I used to embrace messiness, back when my own life seemed neat and clean enough. By neat and clean, I mean I had the "usual" young adult messiness of wondering what I was supposed to do with my life, when or if I would marry, the occasional heartbreak and growing pains. I was in university at the time my heart first turned toward the mess of injustice and oppression in the world, when my eyes first looked and saw and wept at horrors greater than what I'd known.
Gary Haugen, the president of International Justice Mission, came and spoke to us about women and children sold into prostitution, about indentured servants and tiny kids being forced to carry bricks for twelve hours a day with their families. He spoke about IJM's mission to physically rescue the suffering from places of slavery, offer safe places for the wounded to heal and relentlessly seek justice on their behalves. I sat stricken, peered into this mess, and my heart began its headfirst tumble in.
After he finished speaking, there was no one around him, and I went up to him with tears in my eyes. "What can I do?" I could barely choke out the question.
He looked at me, compassionately, as he must look at so many young people with big dreams, almost as if saying with his gaze, pace yourself, child. And then he encouraged me to sponsor one of the children from Compassion International, whose pictures were on display that evening in conjunction with his talk. This action, he explained, can help provide for a child who might otherwise be sold into prostitution due to extreme poverty.
And so I looked through all their faces, and I chose Swathy, four years old, from India, with some of the most soulful eyes I'd ever seen.
From then on, my feet turned with my heart, year by year, more toward seeking justice. I volunteered with refugee families through World Relief, and then after graduation, I got a job with them as a caseworker. After a year of this nearly 24/7 work, my young self burned out. But I never lost the passion. I reached out and made friends with homeless women near the cafe where I worked downtown. I ate with them, prayed for them and invited them into my home. I scoured my bible for verses and passages about God's heart for justice and I incorporated these into the worship I led at church those days. When I enrolled in a grad program three years after college, my sole vision was Africa, trauma and social justice. I could think of nothing else. In my hazy picture of the future, I was living in the slums of Nairobi, working among refugees outside the city, likely not married, and dreaming of partnering with the right people to start a nonprofit organization with the intent of striking at the wheels of injustice.
And then, in one fell swoop, all that passion, all that forward movement of the last seven years, was taken out with the blow of my Dad's unexpected death. It wasn't just his death that knocked me over, but the timing of it in my life, how it launched me into a quarter-life crisis, emotionally and spiritually. I was perched on the edge of launching out into all that I'd been training and preparing for, all I believed was my "calling." And in one surreal phone call, in one week in the ICU, I watched it all slip away with Papa's final breath.
I've never gone back.
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Life has been so messy since that day I lost my Dad. There were tremors of messy building in the year before, but his death unleashed waves I'm still riding out; those further out waves I feel I can ride now without being tossed about, yet they're still there. Almost six years later, life has continued to send wave after wave of quiet heartbreak, a flurry of loss compounding loss, and I'm treading water, barely breathing at times. In all this mess of my own, I feel less able to step into the messiness of others' pain and stay for very long.
And I've wondered, in all this, where did my heart go? Where did I go?
I have no desire for my life to be defined by losses, nor to be so consumed with my own heartaches that I am rendered incapable of reaching out to others who are suffering. I don't say all this in search of pity or sympathy, for we all bear our own quiet heartaches. Sometimes, though, in the mess of things I cannot control, I know I've responded by trying to insulate in daily life. Protecting my schedule, reaching for routine and some degree of comfort in the midst of unpredictability, not wanting to be inconvenienced by the needs of others, for fear they want more than I can give. I push away some of the mess of the world, stare at the suffering from a distance, because I cannot bear to go there again. Now I'm the messy one, I think. What do I really have to offer? Back in my younger years, I had endless energy, infectious passion, huge dreams and relatively few complications. I was also desperately afraid of vulnerability, so being the helper, the rescuer, the one providing the comfort, was much more comfortable than being the one on the receiving end.
It's so hard, so humbling and scary, to admit these things to you. But I can't let anyone think, for one moment, I'm more than I am. My heart is still drawn toward those who are hurting, suffering, on the fringe, oppressed, broken, poor, lonely, forgotten. And I have also learned how to walk past them with an empathetic smile and silent prayers, to tell them with my actions, I don't have time for you. I don't have emotional reserves for you, I'm just trying to survive myself. I come to Jesus with my cup, practically begging to be filled so I have something to give. Yet, in all my knowing of how many gifts I have in my life and practicing gratitude, I've felt so battered by the seasons it seems my cup is too holey to hold him in and I never have enough love to go around. I come up dry, more days than I care to admit.
I'm obviously still learning to live as one who is unconditionally, extravagantly loved, as I am, and that this is what fills me, the grace that plugs those holes and and allows love to spill over the sides.
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For so many years, I drew a great deal of self worth from these dreams I held so dear, from my ideal self, from how others affirmed my sense of purpose and passion. As I gained distance from this former life of mine, I began to better understand the brokenness in my heart, but I'm sure I also began to revise past memories of myself. I was sincere, this I know, but the lines have been blurred between sincerity of passion and mistaken striving for identity and approval. However, in my resolution to evict this performance-perfection driven faith that had taken over so much of my life, I also evicted some of the beautiful things that had made themselves at home in my heart.
It wasn't as simple or straightforward as that, friends. It rarely is. I just felt I had no choice but to walk away from my old life and embrace the rubble, the reconstruction, the 'new' me. Much of this was for good, but I didn't see everything I was leaving behind.
I haven't known, until recently, how I'd thrown that metaphoric baby out with the bath water. How I'd operated with an all-or-nothing mentality when it came to pursuing a life of justice and compassion. If I could no longer pursue those 'big' dreams, I must not be qualified to pursue any of it. With dreams that large, there was no place to go but downsizing, and that felt like giving God second best.
My prayer became something more like this: All you have is ordinary, run-of-the-mill me, God. I don't have much to offer anymore, but here I am. Put me back together and I'll run after you the best I can. It might be with a limp, but I'll keep running. Over the years, I've grown to redefine 'big dreams', to value the small things, the mundane, the unglamorous. I started this blog where I write all about that. And still, I've felt something is missing, that I'm still grieving crucial parts of me that were lost.
And I'm standing here with weak knees and tears in my eyes, confessing, I want those parts of my heart back. I want them restored, friends. I want to be willing, once more, to let go of my comfort, to stop insulating myself from the world's pain because of my own. I want to not be afraid of letting God's desires for justice back in my heart, to stay, looking the same and altogether different than six years before.
This is who I am. It's who I've always been. And maybe my being on the 'front lines', as I thought I would be, in the pulsing thick of peoples' pain, will look more like my own home, my marriage. My mother and sister, niece and nephew. A handful of close friendships. My customers and coworkers. My church community. My blog community. My neighborhood. My little girl in India. My family in Mexico.
The pains of life will come and go, and they may stay here with me for many more seasons, staunch and unmoving, but I resolve in my heart that I will open the door again to the messiness, the terrible beauty of the world, and I will offer them Jesus in the form of imperfect me. We can be messy together, not just from a distance. Somehow, like the tiny bit of yeast through a lump of bread dough, God will work his kingdom ways into my heart, gently, once more. And it will spread and it will rise, and it will be enough, for that is how the Spirit works his ways of redemption.
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Linking up with Lisa Jo to the prompt of "Mess" - and oh, dear friends, this was so far out of the range of five minutes. But I needed to write it out.
Also, linking up with Jennifer.