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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Christmas of a different kind

My alarm went off at 4AM. For the first time in my entire life, 38 years, I was awake at 4AM on Christmas morning. I was also completely alone for the first time, with the exception of my cat, Mr. Glitter Sparkles.

Typically Mr. Glitter Sparkles wakes me up demanding a morning treat, but this was too early for even him.

I groaned. It was Christmas morning, and I groaned. I rolled out of bed and headed to the bathroom to get ready for what would be a really long Christmas day. I threw on my Rescue Mission t-shirt, some jeans, and boots, did my hair and makeup, and headed out the door by 4:30.

Fort Wayne was a ghost town. It was dark and cold, but there wasn’t any snow. I needed Starbucks badly, but even on a regular day they wouldn’t be open this early, so I was definitely out of luck. I put on some Christmas music hoping to lift my mood, and even Andy Williams and his “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” didn’t do it.

I love my job. I love The Rescue Mission and what it does. I love that God uses us to help homeless people find and follow Jesus and change their lives for the better. But on Christmas morning, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wished I was sound asleep in Florida at my parents house like usual and not due to wake up for another four hours.

After dropping my things off in my office, I went to the lobby to greet the reporter who would be interviewing me live on their morning news show. I put on my happy face and greeted him with very convincing, “Merry Christmas!” He was genuinely filled with joy, which was slightly irritating at the time, but I didn’t let my disdain show.

“Well, I’ll do my teaser here in a few minutes. I won’t need you until around 5:40,” he said.

“Sounds great,” I replied. “I’m just going to go do some work in my office until then.”

Going back to my office meant trekking through the courtyard again, since my regular route would have been through the chapel, and the chapel was filled with sleeping homeless men. But I as I turned to head through the courtyard, I saw something I didn’t see when I came through before. I glanced down the hallway and saw homeless men sleeping on cots. As we often do, especially in the winter, we had run out of room in the chapel, and men were sleeping in the hallway.

IMG_5462Getting up at 4AM on Christmas morning suddenly didn’t seem so bad. Working on Christmas day suddenly felt like nothing. I stood and stared at the sleeping men in the dark hallway for awhile. Being homeless at Christmas. Sleeping on a cot in a hallway at Christmas. I grabbed my phone to capture what I saw, as I knew it would be a pivotal moment in the day for me.

As I walked outside into the courtyard, I began to cry. I felt super selfish for hating my Christmas morning. I woke up in my own house, in my own warm bed. I drove my own car to my job, which I love, that gives me a paycheck every two weeks. I had so much to be thankful for.

I pulled myself together by the time I went back up front for my live interviews.

“I’m here in downtown Fort Wayne at The Rescue Mission with their Director of Marketing & Donor Engagement, Natalie Trout,” the reporter said into the camera as he began the interview.

With a cherry disposition, I spoke with the reporter about how we were planning to give away more than 3,000 Christmas meals between the hours of noon and 3pm. All were welcome, whether homeless or not.

I had a few hours between my interviews and when I needed to be back at work to take photos at The Rescue Mission’s Christmas dinner and to tend to any news stations who might show up. I ran home, had my boyfriend meet me there, made some cinnamon rolls, ate breakfast, and then headed back to The Rescue Mission at around 11AM. I planned to be done by 1PM, at which time my boyfriend and I would go out for a delicious Chinese dinner.

Things did not go as planned. While the Christmas meal was turning out to be a huge success, my bad attitude somewhat returned when one particular reporter was hanging around longer than I would have liked. The other two news stations had finished, and all I was waiting for was for this one reporter to leave, so I could leave and spend the rest of the day with my boyfriend.

It was almost 2:30PM when I thought the reporter was finishing up.

“I’d like to talk to one more person,” he told me. “Maybe someone with a really great story of why they are eating here today.”

I text my boyfriend: “Who knows when I’ll be out of here. This reporter won’t leave!”

Noel, my boyfriend, was very understanding and patient. Chinese food would have to wait until I could leave work.

48427577_2175054049181395_2107974123585011712_nThe reporter ended up interviewing a man probably in his early 60’s. He was by himself, and appeared to be talking a lot to the reporter. I was thrilled, hoping this meant he was about to wrap things up. I was right.

“Natalie would you mind sitting across from him and chatting with him while I shoot some b-roll?” the reporter asked me.

“Sure,” I said, and I sat down across from the man and introduced myself. He said his name was Jerry.

“Have you been here before, Jerry?” I asked him, as the reporter walked around us taking video.

“Oh yes,” Jerry said. “I love the Mission. Many years ago I stayed here. Now I come back for holiday meals because I have nowhere else to go. But mainly I come here because there’s always someone who is willing to listen. I don’t have anyone in my life who will just sit and listen, but there’s always someone at The Rescue Mission who will.”

Then, the reporter tapped me on the shoulder, “I got what I need, Natalie, so I’m going to head out. Thanks for everything!”

With the reporter gone, I was free to go. But here was this man across from me, who just wanted someone to listen. I text Noel and told him I’d be even longer, that I had something important to do.

Jerry and I talked and talked. He told me that at his lowest point, he wanted to end his life. He drove onto the interstate, parked his car, and got out with intentions of walking into traffic. He said God then spoke to him and asked him if he really wanted his 11-year-old daughter to hear that her father was scraped off the highway. Jerry’s answer was, “No.”

The man I talked with wasn’t homeless. He has a home, a job, and a car. Jerry was just very lonely. He came to The Rescue Mission to find someone to listen, and God put me in his path. Although it meant putting off Chinese food even longer, I was incredibly thankful that for the second time on Christmas Day, God reminded me of what Christmas was all about – love for God and love for others.

It was a strange Christmas. It wasn’t what I imagined or hoped for. It was so much better. God reminded me of what’s important, and I hope to carry that with me for the rest of 2018 and into 2019.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”
Luke 2:14

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

 

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

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

 

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