Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Night of Hot Pot & The Body of Christ

The room was full of chatter and laughter, loud enough to force you to get real close to hear the person beside you, language barrier and all aside. Composed of an intriguing blend of unfamiliar spices, the aroma lingered thick in the air as I scooted from table to table, finding a path around the room, and greeting so many friends from neat and far. The spread of food laid across the tables was captivating as well--ranging from all familiar colorful veggies and rice noodles to the unfamiliar  territory of quail eggs and fish balls. The eclectic center pieces consisted of pots atop butane burners, rolling at a slow boil for hours. The faces at the tables in front of me happened to be the most diverse of all, some having traveled from five blocks down the street and others having left everything familiar, just a short five thousand miles away.

This night only comes once a year and let me tell you, it is an experience unlike any other! As I was inviting some friends to come and help me pull of this event and trying to accurately explain it, I often gave up and just summed it up with a quick "I guess you'll just have to be there--then it will all make sense!" At the beginning of every spring semester, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (where I work!) has an incredible opportunity to host this "Hot Pot" night with the University's International Students and Scholars Office. The purpose of this event is to provide a unique meal and fun night of new friends for about eighty international students who just arrived to Fayetteville several days before to begin studying at the University.

A traditional Hot Pot meal is completely designed around relationships. Unlike our typical meals which focus on eating and getting to the next thing, Hot Pot is enjoyed at a much slower pace. Basically students and families gathered around a table with a divided pot in the center, boiling atop a butane burner. There was a wide spread of traditional hot pot ingredients across the table. Since its origins stem from China, part of our preparation required going to an Asian market in order to find some of the more "traditional" hot pot ingredients.

For starters, there was a tray of raw chicken, cut up and some beef meatballs. In another tray we had mushrooms, tomatoes, baby corns, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, sprouts, potatoes, tofu, quail eggs, fish balls, rice balls, and plenty of noodles to name a few of the ingredients. Each pot has a spicy sauce in one side and a medium sauce in the other side, which you just mix into the water, adding more as needed.

When everyone gathers around, you just start throwing ingredients into the pot, let it all cook for a few minutes and then serve it into bowls around the table. The fun part is figuring what to combine and which flavoring you like best. As you're eating and talking, you throw more ingredients into the pot and let them cook. Repeating this process aging and again--for hours (or until you realize you might explode)!

This year, Hot Pot was a particularly special for me. Since I'm only one person and could never intentionally get to know and pursue relationship with 80 new international friends, it only made sense to invite in some other friends who could! Since I had set up ten tables for our event, I figured it would be awesome for each table to have at least one American student or family to help them with Hot Pot, but more then anything just to get to know them. I was blown away by the willingness of so many dear friends, mostly from my church family, who were willing to come (some even with young kiddos who are all over the place!) with excitement and desire to get to know some of these new students.

There was one point, midway through the event, where I found a second to pause and step back. As I looked out across that room, I saw the body of Christ in such a rare and precious way. It took everything in me to hold back the tears of gratitude for this glimpse of God's grace and faithfulness. Even when many had their own various reservations and demanding schedules, over twenty folks prioritized being at Hot Pot simply because they want to meet and know these new friends from all over the world! Watching this scene play out before me, served as a tiny glimpse of what I imagine Heaven will be like one day. My church family is in this with me. They were there, getting to know these students because they are for what God is doing among them!

Recently our pastor has been preaching through the book of Galatains. In chapter 4, Paul talks about how we, as believers, are called to freedom, and we ought to use that freedom not as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, to serve one another. (Gal. 5:13) As I read that, this scene comes to mind--these friends did just that!

The following week I was meeting with two international friends to share the hope that I have with them, and when we sat down at the table they looked at each other, and then at me. One of them said, "Courtney, can we ask you a question? We were just wondering why all those people were so kind and welcoming to us at the Hot Pot event? They were so friendly, we were very surprised." 

To which I was able to tell them that it's simply because those folks know how deeply loved they are by their Heavenly Father, that they get the joy of showing genuine love and hope others they meet. I got to share the Gospel with them, which neither had heard before. They literally asked me why none of the Christians back home had ever told them this Truth.

There weren't songs sung or hands raised that night, but these friends worshipped, offering themselves, their time even, the Truth they have to share, as a sacrifice--and look at how God is already at work as a result!

I'm not biased, but I am--these friends (and others who couldnt be there!) are truly great--simply because they are servants of the Greatest One! (Matt. 23:11)

I encourage you to lean into the body of Christ. Be a faithful member of a healthy church. Serve together and share the Gospel together. Plan a Hot Pot night--seriously, you won't be disappointed!

"Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speak oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies--in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen," (1 Pet. 4:8-11)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

On Father's Day: A Letter to You, Dad.

Well, I never thought it would end this way. Not like this. Over the past few years, I've written a lot to the "fatherless generation," and shared the depths of my own journey of ups and downs and deep pain and even greater redemption. You know, I never considered that this story, that my story, would end without reconciliation.

I always assumed there would be a tomorrow, a next week, a next month. I always envisioned that slow motion scene of me running into his arms, him embracing me and us weeping together, then laughing--Jesus' glory, daises, and all.

This Father's Day, I'm learning that even if that scenario never will play out on this side of Heaven, that Jesus receives no less glory.


Well, it's Father's Day and if it were an option for me to call you, my guess is I probably wouldn't. And today I'm choosing not to feel guilty over that because I trust my heavenly Daddy, and have no want to stray from right where He has me. Our story, my story with Jesus and you--well, I just didn't think it would end quite so suddenly, dad. It's funny how when you suddenly can't do something, you seem to want to do it all the more.

And today, I just really wanted to call you up and talk to you.

Dad, if we could talk today, I'd remind you that none of us are promised tomorrow. I would plead with you to stop living your life for things that have only temporary, earthly gain. These things, dad, they will leave you lonelier, emptier, and more broken then when you started. I promise. Sin takes us further, keeps us longer, and costs us more then we were ever willing to pay. I would tell you I've tried what you're doing--I've been there. You're not alone, dad. The cycle feels endless and all-consuming. It takes more and more to satisfy, and even a little more then that to feel nothing at all.

That's why you keep at it, dad.

You're not some exception, one who is destined to some crappy life. You're more like the rest of us then you may have ever imagined. You are broken and have fallen short of God's glory. But in that very place dad, dead in your sin and brokenness, there is One who gives hope. You can know freedom too--you can be free. I know you try and try...and try again. You do better for a little while, but then the pain gets real and you go back to drinking it away--because that's all you've known to do since you were fourteen and opened that liquor cabinet for the very first time.

I read recently that fatherlessness creates an appetite in the soul that demands fulfillment, and from my own experience, that could not be more true in my life--and I see it in yours as well.

I want you to know, dad, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry you didn't have a daddy who loved you as he should have. I'm sorry for the horrific ways he hurt you, and all things he never taught you--and I'm even more sorry for all the things he did teach you. I'm sorry I never asked.

My little girl heart yearns for the love of her earthly daddy that he just never knew how to give her.  Yet my adult heart weeps for the decades of pain and darkness you endured, seemingly with no way out. For the way that his abuse shaped the man you would become, the choices you would make, the pain you would feel, I grieve with you dad.

"The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing." -Zephaniah 3:17 

I just wish you could have had the joy of knowing a father's love. That you could have had a breath of relief from taming that raging appetite inside--for something, anything, to just offer a few moments of true satisfaction.

Dad, I want you to know, it's never been about doubting your love for me. Jesus has secured me as beloved, and that really is enough.

He taught me that sometimes we are so broken inside we don't know how to show our love to those around us, like some fathers may instinctively do. The letter you wrote to us kiddos, we all read it now, dad. I knew you were broken, because I was too. Broken people break things, even things they value the most, yes, even their little girls.

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." -1 John 4:7-8 

I need to tell you that I didn't pull away when your life got real dark because I was angry or fed up with your choices--though I'm sure I have been at times. I didn't withdraw to get back at you or because I had given up on you over these last three years, though both were tempting at times.

You didn't hear from me because I needed to soak in the love and discipline of a Perfect Father who knows best how to meet my every need and hears me--something you simply couldn't provide. I pulled back because I knew my tendencies--my savior mentality--to be destructive, and I was learning better.

Dad, I needed to be redeemed by the power of the Cross, I needed Jesus, who while I was still dead in my sin, He made a way for me to be reconciled to God through Himself. He loved me that much--that He knew I would turn away from Him, and spend years of my life searching to be satisfied and valued and whole--trying to earn something that I didn't deserve, only to find He had already provided Christ, the only way I could be reconciled to Him! I couldn't do anything to earn it--what a gift! Jesus met me in my brokenness and set my feet on solid ground--He made me new and my life never looked the same because I belonged to a Perfect Daddy so those others things no longer bound nor defined me. Praise God! He did that for you too, dad. Can you imagine that?

"In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace." -Eph. 1:7

One day, dad, I am praying I will get the joy and privilege of being a faithful wife to my husband and mother to my children--and that required this time of healing. It meant that these generations of brokenness before me, before you, before your dad needed to be broken by the power of the Gospel in my own life. I couldn't remain a victim who would continue the cycle by victimizing, dad. I needed space and time.

I just never imagined our time, that it would run out so fast.

I am so sorry for that dad. But I would not change the decisions I made because through those decisions I am no longer a victim of your decisions or my own--I am a child of the King.

I never got to tell you, but I forgive you, dad. I forgive you for all the ways you failed to be my protector and provider, for the ways you robbed me of innocence, and for the ways you failed to be a man of your word. I forgive you for continually choosing alcohol over your family, who tried everything to care for and fight for you. I forgive you for the way you taught me to fear men and the authority that comes with them, for the way that destroyed relationships. I forgive you for the lies I came to believe were true about my value and worth because of your words and behaviors towards me. I forgive you for fearing man more then you feared the Lord.

Dad, I forgive you for showing up hung-over to lunch after three years of not talking with one-another, which would also be the last time I ever saw you. I forgive you for abdicating your role in my life as an adult. I forgive you for even the consequences of your sin that play out into my adult life. It may be an intentional and re-occuring decision I will make the rest of my life, but Dad you are forgiven by me. Not because of anything great in me, but simply because I have been greatly forgiven and have done nothing to deserve it.

"Be kind to one-another, tenderhearted, forgiving one-another as God in Christ forgave you." -Eph. 4:32

I still find it shocking some days, like today, that you're really gone.

Since your death, I think I have grieved so many things that I never imagined I would. Layer after layer, they just keep peeling back more ugliness within me. I thought I had already trudged that path--been there, done that. I thought the pain was over and the redemption had taken hold. And it had--it has. The more layers, the deeper my love for and dependence upon Jesus is becoming, and for that I can rejoice in seeing Him working, in the midst of such brokenness.

Our Heavnly Daddy is patient and gracious towards us, desiring that we all would come into personal relationship with Him.

"But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." -Ps. 86"15

I still don't understand the seasons the Lord allows in our lives, but I know that none of my pain is without purpose nor can anything, not even loosing you or my grandpa this year, separate me from the love of Christ.

Oh how I wish you, my earthly daddy got the chance to know my Heavenly One--to have received that new heart of flesh in exchange for the one crafted of stone. Perhaps that occurred, and I pray that it did.

Dad, I forgive you and I am thinking of you today.

Friday, May 20, 2016

On Gratitude for the Thursday Night Ladies [and ten months together]

I'm sitting here, as often happens each week, plopped in the middle of the living-room floor, candles still flickering, crayons still sprawled about, a sea of food covering the kitchen counter that all needs to be put away and I haven't looked yet, but I'm guessing the cushions are off the sofas, tossed about in the other room, little chocolate hands left marks in random places, and the trash is likely overflowing.

For the past three hours this place was straight up chaos, as it often is on Thursday nights. Littles running rampant like they run the place or something, and beautiful women eating a little slower and talking a little longer--tonight I had to pause for a minute as I was walking out of the bathroom and into the chaos--just stood there and took it all in.

With tears flowing down my cheeks, I cannot even believe that the Lord would be so sweet as to provide, to entrust me with these dear friends and our Thursday nights together. He has truly done abundantly beyond anything I could have asked or dreamt up ten months ago.

I love these ladies fierce, y'all.

Back in August when a friend and I met two families in the park across the street from my house, I never could have imagined how our gracious Heavenly Father would  be to use that meeting to forever impact my life. One of the ladies we met that afternoon, shared how she had been living in the area for over a year and only one or two American women had ever even talked to her. Can you imagine that? It broke my heart and I desperately wanted to be her friend.

We parted ways that evening, one-another's phone numbers in hand, having no clue if I would ever see this sweet lady again. BUT GOD! He had a perfect plan and had gone before me in SO many small ways. I met up with my new friend from the park the very next week--she and her little girl went with me to a bookstore and for an ice cream--and the rest is truly history!

God used our friendship to solidify a desire He had put in my heart months prior--to use my home as a refuge for those feeling lonely and alienated. A few others with the same heart gathered with me and prayed that this home could be a place where women from all different tribes and tongues could find meaningful friendships, share vulnerable areas of theirs lives with one-another, and discuss where our ultimate Hope comes from.

So last August, this dream became a reality every Thursday night! Most weeks we share a big meal, talk about our lives, talk about stories or do fun activities together. Most all of the women coming have connected to our group through that ONE dear friend we met in the park that day--talk about God's perfect plan! Whew!! And none of it would be possible without some AMAZING American friends who come faithfully, bring food and joy, and walk with these ladies too.

One of my favorite memories of this group was when we got to celebrate one of their sweet little girls' second birthday party--with a houseful of like thirty people from all over the world! We have rejoiced together, laughed until tears poured out, wept together, prayed together, miscommunicated and disagreed about things, learned from one-another, needed one-another, come up with all the inside jokes together, tried to practice different languages together--with much laughing--and lived a year of life together and I am forever thankful and indebted to these ladies. They make me better.

Ya'll, they are the most brave friends I have known--they willingly leave everything that's familiar to them--their families, their culture, their FOOD--and trek half-way across the world where they then land in this corner of "the natural state" where they (or their husbands) purse intense degree plans at the University while they also raise babies and manage all the tasks of normal life, yet not knowing the language at first, not having a car, not having many friends to call on for help in their times of need and so on.

As Americans, we often tend to shy away from people who look, act, or even talk differently from us. I want to encourage you, wherever God has placed you in this season, to just pause and look around you--take note of the people around you who are different from you. Sojourner literally means "guest," "stranger" and even one who "belongs to another."

We mustn't forget that WE ourselves are indeed aliens, strangers, sojourners on this earth--we await a heavenly citizenship, a better country which God has prepared. The reality is, if we do in fact "belong to another," why wouldn't we jump on any opportunity we are given to befriend and care for those who might seem quite different from us, those who are sojourners in our midst and yet share a similar situation to me or to you--when we look with eternal perspective, right?

Every week these ladies thank me and tell me that I don't have to do this every week. What they don't understand is that what I do is easy--what THEY do on a daily basis is the hard and brave part! And ya'll, none of us are perfect but man, they are so incredibly kind, sincere, and trusting. They are EASY to get to know and even easier to love deeply. These ladies are some of the most kind and generous friends I have. And if you only knew some of their stories--some of the miraculous ways God has protected them and provided for them in the midst of realities you or I could not even imagine--these ladies are my heroes and beloved friends.

Tonight, paused in the hallway gazing out over the chaos--all I could hear was the Father saying, Courtney, this is how much I love YOU--that I would willingly, joyfully take a sojourner, an exile like yourself, someone that was far from me and I would choose to bring you near to me even when it cost me greatest sacrifice ever made. You don't even understand the heights and depths and breath of my unceasing and unchanging love for you. And as much as you love these ladies--I love them more then you will ever know.

As we squeezed one-another tight, all the kisses on the cheeks, utterances of "Masalama" and "In-sha-allh," the tears just fell yet again as they herded out the door--God has and continues to teach me SO much through these beautiful friends and our Thursday nights together. I can't wait to see what plans are in store for our little community in the months and years to come! What a sweet ten months it has been--learning from and loving you ladies!

As a side note, it was perfectly fitting, of course, for our last official Thursday night of the semester to involve half a dozen kiddos running around, two grand-mommas visiting from the other side of the world, and a dozen women from near and far--yes you never could have guessed--all getting facials and foot massages and being told to "relax in the quiet like we're at the beach"--HAHAH as if that were possible! Wouldn't have had it any other way!

"As I have loved you, you love one-another. Greater love has no one then this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."
Now off to tackle those dishes and hunt for all the hiding crayons! 

Monday, November 30, 2015

And Today Marks Twenty-Five Years of Life

[**Just a few days after drafting this post, my dad passed away unexpectedly and I forgot about having written it. Tonight as I read this post for the first time since then, it is so hard to trust the Lord's timing in all of this! But, I WILL wait on Him and hope in Him and trust Him and am SO thankful for this Truth, even in this hard season.]

Isn't it funny, how a quarter of the way into this thing, I am convinced I know less then I did when I first began. As I reflected on my post from a year ago, tears streamed heavy and thick. Honestly, that about sums up this past year of life over here.

Really, really hard. And really, really glorious.

James tells us about a joy we can choose through trials that produces a steadfastness within us. The Lord has been truly gracious to supply ample opportunities to practice this in my life this year, in ways I never would have asked for nor expected.
So for a rambling snapshot of the year--

The new year began with a brokenness quite unlike any I had ever known, when the man who pursued me to the point of marriage chose to step away from the relationship quite unexpectedly. The pain and questions ran deep, and for months all I could muster up was a resounding, "And if not, the Lord is still good." It wasn't what I ever would have expected for my story, but Jesus has taught me to walk with Him in a way I hadn't before, and through that season He really has become more precious to me then my daily bread.

With the spring, sprung a new job! After two sweet and exhausting years of nannying for a dear family, I said my final goodbye as I transitioned into a job that God had been preparing me for for several years, long before it even became a "dream job" for me. A season of inviting others to partner with me in this new job both financially and prayerfully, brought the greatest joy of glimpsing the Kingdom come here on earth and deepened my faith. God provided quite boldly and allowed over sixty families & individuals to transition into this new role right alongside me!

The fall brought hundreds of new students to good 'ole Fayetteville from all the corners of the world and  now I got the great privilege of helping them transition into life here at the University of Arkansas while also casting vision for others to come join me and do likewise!

By far the absolute greatest joy of this twenty-fourth year of life has been getting to pour my life into these beloved students who have become very dear to me. As you can imagine leaving your family, friends, culture, language and all that is familiar behind and coming to a brand new place on your own can be so overwhelming. Our Monday night "Village" in the dorm and Thursday night "Supper and Seeking" at my house have become a refuge of sorts, where some of these friends can unload before one another and a Father many don't yet know--time I so cherish each week. I have learned more about God's heart through these who He's made dear to me and am so blessed to be entrusted by Him as an ambassador of reconciliation among them.

This year took me overseas again, this time to a Desert in Africa where a woman who had never heard of Jesus trusted in Him for the very first time. During that time, God solidified a desire He put in me years ago, to give my life to a group of people in this area of the world who have also never heard. Now, onto tackling the Arabic language this year!

My adopted family welcomed another miracle baby girl (and she is precious!) and next month the oldest of my "lil sisters" says "I do!" God's great grace and faithfulness has been on display so boldly in this family and I am humbled and grateful for the way He brought them into my life FOUR crazy years ago!

My own dad continues to fight his alcoholism as several serious health risks seem to be catching up to him. There's no communication between us these days, though we did have lunch when I was home this summer which further confirmed his inability to play a healthy role in my life right now. Last month (while in Africa) my grandpa passed away unexpectedly which has brought great pain for my sweet momma and our family. And even today, it's strange to think I won't be getting a phone call from him to celebrate. The sting of death lingers some, but we know those in Christ grieve as those with a greater hope.

I'm so thankful for my church body and how dear they continue to be to me. Getting to work between the church and a campus ministry has brought SO much learning this year, and I'm grateful. I'm blessed to do life with some amazing families and beloved friends. Tuesday nights have become my time of refuge, rejoicing, and realness before the Father and among some whom are more then just good friends--they are my people in this season and I praise God for them.

Another year come and gone and now here I am twenty-five and Facebook just informed that this is the year the human body begins to die. The past few weeks of life have left me continually faced with that reality, as I groan inwardly waiting eagerly for that final adoption and redemption of this [dying] body!

Of course, hope that is seen is not hope. But, if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Truthfully, my patience is wearing down. So of course, going into this twenty-fifth year, the Lord says: WAIT.

Wait for me. Wait for the pain of your broken heart to ease. Wait for the morning to come after that sleepless night. Wait for the season of darkness and oppression to lift. Wait for God to provide. Wait for the fall semester to close and a new one to begin. Wait for Him to point out people of peace. Wait for dear friends to accept the Truth of the Gospel as you share. [yes, even week after week, month after month, year after year.] Wait for the man I have set apart just for you. [and don't settle because you are MINE.] Wait for the day of raising up babies that belong to you. Wait on your call to go overseas. Wait on my provision of community and heart-friends. Wait until the day you will fully know your belonging. Wait and you will see my face. Wait, for I am still good. Wait for full on redemption. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Last year I shared God's promise found is Psalm 52, and I claimed it going into my twenty-fourth year of life.

 But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever.
 I will thank you forever,
because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly.
                                   [Psalm 52]

Little did I know, He wasn't planning to use it the way I thought. But looking back now, I'm tearful over His faithfulness that even when I had no idea waiting would become such an enormous part of this year, I know I will WAIT for His name, for it is GOOD. So, I wait with eyes on what I don't yet see, the eternal, because I know this thing doesn't end with what I can see (and praise God for that, right?!) This doesn't end with me waiting forever. You and me--we're being prepared for an eternal weight of glory in fact.

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 cor. 4:17-18]

 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. [Rom. 8:18-19]

But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me! [Micah 7:7-8]

Therefore, the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him. [Isa. 30:18]

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. [ps. 130:5]

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the lving! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord! [Ps. 27:13-14]

My prayer for this year--that His Word will continue to be alive and active and I will hunger for it more then anything else. Oh Lord, help me to be so fully satisfied in you as I wait, and please be my LIGHT in this season!

And a word of encouragement from Piper--"So take these truths and PREACH them to your mind until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for."

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Which I Share At Dad's Funeral

Below is what the Lord gave me to share at my dad's funeral on Monday. My heart is broken and grieving so many layers of loss right now, but I am learning to chose to trust and rest in the love, promises, and nearness of my Heavenly Father through these days. 

Around the time the sun began to fall over the trees he would tell me we were going on an adventure. I would grin from ear to ear, run to get my shoes on. Though there was little mystery in the destination of this adventure for me, I always loved that he made it into a big deal. Sometimes, I even pretended I didn't know where we were going. Mostly because he loved to surprise me. And I loved that he loved it—that it meant he must love me.

Windows down, hair streaming across my face. Cigarette in his hand, we were off. A quick stop at his gas station, the one where they called him boss and responded with yes Sir. Over-sized slushy in my hand, our adventure continued.

Just up the road and a few turns later we would slow down. The curvy road weaved throughout thousands upon thousands of white headstones. We weren't here to see dead people. Or to cry over a lost loved one, though I did often see people doing so. The men and women buried;/ across these grounds were all war heroes, brought home here to be laid to rest. Sort of eerie, when you think of our adventure climaxing at a place full of dead people.

I don't often remember thinking that in my little girl mind though. I remember gazing across the sea of white rocks, always attentive with my head out the window as we crept along. Sun blazing closer and closer to the ground, a little more brilliant and beautiful with each tick of the clock. Then, just on the edge of the sea of white, coming out from the tress all attentive and hungry we would see one. Then two. Then a whole herd.

I loved when there were babies. "Look at that little one!" I would point my hand far out into the air as his foot would come down firm on the brake pedal. Courtney, do you remember what we call those? He would ask. "Oh yeah, they're fawns, right dad? Baby deer are fawns." Yes, that's right. "And those big ones with the horns—those are the dads right?" I would ask. Yes, those are the bucks. he replied.

Knowing the answer didn't change the fact that I loved hearing him tell me again. It didn't change the fact that I tasted his love for me in these moments. I was starving. A rare glimpse into a life I longed to have—life with a daddy who knew how to love me. This daddy-daughter experience breathed into the depths of my emptiness, this hunger for his affection that I still struggled to satisfy well into adulthood.

You see, we are all created with this capacity and need for love. We all feel it. I have no doubt my dad loved us kiddos probably more then anything else in his life. I just don’t think that He knew just how loved He was, by a perfect heavenly Father and how such a love changes everything.

For years of my life, I, like my dad, tried to satisfy my pain and emptiness in all the wrong places. But none of it ever filled me for any lasting time. After I spent years trying to gratify that emptiness inside of me that even my dad’s imperfect love couldn’t touch, God gave me another option. There was a PERFECT Father who had created me in HIS image and made the greatest sacrifice for me because He loved me that deeply.

God is holy and perfect and fully in control. He created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. He even created man in His image and likeness. Sadly, man chose to turn away from God by disobeying His instructions. As a result there is now a separation between man and God. You see, all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! None of us are perfect, we have all messed up, we’ve all blown it. But a holy and perfect God can’t stand in the presence of imperfect and broken people. So He chose in His grace to intervene on my behalf, on YOUR behalf. SO, while the wage of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ!  His Word tells us we can receive that gift if we simply confess with our lips and believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. And one day is coming back and we will get to spend eternity with Him.

All I know is that decision has changed the entire course of my life. Since that day, God began teaching me about Himself through His word and others who walked with Him. I learned He was a PERFECT FATHER even though none of our earthly dads can be. And now nothing, not even this really hard season of loss, not even death itself, can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus!

A couple years ago, I was driving along in the big white van with a family I lived with at the time, when all of a sudden in the back little voices began to cry out, "A buck daddy, there’s a buck! There's another one!" As the car slowed to a stop and began backing up, the boys climbed over the rows of seats to get to the front, real close to daddy, up in his lap, pointing out the open window, pure bliss in their eyes.

Watching these little ones hunger for this moment with their dad and the deer awoke that little girl in me too, even at twenty-two years old. At the time, my dad was in tough spot in life and I was wrestling hard with his decisions and their implications in my life. Upon reaching the safety of home, I ventured out into the darkening field and wept.

I think there is a legitimate and appropriate grieving that takes place when we lose something—something we were created to need, at that. This time, though, the tears weren't so painful or so personal. They weren't as angry. They didn't lead into hours or days of introspection. There was no bitterness or resent. They were simply little girl longings and adult needs finally being met by incredible grace, as I recognized just how deeply I was loved by my heavenly Father, sweet forgiveness and redemption dripping down my cheeks.

You see, that little girl searched for the love of her daddy for years. Yet that whole time, he had no ability to satisfy the needs of that little girl like her heavenly Father did, and honestly I think he knew it too.

And even as there are many tears today, I find myself grieving both the loss of a man who was my dad and the loss of what could have been, knowing through all of it that God is a good and gracious Daddy, perfectly in control, and the sufferings of this present time WILL NOT compare to the eternal glory of being with Jesus one day. Life is hard and messy but He gives us hope that truly does defeat the grave!

We weep and laugh and wrestle with much fear and trembling as we each are forced to consider life and death and eternity and love and hope.

In the days and months to come, the tears will fade but the Truth will stand unmovable. So even as we all grieve different loss, I also rejoice in this sweet memory of watching deer. I rejoice that even as we put dad’s ashes in the box tomorrow at the same place we used to watch those deer, the unfathomable grace of the Lord doesn’t change. So let’s life our eyes to hills from where our help does come, from the Maker of heaven and earth.

For today, maybe grace is simply slowing down to count the bucks and thank Him for them, as they point us to redemption and grace of our Heavenly Father, to whom we cry out Abba Father!

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
                        nor fruit be on the vines,
            the produce of the olive fail
                        and the fields yield no food,
            the flock be cut off from the fold
                        and there be no herd in the stalls,
            yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
                        I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
           God, the Lord, is my strength;
                        he makes my feet like the deer's;
                        he makes me tread on my high places.
                                                       (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Of course, when we buried dad's ashes yesterday, we were greeted by deer when we first pulled in! 

" that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." [Eph. 3]

Monday, October 26, 2015

On a Journey Through the Desert: Who's That?

After several hours of winding and weaving through the desert on the main highway, our driver abruptly turned off the road. As we continued down this path, the minutes ticked away, the bumps grew, and the mountains thickened. The “flattened” dirt was set out to resemble a rough path of some sort, and mile after mile, the deeper in we got. There was not another car in sight. Mountains of rock and sand as endless as the sea were all consuming to the eyes. Every once in a while, a tree would pop out in plain sight and you wonder how such life could ever sustain here in this endlessly dry wilderness. There were no snakes or spiders even, as they couldn’t survive in this land. It was dry and desolate.
Just when you think you’re so far from any possible civilization, that’s when our driver points up ahead and suddenly you see it – a few cube-like boxes of concrete walls and little brown faces that nearly blend into the landscape. The dogs are barking and the faces are moving closer at remarkable speed, and the anticipation builds. As we approached this village where we were to sleep for the night, my stomach began to twist into knots.
How in the world is it possible for these people to survive here? How is it that these beautiful women serve us all through the night and even sleep right beside us? How is it that they live here? How is it that they cook and clean, guard the sheep, marry, and have babies? How is this their home, the only existence they have ever known?
IMG_0842And how is it that when we tell them a miraculous story of Jesus’ love for them, they are quick to respond with, “Who’s that?”

I've heard about and lifted up these groups of people who have never ever heard, but I never could have imagined what it would be like to reach out and grip her hands, drink her tea, love on her babies and exchange deep grins in the middle of this wilderness land laced with the glory of this Father who loves her, sees her and desires to be reconciled to her right here in this place just the same as He loves you or me.

“And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of Him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’” (Romans 15:20-21)
These men and women and their kids had never heard about this “Isa al-Masih,” this Messiah. Many of the B-people practice a “folk Islam” as they are often taught by stories and rules passed down from one generation to the next. Only certain parts stick and others seem to dissolve. This makes for a very broken understanding of who God is and what they are created for.
As we pulled into that village, there was a woman, cloaked in red and gold, waving us to a place to park the vehicle. She yelled things at our driver in a tongue unfamiliar to us, and it seemed clear she was welcoming us to stay. This was becoming a norm—to pull into a village and look for a person of peace. If they received us, we stayed, and if not, we kept going. As the sun lowered behind the mountains, it began to settle in that we are about to sleep here, under the stars. I have never felt quite so small.
We talked, drank tea, ate good food and told stories inside the wall of this woman’s home late into the night, all gathered around the fire. We got to experience life with these people. This woman (who we will call ‘Joy’) sat and listened to us the whole night. Even when she couldn’t understand, she just sat there, her eyes following the speaker and soaking it all in. As the other women and kids came and went about their evening, she didn’t move. Every now and then I’d glance up and catch her eye, she’d grin and we would grab hands. She was a woman of peace; there was no doubt about it.
Later in the night, we got to share God’s story of redemption with her. She asked many questions and took great interest in the topic. Her biggest question that night was, “ How could my old heart possibly become a new heart?”
The next morning, the ladies from our group took Joy for a walk away from the village. We hiked through the sandy rock and down a hill where no one in thevillage could find us. We found some shade beneath an Acacia tree and sat on some rocks in a circle. Soon our translator found us and we proceeded to share about how that old heart becomes new. For hours, we talked and she asked questions and contemplated. We couldn’t understand everything going on towards the end, as the discussion was quickening and intensifying.
Suddenly, our translator stands up and declares, “We have a new sister in the faith—let us rejoice!” Let us rejoice indeed! Our new sister Joy had accepted the Truth and placed her faith in God’s ability to remove her heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh! We gathered tight around her, gripping her tight and praying. We held hands all the way back.
Y’all, there is no greater joy then witnessing a woman hearing the name of Christ for the very first time and responding in obedience to that call. Miss Joy is one of eight believers in this desert, among a people group of two million. Next week, she will be getting married and moving to another village. Join us in praying and believing for our Father to strengthen her faith and for the Spirit to teach her from the Word, and that as she goes, she will make disciples.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people I formed for myself that they might declare my praise!! You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. I am the Lord and besides me there is no Savior”. – Isaiah 43

Sunday, September 27, 2015

In Which We Have More Hosts then Students!

Have you ever considered how lonely it would feel to move to another country, learn a new culture, study in a different language, eat strange foods, and be so far away from your family?

Right now, the "honeymoon" phase of coming to a new place is ending as hundreds of international students here in Fayetteville are beginning to face this difficult reality and the homesickness is hitting hard! Recently, three of my dear friends shared how last weekend, all weekend long, their phones never buzzed, and they felt so alone. 

This is why the University's I-Friend Program is so amazing--it matches American families or American upperclassmen college students with an international student for the year. Actually, the I-Friend Program was how I really began spending time with international friends! The goal is for them to invite their student to come over or go do something at least once a month. It is an awesome picture of how God sets the solitary in families, even for seasons! Every year, there are always far more students who desire to get matched with a family then there are families available to match them with, which is a sad reality. 

My hope was that as I got to meet with families (specifically from my church body), and share more about international students and their desire to do life with Americans, that more families who had never participated in the I-Friend program would give it a try! 

Two weeks ago I received an email from the international office at the U of A saying, “Hi Courtney, thanks to your efforts, we actually have more American hosts then international students this year! Since you know so many of the hosts and students this year, we would love for you to come and help us match them this week.” 
Meet Ameel (to my right!), one of my new I-friend
"daughters" this year from Morocco!  

Ya’ll, every year we have too many students and not enough host families to match them with—this is HUGE! Wow!

What an incredible picture of the body of Christ catching a vision and running with it. University Baptist Church now has a reputation with the University as being a people who are willing to meet a practical need to the glory of the Father! We have gotten to bless the University and invite these students from Macedonia, Brazil, Morocco, Korea Iraq, etc. to sit at our dinning-room tables and hang out with our families.

Not to mention, there was SO MUCH favor in the University inviting me to come help match, because it enabled me to hand-pick students I’ve gotten to get to know and match them with many UBC families, even with many of you who are now welcoming them into your homes! Last week three different international students came to UBC for the first time, with their I-friend families! Even today, another student came for the first time with his campus cousin! I'm SO excited to see how God continues to reveal Himself to these students, even as we consider them more significant then ourselves! 

If you’re local and still interested in being matched with a student, a whole new group of internationals arrive in January! How awesome would it be to once again have more host families then students to match them with?! 

Meet Lorrene from Brazil! One of two new students I got
matched with this year through the I-Friend Program! 
My hope for us as a body of Christ locally, is that our presence on campus among international students would continue to grow, and that our increased involvement would become the norm! I thank my God for each of you as we labor together for His glory and the furtherance of His Kingdom among our beloved international friends at the U of A!