The Lulu Tree

15 09 2014

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Isn’t this the cutest handmade hat you’ve ever seen? Well, guess what! You can order one. Or twenty. Because today is launch day for The Lulu Tree Boutique. And when you buy this hat (or any of the other wonderful items for sale in the boutique), all the proceeds will go to help mamas and children living in the slum of Katwe, Uganda. So hop on over and get your Christmas shopping done early. And please take a few minutes to visit Emily Weirenga’s blog, where you can not only learn more about The Lulu Tree and ways you can help make the world more beautiful, you can also enter an amazing giveaway. So much to love.

Thanks, friends. You’re the best. Happy shopping. xo

 





You’re Invited!

13 08 2014

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“Oh, goody,” you say. “What are we invited to?”

I’m glad you asked. And I’ll tell you. But first I want you to fall in love with these people.

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I could jump right into a long list of admirable character traits to describe Ruslan and Zhanna, but let’s start with a true story instead.

We were walking up the resort’s main road toward a meeting room. But not just any meeting room. This was the room Zhanna and Ruslan had spent most of the day preparing, because tonight was the last night of camp, and that meant a big celebration. They’d set up a stage for the talent show, computers and a projector for screening videos filmed by four teams of special needs campers, and sound equipment for microphones and music. Tables had been adorned and food prepared to serve a lovely meal for the fifty campers, their buddies, the moms who’d attended the conference, and all the camp staff and volunteers. There was a dance floor where professional dancers would entertain, the moms would perform a dance for their children, and a gloriously chaotic dance party would break loose at the end of the evening.

Everything was ready to go right on time, and the wait staff was standing by to serve the meal. We’d all just finished taking pictures on the beach, and we were walking up the hill to begin the evening festivities, when we saw the director of the resort walking down the hill to meet us.

I watched as the conversation unfolded in Russian, but couldn’t understand a word.

The director said something to Zhanna and Ruslan. Her tone and expression were serious, so I was surprised and relieved when they both reacted with a chuckle. A series of questions and answers followed, but for all I could gather through vocal and visual cues, the topic couldn’t have been too significant.

Finally the director walked away and I asked what was going on.

“The power is out,” Zhanna said calmly. “It may not be back on until tomorrow.”

We interrupt this story for a brief Pop Quiz:

Question: If I’d been in charge of this camp and had worked all day to prepare for its culminating event, for which 100+ people were at this moment dressed up and waiting with growling tummies and high expectations, would I have responded to this news with a soft chuckle and a quiet discussion about options?

Correct answer: Um, no.

IMG_4849But this is who they are. And this is the sort of challenge they deal with on a regular basis. When you meet this couple, with their infectious joy, their playful personalities, and their unobtrusive yet unshakable faith, you’d never guess how much responsibility they carry. Ruslan is the head of Young Life for all of Central Asia, and Zhanna is the head of Young Life Capernaum (Special Needs) for the former Soviet Union.

Go look at a map and then come back and read the previous sentence again.

10483995_10152597931543809_5621075135951472153_nOn top of all that, they’re raising two happy, rambunctious boys on a shoestring budget, made even more challenging by the fact that the local currency recently lost 20% of it’s value. In other words, that’s like working hard to save $10,000.00, and then waking up one morning to discover it had shrunk to $8,000.00.

And now? Zhanna is pregnant. With twin girls.

When she told Ruslan, she smiled and said, “God has a sense of humor.”

Right now, their family of four lives in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. They would like to sell it and buy a three-bedroom, but just adding one small room increases the price of an apartment in Almaty from $80,000.00 to $120,000.00. That’s a big chunk of change, especially when you live off of two ministry salaries and one of them may soon diminish. Zhanna has juggled motherhood and ministry great so far, but adding two infants to the mix? She’s not even trying to predict what that will look like.

And when you ask them how they’re going to handle all the changes and make ends meet? Their response is as calm as the one they gave the camp director when the power went out. They don’t know. But worrying about it won’t help. So they pray. And smile. And keep on tirelessly pouring out their lives and their love on these kids and their families.

I’ve never known anyone I admire and respect more than these two. Seriously. If the dictionary had an entry for “Salt of the Earth,” I’m pretty sure their pictures would be beside it.

So, I’ve been praying for them and asking God to provide, and in the midst of my praying, I had an idea that makes me downright giddy when I think of the potential blessing it could bring to them.

Which brings me to the title of this post.

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You’re invited!

What? A Virtual Baby Shower for Zhanna’s Twins
When? Right Now
Where? Your Computer Screen
And here’s how you RSVP:

First click here. Fill in the personal information. Scroll down, and check “Partners in Asia.” In the “Select from List” bar directly below your checked box, select “Kazakhstan Young Life,” then in the box below, write, “Virtual Baby Shower for Zhanna’s Twins.” (See screen shot below.) Add the amount you want to give and your billing info, then click “submit donation” and Voila! Congratulations. You have become the gift.

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If you prefer to give by check, make it to Orphanos, write “Kazakhstan — Zhanna’s Baby Shower” in the memo line, and mail it to Orphanos Foundation, P.O. Box 1057, Cordova, TN 38088-1057. I’ve been assured that every single dime we give will go directly to Zhanna and Ruslan, so don’t think of this as a ministry donation. Think of it as a baby shower gift, and then give whatever you would spend to buy a baby gift for someone you love. It can be fifty dollars or five. No amount is too small. If we all give a little (and then invite our friends to this shower, too), we could buy those baby girls their very own bedroom.

Oh, friends. Just typing those words made my heart swell with the sweetest joy!

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So, will you come? I hope so. And I hope you’ll spread the word and invite all your friends. Let’s sip virtual punch and munch on virtual cookies, and bless a beautiful family in ways that reach all the way to eternity.

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Oh, and the end of the camp story?

Since the food was ready to serve, they decided we’d eat by candle light and then move the rest of the party to the cavernous, much less intimate dining hall. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it was the only building on the grounds with power. So they lit candles on the tables and lined the stairs with them, and we all entered a twinkling wonderland. As we enjoyed our delicious dinner, the power flickered back on. Everyone cheered, and the party proceeded as planned.

Only it turned out even better than it would have been. Because God has a wonderful, purposeful, amazing sense of humor.

When I grow up, I want to understand that as well as these two.

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Every Breath is Grace

7 08 2014

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One of the best gifts God can give someone is to take her out of her comfort zone and drop her smack in the middle of moment-by-moment dependence on Him.

It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Daunting and delightful. And humbling in the best way.

There’s something desperately wonderful about knowing that, unless God keeps, we will not be kept. Unless He gives endurance, we will collapse. Unless He guides and empowers our words, they will not be truly heard.

We absolutely know we are not sufficient. Not equal to the task. Not in control.

And we also know that He is all of these things.

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I went to Kazakhstan knowing I would be placed in situations where people who suffer in ways I can’t begin to comprehend would have the opportunity to ask me any question they wanted to ask about God, what I believe, and how I deal with my own suffering.

There was no way I could prepare answers in advance, because I had no idea what the questions would be.

My portion for the duration of the trip was utter, moment-by-moment dependence on God.

And it was amazing.

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God didn’t remove the difficulties and challenges. I battled jet lag. I couldn’t speak the language. Everything from food to currency to local customs was foreign. “Taking a taxi” equaled hitchhiking (and we did this often), and roadway lane markings were more like suggestions than actual boundaries. The heat index soared in a country where many homes, businesses, and cars lack air-conditioning, so I wore the same sweat-dried clothes again and again, living for two weeks out of one small suitcase. I needed a translator to carry on even the simplest conversation, and I never ventured out alone to do anything for fear someone on the street would say something to me and expect a response.

Once we got to camp, my job was to lead morning exercises on the beach, speak four times, teach and perform a dance with the moms, engage with them at meals, and help teach a cooking class using a recipe that was written in Russian.

Rest was not a priority.

But all of these things were gifts to me, because they bowed me low, and that’s exactly where I needed to be. I knew that I knew that I needed God.

And God was there.

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Our team gathered each morning for debrief and prayer. And in the stillness of those moments, as Russian and English words mingled in a chorus of praises and petitions, God’s presence was tangible. Every single day, He filled our meeting place with the sweetest peace, like a tiny foretaste of that great Someday, when every tribe, tongue, and nation will worship around His throne.

I never felt sufficient, but I never felt nervous either. I felt . . . held.

And maybe this is what “become as a little child” means. We know we’re small and weak, but that just lets Him be big and strong. We stand at the edge of opportunity and fling ourselves into space, laughing with utter abandon. It has nothing to do with knowing what’s about to happen and everything to do with the faithfulness of the One who beckons and waits, arms outstretched to catch us.

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As I looked into the eyes of those beautiful moms, I knew without a shadow of doubt that each one of them was made in His image, and all of our stories were written in His book before any of us were born, and here, on this page where a most unlikely cast of characters had assembled, I stood in awe of the glorious promise of God’s goodness and grace. Not one word He has spoken concerning a single one of us will fail. From the American visitor who grew up in suburbia, to the strong Russian woman raised under strict soviet law, to the soft-spoken Uighur wife who rises at 5:30 AM to milk the family cow.

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As different as our life stories may be, here in this place, we are the same. We’re women who love our “broken” children — who see them not for what they lack but for who they are — and we all long for the world to see them and love them the way we do.

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So I let myself be small. Just small and present and aware of this greater grace. Because it wasn’t about me at all, and it never is, and the more I understand this, the more life becomes one grand adventure. We’ve been given this string of days, each one made up of moments, and each of those moments packed with purpose, whether we’re seen or unseen by the world. It doesn’t matter if we’re ministering to millions or washing dishes or wiping noses or waiting long beside a hospital bed.

Now that I’m home again, I want to keep living small and present and aware, constantly leaning into Him. Because life is short, and I don’t want to waste the gift.

Every day is holy.

Every encounter brings me face to face with the Imago Dei.

And every single breath is grace.

 

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* * *

Dear friends, thank you for your patience.
I do have more stories to tell –
glorious stories of God’s redeeming grace –
and I promise I will tell them here. I will.
Meanwhile, I can’t begin to express how much I admire this
amazing ministry to these young people with special needs
and their strong, beautiful moms.

The dear souls behind A Friend at All Times serve with such tireless joy,
but the needs are many, and the resources are few.
Would you consider a small donation to
help them?

You can give online through Orphanos.
Scroll down and select “Partners in Asia”
then, from the list immediately below,
select “Kazakhstan Young Life.”

Thank you. With all my heart.

(all photos by Catherine Burns)





Rising From the Ruin

10 07 2014

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“For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.”

C.S. Lewis

If I asked you to define a “good gift,” what would you say?

Feel free to press pause on this blog post to ponder that question for a while. It’s an important one. Your answer colors the way you view God and His promises and everything in life that is out of your control. (Which is, by the way, everything in life.)

At this point I could ramble for a few paragraphs about what generally constitutes a good gift, but I hope you won’t mind if I cut to the chase. Because I’ve come to believe with all my heart that God is sovereign over all His hands have made, He is always only perfect love, and everything He chooses for His children is a good gift. Every. Single. Thing.

Suppose He has closed every door you so desperately wanted Him to open. He has pruned your branches with such fury that you look in the mirror and see only the raw stubs of what was once your pride and glory. Your body aches, your wallet is empty, and your relationships are a mess. Your dreams have shattered into a million tiny pieces, and you hold no hope for their restoration.

C.S. Lewis would say now is the time to bless His Name.

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We can’t help it. We love comfort, we crave acceptance and approval, we long for success, security, and safety. We view the events of our lives through the grid of our expectations and desires, and we assume the “good and perfect gifts” God promises to give will line up with our personal longings and agendas.

But He loves us too much to give us what we think we want.

In the days and weeks that followed Jacob’s near drowning, I struggled to understand what good purpose God could possibly have in the devastation of his body, brain, and potential. I knew God was right there when Jacob went down, and I knew He could have prevented it. I knew He loved Jacob and had created him for His pleasure and glory. But I didn’t see how any of this could possibly fit into “plans formed long ago with perfect faithfulness.”

From where I sat, the future looked unbearably long and hard. But the ripples had already begun.

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* * *

For a year and a half after Abby’s birth, Dina and Nurmat kept her condition a secret, even from close friends and ministry supporters. They were both mature Christians and had served as long-time staff with Campus Crusade in Kyrgyzstan. Their faith assured them their daughter was a gift from God, but they knew all too well what other people would think. Even their doctor suggested they place her in an institution. She would only be a burden, he said, and isolate them in a culture where disability is considered a curse or a punishment for sin.

Abby’s birth plunged Dina into a long, dark season of confusion and depression. She and Nurmat had spent years building a ministry in this country — establishing relationships and nurturing trust. Why would God complicate their lives and cripple their ministry by giving them a child with Down Syndrome? It made no sense.

No doubt many well-meaning believers would ask the same question. After all, Dina and Nurmat are uniquely gifted and qualified for the work they’d been doing. He’s a native of Kyrgyzstan and she’s from Kazakhstan. They know the culture and language. They’re intelligent, creative, passionate, and friendly. Years of training, prayer, and discipleship had prepared them for a lifetime of fruitful service.

And then Abby happened.

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If we believe that God is the Author of our stories, we must believe that He writes each page with purpose. We may think we know what He is after — why He gave us certain abilities or blessed us with certain opportunities. We may think we know why He calls us into a certain profession or lands us in a certain city. But God is always doing much more than we can begin to fathom. And sometimes the very thing that appears to be our destruction is God’s gracious provision to steer us out of ourselves and into His higher plan.

Abby wasn’t a curse. She was the key to the next door.

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And this is where stories collide, and God gives a glimpse into mysteries, and we fall on our faces with the wonder of it all — for His goodness, His grace, His unshakable purposes, and the crazy beautiful way His upside down kingdom busts wide open the narrow confines of our expectations.

Last summer Dina came to Kazakhstan to translate my messages to mothers of disabled children. And as she spoke to them, she spoke to her own soul. Chains fell off. Faint glimmers of hope burst into flame. God ignited a fire in her soul that she carried back home. She’d already begun to seek out other families with DS. Now she took her search to the media, appearing in print and television interviews, providing her personal phone number and welcoming calls.

More than a hundred families have contacted Dina and Nurmat in the past year. They’ve hosted seminars and provided helpful information and resources. The entire thrust of their ministry has shifted to this particular community — many of them Muslims or atheists — all united by a love for someone with Down Syndrome and a desire to make their lives as healthy and happy as possible.

And so, this year when we made our plans to return to Kazakhstan for another special needs camp and mom’s conference, several of us tacked on a few days at the beginning of the trip, and we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan to conduct a two-day seminar for Dina’s families.

I shared our story, and Lindley — a precious young mom from Memphis whose fourth and youngest son has DS — shared hers. We also spent a lot of time listening to these dear parents and answering their questions. Lindley even had the opportunity to pray with one mom who battles extreme fear for her child’s future. They all received Russian copies of Parting the Waters, and many had begun reading it before our time together ended. Two of those moms followed us back across the border and attended the conference in Kazakhstan.

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10449191_10152264014694385_3505579048671367080_nThe two Kyrgyz moms who came to Kazakhstan, Dina, Abby, and Lindley (Lindley’s photo)

And once again Dina translated. In Kyrgyzstan to the dear families she has come to love, and in Kazakhstan to a new group of moms whose stories are yet to be told. Once again she spoke to them, and once again she spoke to herself, and God continues to work as only God can. Doors open, branches thought dead explode with fruit, and the shards of old dreams take new form, pieced by the Master Artist, lovingly set according to His design, catching His light and scattering it like stained-glass laughter on a gray and weary world.

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Before we left to return to America, Dina handed me a mug with a map of Kyrgyzstan on it. “From Abby to Jacob,” she said. “Tell him the ripples continue.”

And so they do, quiet, relentless, crossing oceans and language barriers, laden with good gifts from a good God.

Let the ruin fall.

* * *

(Lovely friends,
Please click here if you’d
like to make a donation to
Dina and Nurmat’s ministry.

Thank you!)





Border Crossing

8 07 2014

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This wasn’t part of my plan.

Once upon a time, if God had asked my opinion on the course my life should take, I would have suggested that He reveal His love to the world by making me a shining example of favor and grace. My marriage would be so happy, my children so beautiful and brilliant, and all of our endeavors so very successful, everyone who beheld our awesomeness would line up to follow Jesus.

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But God didn’t ask my opinion. On the contrary, every day ordained for me was written in His book before I was born to have or give an opinion. Every day written with divine purpose and with perfect love.

And so, my life unfolds as written, and the day came when the page turned, and He took my hand and led me into a world I never would have chosen to enter.

The world of the disabled. Of hospitals and nurses and therapists and wheelchairs. Of dire predictions and long sleepless nights and a thousand questions echoing into the dark unknown.

The world of those who know they are broken.

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Maybe you’ve heard the story — how a good shepherd loves a wayward lamb enough to break her legs, carrying her on his shoulders rather than leaving her to perish in her foolish wanderings. The brokenness is her gift. Her salvation.

This is my story. And it has become beautiful to me. To be broken and carried, emptied and filled, to gladly give what I cannot keep to gain what I cannot lose.

And the pages turn, and we board a plane, and we land in a place where my smallness is magnified. I know that I know that I am not sufficient for these things, and this is my joy.

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Because God meets us on the pages of our stories. Meets us in our limping weakness and sweeps us up in His magnificent strength, taking us where we never imagined we would go. We wheel suitcases full of hope across borders where x-ray machines are out of order and guards just happen to be on break. We declare good news to a people whose language we can’t speak, and we are heard and understood. We dance with them, dine with them, laugh and cry with them. We look into the eyes of women whose homes and culture and daily lives are worlds apart from our own, and we see a family likeness. Light shines in darkness. He is here. The Lover of their souls. The Writer of their stories. The One who makes all things new.

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I spent two weeks in Central Asia, carried by the Good Shepherd. To those who prayed, thank you with all my heart. God answered. The ripples continue. I’m bowed low with the wonder of it all.

Once upon a time, if God had asked my opinion on the course my life should take, I would have suggested that He reveal His love to the world by making me a shining example of favor and grace. Now I understand that’s exactly what He has done.

Stories to come.

 

 





We believe

29 05 2014

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IMG_1242
IMG_1179We believe in a God enthroned, who calls the stars by name,
and sees when a sparrow falls.

We believe in a God who was and is and is to come — the eternally present,
who created time and reigns above and in it.

We believe in a God who does all things well, whether He gives or takes away,
never changing in His love, His holiness, and His goodness.

We believe in a God who always acts in accordance with faithful plans formed long ago.

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No one can hinder Him.

No one can find fault with Him.

No one can cause one word He has spoken to fail.

IMG_0781
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IMG_0957And so we go.

And so we speak.

And so we dance.

We laugh and cry.

We listen and embrace.

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imageWe believe the cross is the measure of God’s love,
and the price of a redemption meant for the ends of the earth.
Who are we to keep it to ourselves?

And so we go.

Small, we go,
our comfort in knowing that
the weak confound the mighty,
the meek inherit the earth,
and the pure in heart see God.

IMG_1771compWe go in the confidence that we are sent.

And the rest
belongs to Him.

* * *

Dear friends,

On June 16, I’m returning to Kazakhstan. Lord willing, I’ll be gone for two weeks and will speak seven times to three different groups.

Like last summer, I will share our story and God’s grace with moms of disabled young adults.

Like last summer, I’ll encourage them to look for the beauty in the gifts God has chosen for them, teach them a dance they will perform for their children, and lead them in morning exercises on the beach.

And like last summer, I’m bowed low with the sense of my utter insufficiency for these things. But I’m also filled with hope. Because I’ve been before, and I’ve seen God come, seen Him move, seen Him lift heavy hearts and strengthen weak knees.

Unlike last year, we’ll be traveling into Kyrgyzstan to speak to parents of children with Down Syndrome. And we’re also planning a reunion with the moms who attended last year’s conference.

So, I’m asking you to pray — no, I’m begging you to please pray for me and for our team — that our good and gracious God will provide safety in travel, good health and stamina, sensitivity to His Spirit, anointing, favor with local authorities, open hearts, and — above all — that the plans He has ordained will be fully accomplished, according to His power at work within us, and for the glory of His Name.

And, friends? If you (or someone you know) might be interested in financially helping these moms or their precious children attend camp, you can give online through Orphanos. Simply click this link, then scroll down the page, select “Partners in Asia” and, from the drop down menu, “Kazakhstan Young Life” (as indicated on the screen shot below).

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I know there are thousands of beautiful ministries out there deserving of your support, and we all have to ask God to lead us in our giving, so please don’t feel any pressure here. But if you know of someone whose heart is especially inclined toward serving the special needs community or declaring good news in Central Asia, please share this opportunity. $250 sends one mom or special friend to camp. Gifts in any amount are deeply appreciated. Thank you!

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We believe.
We really do.
And our hearts burst into singing.

 





all means all

4 05 2014

psalm145pmResting in truth today.
Praying it is well with your soul.

* * *

 

Jumping Tandem







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