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Monday, May 19, 2014

.Connecting the Dots.

Our church is working through a series on justice, and what God has to say about it, and what that means for us as followers of Jesus. Our hearts became open, as a family, to the Spirit's leading and conviction in this area a few years back, but this is the first time that we have been given the privilege of sitting under leadership and wrestling with this subject inside of a faith community. And it's pretty wild. There are well over 2,000 verses in the Bible that touch on justice. In Hebrew the word justice and righteousness are translations of the same word. Somehow many of us have missed that! Justice and righteousness mean "to make right", and we have all been invited to partner with God in this.  So many followers of Jesus squirm at the idea of "social justice" , and it has become a controversial issue inside of Christianity - another issue in which we can separate over and judge one another. I am afraid that we have forgotten or ignored that the gospel of Jesus addresses the whole man - not just the spiritual man. Look at the life and posture of Jesus, He was constantly addressing the needs of the whole person - yes, the heart - the spiritual, but think of how many times he also addressed the physical needs as well. Jesus fed the hungry, He healed the sick, He stood up for the rights of women, He defended the oppressed, He loved the outcasts and the sinners. He engaged the whole person and their needs time after time - the heart, soul, mind, and body. We are supposed to imitate Jesus. That is what we have been called to do. So we are wrestling through this as a faith community, and I am so thankful to be doing so.

Last night our church hosted an opportunity for us to watch the movie Nefarious: Merchant of Souls

This was a documentary that exposed the very real truth about sex trafficking. While slavery is something that Jim and I have had our eyes opened to in the past few years, and have changed some of our purchasing and spending habits, so as not to add to the slavery pandemic, this movie still took my breath away. I don't think I can ever "get used to" this kind of injustice. I pray that I can't.

But it also connected dots.

I was watching the movie last night with tears streaming down my cheeks, thinking that we had to do something and feeling that familiar guilt begin to creep into my heart - because I am such a bleeding heart and cannot ignore this stuff. It changes me and moves me to action, which can be so good, but can also be so exhausting. So, as I was sitting there, with mascara smeared under my eyes, and feeling a bit panicky wondering how we could tackle this issue of sex trafficking, as well as what God has called us to with street boys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, God sweetly and gently breathed grace over me and connected the dots.

Justice issues are all intertwined. I think I understood that better than ever before after last night. Jim and I, and our non-profit, Mercy Branch Inc., have some big dreams for Ethiopia, and for the street kids there. The dreams are expansive and God-sized, and we are placing all of our confidence in God and partnering with Him in these dreams. Yes, we have been called to street boys - our hearts are for these specific children. We are em-burdened with a passion to see them grow into godly men and leaders and fathers and change their country - bringing justice to it - setting things right. But last night, I realized how our calling to these boys is part of a much bigger, broader story that God is writing - because again - justice issues are all intertwined. Many boys end up on the streets of Addis because they were stolen from the countryside and forced into labor. After years of abuse and labor, many of these boys, eventually find themselves abandoned to the streets. Other boys are forced onto the street for other reasons - sometimes by their families who are trapped in desperate poverty. The family forces the boy onto the street to work and bring back income to the family. Some boys are prostituted (most girls are). Sexual abuse and exploitation of these boys is a growing problem in Addis Ababa, because of their living situation. Street children are the primary victims of sexual assault in Addis Ababa. The magnitude and gravity of sexual assault on boys is increasing in the city at a frightening rate.

Part of Mercy Branch's dreams are to find at-risk families - families that are very close to pushing their children onto the street - and empower them to be able to sustainably meet their needs, disciple them into a relationship with Jesus, and foster a whole, healthy family relationship. This is street child prevention, and it is vital.  Another aspect is discipling street children back into their families, and when that is not possible discipling them into domestic adoption. Our hopes and dreams is that families can be preserved and that men can be discipled into godly leaders, husbands, and daddies who fight for justice - who understand the value of family and seek for wholeness in family. If more godly men stood up for this in Ethiopia, than the number of children in that country that are sex trafficked would drastically decrease, because the number of street children would drastically decrease. A country of godly men, who seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God could radically change a culture. But is starts small -with one generation - with a few families and a few boys. So, that is where we begin, knowing that God is the One Who connects the dots and fills in the gaps - He is the One setting things right, and we are humbled and so thankful to be invited to partner with Him in this.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
Luke 4:18-19

To learn more about partnering with Mercy Branch Inc. in bringing justice to Ethiopia, please visit our website here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

.Your Questions Answered Part 3.

I am continuing on with my little series in answering our most frequently asked questions about moving overseas to Ethiopia.  I first answered these two questions: 1. Aren't you scared for your childrens' safety by moving them to a third world country? 2. Your decision to move seems sudden. Why are you moving so quickly? To read these first set of questions and answers go here. You will find the second post here, where I answered the question, why are you serving independently from an agency?

4. Why did you choose not to go to missionary school or obtain a masters in missions?

Jim and I both attended four years of Bible college, including some "missions classes" sprinkled into those four years. I graduated with my bachelors of science in elementary education and bachelors of science in biblical studies. Jim graduated with his bachelors of science in philosophy (he also took every preaching class/pastoral class offered and many hours of counseling classes, but loved all of the language classes - Greek and Hebrew - with the Philosophy major, so stuck with that major). Jim graduated with highest honor and was at the top of his class, and I graduated with honors. Academics were very important to us - too important. We cared mostly about classroom discussion, reading textbooks, debating theology and our orthodoxy; it was years before we realized that orthopraxy mattered, too, and in that people matter. Our first ministry as husband and wife was camp ministry. Jim became the program director, and I was by his side for six years. It was in this ministry that God got us out of the books and into people's lives. It was there that we fell in love with discipling people, and saw how discipleship can change lives. We were hooked. While in the camp ministry, I also taught in a Christian school, and we worked as youth leaders. Kids and teenagers had become a really big part of our life, and as soon as we started a family with our beautiful Cadence Grace, we also became really, really burdened for families. After six years of camp, Jim became an associate pastor, and God continued to break our hearts for people, for families, and eventually for the outcasts and marginalized. The summer after we brought Jamesy home, we knew that God was calling us into missions. We just were not sure of His timing and logistics. We prayed and discussed sending, at least, Jim back to school. We even went as far as visiting Southern Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and researched their missions program. But school just did not feel right. God never gave us a peace about it, and we loved what we saw and knew of the school! But to get back into the academic world after God had so graciously and lovingly pulled us out was not the right move for us, and we knew that deep in our hearts. So, we continued to take advantage of ministry opportunities and invested time into learning about the world around us, and continually found ourselves pushed toward discipleship and counseling of families and teens. In the process, we continued to travel to Ethiopia, and even were privileged with leading a team there. God was slowly and beautifully melding our love for people, discipleship, families, and Africa together.

Jim and I have gained more hands on experience for our future ministry in these past few years than we would have been able to obtain in school. We are daily living out this discipleship and watching redemption unfold, with our oldest son, who we brought into our home from the streets of Addis. Everyday we are getting hands on training in what it means to love and disciple a child in this way with his background and history. Having been invested in Ethiopia for four years now, we have learned so much about the country, the culture, the people, the religions, etc. We have learned a lot from experiencing it on our trips to Ethiopia, but we have also learned so much by living with Habi and investing in his life. I am a researcher by nature, and I am constantly reading and trying to learn everything I can about Africa, Ethiopia, living in third world countries, discipleship, etc. Right now I have three books sitting in front of me about Africa, from the library, and that is pretty typical. We have invested ourselves in the food, and I have learned to cook all of Habi's favorites. We have incorporated the traditions and holidays into our family, as well as the music. We have dear friends who are Habesha. We believe that the language piece will come with time. Because English is prevalent in the capital city, we will be able to get by until we have gotten a hang of Amharic. We believe that immersion will most likely be the best way for our family to learn, and we have a wonderful built in tutor/translator in our Habi! We feel strongly that we have learned far more about Ethiopia, ourselves and our passions and strengths and weaknesses by living out our life, than we ever could have learned in a classroom setting.

And while we call ourselves missionaries, we really only do that because people can understand and identify with that label. But let me be truthful here - all followers of Jesus are missionaries. We are not doing anything unique in that. We are ALL called to spread the good news, to advance the Kingdom, to disciple, and we have been doing that here as a married couple for the past almost twelve years. We still plan on doing all of that, we are just going to do it across the ocean with a specific group of people - street boys and their families. A lot of families move overseas to do life, and a lot of families don't go to school to do that. Sometimes the very best training you can get is real life. We have been training in that for a long time, and we are really looking forward to the mentor-ship that we will be receiving once in Ethiopia from Trent and Carmen. We will not be alone, and we will be mentored every step of the way. I cannot think of a better "education" - to learn and grow AS we build the Kingdom.

Really we are not just flippantly going to Ethiopia with no training. We have been training all of our lives for this moment. It is really about preparation more than formal training for us. God has been preparing us for this for so many years. We really aren't missionaries - we are just a family who is trying our best to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind and love people, too. We want to follow Jesus, and it just so happens that we are following him to Ethiopia. Following Jesus and loving people big can happen anywhere. We aren't defined by being missionaries, or ministering overseas, or being in "full-time ministry". Will we do it all right? No. Will we make mistakes? Yes. But we are going in with eyes wide open, hearts prepared and ready and willing to learn all that we can. No, we will not be training in a classroom, but we will be training while we live life - for us, for now, this is better than a classroom.

Please feel free to ask your own questions in comments below or email me at amomentcherished(at)gmail(dot)com

Monday, May 5, 2014

.For Her on Mother's Day.

He is hers, and he is mine. He is ours. Her incredible loss was my incredible gift. And while I cannot imagine my world without him, poverty robbed her of life with him. There is not a single day that goes by that I do not realize this. It is a gut check every single morning. It makes for very complicated feelings in my heart. What if the roles were reversed? What if it was I who was there, struggling with starvation and preventable diseases, struggling with poverty and injustice squelching out my dreams? What if she was the one gifted with raising my children?

She is my link to his past, and we are eternally entwined. She is the only one who knows the way those first bumps, kicks, and wriggles felt inside of her swollen belly. And I am the one who knows the tears he cries for her, and how her pain is reflected in his heart. She knows the anguish of laboring him to life; while I know the anguish of laboring him here. She has all of his yesterdays, the ones I will never, ever know. I have all of his tomorrows, the ones she will never, ever know. She knows the dreams and prayers she breathed over his newborn face. She knows his first cry and first gasp for breath, and I wonder even in those first moments, if she knew that their time together was fleeting - flowing through her fingertips like fine grains of sand. I wonder if she breathed in his curls a little longer. I wonder if her tears came hot and fast as she wondered where the food would come from, and how she could feed herself in order to feed her son. I wonder if she was scared. I know her heart was breaking. I wonder if she held him tight to her chest and pleaded for his life.

With Jamesy's first steps my heart soared and then peaked at the knowing that she was missing it. I squealed for both of us.

When Habi scored that first soccer goal for his school team, my eyes burned with tears. She wasn't here to shake that cowbell and make a wild scene for our boy. So I did for both of us.

When the doctor told us Jamesy could see, rivers of scorching tears trickled the curves of my cheeks, and I begged God to let her know that our boy with the shaky gorgeous eyes could SEE.

When Habi's blood tests all came out clear and negative, I wanted to dance with joy for her, knowing that she knew more than anyone in the world what a miracle that was.

With every new word that Jamesy gains, and every time his deep brown eyes find mine and he says Mama, my heart skips a beat, and I cherish it for both of us.

With every I love you, Mommy, I reassure Habi of my love and her love. Two women fiercely in love with the same boy.


Every time I tuck them in at night, stroke their curls, kiss their lids, I linger longer for her. Every milestone, accomplishment, late night talk, hug, kiss, kitchen dance, giggle is all soaked up for both of us. She is a part of them and a part of me. Two different Ethiopian women and then American me. Two brave, courageous women that poverty has stolen what was most precious to them. And while adoption is the most beautiful experience I have ever been inside of, it is also the most horrific and ugly as it is mottled with so much pain, so much loss, so much injustice. This is not how it should be. Poverty should not rob a child of its mother and a mother of its child, and while by the time I entered the picture for my boys it was too late, and the only thing left to do was what we did, for many children and mothers living in poverty, it is not too late. It is not too late to give these mommies the chance to experience first steps, first giggles, first day of school, bedtime kisses and prayers. It is not too late to allow a child to grow up in his or her beautiful culture and be adored by birth family and surrounded with love. As a mother to two birth children and two children born only in my heart, this is something I am passionate about. While adoption is viable and necessary in cases like my sons', the best and most ideal situation is to keep children with their birth families when possible- despite poverty. Poverty is not a reason to separate families.

This Mother's Day, rather than giving that special mother in your life flowers or jewelry, why not give her the gift of supporting mothers and children surrounded by poverty, so that they can stay and flourish together? Jesus can offer these moms hope that life can be different. I want to be part of this difference.

This is why we are so passionate about keeping families together in Ethiopia. There are some fantastic organizations that are keeping families together, and we have the hope, dream, and prayer that Mercy Branch Inc., while partnering with God and His Kingdom, will be equally fantastic at putting broken families back together. In the simplest terms, this is why Mercy Branch Inc. exists. We think that family is so important that we are devoting our lives to this.

My heart is for these mothers - these brave, beautiful, courageous mothers, who daily battle things that I could never dream of battling, all while I sit in my safe, comfortable home sipping coffee. Today I want you to think about these mothers - sisters across the world. What if it was you? Let's link arms and fight for these women to have a chance to love their babies to adulthood. Let's not close our eyes, turn our heads, and be silent.

Today I write this for her and for her. To Habi's first mommy and to Jamesy's first mommy  - Happy Mother's Day - you are forever in my heart. Every time I look into his eyes, I see you there. I love him for the both of us, and he will know of your love in my touch, in my words, and in my heart for him. This is for you and for you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

.Your Questions Answered Part 2.

I have been answering our most frequently asked questions about our upcoming move and ministry in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This is a continuation to the first questions, to read those questions click here.

3. Why are you serving independently from an agency?

This may be our number one most asked question. I understand why, because historically, missionaries have used agencies for education, funding, help getting on the field, accountability etc. However, in our globalized world today, even the face and method of missions is changing rapidly. When Jim and I were certain of our call to Ethiopia, it was critical for us to determine how God wanted us to go. We took time to fast and pray together, and we sought the counsel of present missionaries, godly men, and financial advisers. We came to the solid conclusion, that for our family, for this time, the Spirit was leading us to work independently from an agency. We also prayed about being underneath a sending church and having a church act as the middle man, like an agency, might do. As we prayed, we went to the leadership team of our former church - the church Jim had pastored at, been a deacon of, and where I was born into - as we assumed that they would be the people that would understand this burning passion and call the best, having been our community for so many years. It became very clear, through the counsel and discernment of a godly business man in our life, that to have a legal sending church would make funding very complicated - for the church and us. We did not want to place this burden on the church, so pulled out of asking them to be our official sending church, but still hoped they would be our main supporting church - in finances, spiritual support, guidance, friendship, community, etc. We are deeply saddened, but at peace, that this was not God's plan.

However, He was not leaving us abandoned to do this on our own - missions and ministry - well, life in general - is not meant to be done in solitude. So, again we talked and sought counsel and  prayed and fasted and we were led to begin our own non-profit. Jim and I have had a lot of experience working under a non-profit in our former 6 years of camp ministry. We became the founders of Mercy Branch Inc. this fall 2013, and we are surrounded, championed and discipled by the most amazing board members in the world - all of whom love our family, love and follow Jesus, and believe in the mission and hopes and dreams of Mercy Branch Inc.. Mercy Branch Inc. has also hired a very wise, powerful, business advocate from Ethiopia. This person is guiding us through the visa process - as well as working on obtaining yellow cards for our family (the equivalent of our green cards here), the legalities of living overseas and running a business, insurances, the paperwork, documentation etc. We are extremely fortunate to have this person partnered with us, as everything is already underway in getting secured for our family, and we will not have to flounder through figuring out everything on our own, with the chance of making mistakes.

Our board provides direct accountability for our finances, our ministry, and our family. They are involved in every decision, and Jim and I answer to these trustworthy, godly men and women. They are our team - our people - and they provide so much encouragement and day-to-day help and support. Many of them are business men and women and really understand the business side of missions, which is a big piece for us. They are invested in Mercy Branch Inc., in the people of Ethiopia, and in our family.

Practically speaking, by not going with an agency, we are able to raise a lot less funds. When missionaries sign on with an agency, a percentage of the support funds that a missionary must raise before going overseas, goes to overhead for that agency. While we understand the necessity of this with an agency, we were not comfortable with this truth. Jim and I are disciplined and self-motivated, we have a very clear vision for our future ministry, and we have submitted to the accountability of our board, as well as other godly men and women in our life. We have seen this approach to missions work really well. Some of our favorite missionaries, right now, use this same model of having a non-profit run by board members - none of these ministries are under an agency and all are being used greatly by God, by partnering with Him to build the Kingdom. Here are a few examples:

We are praying, expecting, trusting, and believing that God has big plans for Mercy Branch Inc. as well sans agency.

The next question that I will answer is why we chose not to go to missionary school or get a masters in missions. I will continue in another post to answer this and more questions. Please feel free to ask your own in comments below or email me at amomentcherished(at)gmail(dot)com.
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