Community

You Went BIG

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New friends of ours showed up at Keller's 6th birthday party this weekend with their son, and the dad took a look around the kitchen and said, "WHOA, you went BIG!" It was just a passing comment to him but really struck me as I glanced around our decorated kitchen.  Ummm, yes it seems that after HOURS of party preparation for Keller's superhero party, we had in fact gone REALLY BIG.  There were decorations, games, themes, food, banners, and more.  It was SUPER BIG. 

I thought later about that comment made by the father about us going BIG because I hadn't realized it before.  We always love celebrating birthdays in our home and as a family love putting together a party, but this one had gotten pretty extreme.  What happened that made it so BIG?

A quick reflection easily revealed that my heart is overflowing with thankfulness and celebration as Keller has recently lost his autism diagnosis.  There seems to be SO MUCH to celebrate.  Keller's early birthday parties were only a few people, and even that seemed to completely overwhelm his little head and heart.  As the years have gone on we have added people to his parties and they have become more big and boisterous.  But this year we have been planning his birthday party for MONTHS and he has been filled with eager anticipation for it.  He loves his friends, he loves a party, and he loves to celebrate.  We were all looking forward to it.

But maybe I was the one most looking forward to it.  To gather a big group of people and have a ruckus and rowdy celebration for my son is a true gift and one that I don't take lightly.  My son, who use to have autism and would literally SCREAM if anyone walked into our living room, now planned an entire party (and dinner that followed) for the people he loved and relished in every moment.  Truly, he soaked up all the love, attention and friendship of every single person that was there. 

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It.  Was.  Stunning.

So yes.  I went BIG.  I went REALLY BIG.  I made too many decorations and I made the whole family dress up like superheroes and I bought WAY too much food and the whole thing was super over the top.  I went BIG.  But for my miracle boy I absolutely love BIG and celebrating all that God has done in his life.

Happy birthday dear Keller.  For you, my son, we go BIG!

Shoot To Kill

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We were awoken abruptly in the middle of the night with the sound of three gunshots nearby.  Silence.  Three more gunshots and I reached over and grabbed Casey’s arm in the dark. Silence.  One more shot. 

 

Unfortunately, it’s not completely abnormal to hear gunshots if you live in the community of Ocean View.  Gangsterism is a part of life and we know many of the gangsters and their families who live near us.  We don’t feel threatened by them and the gang violence is towards other gang members, not innocent bystanders.  However, there are moments that sharply and aggressively remind you of the danger around you and the fragility of life. 

 

We talked about the shots fired the next morning, how jolting it was, and how especially ominous the final and lone gunshot was.  Casey remarked “that shot was the shoot to kill.”  He was right.  The other shots were aimed at another person to hurt them or stop them or wound them, but the final shot must have been at close range and was the shoot to kill.  That was the shot to take someone out for good.

 

This really got me thinking in spiritual terms and how the enemy must have a ‘shoot to kill’ tactic for each of us too.  The devil fires many different ‘shots’ trying to take us all down in many different ways.  John 10:10 says “The enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy…”  We don’t realize it but the enemy is always trying to attack us.  It’s a part of our reality that we don’t like to think about, but ignoring it can be unwise.  1 John 5:19 says, “The whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one”.  Going even further, 1 Peter 5:8 describes the enemy as “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour…”

 

In contrast, Jesus Christ offers us so much more - “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).  God wants an abundant and full life for us in Him; every single one of us.  But we are under attack and to live not recognizing our spiritual reality it is blind ignorance.  There is a death warrant on each of our heads.  The enemy wants death in our relationships, death in our families, death in our emotional lives, death in our finances, and death in our relationship with God, just to name a few. 

 

Thankfully we weren’t in danger the night of those nearby gunshots, we must live aware of the spiritual battle around us all.  I pray we ask God to help us see our world in new ways.

Doing GOOD

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Thousands of women and I attended the Hillsong Colour Conference this past week in Cape Town, South Africa.  God certainly did spectacular things there and exceeded all expectations.  But what truly made my heart sour was nothing related to the production, world-class speakers, or epic and memorable moments from the stage.

This was my seventh Colour conference to attend, and as usual I had the beautiful privilege of hosting women from Ocean View for the stunning event.  Since it is a world-class conference it would be something out of reach for most of the families of Ocean View that support themselves and so many other around them.  Year after year, Hillsong Church has graciously sponsored a group from Ocean View so they woudn't miss out on the appointment with God.  Not only does Hillsong help sponsor our tickets, but they also provide transport, welcome the ladies as if they were royalty, and feed and personally host us throughout the entire conference.  They truly go above and beyond and it makes us feel like the most exclusive guests at the conference.

During one of the sessions where we were hearing about the incredible and inspiring work of people around the world for the kingdom of God, I sat listening with my Ocean View sisters and was overcome with emotion.  I don't have to travel around the world to see brave and sacrificial work done by the people of God, I only need to look to my sisters in Ocean View.  These women serve and love in ways that I could never imagine and each have a story of life in Christ that moves me.  They inspire me greatly and I found myself deeply grateful for their time at the conference to be refreshed and renewed for what God had for them to do in their lives.

What an honor to be a part of a church that truly considers others and shares what God has given us to those outside.  They love and care for the Ocean View community and I count it as such a privilege to help host these stunning ladies.  May we NEVER neglect doing good!

“Do not neglect to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

-Hebrews 13:16 ESV

Too Close to Home

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We are seriously living the dream as American missionaries living in Cape Town, South Africa.  We have been here 8 years now and so things aren't 'new' to us anymore and we have learned so many lessons.  We live in a 'coloured' (mixed race) township of about 300,000 people called Ocean View and it truly has become home.  There is so much to be thankful for, and yet every once in a while things hit too close to home....

In recent times the people of our community grew a great anger and unrest about the state of policing and protection for the innocent in our community.  The gang situation has been worsening and it seems our home is a place where people who are running from the law come to hide.  This creates violence between the gangs.  Most of the times the violence is late at night in the dark corners of the community, but every once in a while it comes out into the open.  Recently a young boy was shot and killed as he stood in his own home as his family prepared for a wedding the next day.  It was unthinkable and tragic and wrong and the community went in an uproar.  Eventually we began to see riots outside the entrances of the community, a common way of protesting in South Africa.  People take tires and burn them with oil, they throw rocks at cars, and they chant with signs and shouting about their complaints.  It usually starts honest and passionate and can sometimes end violently.  Unfortunately this is what we encountered surprisingly one morning.

We were leaving to take the children to school one morning, and had been hearing through the social media conversations that the protests were heating up in the front of the community.  We had our children and two teachers in our car and hoped to simply drive out the back of Ocean View.  We got to the entrance and immediately the bonfire of tires and gasoline sent chills down my spine.  The fire was ominous but was in the middle of the road and so I thought I could simply drive around.  As I began to drive, three Rastafarian men suddenly surrounded my car and began angrily shouting at me.  "Turn back!  Turn around!  Go back!!"  It all happened so quickly but what I remember clearly was the look in their eyes of mad hate.  They were so aggressive and had never met me a moment in their lives.  For some reason my first instinct was to roll down my window and calmly and clearly speak with them.  I began to tell them that we WERE going through and that we had some place to be.  No matter how calm I was, the fact that I wasn't heeding to their anxious instructions only made them more angry and they then began to shake the car and continued to shout.  At this point (again I am not sure why this was my response) but I got louder and ordered them to stop, which they did.  They quickly (and strangely) calmed down and shyly said I could pass (looking around to make sure no one saw).  I said thank you and we drove on.

Only then did I notice that the kids were crying in the backseat and the teachers, both residents of Ocean View, were also very shaken up.  We all were in shock.  It just happened so fast and I had no idea how I would respond to it outside of the moment.  The children quickly calmed down and we talked about it many times afterwards to make sure they weren't traumatized.  The teachers debriefed with their staff at school and were fine.  For the rest of the day, however, the moments kept playing in my mind over and over again.  I knew the outcome, and I knew that I just reacted from my guts in the heat of the moment, but what if it had all escalated?  What if they had thrown the rocks at the car (which happened to other cars)?  What if they had forced us to get out?  Who knows what could have happened to my precious children?  What if it had all gone terrifyingly different?

We love living in this community and absolutely love the people of Ocean View, but violence and pain are unfortunately a part of the story as well.  We can't always predict what will happen and things like 'safety' are viewed differently by us than most we know.  However, when it comes TOO CLOSE TO HOME it can really rock my soul.  What am I willing to put out there for this calling?  How much risk is too much?  How much love is too much?  How much of what my children experience and witness is too much?  How much of what I experience and witness is too much? 

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I am glad that I provide the space to wrestle with them when they simmer to the surface.  They do not have concrete answers but they need to be asked.  The need to be noted and the questions need to be felt.  Once I allow myself to wrestle with them I settle back again into the glaring certainty of our call to Ocean View.  I sense again in my soul our family's calling to live among these friends as neighbors and family.  Soemtimes the cost may seem too much, but it's not today, and it wasn't on that day.  The cost is actually NEVER too much when it's what God has called you too.  After the questions and the wrestlings we find a deep peace in knowing our calling and being obedient.  And we know God is with us, and that even when it seems too close to home, our home is really in HIM.  And we are really good with that.

 

Shining a Light

Recently in Ocean View I have started up another Shine course.  Shine is a course created by Hillsong Church with a goal to use Biblical principals to teach woman about their value, worth, and inner potential.  It has profound principles, is full of truth without being overly 'Christian,' and just creates a fun and touching atmosphere for women to connect with one another and themselves.  I absolutely love teaching it and the fruit that comes from each course.

The women I am teaching all doing various sorts of volunteer work in the community of Ocean View, as well as being from the community of Ocean View.  To me, this means that these woman already know the life that comes from helping and serving others, and so I honor them already.  What they don't always know is their own value and beauty, and already we have begun to uncover that in our time together.

Being around these woman has reminded me of the beauty in allowing your own light to shine.  One of the women began to share her heart and her story, and how much her life changed after she came off drugs.  She had been addicted for years and years, and now her new life in Jesus is completely different away from that lifestyle.  She now serves the people of Ocean View alongside her daughter, determined to make those around her know the love of God.

I am stunned by how significant a life and heart can change when Jesus Christ shines His love on them.  I am stunned by how much light comes out of this woman as she shines for Jesus.  I am stunned to see her huge potential and in awe of all I know God will still do as He shines through her.

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Time and time again as I spend time with friends, old and new, in Ocean View, I am struck by the fact that it is not I who is shining the light of Jesus on them, but them shining the light of Jesus on me.  Through their lives and hearts I get to see a part of God that I have never personally experienced but am humbled and awestruck to know.  Who knows what God has ahead for these women, and even for my own life.

What is Our Response?

I was in McDonalds, trying to mind my own business with my chocolate sundae, and accidentally I once again overheard the conversation I hate to hear.  One person asking another about the community of Ocean View, and saying, "Aren't you SCARED to go there?"  I honestly stopped listening right there, because I am personally tired of creating my own response.  But in these days, even I have to admit it's a valid question.

We witnessed another tragedy recently in Ocean View, another death among many, but this one was different and it has shaken our community to its core.  This was a young girl who was sweet and loved by many and never deserved to be mistreated at the hands of such darkness.  There are unfortunately many deaths we hear about, but most of the are people involved in gangsterism and drugs, and so sadly death is sometimes a part of the lifestyle they have chosen to be in.  But not Cameron.  Cameron wasn't a gangster, although she did associate herself with some people who were not good characters.  Cameron wasn't involved in the gansterism and darkness of Ocean View herself, and her death has shocked and scared everyone in our community.  We all find ourselves asking if we are scared to be in Ocean View...

So what do we do in this time, and in the face of this darkness.  What is our response?

There have been many already.  People have left, or have pulled out their associations with Ocean View.  People are angry and fed up with gangsterism and those affected.  People are terrified at who or what could be next.  People are judgmental about the 'others' who these things happen to and separate themselves from it completely.  But to me, all those responses are separation.  They are separating ourselves from those affected and those hurting, assuming we are going to figure out how to be the safe and secure ones in the face of darkness.

Unfortunately I just don't know HOW to do that.

I don't know how to seperate myself from Ocean View because it's my home and it's my people.  Maybe with other darkness, other pain, other heartache I could stay away from it, but this heartache is in the middle of my own heart and I can't shake it.  I can't just walk away.

I am SO GRATEFUL that I can't seperate from this pain.

As the weeks have gone on and people have moved on from the pain of Cameron's death, I have thought about how thankful I am to not be able to seperate.  I am thankful that this is my home and these people are my family.  I know how this entire community has rallied around Cameron's mom and brothers to love and support them.  I know how the community of Ocean View has risen up to speak against the darkness and violence and try to bring it to an end in unity.  I know how people have woken up day after day, and even when they are afraid, they have still entered into this community and lifted on another up, because that is what you do with family.  The values that are expressed in this community, as dark and violent as it can be, are beyond anything I have experienced before.  

So many others look at Ocean View and only see the terrifying darkness.  My response is different because I look at Ocean View and see the overcoming LIGHT.

It's Our Anniversary!

October 22, 2014

It’s anniversary time!  We are so happy to celebrate that we have been in SOUTH AFRICA serving for FIVE YEARS!  What the what?!?  But what we are most cheering about is that we have lived in the incredible Ocean View community for five years.

So in honour of our FIVE YEAR ANNIVERSARY here are my FIVE FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT OCEAN VIEW:


1. The noises.  There is always something happening.  Always someone in conversation.  Always a dog barking.  Always music playing.  Always someone sharing in someone else’s life.  I love that.  If I need to go write a sermon or focus on something I like to sit in a crowded coffee shop with lots of noises and action.  I dig lots of stuff going on and I dig Ocean View.

2. The food.  My people know how to eat and value food.  It is awesome.  It has always reminded me of my Mexican heritage (my Mom is Mexican-American) because people in Ocean View love to gather and share food together.  Another great thing about Ocean View is that while food is a value, there are many who do not have a meal to eat some days, including many vulnerable children.  What I see is that those who have are ALWAYS sharing with those who don’t and making sure children go to bed with a meal.  My friends are always sharing with those who are in need.  In addition, when there is something to celebrate it is done with FOOD.  People love to have gatherings for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, accomplishments, holidays and anything else in between.

3. The laughter.  You know the Prince’s love some laughing and this is something that is really valued in the community of Ocean View.  Come to any meeting, dinner, gathering or even tea and you will eventually hear laughter.  Laugher is LOUD and done with the entire body.  I remember vividly seeing a stand-up comic we love named Trevor Noah with a group of friends and our friend Treswill was laughing so hard that he unintentionally was hitting the seat in front of his with his knees.  He didn’t even notice but the people in front of him did and kept looking back at him hoping he would stop.  I told him of his kicks and he changed his sitting position but continued to laugh WITH HIS ENTIRE BODY.  It was awesome.  And it’s normal.

4. THE COMPASSION.  You guys.  In Ocean View you SEE IT ALL.  Pain, suffering, abuse, gangsterism, addiction and just HURT.  You would think people would be so use to it that they don’t even notice it happening, and unfortunately that does happen at times.  But the norm in Ocean View is COMPASSION and response to those who are hurting and in pain.  I am frequently humbled when I hear about how my friends in Ocean View respond to hungry children at their doorstep or people who need to borrow money… again.  Compassion is deeply woven into the fabric of hearts here and it challenges me to be God’s compassionate hands and feet even more in this community I love.

  5. The LOVE.  People in Ocean View love FIERCELY.  They take care of their own family and they love really deeply.  The love of the people here in Ocean View has spilled into our lives and we will never be the same.  We see it most vividly in the way people here love our children.  They hug and kiss them spoil them beyond anything they deserve.  Even with Keller who struggles to interact with anyone because of his autism, he has LEARNED how to love people because of those who have loved him in Ocean View.  That is profound and true.  We are loved beyond our failures and weaknesses here and seen just as we are.  That is true love and we are so blessed to experience the love of Ocean View.

Happy anniversary Ocean View!  To MANY MORE!!

The Other Side of the Mission Trip

Last week we finished up our #Mission2Missionaries, which you can read more about here.

It is strange to be on the other side of a mission trip!

It was an incredible and exhausting week.  It took us a couple days of processing to even figure out what had actually happened after it ended!  Bethany was incredible in our home and empowered us to take on every part of Keller’s life as therapy for him.  He is actually loving it and really enjoys the growth and challenges.  We watch him to see when it gets too much but we know we need to push him daily.  He is doing awesome.  We had two incredible community workshops about autism and special needs that were very well attended and are still getting ‘rave reviews.’  People were given knowledge and steps in how to engage people in need wherever they are at.  It was brilliant.  Bethany met with the principal at the special needs school here in Ocean View and even met with one mother who had a recent autism diagnosis of her son.  Amazing.

But for us as a family her time here goes beyond what words can express.

It touched us deeply.

Through our hours of conversation, learning, and engaging in EVERY part of our life, we somehow now find ourselves in a different world with autism.  I feel like before autism was hovering over me like a dark cloud, making everything dreary and impossibly sad.  NOW I feel like I am bigger and stronger than autism and looking down on it like a challenge but one I know we will overcome.  I think Casey would say he learned a lot and understands it all more.  Can you tell who is the feeler of the two of us?

Truly, something shifted in both of us over the week, and I can only give the glory and honor to God for that.  God moved within us and helped us to see everything from a different perspective.  We can do this and we will do this.  Keller is excelling but it goes beyond the physical and palpable signs of growth.  God is in our midst and He will do amazing things.  We are ready to see miracles and looking for every single little miracle He gives us.

In Bethany and her husband Eric we have made new life-long friends.  We are now family.  In our community of Ocean View (and beyond) we are now known as a special needs family who is passionately and loudly advocating for those who were previously overlooked.  We are in it together and we are dragging a BUNCH of people along with us on this crazy ride.  Casey and I are good, we are strong, we are one, and we are THANKFUL.

All the glory and honor and praise to our MIGHTY GOD!

Oh, and it seems that being on the receiving end of a mission trip can be good.  Really, REALLY good.  Amen.

Through Her Eyes

This past week my heart has been very, very heavy.  A close friend in the USA was keeping me up to date as a tragedy was unfolding in the life of a family I hold very dear.  This weekend my friend Luke Johnson went to be with Jesus.  My heart is broken with this loss and broken for his mother Jane and sister Michele who are dear friends of mine.  You can read a little about Luke’s passing from his CaringBridge site here.

Luke grew up as part of our youth ministry in Raleigh, and his mother helped lead youth while his sister was also in youth and grew to be a close friend mine.  Jane and Michele are just pure heart and they have shared many precious moments with us in our life.  As long as I knew Luke, he struggled with substance abuse and rebellion, but always was an incredibly special person.  He lived life with joy and LOTS of laughter.  There are a million stories that can be told about Luke and how he loved to make people laugh.  When I think of him today it is him laughing.  Many, many people loved Luke and tried to walk the difficult journey of addiction alongside him guiding him to Jesus and freedom.  Ultimately Luke did not win his battle with addiction and his untimely death was a shock to all who knew him.  The world seems a little less bright without Luke.

However, as Casey and I were reflecting on the tragedy over the weekend, he asked me if I actually knew Luke personally that well or just knew him as another youth group kid.  We had hundreds of kids in and out of our ministry during our time in Raleigh, and while they were all amazing you obviously don’t grow a close bond with each of them.  I pondered the question, and while I had been on a couple youth trips with Luke I actually only remember one time sitting and talking to him alone about his true heart or feelings.  I knew him mostly in groups, always filled with laughter, always in the midst of many others.  So why did this tragedy hit me so deeply?

I suddenly realized that I have a deep and guttural love for Luke because I always saw him through the eyes of his mother and sister.  I was very close over the years with Jane and Michele and we would talk and pray through the harrowing episodes that Luke would put upon himself and others.  It was sometimes a painful journeys with Luke, and as I spent so much time with his mom and sister it was always a part of our relationship.  I honestly never realized that I personally hadn’t spent that much time with this incredible person.  I knew him through HER EYES.

How powerful and profound.  That through the love of a mother and sister I could actually feel like I knew the depths of a person and loved them at their core.  I knew the REAL Luke because of these woman and I prayed for the REAL Luke because of their love.  They loved him so beautifully that it made me fall in love with him.

Loving an addict is difficult and they often struggled with how to love and support him in the ‘right’ or healthy way.  Honestly none of us can every love perfectly; only God does that.  But Jane and Michele loved sacrificially, wholly, passionately and with their entire lives.  They could NOT have loved him better.

Today I sit in Africa wishing I could spend the day in Raleigh to be at my church and hug these special woman.  I want to cry with them, hold the hands of my friends, and grieve together for our worst nightmare that became real.  And I want to see the Holy Spirit fill that room with HIS LOVE and change lives.  I know it will happen.  God will be alive today and He will be glorified.

But I am here, with my thoughts and grief alone.  I cannot help but look at my own sweet son, now almost two and also with an older sister and mother who love him fiercely.  The steps ahead for my son won’t always be easy and we won’t always get it right, but I pray we will love Keller with even a fraction of the love that Jane and Michele gave Luke.

The family has said that Luke is now FREE.  He is now with Jesus.  There is no longer pain, addiction, loneliness, confusion, or darkness.  There is only light and only Him.  And I know there is a LOT more laughter and smiles in heaven with Luke there.

I am thankful to have known Luke Johnson, through her eyes.

#Mission2Missionaries

We are in the middle of a crazy nine days.  It is what I call #Mission2Missionaries.  We have an incredible new friend, Bethany Covington, who is here all the way from Scottland dong a MISSION TRIP in our own home.  A mission trip to the missionaries.  She works for the Brent Woodall Foundation for Exceptional Kids, located in Texas, but helps direct their international outreach to families all over the world who have kids with autism.  Bethany is training our family in how to do therapy with Keller at all times and has introduced a new therapy this week to us called PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System).  It. Is. AMAZING.  But IT. IS. EXHAUSTING.

We are spending every waking minute with Keller trying to push him in these therapies so he can advance and then we can learn the next stage while Bethany is here all week.  It’s all based around play, so he is having a blast in all of it!  The therapies are very specific and complex so we are also continually talking through them and making sure we are doing it right.  Casey always remembers the details.  I can tell you a story about how I FEEL about the details… does that help?

Part of Bethany’s mission here is to do workshops and reach out to our communities here as those with special needs often don’t have the abundance of resources found in the USA.  It has been super heartwarming for me to see so many people come out and learn about autism.  Last Thursday night we had our first workshop on autism and developmental disorders here at the Ocean View Methodist Church and 45 parents, teachers, and community members attended.  It was insane.  I was overwhelmed with emotion because two months ago I wouldn’t have been at such a workshop and now autism is rocking my world.  It was beautiful.  Then on Friday, Bethany and I went to the School for Disabilities in Ocean View to meet more with the incredible principal who has been working there proudly for 25 years.  She is a mighty woman and I loved seeing more of the school and hearing about their vision.  These teachers are living and working and serving in a world that is all new to me, and I am in awe of them.  Every day my worldview and what I value is being challenged and these people are my new heroes.

So we find ourselves in the middle of #Mission2Missionaries and I have learned that we missionaries still need a lot of change and mission in our own hearts and lives.  I am so thankful for a God who is in the changing business and loves us enough change our hearts.  And as we are changed I can only pray that we can change others.

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the world.” -JRR Tolkein