BH: What movie do you want to rent?
JH: A funny one.
Bless. It is just what I reach for. I just love to laugh. I like funny people and funny things. (My sub-category is sarcasm.) This is both my preference and my style.
But sometimes life is really, really hard and I am in the weeds. Sometimes I need sober, thoughtful instruction to lead and comfort me. Sometimes I crave depth in the midst of struggle. As one who thrives in exterior spiritual work, it is innately good for me to learn from someone with a strong interior constitution.
Many of you know my mom has cancer. It’s so dumb. We still can’t believe it. She looks so normal and plus we don’t get cancer. Mom is the only calm and stable person in our family. The rest of us are prone to hysteria and drama; you would think we had the cancer to hear us go on. Crisis has found our doorstep, and it is decidedly not funny (even though Dad asked us in the hospital after Mom’s surgery if she was going to make us dinner that night…we are somehow managing Cancer Humor which apparently is a thing).
I guess that is why I was so glad when Every Bitter Thing is Sweet by Sara Hagerty found its way into my hands. It asks questions that are tragically relevant to us right now:
What does it look like to know God’s nearness when your world stops working?
What does it mean to receive His life when earthly life remains barren?
How can God turn the bitterness of unmet desire into new flavors of joy?
Sara takes the substance of her own life – spiritual bankruptcy, marital struggles, physical barrenness, loss and grief – and answers these questions with such sincerity and hope, I finished the book thinking there is absolutely no tragedy God cannot turn into beauty.
Every Bitter Thing is for the hurting person who needs reminded that God never leaves. It is a far cry from emotional jargon. Sara walks us through the discipline of praising God in the midst of pain, finding Him faithful and present and enough, discovering that He has beauty for us right here, right in the middle of the disaster, before it is resolved, before it heals. She wrote this:
“The question of pain, it’s buried deep in my bones. It is my story, though I’ve barely traveled the circumference that others have not even to the half. But God wants me to know the nearness of Him in response to the deepest questions of my story, the kind of nearness that, when realized, heals.”
Sara, like a prophet, like a loved daughter, writes about the ordinary, simple work that stripped her mind of a lifetime of lies about God and filled it instead with truth: adoration. Nothing complicated, no 10-step program, no fancy theological gymnastics. Just adoration. When she had none in the midst of crisis, she found them in the Word and said them out loud to God.
You are faithful.
You love me.
I can count on you.
You will not leave me when you see my failure.
“Line upon line, this (Bible) showed the chasm in my understanding. Line upon line, it brought me back to adoration as a way to bridge the chasm between my perceptions and God’s truth. Day after day, I felt the relief of holding my toxic thoughts up to His beauty. I saw more clearly the disconnection between who I said God is and who I believed Him to be. I saw that pain wasn’t a result of my circumstances; pain was a result of my detachment from the Father. Circumstances were merely unearthing my view of life.”
Isn’t that so incredibly wise and instructive? Let me tell you, as someone whose circumstances are completely off the rails right now, I am grateful for Sara’s words that lead me back to God’s presence and remind me that life is hard but God is good.
Did I mention that the writing is oh so lovely? As a writer who peddles sarcasm and rants, I am often drawn to introspective, interior thinkers who write with the tongue of a poet and lead me to a quiet, still space. I need this. This is a different part of the body that helps me function better; this is the heart giving the exterior parts nourishment and the strength to go on.
Good reader, if you are in a dark night of the soul, if you stripped bare and need to remember that God is good and He is for you, this is your book. It is like sitting on the couch with a tender and wise friend, finding your way back to peace. I want this for you. And when you feel restored, come back to me and I will fill your brain with long rants about Friday Night Lights, because SUBSTANCE.
Are you in the middle of a bitter thing? Do you need reminded that God can make it sweet? Tell me a little about your story and I will pick one commenter to receive a copy of Sara's lovely book. And count on my prayers, dear ones. You know I love you.
This is not a thing here. Every zone is a passing zone. Those double yellow lines? Pure wishful thinking of the ET Transportation Department. Enormous bus coming right at you in the opposite lane? Still a passing zone. The middle of the road, the shoulder, the median, the sidewalk...all passing zones. It is irrelevant how many cars are next to you, in front of you, or coming at you. These are not details that matter. Simply beep your horn and barrel around someone. Everyone else will move. Except the donkeys. The donkeys will not be moved. The donkeys clearly have a death wish.
This is a non-existent population. I have several friends “off coffee” and they might actually die here. Die from Ethiopian shaming. Aschalew stopped us 20 times a day and hollered, “I cannot think! We need double macchiatos!” Every time you sit still, someone brings you coffee. Jillian is a non-coffee drinker and she has put down her weight in java this week. Bless. Consequently, when we were trapped in the van for five hours one day, Kristen screamed: “I feel like Helen Hunt in that after-school special ‘Angel Dust’ when she took PCP and jumped out of a second-story window screaming! I AM FREAKING OUT!” We were too hopped up on caffeine for five hours in a vehicle, people. We were like a van full of addicts with the shakes.
And When HH goes flying out the window like a lunatic, I could not quit laughing
because that is EXACTLY how we felt in that freaking van.
Electricity that isn’t insane
It is feast or famine here. Either the entire city has rolling blackouts and we sit in darkness for however long, or the electricity surge is so strong, it is guaranteed to destroy our appliances. Korie turned her hair dryer on for two seconds on the first day and it blew up: Kaput. (This is Aschalew’s word and we use it with abandon. Everything is kaput. This rain is kaput. This driver is kaput. This weird lamb/beef/goat is kaput.) Korie borrowed my hair dryer another day and brought it back with a very sorry look on her face and said, “Bad news. Yours is kaput now too.” We had a lot of air-dried hair and buns on this trip. Ethiopian electricity, you are drunk.
I looked hard, but I didn’t see one single ET mama cut her little’s sandwich into dolphin shapes swimming in kale for his bento box. I saw no Cowboy-themed birthday parties with actual saddles owned by John Wayne as party favors. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t believe there is an ounce of chalkboard paint in the entire country. A Facebook commenter once threatened to call CPS on me because I kicked my misbehaving boys out of the car and made them walk four blocks home in their own neighborhood. I can tell you confidently that is not a thing here. I believe my ET neighbor would probably spank my sons for misbehaving and make them drive some goats as penance. They would be kaput.
You might think an hour is an hour, but you would be wrong. An hour here is more like 2-5 hours. If something is “20 minutes away,” you will get there tomorrow. When the IT guy at the café says he is coming back “in a minute” to fix your internet connection (another mythical unicorn over here) so you can send a blog to your precious American readers, you will see him never again. Memorize the back of this head. Good-bye. Aschalew would say, “Is no problem! We will be there in three hours…Aschalew time!” When we all gave him the side eye, he would just laugh and say he is the boss over here and we just needed to deal and quit whining about our elusive internet connection like a bunch of crybabies. (This is not our fault. Our mothers made us sandwich dolphins.) He promised to comply with American punctuality and OCD when he comes over next month. I cannot wait to mess with him.
Social safety nets
Life is hard everywhere. Divorce, illness, family disruption, abandonment, death…these happen in every community. But in Ethiopia, there are no systems to catch the folks who fall through these cracks. There is no welfare, state food programs, public school system, standard healthcare, subsidized housing, foster care. When these people fall through the cracks, they fall tragically. Though our systems are certainly imperfect, they exist.
This is what double-sponsorship through Help One Now provides: the safety net. By identifying the most vulnerable kids in Gunchire (mostly HIV+ widows with multiple children and no outside or inside support or income), the basic needs fall into place with the first sponsorship: school fees, uniforms, books, daily nutrition, medical care for the entire family – and the second sponsorship moves into economic empowerment: land development, microloans, capitalizing on existing skills and assets, farming and agriculture, and the medical and social tools to overcome an HIV+ diagnosis.
Not only did you help us hit our goal of 300 sponsorships (the top 150 most vulnerable kids in Gunchire and their families, double-sponsored), but we added the next 12 on the list and they are all double-sponsored as well! (We hit the original goal heading home yesterday in the Addis airport after Mike and Brandon kept refreshing the Help One Now page every two minutes. We laughed and screamed and hugged and cried like crazy people.)
AND we have moved willing sponsors still queuing up into the next critical group of sponsorships in Uganda – same exact mission and model with a high capacity in-country leader, Edward Magumba. You can find these kids on the same website and your sponsorship of them will provide the same safety net.
IT IS ALL SUCH GOOD WORK.
Thank you, dear moms and dads and kids around the world. What a joy. What a delight. What a story. What a privilege. So grateful to do this with you. This is the stuff. This is the good stuff. THANK YOU. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You cannot imagine how much your sponsorship is going to change this community.
And now I plan to go home, hug my babies, and sleep for a hundred years.
Here is what is harder: helping you GET IT. I can’t duplicate the look on these mothers’ faces as they describe how sponsorship has changed their lives. I can’t translate the smells, the songs, the laughter, the hope. I wish you could be here. It is no secret I love this country. Fine…guilty. I am not objective. Lots of reasons, including these two:
But dear reader, this place is magical. Dare I say it is holy ground. It might sound strange to say that amidst such suffering and struggle, but it is true nonetheless. I always plan to sink into the despair of solidarity when I’m here, but Ethiopia jukes me every time into just loving the tarnation out of it, even the hard parts.
Probably because of stories like Seada Nesa.
Seada lost her husband to HIV six years ago. HIV+ herself and without any means to support her three children, her little family skirted the edge of starvation; all three children barely survived. Her oldest son, Siraj, worked 12 hours as a day laborer in place of school, bringing home less than $1 a day. Look at this beautiful boy, trying his hardest to support his family at the age of 8...then 9...still 10.
In January, Help One Now spent weeks in the community, identifying the 150 most vulnerable families in town. Criteria included: widows, HIV+ family members, no income, no outside support, multiple children, mentally or physically disabled family members, and no extended family. Not surprisingly, Seada and her family were selected, and all three children were sponsored beginning this January.
In just nine short months, all three kids are back in school, they eat three times a day instead of once every other day, Seada is on daily ARV’s (HIV meds), their new cow is producing milk, and they are learning to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops on the land they already owned. Siraj told us, “I used to work all day and I was so worried for my mother. Now I am in school and I am not afraid for her anymore.” Amen and hallelujah. That moment alone was worth the entire trip.
This family was starving nine months ago and now they are rising.
HON employs a double-sponsorship model – every child sponsored twice to produce a two-fold result:
- Provide basic stabilization: daily food, school fees, uniforms and supplies, and medical resources for the entire family.
- Develop the family economically: teach modern farming techniques (most Ethiopians have extraordinarily large lots which can be entirely cultivated for food), provide cows, goats, and chickens and the training to raise and resource them, identify existing gifts, skills, and assets of the parents to harness into income-producing outlets, and equip the HIV+ parents to address and overcome social stigma and regain solid footing in their community.
This goes well beyond just getting through the day. We met four families this week that are literally thriving via double sponsorships: they are now small-business owners, farmers and gardeners, and all their children are in school which absolutely isn’t a guarantee in developing countries like Ethiopia.
I can’t tell you how encouraged I was to hear from the HIV+ mamas. Having received support (which translates to honor) from HON, empowering them toward visible sustainability, the neighbors who formerly shunned them have begun welcoming them with open arms. The stigma is turning. The Gunchire community is learning that HIV is no longer a death sentence or contagious by proximity. In turn, more HIV sufferers in secret are coming forward for meds, empowered by these brave survivors who are finding their place in the community again. How exciting! What good news for this town and its people!
Yall, SPONSORSHIP is good news for this town and its people. It absolutely provides the monthly capacity for this long-term development. Locally led and locally managed, the brightest minds in Ethiopia are in charge here. We just provide the impetus for their good work.
Our goal is to double sponsor all 150 identified children; a total of 300 new sponsors. Like I said yesterday, in a small town like Gunchire, with 150 at-risk families stabilized and empowered, this literally has the power to turn the entire community around. Hundreds of children are now in school instead of working, hundreds of families are kept intact instead of devastated by disruption, and ten years from now, hundreds of young adults will contribute to the local economy and take their rightful place as the next generation of local leaders.
Here is what you get, New Sponsor:
- The certain knowledge that you are AN AWESOME PERSON CONTRIBUTING TO AWESOME WORK. High five. This matters so much. It is changing real lives, real families, an entire community. You win. You rule.
- Some goodies: every new sponsor gets a Help One Now sticker, t-shirt, and a copy of Interrupted from yours truly. BOOM. You’re welcome. We love you. Check out your goodies here.
- Access to a private Facebook group hosted by me, Kristen, Korie, and Jillian. We are now friends on our own little group! You’ll get updates, correspondence, and great conversations about our precious community in Gunchire we are helping to raise up together. We are the Gunchire Tribe!
- This is too fun: All 300 new sponsors are entered into a drawing to win a signed guitar by WEEZER (did you know our own Jillian is rockwife to Weezer bass player Scott Shriner in addition to being a little ol’ NY Times bestseller? Overachiever, that one). Brandon said we are sponsoring four kids to be entered four times for the guitar. Good grief.
You don’t need any of that, of course, but we want to do this because we love Gunchire and anyone else who loves Gunchire. We are having Big Loving Feelings about this place and we’ll do anything to rally for it.
It’s easy: go here, pick a darling child, and sponsor them. It is $42 a month. Someone else will pick the same punkin’, and BOOM: that kid is double sponsored. Help is on the way. Gather your own kids around the computer and choose together. Trust me, your babes will be writing a lot of letters and falling in love with this kid. You might even travel here one day to see for yourselves.
I’ll leave you with a few pics because OH ETHIOPIA. Be mine. I want it to be yours too.
Is this your time? Maybe it is. Maybe it is your time to jump in here. If you want to throw your weight behind the Gunchire community, go here, pick a darling (and subsequently his or her whole family), and JOIN US. This is the best thing. Look what we get to do...
Thanks for following along on our trip! Are you sponsoring?? Aren't the pics amazing? Ethiopia is amazing. Get here as quick as you can.
So one day before they arrived each July, he instructed the children to go into the forest, gather dirt and debris, and rub the pristine walls down with muck so the Americans could paint and feel good about their “helpful yearly trip.”
We can do better than this.
We are doing better than this.
I am in Ethiopia, my favorite country on earth, with Help One Now. Dear reader, you must know by now that I would never put a mission or organization in front of you that I have not fully vetted and did not entirely believe in. I would never be that irresponsible. I love you too much for that and I steward my influence too greatly to throw something helter skelter against the wall and hope it sticks.
Help One Now operates out of three primary best practices:
1. Identifying, partnering with, and empowering high-capacity local leaders in vulnerable communities to lead their own countries out of extreme poverty.
Baseline: If HON doesn’t have a top-drawer, highly educated, tested and proven local leader in an at-risk community, they won’t come. In Ethiopia, our in-country leader is Aschalew Abebe, and I have already run out of superlatives to describe his capacity. He has studied in three countries, did his graduate work in regional development planning and management, and absolutely understands how to preserve the most fragile families, develop them economically, and break the cycles of poverty. He is a marvel. I’ve watched him this week with my mouth hanging open. This is a trustworthy leader who loves his country, deeply understands its broken systems, and has developed a clear, sustainable path to family preservation. I can’t think of an international leader I’ve ever believed in more.
2. Care for orphaned and vulnerable children.
Initially, HON’s mission was laser-focused on double-orphaned children (both parents deceased), but last year local Haitian leader Jean-Alix asked Chris to consider sponsoring children living in impoverished Drouin with their parents. When Chris explained that HON only focused on orphaned children, Jean-Alix said, “Oh. Okay. Then just wait one year and most of these children will be orphaned.” Thus, orphaned and vulnerable children now make up the mission of HON. Both worthy. In some cases, we respond to tragedy. In other cases, we help prevent the tragedy. Either way, children destined for orphanhood, poverty, and family disruption are empowered toward family, education, and economic sustainability. Cyclical chains are broken and the next generation is raised up to lead strong.
3.) Order and transform community.
HON comes in with stabilizing resources (primarily through monthly sponsorships), which enable birth parents to regain financial footing without the crushing financial pressure simply feed and educate their children. With that noose off their necks plus the economic empowerment tools also provided through HON, families move from the brink of devastation not just to surviving but thriving. In a small town like Gunchire, for example, with 150 at-risk families stabilized and empowered, this literally has the power to turn the entire community around. Hundreds of children are now in school instead of working, hundreds of families are kept intact instead of devastated by disruption, and ten years from now, hundreds of young adults will contribute to the local economy and take their rightful place as the next generation of local leaders.
Month after month, year after year, these are the tools that lift communities out of poverty. These are the tools that educate young minds and equip them to launch. As Jeffrey Sachs, global economist and author of The End of Poverty says, “People stuck in extreme poverty lack the resources necessary to grab the bottom rung of empowerment. Mind you, once they grab hold of that bottom rung, they will climb…because they are smart, ambitious, and motivated.”
You know what we are? That elusive boost to the bottom rung.
We give the impossible lift to the ladder of health, education, and economic stability, and I am telling you, these good people will climb. They don’t love their families any less; they don’t lack work ethic, resourcefulness, drive. $42 a month? Doesn’t seem like much to us. But it is the boost.
They will climb.
In Gunchire, we are exclusively empowering families who have not yet disrupted. They are so close though. HON went door-to-door and identified the 150 most vulnerable families in the community: widowed, HIV+, impaired, ostracized, single-parents, special-needs children, abused, abandoned. These families have endured more than most of us can even comprehend.
Yet they are still standing, clinging together, hanging on by a thread. Survivors, fighters, these families.
Let’s keep them together and help them not just survive but thrive.
I am going to tell you some stories tomorrow. Inspiring, awesome stories about women and children who dug deep, refused to give up, stuck together with nothing but grit and resolve. HON was the glue. You are going to be so proud of them all.
We have 150 families in line for this glue that binds; the education, nutrition, health care, economic empowerment, financial counseling, recovery resources. HON provides all this. We get to be a part: $42 a month. Honestly? It is too easy. Plus, you get some goodies we put together to say THANK YOU. I’m going to talk more about this tomorrow, but for those of you already convinced, go to www.helponenow/lovehope and sponsor. Every face you see still lives at home. Let’s keep it that way.
This is long-term work, yall. This is coming alongside a struggling community for months, years, and walking them toward stability bit by bit. That is exactly why a monthly sponsorship makes sense. This is not a one-shot fix. It is a privileged community saying, “We are here. This year, next year, the year after that…all the way until you’re regained your footing and preserved your legacy.”
Please come back tomorrow. I want to introduce you to Birkanesh and Seada Nesa and Siraj. You can’t not know about them.
I wrote those words when I first read my friend Nish’s book, Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World.
Let me back up. I first met Nish two years ago under circumstances we chuckle about now: I was speaking at a Lifeway event called dotMOM in the deeeeep south, and Nish was invited as a blogger. Now, I was comfortable and familiar with both LW, a mom conference, and suth-uh-nuhs, but Nish was like what in the actual what? Not her usual jam, yall. I randomly sat by her on the airplane on the way home and she asked do these things wear you out? and I was all way and promptly fell dead asleep because I am an excellent travel companion.
She later wrote this piece: “Alabama, Southern Baptists and a Recovering Cynic”
As you might imagine, we were instant friends.
Not longer after, Nish invited me to contribute to the online writing community she built called A Deeper Story, a diverse, compelling gathering of writers and thinkers discussing weighty spiritual issues in a safe, inclusive environment. At DS, I was introduced to so many fresh voices asking good questions and creating space for struggle. Nish spends most of her time elevating other writers and leaders with incredible generosity and grace. I am exceedingly proud of her for leading this good work. Wrangling a gaggle of Christians with such varied theology, life experiences, and perspectives is no small task, yet the DS community remains fiercely respectful and supportive. It is a marvel.
The success of A Deeper Story is really a touchstone for the message of Speak, proving that it is indeed possible for believers to come together in the name of Jesus and fight for grace and community amid substantial, even profound differences. In the hateful, disgraceful world of internet commenting, Speak tells of a better way, and the mechanism is simple:
Be brave enough to tell your story and courageous enough to listen to others.
It really is that simple to begin. As long as we stay isolated and anonymous, we can tear people down to our hearts content. We can slash and wound and destroy with no consequences, further fragmenting not only the church but our very communities. It’s so easy. We are exempted from the difficult work of reconciliation. No need to dig below the surface to listen or learn; we can make knee-jerk assumptions, rash conclusions, and downright false accusations. We can safely ignore nuance, complexities, and even fragile human feelings. Separated, we are free to fear one another, second guess motives, assume the worst, and spread untruths. (This is working quite nicely. One need only pull up Facebook on any given day to affirm this paradigm.)
What if, according to Speak, we did the hard work of telling our stories? The gritty, complex stories we all have? What if we ventured out bravely and said I am broken in this tender place or I am recovering or I am dreaming a new dream. Rather than firing missives from afar or making assumptions in silence, what if we sat across the table from each other over coffee and listened? As Nish referenced, Ann Voskamp begs: “Give me your story, not your sermon.”
Our cynicism would take a real hit, I’m telling you that right now. Common ground would astound us. Humanity would take a forward position where only criticism once resided. We could build bridges instead of burning them all to the riverbed floor.
And don’t we need some bridges repaired? Our world is literally burning down around us right now. Hate and fear is taking down whole communities. The suspicion of “other” is tearing apart neighbors, races, and even nations. Speak is a manifesto toward peace, and I can’t remember a time when we needed it more. (If you need a character witness on Nish, she spent last week in Ferguson listening to pastors, citizens, and community leaders, learning from them and praying for peace with them. Hopped on an airplane and went where the hurt was. Like Jesus.)
Like Nish discusses in Speak, telling and hearing stories – not our personal sermons – is the front door to healing divides in our culture, church, and world. It is how we release our gifts to the community, invite the kingdom to break through, proclaim God’s work, and advocate for justice. People don’t want our soapboxes; they need flesh and blood.
We need this message desperately.
I want to leave you with a prayer from Nish as she puts Speak into your hands:
“It’s my prayer that this book will encourage and inspire you to explore your own stories – as well as to seek out the stories of others – and to tell them with grace and abandon. It’s my prayer that this book will remind you that your life and experiences have great value and that the world needs to hear about them. Stories can change us, change the hearts of others, and change the world. It’s my prayer that this book gives you the freedom to speak. And when you do speak, I expect the world around you to look a bit more hopeful, bright, and good.”
Amen, good friend. Amen.
I want you to read this and one of you for sure is going to have it. Enter a comment to win a copy of Nish’s book Speak by answering this:
Tell us a time when telling yours or hearing someone else’s story changed your perspective on them, their “group,” or your preconceived ideas. OR: Who have you been afraid of or put off by that you can reach out to in vulnerability and fight for grace?