A growing and changing heart

Since I was a little girl, Africa always pulled at my heartstrings. It was like God made me with this insatiable hunger for loving the people of Africa. Trips to Niger and Zambia didn’t completely satisfy it. Even living in Uganda for a year didn’t satisfy it. I believe it will always be there. I’ll never “get over” my love for Africa.

But sometimes God does strange things to our hearts. Sometimes He can even make them bigger. It’s not that my heart for Africa has lessened, but it’s grown bigger to allow for new passions. Via my time in Uganda and my current position at a nonprofit here in Fort Wayne, God has opened my heart to Asia.

I have met a few missionaries who serve the Lord in Asia. I always admired their work, but time and time again I would say, “But that’s definitely not a place for me. I just don’t have the heart for it. My heart is in Africa.”

Cassie was one of my students from Singapore. Getting to know her and her family really opened my heart to a new culture.
Cassie was one of my students from Singapore. Getting to know her and her family really opened my heart to a new culture.

Oddly enough, my heart really grew for Asia during my time in Uganda. While I taught at an international school there, some of my students were from places like South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines. I grew to love these students and their families. My heart began to grow for a whole new world of people.

I never imagined that I would feel led to go on a mission trip to anywhere in Asia, but God opened a door for me to do so. My church partners with Destiny Rescue to rescue girls from child trafficking and is taking a trip to Thailand in September.

Let me be clear: I have NEVER had a desire to even visit anywhere in Asia. As I tell people about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand, everyone seems to say, “I have always wanted to go to Thailand!” Well, I haven’t. For me, this is not about some life-long dream to go to Thailand, but about something different.

I went back and forth with whether or not I felt God wanted me to go. At first I looked into the trip out of curiosity, but decided that it was just too expensive. So many people have supported my other trips over the years that I couldn’t possibly ask for more support. I’m also still paying off medical bills from last year.

Then one Sunday afternoon, someone from the church called to talk about it. She explained that it was a good, young group going. She also said many of the people have never traveled internationally, and that given my experience abroad, I could be a big help to them. I said I would think about it, pray about it more, and let her know.

World Refugee Day also helped open my heart to the people of Southeast Asia.
World Refugee Day also helped open my heart to the people of Southeast Asia.

That same week at work I attended the “World Refugee Day” celebration in town. Fort Wayne has the largest number of Burmese refugees in the country. We celebrated with them, tried their food, listened to their stories, watched their dances, and embraced their culture and others of Southeast Asia. This was when my heart grew even bigger for an entire new group of people.

Because my heart was growing, I decided to look into volunteering with our refugees from Burma. I am meeting with someone from the Reclamation Project next week to see where I can volunteer with them.

It didn’t take long for me to look back and realize that God was opening doors I was trying to shut, including the doors to my heart. I decided to be open to what God was doing, and agreed to go on the trip with my church.

One person said to me recently, “I thought Africa was your thing?” But the truth is, I’ve also taken a mission trip to Nicaragua, where my sponsor child lives. I also volunteer here in town twice a week at the homeless shelter. Africa isn’t my “thing.” Nicaragua isn’t my “thing.” The homeless in America aren’t my “thing.”

PEOPLE are my “thing,” because Jesus is my “thing.” There’s just no other way to explain it.

My heart is growing and changing. I’m eager to see what God does with that, and I believe this trip to Thailand is a part of God’s plan for my heart.

Learn more about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand here.

A different kind of Valentine’s Day

IMG_20140214_092651I was in the 8th grade when I had my first Valentine’s Day with a boyfriend. His name was Ben, and we were on our second-round of being girlfriend and boyfriend.

“Check your mailbox,” Ben said when I answered the phone.

“Why?” I asked.

“Just do it!” he said, and hung up the phone.

I walked out to the mailbox and opened it up. Inside was a rose, a card, and a small box. The small box contained a necklace. It was the ugliest necklace I’d ever laid eyes on. I can still picture it to this day. It was a gold chain, and on it hung a gold bow with what appeared to be fake opal painted on parts of the bow. It was hideous.

Ben and I didn’t last. Well, we broke up a few weeks later and then got back together a few weeks after that. This happened probably another four times throughout the remainder of my 8th grade year.

Valentine’s Day has ripped me apart some years and other years it’s made me smile. In college we had “S.A.D.” parties on Valentine’s Day- “Single’s Awareness Day” parties. They involved a lot of booze, dancing and some poor choices. That was ten years ago, and I must say, my feelings about this day have changed drastically.

This is my first Valentine’s Day in Africa, and I feel like it’s the first year I’m truly aware of what Valentine’s Day should be about: love.

When I think about it, Valentine’s Day could easily be a Christian holiday. Do you remember the story from the Bible about the religious leaders asking Jesus which commandment was most important? His response was this:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:30-31

For Christians, showing love isn’t something we should just be doing on Valentine’s Day. Showing love is what God wants us to do every single day.

IMG_20140214_092810We also need to take note of the fact that Jesus wasn’t specific about which neighbors we should love. He didn’t say to love our Christian neighbors. He didn’t say to love our American neighbors. He didn’t say to love our straight neighbors or our Caucasian neighbors or our neighbors who don’t do drugs. There are no footnotes in the Bible when it says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God wants us to love our neighbors, the very people He created, no matter what their situation, race, or sexual orientation is.

Not everyone is easy to love. I know this. I’m a teacher, and I’ve had more than 1,000 students cross my path over the years. They haven’t all been easy to love. But what better way to be a witness for Christ than to love everyone?

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 13:34-35

I have a student right now who some teachers might find difficult. He knows he’s difficult, but I tell him on IMG_20140214_092929almost a daily basis that I love him. He’s told me that he doesn’t understand why. It perplexes him how I could possibly love him given some of his behavior. This student is also an atheist. What if I didn’t show him love? What kind of an example for Christ would I be if I didn’t love him?

Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be about romantic love. It can be about the love we have for all the people of the earth. It’s easy to remember the importance of love as I sit here in Uganda, surrounded by people who were strangers to me seven months ago and are now people I love with all my heart.

Don’t feel sad if you don’t have a “Valentine” on February 14. God loves you more than any Valentine ever could. And if you love Him back, you’ll show love to everyone around you.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-8

America or Africa? The big decision…

“I’ve been praying, but I am not seeing any results. I don’t feel any guidance or that I’m receiving any direction.”IMG_3406

A good friend of mine who isn’t very religious or spiritual decided that maybe it was time to try prayer, but she felt like it wasn’t getting her anywhere.

My responses were all the things good Christians should say:

“God is listening! It’s apparently just not the right time to give you any answers or direction.”

“Don’t give up!”

“Keep praying!”

But now, even as a lifelong Christian who loves God with all her heart, I find myself asking, “God, are you listening? What should I do?”

And I’m not getting any response.

IMG_4872About a year ago I committed to two years as a high school English teacher at an international school in Uganda. I moved here in August, and about five months in, I decided that I missed home too much and that maybe this just wasn’t for me. International schools have a lot of work to do when it comes to finding teachers, so we had to give the school our intentions on January 9.

I didn’t tell many people back in America, but I gave the school my intentions on January 9: I wouldn’t be returning for a second year.

Then God stirred my heart. Or did He? All of a sudden, I regretted my decision to leave and felt like I not only COULD handle another year, but that I WANTED to do another year here.

And then I realized that maybe I couldn’t. So I did what everyone said to do, which is what I knew I needed to do: pray. I prayed. I continue to pray. I feel nothing. I hear nothing. I have no answers. I have no direction.

I understood why my friend was so frustrated with God as well. All my “good Christian answers” I tried to throw back at myself weren’t doing much for me. I wanted to hear something, anything, from God.

I pray.

Silence.

More prayer.

More silence.

It’s like I tap the microphone and say, “Is this thing on?” and God is in the sound booth just looking at me.

Then a horrifying thought hit me. What if this one’s on me? What if God’s leaving it up to me? One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past ten months is that God wants us to serve Him and spread His love no matter where we are located.

So maybe since God knows I’ll do that no matter where I am, He’s leaving it up to me. Where do I WANT to serve Him? Africa? Or America? There’s no right or wrong choice here.

I hate making decisions. I overthink every decision I’ve ever had to make in my entire life, except one. The one decision that was easy, the one decision in which I recall God literally speaking to my heart, was when I came to Uganda in the first place. This time around, He’s putting it in my hands.

The list of reasons to leave and go home is long. I’ve had terrible sinus and allergy problems that cause me to spit up blood some mornings. I am 33 and single, and staying another year would yet again prolong my chances of meeting someone and getting married. I miss my family so much that hurts. I long for the company of my best friends like a lost kitten missing its mother. Financially it makes no sense to stay another year. There’s always the chance of political unrest in a country like Uganda. The list goes on and on.

The list of reasons to stay another year is short. But the items on that list are important: I should honor my 1800357_10203260749505265_2087202430_n (2)commitment of staying for two years. I love my job, and my students are the most amazing kids on the planet. I’ve also made some new friends here who I really don’t want to say goodbye to. I learn so much from them, and we spiritually uplift one another.

Many of us are facing the same decision- to go, or to stay? I really think that if I were to stay, next year would be a lot easier. The transition period would be over, I’d know the ins and outs of living in Uganda, and I could focus even more on my students and other volunteer opportunities. If I were to go home, sure I’d be happy to be around my friends and family, but as one of my best friends asked me yesterday, “But would you end up regretting it? Would you end up wishing you had stayed that second year?”

And I think I would.

God trusts me enough to allow me to make the decision. America, or Africa?

And I choose Africa.

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CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT MY SECOND YEAR IN UGANDA!

We may not care, but I’m glad someone does…

Since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to help. God gave me a heart for the poor, especially theIMG_3029 poor in other countries. When I see poor people, my heart breaks. I don’t question why they are poor or accuse them of being lazy. The things I’ve seen in Niger and Nicaragua are so heartbreaking that it makes me want to do all I can to help.

“What about the homeless in America? Don’t we have enough people to help here?”

That’s a common statement from many people here in the U.S. Honestly, it holds no weight with me when it comes from people who aren’t doing anything about the people in the U.S. that they claim to be so concerned about. Who are they to judge my passion and tell me I should be more concerned about something else?

1403438_jacky_-_our_young_jack_russel_dogYears ago, I remember getting frustrated at a commercial for the SPCA. Dogs? People were concerned about animals when we had people dying in the world! How ridiculous is that? But then I realized, what if no one cared about the animals? What if no one was their advocate?

God gave everyone a heart for something or someone different. If we all cared only about the homeless in America, we’d be in some major trouble.

Who would help those in countries where their own governments won’t help?

Who would look out for the animals and their safety?

Who would work at nursing homes to take care of the elderly?

Who would stand up for our planet and work at keeping it clean and beautiful?

While someone else’s passion might not be the same as yours, it’s important to realize that EVERY passion for humanity, animals and the planet is necessary for our world to survive.

Some people don’t understand my passion for Africa. I don’t know where it comes from, other than it’s the heart God gave me. I look at my friend Kim who works with special ed kids all day long, and I don’t understand her heart. It’s a heart I don’t have. While I hurt for those kids, I don’t have the desire to work with them.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but I wish some people would be more sensitive to the different passions we all have. We think the world is falling apart right now, just imagine what it would be like if NO ONE cared about the kids in Africa, the animals, or taking care of our planet.

I don’t have a burning passion for animals or making sure the planet is taken care of, but I’m glad that someone does.

Heart on a String

Wrote this poem a few years ago. I’ll just leave it at that.heart

Heart on a String

Not easy to acquire, this heart inside my chest.

I made you work harder, harder than all the rest.

Life had showed me that my heart is a precious, precious thing.

But even if I gave it away, I’d keep it on a string.

I’d keep it there so I could yank it back, if it ever came to that.

You could have turned out to be a liar, a psycho or even a rat.

But something strange happened, something that’s never happened before.

Even though I gave you all of my heart, I found myself wanting to give you more.

So then I did something crazy, an absolutely unthinkable thing.

I handed you my heart… and I also gave you the string.

My heart was easy to give back, you gave it back to me with ease.

Now you won’t return the string, but I’m begging you to do it- please!

Things are the worst they can be, because you hold that string.

That string, much more powerful than my heart; it’s really a peculiar thing.

Because while my heart tries to move on, while I try to get away,

You lightly tug on the string with the confusing things you say.

If I were strong enough to break the string, I’d do it without question.

I’d have my heart back with its string and you could have no objection.

But now I sit, with just my heart, and the sad songs it begins to sing.

What use is a heart that needs to heal, when you still hold the string?

It’s not very useful, not at all, because all it does is make me blue.

It yearns for love, it pleads for affection, and only yours will do.

Because this game of my heart on a string, totally controlled by you,

It’s only making life impossible; it’s breaking my heart in two.

Perhaps you’re holding on, you hope to get it back someday.

That would be the ultimate reward- for that is what I pray.

It’s unfair to give me back my heart but still you hold the string.

Not asking for a wedding, not even asking for a ring.

A few choices are in front of us, I pray you decide what I think you should.

Say you’ll hand me the string on my heart, or take back my heart for good.

On my mind and on my heart…

1413990_i_heart_retroLove has really been on my mind lately, and I don’t even think it’s because of Valentine’s Day. I’ve just had a lot of moments of clarity lately when it comes to love and what I expect from it. Here’s what’s been on my mind and on my heart:

I really am OK without romantic love… for now.

Of course I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, but I really am OK being alone right now. It’s easier to feel that way when I see so many loveless marriages, so many marriages falling apart, people so unhappy with their situations in marriages, and friends going through divorces. I don’t desire that, and I thank God that I haven’t settled for anyone who isn’t the one for me.

In love, I know what I’m looking for.

32 years into my life and I think I finally know what I’m looking for in a guy. I thought I knew before, but for some reason I kept dating guys who were nothing like that. I’m done with the party scene. I want a guy who is done with it, too. Don’t read this wrong, I’m not passing judgment on anyone still in the party scene. All I’m saying is that I have a preference, and I want a guy who would rather rent a movie than go to the bar, a guy who would rather go bowling than to the club. Of course I still like to have a good time, and every once in a while I like to go to a bar and have drinks or to the club and dance, but every weekend? Even every other weekend? No. I’ve got to stop dating guys who do that, because clearly that’s not what I want. And I’m over trying to change guys into what I think they should be.

1413989_i_heart_pinkGod sure saves my heart from a lot of unnecessary pain.

Sometimes I get these crazy feelings. It’s easy to romanticize something that happened years ago. It’s easy to look back and only see the good, to remember how it felt at first, to think about how perfect you once were for each other, and to completely overlook the reason it didn’t last. Sometimes I get caught up in that. What’s awesome is that each time I start to feel nostalgic, God reveals something to me. Might be something as simple as a tweet that tells me, “Oh yeah, Natalie. THAT’S why you will never go down that road again.”

This might be the first Valentine’s Day that I actually love myself.Bday

I’ve always been a pretty humble person, and I think for most of my life I thought that if I was happy with myself, it meant I was vain. So the opposite kind of happened, and I had very low self-esteem. To say I’ve come a long way in the past four months is an understatement. I’ve learned to love myself and everything God created me to be. I’m not perfect, but I’m OK with who I am. That has made all the difference in my life- living for God and living for me, not other people.

God’s love is the only perfect love.

No love is greater. God’s love NEVER changes for us. He will never forsake us. Who doesn’t want a love like that? We aren’t guaranteed anything in love with another human being, but with God we are. His love is perfect. No matter what happens with another person in your life in any sort of relationship, God will always be there loving you.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Remember that today is about love of all kinds. There are lots of people who love you, and above all else, God loves you. That’s really all that matters.