, and we have chemistry, I don’t see why I wouldn’t date outside my race. For years I kept this hidden, or at least didn’t announce it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, so I will never apologize for dating outside my race.

dimsumTaking selfies and photos of food
I take selfies because this is my life- me. No husband. No kids. Just me. So sharing my life on social media, it’s going to include selfies. And as far as food, I’ve always taken pictures of my food, even before social media was a thing.

Not wanting biological children
When I was a little girl, I didn’t play with a baby doll and dream of the day I’d have my own baby. Instead, I played “college.” I’d wake up on Saturday mornings, ride my bike around the neighborhood going to “class” with my imaginary college roommate named Jenny. I do not have a desire to have my own biological children, and I never have. This is something I often apologize for, which is crazy. I’m open to marrying someone with children, and I’m very open to adoption. Me not wanting to give birth isn’t something I should have to apologize for.

Having a heart for people who are homeless
I work for a homeless ministry. The people we serve… wow. I can’t even begin to tell you how THEY have changed MY life and how I look at the world. It’s easy to look at a homeless man and think, “Bum. Get a job.” But you don’t know their story. You don’t know their trauma, their mental illness, the reason they can’t just go out and get a job. My heart for those facing a homeless crisis grows every single day.

1012333_10151453432236573_275048135_nHaving a different world view
This certainly doesn’t make me any better than anyone else, but the fact is, I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve visited third-world countries on two continents. I’ve spent time with young girls who were victims of sex trafficking in Thailand. I’ve met a boy in Uganda who was a victim of child sacrifice but amazingly survived. My world view is going to be different. While stateside Christians are angry about kneeling football players and liberal Hollywood, I’m angry about poverty, sex trafficking, child sacrifice, homelessness. That’s all due to my different world view, and I won’t apologize for it. In all honestly, I should probably speak up about it more.

Blogging the truth
I hold back a lot. I have 38 blog posts I’ve written but not posted because I fear people won’t like what I have to say. Then again, that’s kind of part of being a writer. I was once telling a friend about a blog that a woman from her church writes. She’s a phenomenal writer, and I said I admired her talent. My friend responded, “You’re talented, too. It’s just that her blog is like a warm hug, and your is like a kick in the ass. But readers need both!” My friends are awesome.

I have a feeling that 37 is going to be amazing. Every year I become more and more like the person I desire to be and the person God wants me to be. I will not apologize for that. And I just might do it while drinking Starbucks and taking a selfie.

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…”
Psalm 139:14

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My Melanoma Story

Genetics. Tanning beds throughout my 20’s. Severe sunburns from when I lived in Uganda. It all likely played a part in why I had a chunk of my face removed two months ago. But whatever the official reason was doesn’t matter. All that mattered was that I had melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, on my face.

IMG-0670It was September of 2015 when I visited the dermatologist about a spot on my right cheek. It was a small, dry, red patch. It was growing, and no amount of lotion or coconut oil was making it go away. The dermatologist recognized it as precancerous immediately, and ended up blasting the spot with liquid nitrogen. It turned white on the edges, but within a few weeks, the spot disappeared.

A little more than a year later, a mole started to grow in that same spot. At first, small and brown. Then it began to grow. One area was black. The edges were jagged. It was a strange-looking spot. I decided to have it checked out.

I was hoping the dermatologist would say, “No, that’s nothing.” But instead what I got was a concerned, “Yes, we need to biopsy that today.”

First they numbed the area with a series of shots. (Shots to the face are REAL fun.) Then she razored out a small chunk of the spot on my face. At this point my face was bleeding and wouldn’t stop, so she had to cauterize the area. Nothing like seeing smoke rise from your face while smelling burning flesh.

I was told they would call me in a week with results.

A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything.

“I’m sure it’s fine!” so many people said.

“It’s nothing, that’s why they haven’t called!” others said.

But my curiosity got the best of me and I called the dermatologist on a Friday morning. My results had just come in.

“Your biopsy shows melanoma. It’s very small, but bigger than what we call “superficial.” So it’s not a best-case scenario, but certainly not the worst. You’ll need to have surgery to remove the melanoma, and since it’s on your face, we’ll refer you to a plastic surgeon.”

For some reason, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t really feel any emotion.

“Melanoma cancer is serious, so we’ll want to get you in as soon as possible,” she said. “Are you OK? Do you have any questions?”

“Um, no questions,” I replied.

We set up a consultation with a plastic surgeon, and hung up.

And then I cried. Unfortunately, I’d already prepared for bad news and read up on melanoma. I knew it was the worst type of skin cancer to have. I knew it could kill you. Although small, the deadliest type of skin cancer was on my face- not far from my brain or my lymph nodes, where melanoma spreads to before it kills you.

It was small. The surgeon would remove it. I wouldn’t have to do chemotherapy or any other sort of radiation, as long as he removed it all. But still. I was told that I had cancer. Words no one wants to hear.

IMG-0410It was about a week later when I met with the plastic surgeon. He explained the stages of melanoma and where mine fell.  The stages run from Stage 0 (superficial) to Stage IV. Mine was a Stage 1 melanoma.

He drew on my face to show how big of an area he would remove. Typically, he said, there would be another appointment before surgery, but since this was melanoma, there was no time to waste. It had to be done sooner than later.

It’s funny how people react to skin cancer. I heard a lot of, “Oh I had a spot removed once,” and, “I had basal cell carcinoma skin cancer before.” Which, yes, sucks, because all cancer sucks. But this was melanoma, and people don’t understand how deadly it can be once it spreads. Not to mention the fact that this was on my face.

IMG-0733But I kept a positive attitude. How could I not? It was somewhat of a simple “fix,” assuming the surgeon removed all the melanoma during surgery. And yes, I’d have a hideous wound on my face for awhile, but that’s nothing compared to burn victims, people who have had acid thrown on their faces, etc., etc. I tried to keep things in perspective, and certainly leaned on my faith in the Lord as I awaited surgery.

My surgery- wide excision- was on August 9. I was sedated, but was “awake” for the surgery. I was tied down to the table, so as not to jolt and mess up the surgeon cutting my face open. It was quite an interesting experience.

Recovery wasn’t bad at all, which surprised me. Once the numbness wore off that night, it was pretty painful, but the next morning and on was fine. It looked, however, pretty disgusting when I was allowed to take off the bandage.

IMG-0319Within four days, they removed the stitches, and it began to heal. And within a week, we received the results of the biopsy of what they removed- my margins were clear, and all of the melanoma was successfully removed.

Praise. God.

But my journey isn’t over yet.

Just last week I met with an oncologist. My surgeon said it would be a good idea, in case I get melanoma again, in case it has spread, I would already be established with one.

IMG-0932Because that’s the issue with melanoma- if it appears on your body once, it’s very possible that it will appear again. Whether due to genetics, tanning beds, or natural sun, I have the cells in my body to produce melanoma. The oncologist will check my lymph nodes again in three months, I have to get full body checks for suspicious spots every six months for the next 3-5 years, and then, if no other melanomas appear, I still have to be checked every year for the rest of my life.

I’ve been told it will take a good year to tell how well the scar has healed. There are a lot of nerves in the face, so it will also take awhile to know whether or not I’ll regain feeling in that area. Right now, if I touch the top part of the scar, it feels like I’m touching the bottom of it. Nerves are a funny thing!

IMG-1868I hope my melanoma story ends here. I plan to be smarter in the sun- wearing SPF 30 every day, whether I’m at the beach or not. And I’ve been encouraging all my friends and family to get checked, and many of them have! All have been fine, with the exception of a friend’s husband who has a superficial melanoma spot on his arm that has to be removed.

But thank the Lord that people are getting checked. If I went through this just to make others more aware of taking care of their skin and going to the dermatologist, it was worth it.

I’m very lucky. Melanoma kills, and it’s one of the fastest growing cancers for people in their 20’s and 30’s.

I get it. Everyone looks better with a tan. fbprofile

I get it. It won’t happen to you, right? That’s certainly what I thought. Nothing could stop me from tanning. Not even the threat of deadly skin cancer.

But my lesson has been learned. I pray no one else I know has to learn this lesson.

Some people commented on my bravery as I went through the entire thing. I can only attribute my positive attitude and outlook to my faith in God. I knew, and I still know, that He has a plan for my life. And even if that plan includes melanoma, I’m happy to live it, because there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in God’s will for my life.

Note: The melanoma was found in my right cheek. In photos, it appears to change because some of the photos are selfies and were taken with a phone that reverses the photo.

 

 

13 Reasons Why? Actually there’s only one.

girl-1098610_1920I was living in Uganda when I truly thought about ending my life.

I was in a weird place- both physically and mentally. I was surrounded by Christian people, but never felt so far away from God. Never felt so judged.

I was thousands and thousands of miles away from any family. I had gone to Uganda to follow God’s call for my life, and yet some people didn’t want me there. They made that very clear.

I was spitting up blood often, and none of the doctors in Uganda could figure out why.

I was in a car accident which turned out to be one of the most horrifying moments of my entire life, as our car was surrounded by a giant mob of angry Ugandans banging on the windows, and as one kind stranger told us, “You need to get out of here- they will set your car on fire!”

While it was a tough time, any sane person would realize that those are certainly not reasons to end your life. But that’s the thing about suicidal thoughts- they don’t come from sane people. I was nowhere near sane at certain points of my time in Uganda.

I recently finished the Netflix original, “13 Reasons Why” (based on the book of the same title). It’s about a teenage girl who has committed suicide, but instead of leaving a note, she leaves cassette tapes, each one chronicling the “13 reasons why” she decided to take her own life. It’s intense, it’s heart-wrenching. There are a few scenes in the final episode that are so incredibly graphic, I couldn’t watch.

I watched “Beyond the Reasons” after I finished the 13-episode series. They made it graphic on purpose- suicide is not glamorous. It’s not peaceful. And it most certainly destroys your family and friends who are left behind.

Someone today asked me how I felt about Hannah Baker, the character who takes her own life. And to be honest, I’m still figuring that out. She had horrific things happen to her. I can see why she snapped. I can see why her life sucked. I can understand each and every one of her “13 reasons why” and why she had such bitterness towards each of the 13 people.

But really, there’s only one reason why Hannah Baker killed herself. There’s only one reason a person would kill himself or herself. One reason.

They choose to.

I say that with empathy. I say that as someone who has considered doing it. I know people do it because they think they have no other option. They think no one cares. They aren’t thinking clearly. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But the only reason someone follows through with suicide is because they choose to.

I chose not to. As dark of a place as I was in, I chose not to. I chose to deal. I chose to move forward. I chose to change my situation. I chose to cling to what God says about me, not what other people say about me. I chose life.

It’s never so bad that you can’t choose life. Never.

woman-1006100_640I work for a homeless ministry where each and every day I talk with people who have been through the worst trauma you can imagine. They’ve been physically, sexually, mentally, and verbally abused by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them. But they persevered. Despite their trauma, they choose to live.

There is always a choice when it comes to suicide. And that choice is left completely up to the person considering it.

So how do I feel about Hannah Baker? Although just a fictional character, I feel terrible for her, my heart breaks for her, but I’m also pretty angry with her. She made the wrong choice. Taking your own life is ALWAYS the WRONG choice. Her “13 reasons why” weren’t good enough reasons for me, and that’s because there was only one true reason she took her life- she chose to.

My first year working for a homeless ministry…

dsc_0015bI still can’t believe I almost didn’t take this job. The only reason I was hesitant was because I had been at my previous job for only 8 months. Had I not listened to God’s obvious calling, I wouldn’t be at the greatest and most fulfilling job I have ever had. Yes, it took until I was 35 to find it.

It’s now been one year that I have been the Marketing Director of The Rescue Mission in Fort Wayne, Ind. I know that no job is perfect. But to be honest, I believe that this is as good as it gets. It’s the first Christian organization I’ve worked for where they actually practice what they preach- love, grace, and mercy, all while also having a firm foundation in TRUTH. I didn’t think it was possible.

I want to share a few things I’ve learned this past year, my first year working for The Rescue Mission, whose mission is: “To provide, through the power of Jesus Christ, a home for the homeless, food for the hungry, and hope for their future.”

14650670_10153778882461573_435273107762062935_nLesson #1: Christian women can be nice, non-judgmental, loving people

Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? While I’ve known many nice, non-judgmental, loving Christian women, I’ve known far more who weren’t, especially in the workplace. My faith has been completely restored in fellow Christian women this year. Don’t get me wrong, we do NOT always agree. There have been tough conversations. Women have hurt my feelings. I have hurt other women’s feelings. But we have the conversations that are necessary to move past them. I work with the most phenomenal women. I couldn’t ask for better women to have in my life, and the example they set has improved my faith and my walk with God.

Lesson #2: Everyone thinks they’re an expert on homelessness

20170113_142108-1New ideas can be groundbreaking. But they can also do more harm than good. I’ve learned this year that everyone has an idea of how to “solve” homelessness. These ideas typically come from people who haven’t even spent any time with the homeless. The Rescue Mission, on the other hand, is on the cutting edge of everything related to helping the homeless. We feed them. We give them shelter. We welcome them into our programming and show them how to find real change. But most importantly… we talk to them. Every single day. Our organization has been doing so for more than 100 years. And yet random people in the community think they have better ideas on how to help the homeless.

Lesson #3: Enabling is everywhere

real-change-logoI learned early on that enabling the homeless to stay homeless is very prevalent in our society. I sort of understood, but didn’t fully understand until I had a conversation with one of our residents.

This gentleman, in his 50’s, explained to me that people in town were keeping him homeless. Because they gave him everything he needed, he could easily stay homeless without being held accountable for anything. He could drink. He could do drugs. He didn’t have to get a job. Luckily, someone from The Rescue Mission offered him REAL CHANGE, and he entered the program. He told me, “With those people giving me everything I needed, I would have been homeless for the rest of my life.”

It’s tough to hear, especially when people’s hearts are in the right place, but it’s true. The whole idea of “toxic charity” and “when helping hurts” is a real issue. If you want to help the homeless, direct them to a place where they can change their lives. Don’t put a bandage on the problem. Don’t keep them homeless.

Lesson #4: Because of the nature of our clientele, there will be heartbreak

“Relapse is part of recovery,” they told me early on here at The Rescue Mission. Still, that didn’t make it any easier when people you grow to love and have so much hope for end up relapsing. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

But the worst heartbreak of the year, for me, was when one of our older residents relapsed. He had fought alcohol addiction from a very young age. He lost everything because of it. He had been sober for two years at The Rescue Mission, and for some reason, one day he just left and didn’t say goodbye to anyone. This was heartbreaking for many of us. He was so caring and loved the Lord. But he left. And he relapsed, and it lead to his death.

I didn’t expect this kind of heartache when I started working here. In one year we had three memorial services for men who died. But what I do know about those men is that they loved Jesus. I know that each of them is now with Him. Their battles with mental illness and addictions are over. Praise God for that!

Lesson #5: God works miracles in the homeless

fb_img_1467557409741Earl. Kha. Doug. Samantha. Shannon. Robert. Aimee. Jennifer. Kurt. Derricia. David. Renee. Dave. Mary. Rose. Demetrius. Vickie. Megan.

Those are the names of either residents who have completed the long-term program at The Rescue Mission in the past year, or residents who have told me their stories for newsletters and videos. And let me tell you, to put it bluntly, these people have been through hell.

For some of them, ending up homeless came because of addiction. For others, homelessness was due to mental illness. And still for others, it was devastating trauma that left them homeless. Some are in their 20’s, others in their 60’s. But their stories, as brutal and heartbreaking as they are, have taken a turn. They each ended up at The Rescue Mission. They each learned a new way to live life with a faith in Jesus Christ.

I believe in miracles. When I see the transformation in these people, I am blown away that God is so powerful that He can take a woman who was once sexually abused by her own father and make her into an amazing mother with a job and a house. He took a heroine dealer and user and made him into a young man on fire for God. He took a Vietnamese refugee, who spent 20 years in prison for attempted murder, and made him into one of the hardest and most ethical workers at a factory in town.

staff-collageI can’t wait to see what next year brings. I know there will be heartache. I know that 4th quarter (our “Super Bowl” season) will make me want to tear my hair out. I know that I’ll probably grumble when our CEO sends me a text about work before 8AM on a Saturday. But I also know that God is using us to do His work, and I have never felt more purpose in my life.

I don’t have a husband, or children, or even a cat or a dog. But thank you, God, for my career and place of employment. I have never been so fulfilled.

“Look to the Lord and His strength; seek His face always.”
1 Chronicles 16:11

No words.

profileI haven’t written in more than two months.

I feel like I can’t find the words I want to use to express the plethora of emotions I have right now about 2016.

No words to give God the glory He’s due for everything He has done for me.

No words to fully describe my broken heart.

No words to show my thankfulness for my place of employment.

No words to convey how I feel about what’s happening in Syria.

No words to express how much I love the homeless men, women, and children at the Mission.

No words to express my frustration with the church in America.

No words to explain how blessed I feel to have the family I have.

No words to illustrate how the Christian community is the toughest community for a single person.

No words to convey the slow healing from my experience living in Uganda three years ago.

No words to disclose that adequately show what amazing friends I have.

I am hurting. I am also blessed. I am scared of the future. I am also optimistic about it.

But to go into detail about anything right now, I just don’t have the words. I guess I’ll share them when I do.

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

When God said, “Go to Uganda…”

Note: I am very slowly writing a memoir about the year of my life that I spent in Uganda. I decided to share the first chapter to see what people think, especially since today marks the three-year anniversary of when I left for Uganda. I don’t know if the flashbacks are confusing or not, so I’d love any input you have on the first chapter of my memoir. Please be honest! Any and all feedback is welcome, but also keep in mind that this is a very, very rough draft. Thank you!

Chapter 1

Just me and God now. No parents, no siblings, no friends, no mentors. Just me and God and 18 hours on a plane.

“Headset?” the flight attendant asked me as she passed by my seat.

“No thank you, I have my own,” I replied.

I was in comfortable clothes- sweatpants, a blue t-shirt, and a hoodie. I wore no makeup. Would have been pointless to wear makeup considering all the tears I’d shed saying goodbye to mom and dad at the airport. I wouldn’t be seeing them for almost a year. I was moving to Uganda.

1098384_10151513703446573_1845504420_nWould I have Instagram in Uganda? I wasn’t sure. So I figured I’d take one final selfie before flying over the Atlantic. I held out my phone and snapped the picture. I had no makeup on, but there was definitely a glow to my smile. My blue eyes looked bright and my hair, recently colored “blah-brown,” hung in straight strands down to the tops of my shoulders. My face was rounder than I wanted. In the weeks leading up to my move, everyone I knew took me out to eat. I had probably gained a good 10 pounds before I left the US. I figured it didn’t matter. After all, I was going to Africa. What’s there to eat in Africa?

Before I knew it we were high in the sky and my home country disappeared beneath the clouds. I tried to watch a movie but drifted off to sleep just a few minutes in.

I woke up expecting to have only slept for an hour or so, but discovered we were nearly in Europe. I was getting closer and closer to Africa- closer and closer to living the life God had prepared for me.

————————————–

March 2013

I started bawling. Sobbing. Crying my eyes out. Two different, totally unrelated people from different states had sent me emails with the same basic message – “God wants you to serve overseas.” I had known this for years, but never had it in me to leave friends and family and completely follow God. But God was making it crystal clear in every way possible. He didn’t want me to take a two-week long mission trip to Niger. Already did that. He didn’t want me to go to Nicaragua with my church for a week. Already did that. He didn’t even just want me to go to Zambia for 10 days that coming June, which I ended up doing. He wanted more of me.

My office door was open, so I closed it and then had a conversation with my maker.

Dear God, I get it now. I get what you want me to do, but I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to begin this journey. Who do I contact? Will they accept me? I have credit card debt, student loans to pay off, and a fulltime job! Can I even afford to do this? What is going on God? I may not understand it all, but I will say this- I will go. I’m ready, God. Wherever you want me to go, whatever you want me to do, I’ll go and I’ll do it. Just show me how to get started…

The next day one of my Christian mentors told me about a website that might help point me in the right direction. I decided to check it out.

“Secondary English Teacher – Uganda.”

I read it a second time.

“Secondary English Teacher – Uganda.”

I have a Master’s degree in Education. Five and a half years’ experience teaching high school English. And my heart is in Africa. But there was no way it would be that easy. Would it?

————————————–

After a few episodes of television shows I didn’t care for, some journaling and then a few movies, our plane finally arrived in Amsterdam where I had a one-hour layover. No time for shopping or even a Starbucks, I went from one plane to another and before I knew it we were on our way to Kigali, Rwanda, our final stop before Uganda.

I was already tired and figuring out the time difference. Should I be awake right now? Should I sleep for a few hours? Maybe I should stay up so I’ll sleep well when I get to Uganda. But what time will it be then? I didn’t have much time to think. All of a sudden I was in another deep sleep.

————————————–

April 2013

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a jolt and saw the flashing purple light on my phone. It could have been SPAM, could have been a new credit card bill arriving in my email inbox, but something told me it was something else, something important.

It was an email from the principal at Heritage International School in Kampala, Uganda. I had interviewed with them a few weeks before.

“Hello Natalie! We would like to offer you the position of high school English teacher at Heritage. It is a two-year commitment and you would be able to return to the US in the summer between school years. We look forward to hearing from you and you becoming a part of our Heritage team!”

I was dumbfounded. It had been less than a month since I saw the listing online and applied. All of a sudden, I was offered a job. I got the job. I was moving to Uganda for at least two years, maybe longer.

I couldn’t breathe. I began to hyperventilate and tears streamed down my face. My family. My friends. My precious nieces who hold the key to my heart. Two Christmases without them. Two birthdays away from home. Two years of life away from the people I love most…

Two years living abroad. Two years of the gorgeous African scenery that had won my heart over the first time I saw it in 2009. Two years of serving God. Two years of making a difference. Two years of being exactly where God wanted me to be.

It was a no-brainer. I would go. I would move to Uganda and teach high school English. It would be my “in” to the mission field. After two years teaching, I would probably become a full-time missionary somewhere else.  God was working everything out in ways only He could.

I was happy to serve. I was excited to serve. I thought I knew exactly what God was about to do in my life.

————————————–

“Ladies and gentlemen, those exiting the plane are asked to throw any plastic bags in the trash before entering Rwanda as they are not allowed in the country,” I heard over the loudspeaker in the plane.

We had arrived in Rwanda, which meant only another hour or so flight to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There was no way I’d be sleeping anymore on the plane. I was too excited and too nervous to even consider sleeping any longer.

20200_10151521453276573_870209925_nThe plane landed and my stomach did a flip-flop. We had arrived. I was in Uganda, my home for the next two years, at least. While I was ready to see the country and explore its beauty, it was almost 10 p.m. and not even anyone from school would be there to welcome me, just a driver. His name was David, and he wasn’t too pleased that my luggage had been lost and it took a couple of hours to locate it. It was after midnight when I finally made my way out of the airport and saw him standing there with a sign that read, “Heritage International School.”

“I am so sorry,” I said. “They lost one of my bags, and I didn’t have a way to get ahold of you to let you know I would be late coming out!”

“Es no problem,” David told me with his thick Ugandan accent as he loaded up my luggage onto a cart with wheels. “Es late, but we will be fine.”

I followed him into the parking lot where a school van was parked. We loaded up my luggage, and then I went to get in the front seat.

“Wrong side, madam!” David told me, and I realized I was getting in the driver’s seat.

“Oh that’s right!” I said, feeling embarrassed. It would be one of many cultural differences I would have to get used to- not only driving on the other side of the road, but driving on the other side of the car.

Uganda at night looked like everywhere else I had been in Africa. Our one-hour drive from Entebbe to Kampala was just like all the other late-night rides I’d had in Zambia and Niger. The difference this time was that I was there for good, not just a week or so.

David drove fast on the open road, but I could tell he was in control. My main prayer was that he stayed awake, but all of a sudden we were passing a giant sign that read, “Heritage International School” in blue letters with a drawing of a lion, the school mascot. About a mile away we turned off the paved road and onto a bumpy dirt road. We were getting close, and I could hardly stand the excitement of seeing what would be my home for at least the next few years.

We pulled up to a big gate and David honked. Over the top of the gate I could see a beautiful house peeking through some palm trees. As the guard opened the gate to let us in, it revealed a gorgeous two-story home, MY home.

“Hello!” I heard someone say as she came out the front door. It was after 1 a.m. but my two new housemates were waiting for my arrival and to greet me with hugs.

“I’m Debby,” one of them said with a strong accent, although I couldn’t place where it was from. Debby was tall and skinny with medium-length light brown hair, and the girl next to her had longer, redish-blonde hair and pale, white skin.IMG_20130801_093930

“Elize,” the other girl said. “Welcome to Uganda, Natalie!”

“Thank you!” I said as we lifted my bags out of the van.

The girls helped me move my bags into my bedroom and gave me a quick tour of the house. There was a huge open staircase that went up to Debby and Elize’s separate suites. They showed me to my room after we looked at the giant living room, dining room, and massive kitchen.

“We’re very tired,” Debby said. “Do you mind if we all go to bed and talk in the morning?”

“Of course not!” I said. “Thank you for welcoming me. Goodnight!”

IMG_3721Once the girls left my suite, complete with closets and a bathroom of my own, I sat on my bed and smiled. I couldn’t believe that this was where I was going to live. I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping in a hut, but I never in a million years imagined that I would be in a big, beautiful house with a bedroom and bathroom to myself.

I was so tired that I didn’t unpack a thing. I was told ahead of time that linens would be there waiting for me, but they were not. So I grabbed my hoodie to use as a pillow, pulled down my mosquito net, curled up on my bed and drifted off to sleep.

————————————–

October 2012

One month. That was all I had left on my lease at Arbor Lakes, and it was time to decide if I would stay or if I would go. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so the thought of signing another year-long lease horrified me.

“We leave in a month, you know,” my mom said one evening over dinner. “Stay in the house until you decide what you want to do. We’ll be in Florida, and you’ll have the house to yourself. Pay the utilities and that’s all you have to worry about.”

It was definitely tempting, and after a lot of prayer and talking with friends, I decided it was the best plan for me. Living rent-free would definitely help me pay off credit card bills and save money for a new place.

As everything fell into place and I began to move my furniture into storage, something strange began to stir in my soul.

“There’s a reason for this,” I told my mom the day they left for Florida for the winter. “There’s a reason I’m moving into your house and that I won’t be tied down to a lease.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I don’t even know,” I said. “I just know that God has something planned. God did this.”

It wasn’t until five months later that it all made sense.

A breakup of a different kind…

broken-heart-pic-1150866My first breakup was in 8th grade. It was short and to the point.

“Andy don’t wanna go out with you no more.” Click.

My boyfriend of four days (we had started “going together” at Friday’s football game) had his best friend call me after school on Monday to give me the bad news.

It hurt, but I managed. Little did I realize that I’d go through so many other breakups, too many to count, and that they’d increasingly get more difficult.

I’ve been through breakups that I initiated. I’ve been through breakups where I was flat out dumped. I’ve been through a breakup where I considered a restraining order. I’m 35. I’ve been dating since I was 16. I’ve seen my fair share of breakups.

 

Breakups as an adult are especially difficult. It’s not mature to take to Facebook and announce how your feeling or what happened, and if you’re like me, your “relationship status” isn’t visible on Facebook anyway. But if you’ve often posted pictures of the two of you doing life together, and all of a sudden they stop… some people do notice. And some bold people even ask, “Are you two still together?”

And then what? You don’t want to lie, but you also don’t want to get into what happened. Unless…. well, unless you do because you want people to know that your love story was beautiful, but God had something else in mind for the future.

My mom will read this and probably call me before she’s finished reading, just to say, “Why are you putting your business out there? Does everyone really need to know about your breakup?” My answer is, “Because I’m a writer. It’s what I do. And because I want to share how this breakup, the toughest of my entire life by a long shot, hasn’t completely destroyed me.”

Nearly three weeks ago, my boyfriend and I broke up. We’d been together for a year. One blissful, amazing, out-of-this-world year. All the while, we both knew there was something that could eventually end our love story.

He loves me. I love him. There was no falling out or fight. We still love each other, but there are three boys in Iowa who need his love more than I do. Him moving to be with his sons, because he wants to be a good father, just makes me love him more.

Although he’s doing the right thing, it was a devastating decision for the both of us. Two people who love each other, who had a virtually flawless relationship, who put God first, who had just spent a year together, could no longer be together. Our hearts were ripped to shreds. No one had done anything wrong. No one had been unfaithful. It was just time for things to be over.

I remember when he first told me he loved me. It was in September, about four months into dating. It was the most meaningful and beautiful moment of my life that I had ever experienced with a man. I knew I was all in after that. This man was unlike any other man. I was right there with him, and I had no hesitation in saying it back. But that night, when I went to bed and said my prayers, I told God, “Thank you for sending me such a wonderful man. I love him so much. But God, I love you more. I will always love you more.”

I prayed that every single night after that. And it has made all the difference in the world. I have a peace about this breakup. I know God has a plan for each of us. I have faith that God knows what He’s doing because He has NEVER steered me wrong.

So did we breakup, hug, and then I skipped away into the sunset? Not on your life. I cried, he cried, and to be honest, I still cry every night because my heart hurts. I miss him more than I’ve ever missed anyone in my entire life. I still hold onto hope that maybe God is just breaking us apart for a few years and down the road we’ll end up back together. I’m still going through all the grieving that is involved in a breakup.

But it’s different this time. It’s unlike all the other breakups.

Why?

God.

I’ve always had God. He was there when I went through all my other breakups. But I ignored Him during most of those relationships. Having Him at the center of my life while also being madly in love with someone made all the difference in the world.

A person cannot be the center of your universe.

I repeat: a person cannot be the center of your universe. Not your boyfriend. Not your husband. Not even your children. (Check out Matthew 10:37) People are flawed. People are selfish. People will leave you, either by choice or by death. You have one being in this world who will NEVER leave you. And that’s God. He is the only safe choice to put at the center of your universe.

That’s made all the difference in this relationship and breakup. It’s actually made all the difference in every single part of my life. I trust God has a plan. Sometimes His plan involves pain, but it’s always for the best of the “big picture,” which we don’t always see.

This breakup has been so different for a number of reasons. It’s breaking my heart in a way it’s never been broken,  but I’m OK. I’m not destroyed. I’m certainly not interested in dating again for a very, very long time (if ever), but that’s OK. Finding a guy isn’t what life is all about.

“And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

His purpose. Not mine. I trust He has something amazing planned for me that I can’t even imagine. He’s proved that to me time and time again.