Midnight Picnics (Or, the Reason Why We’re Alive)

I told God I needed stars—a mumbled prayer that escaped unsteady lips, chapped from too many questions that remained answerless. The next afternoon, as we left the store, my friend asked me quite plainly if I might be interested in going to the beach with her that night. She leaned against her car, smiling eagerly as she waited for my response.

I had a to-do list longer than a Lord of the Rings movie; I said yes anyway.

IMG_2774We drove back home with all my groceries and I changed into sweatpants and my favorite shirt, a neon yellow tank top with a bright pink gorilla that my sister had given me. I grabbed a blanket, a sweater, and my headlamp and we were off. I put my feet on the dashboard, my favorite red Keds drinking in that setting sun. On the way, we picked up the only dinner appropriate for a late night such as this: Publix sub sandwiches, kettle cooked chips, and double chocolate Milano cookies.

The man working the deli was young and handsome, with a beautiful tattoo that wrapped around his arm. His nametag said Peter. Or Stephen. I think he had brown eyes but the only thing I can really remember is feeling dazed with the joy of such haphazard evening plans.

When we got on the highway, I put on my sweater and we lowered the windows. I let the November wind playfully ruffle through my wavy mass of hair. We had the radio loud and I counted out streetlights as I ate sour cream and onion chips. I breathed deeply. There would be no to-do lists tonight.

We arrived and parked in the free parking lot of one of the only stores on this part of the coast open 24 hours a day. I could hear the ocean’s call. We chose a spot on the beach far enough from the tide and laid out blankets. I sat on the edge, digging my feet in the sand, cool and lively against my skin—an affectionate reminder from God that both in spite of everything and because of everything, He sees me.

We ate our sub sandwiches to the soundtrack of the Atlantic slow dancing with the shore. We talked about everything and nothing; about the clouds that had hung heavy over my heart and how this was the first clear night I had seen in what had been far too long. We dug deep. We sat still. The ocean kept dancing.

I threw away our trash and laid back down, counting stars that blinked back at me. It was one of those moments where everything was quiet enough that I could hear the sound of my own heartbeat, and it occurred to me in one fell swoop: I am not alive for answers. I am alive for life.

I have spent far too much energy searching for all the answers. I have beat myself up and mistreated myself when I don’t have them. There is this hunger in me that, left unchecked, believes that total satisfaction will be found in having it all together. That I will finally be happy and at peace and successful when I know the entirety of the plan, when I understand every last detail. Not having the answers makes me feel like I’ve failed. But all of that is a lie.

I think God crafts His plans like constellations. There are evenings where clouds coat the sky and very few stars can be seen, if any at all. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

There are evenings where some stars are out but I don’t quite know what I’m looking for and don’t see much of anything at all, but that doesn’t make the night any less lovely.

Every now and then, though, there are these perfectly clear nights where everything falls into place. Each star is singing and I become captivated by the sky’s melodies. These are the evenings I am careful to remember, to trace their sacred patterns and to revel in the beauty of promised plans as rooted and brilliant as the unfolding reality of burning stars.

I need stars because I need to remember that He holds my life and the galaxy of my emotions as faithfully as He holds those twinkling kisses in the sky. He did not come to promise me answers and answers abundantly, but rather to give me a life of extravagant love, of lavish joy, of generous hope. I am set free from the self-imposed standard of having it all together. The answers will come when they come. They were never the point, anyway.

We got back in the car and drove back in the early morning underneath a cool black sky. I thought of my to-do lists and deadlines. As we got closer to home, I found that my old questions remained, but somehow their question marks seemed less menacing. Maybe the task at hand is to find a way to coexist with them, to wrestle through them, rather than to try and just erase them completely.

I told my friend these things, letting the words unravel the knots of fear that had kept me bound for so long. She smiled as she reminded me that I had all the permission in the world to dream for big things because God is steady. I settled back in my seat and exhaled from a place deep inside me, the place where I had buried hope, and watched it resurrect.

And I marveled at the thought of such a wild and perfect promise: the dead was indeed coming back to life.

IMG_2179(Candid shot of an afternoon picnic with friends. March 2013. Photo by D. Tenos.)

She Teaches Me

It started with the vegetables.

I was taken to the market a week before with the others to help shop for dinner; to know who our regular vendors are and to learn how to get there. On the way there, they tried teaching me how to barter. I nodded my head as if I understood but remained overwhelmed by how entirely different this new world was from my own. The market in Antigua is a spider web of sorts—filled with twisting hallways and hanging meats and the heavy smoke of fresh tortillas.

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 presetOn that February day in the market, I stood behind a few teammates as they made their way through and tried to remember how we got to there. But everywhere I turned were more baskets of food, more bouquets of flowers, more and more and more of the same kinds of things. I took quick mental notes—the colors of the walls (blue), vendors nearby (party decorations, exotic flowers, iced fish), the width of the hallways (increasingly more narrow).

My teammates introduced us to one another as they pulled out the shopping list. The vendor smiled as she shook my hand and told me her name. To her left was her husband. She wore colorful clothes with intricate Mayan patterns and a brightness that rested lightly on her face.

The girls began to list their order—cucumbers, carrots, red peppers, spinach, and cilantro—and the man helpfully began to arrange all the food. The woman kindly approached me.

You’re new? she asked. When did you arrive? Are you enjoying Antigua?

I smiled meekly as I introduced myself in a trembling Spanish that hesitantly crept off my tongue. She nodded and smiled, coaxing the words out. To the left, the girls debated about how much to multiply tonight’s dinner recipe. The woman asked me what we do in Antigua, why we live here.

“We’re evangelical missionaries,” I said timidly. Such words felt strange coming out of my mouth. But she smiled. “¿De veras?” she exclaimed. “¡Qué alegre!” She caught a tomato from falling off a crate as she told me that she is a believer, too.

I am certain my face lit up. “Really?” She nodded and before I could say another word, out spilled the story of her faith. I wondered at the thought of it: two women from different ends of a hemisphere meeting one another and constructing quiet ebenezers in the middle of the afternoon in a concrete building on market day. Building memorials of his faithfulness. Breathing memoirs of his love.

And so our very first conversation, wedged in between broccoli and eggplants, was about the unlikely miracles that have collided with her life—the fingerprints of the Father finding her again and again and again, the continual faithfulness of his promises quite literally through generations.

When we parted ways, all our bags of food in tow, I barely had words. And every time since then for the last 4 months, when there has been time and we’ve had the chance to talk, I am humbled and amazed and stunned and blessed. I came here because of the Father’s invitation, and all I have wanted is to show other people the depth of his love. And initially I wondered how I might even begin to teach anyone about the Father’s heart, but the truth is that all this time right here in the middle of the market, in the hallways, in the streets… wherever we are when we are together, she teaches me instead.

I am left speechless by the intricate beauty of such a well-worn faith. And I am reminded that every last piece of this greater story, of this whole life, is the Lord’s. He is the one bringing hearts back to himself. There’s nothing for any of us to conjure up.

All he is asking of me and you and any of us, really, is one thing: to come along with him on the journey ahead.

Ordinary Tuesdays: Part 2

IMG_3152It started in Oklahoma. But if I am honest, I suspect it was already beginning long before that. (Read part 1 here.)

My last meal in Oklahoma City was an impulsive breakfast at a Guatemalan café just before my afternoon flight home. I stared at all the murals and wondered if indeed this place might ever happen to me. I spent the rest of that summer dreaming. And then on the whispered invitation of a whim, I applied to join the base and soon enough I was accepted, then suddenly dressed in my graduation gown, walking across a stage, moving back home, packing for Guatemala, and arriving in a country I had never before known to live in this house mostly full of people I didn’t yet know.

Sometimes that’s how life is. The best decisions are also the hardest ones are also the ones that made the least sense in the beginning.

This year has been one massive paradigm shift after another at the base in Guatemala. I have been here for about three and a half months… Things have changed more times than I can count. But I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

Over the last few months, I watched the way things started to align in correlation to our developing relationship with orphanages in the area but said nothing about that Tuesday in an Oklahoma City homeless shelter where prophecy was poured out underneath fluorescent lighting because it simply wasn’t time.

And sometimes that’s how prophecy is: God sharing his heart and inviting you to celebrate the delicate beauty of it before the promises bloom.

In this case, it was his surprise to reveal, not mine. There was no rush, no need to conjure anything up. I did not wait with baited breath. Because when they’re his blueprints, the building schedule will be right on time.

Now here we are making our way through May and I am thrilled to announce that yes, we are beginning partnerships with local orphanages and other organizations. Yes, we are building those relationships and seeking ways to develop discipleship. Yes, we are asking the hard questions, like:

What does it look like to love well? In what ways can we specifically honor these children—many of whom have suffered unthinkable tragedy and abandonment—and provide them with an atmosphere of stability and safety? What does it mean to be ‘long-term’? What is faithfulness on a practical, tangible level? What does it look like to adopt a child into my heart and be as present, as involved, as invested as I can be for the rest of their life? How can we improve already-existing ministry structures? How can we make this the best it can possibly be?

So yes, we are getting involved with orphanages. We’re listening to the Father’s invitation and as a result inviting others to know him, too. But no, this is not an orphan ministry.

These are girls and boys, daughters and sons, with names and birthmarks and favorite sweaters and talents and hobbies and dreams.

So, this is not an orphan ministry. Rather, we are a hands-and-feet, right-in-the-thick-of-it, figuring-it-out-as-we-go ministry. We are a sons-and-daughters ministry. We are a ministry of prodigals learning how to be children again ourselves, understanding what it means to come back home. And it is therefore our deepest hope to echo the Father’s faithful heart for the physically orphaned, the emotionally orphaned, and the spiritually orphaned.

“Once you were Orphan,” I hear him say, “but now you are Daughter. Once you were Orphan, but now you are Son.”

Join me as we pray and seek and strategize and plan. Join me as figure this thing out, as we stumble our way into spring. I’m excited to see where the Lord leads us, and for the chance to sing more stories of his faithfulness on the ordinary Tuesdays of life. It’s hard work, but it’s work worth doing. And friends, I’m all in.

These precious ones are the future. Old labels will no longer bind them. Freedom is calling. The offer is open. Will we answer? Will we start the conversation? Will we partner together as we show the next generation the way?

Such is the gospel. May we always be a people who say yes to such an invitation.

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 Photo by Kara Yohan

Ordinary Tuesdays: Part 1

It was a Tuesday evening and we were sitting on the gymnasium floor after dinner and the boys were dribbling the basketballs again. It didn’t matter how many times I hid them when they were not around; teenage boys have a radar for this kind of thing and it was never long before the screeches of sneakers against the sleek resin of the hardwood floors and the bounce-bounce-bounce of the multiple games of one-on-one and the cheering and the shouting echoed the padded walls of this not-quite-large-enough gym that the lot of us called home for the week.IMG_4144

We sat next to one another in a small circle as far away from the ongoing game as we could. I had already showered but somehow still felt like the fields of central Oklahoma—covered in debris and scorched by the heat of a Midwestern July.

“It is a mystery to me how they still have the energy to play basketball after hours of physical labor in the hot sun,” I told her, laughing I said it. We had already been here for days, spending most of our waking hours removing debris from farm fields and rebuilding houses and neighborhoods destroyed by the tornadoes that ripped through Oklahoma in the spring of that year. The days were long. Somehow the boys kept playing.

She smoothed her hair and arranged a few of the belongings she had underneath her cot.

“It’s true.” The group she brought from northern Texas was almost entirely made up of middle school girls. They made duct tape flowers and willingly prayed over grieving mothers in hope tents. “Who knows?” she said smiling.

There are some people you meet in life that you know walk the talk everyone else spends their life just babbling about. They know they carry the Spirit in them and really believe in the power of God. They are genuinely more interested in his plans more then any other thing they could conjure up themselves. They carry his peace quite tangibly. They’re perfectly pleased with being mouthpieces and instruments in the greater orchestra of heaven’s heartbeat. Such people are rare gifts in this life.

She was such a person. A kind-hearted prophet if I’d ever met one.

Earlier, she asked if Robin had a moment so that she could pray over her about the next season of her life. Robin was preparing to move to a new missions base in Guatemala in September, and was figuring out those details as we led our team. I stood nearby and asked to join along.

So we laid hands and laid out concessions: for wisdom and discernment for Robin in this new season, for peace in the transition, for purpose to be found only in the Lord. And when we finished, we opened our eyes and the woman took a deep breath and said very pensively, “Does that missions base work with orphanages?” Robin said she didn’t know, but she didn’t think so. I took a sip of water.

“Well, I sense the Lord saying that you’re going to be working with orphanages down there.” I smiled big, Robin sighed undecidedly, and the woman laughed with a deep delight that mystified me entirely. I wondered about what she was saying, about the mechanics of it all. What might it look like? Secret hopes began to take root in my heart—if only, if only, if only. But I still had a semester of school to finish. Oh, this restless heart of mine. Perhaps another day.

We finished our chat and then gathered everyone for our evening worship session. I made sure to journal our conversation that night in the lit hallway to the bathroom, rapid scribbles in a dilapidated notebook, because I knew we were standing quite inexplicably on the borderlands of something holy.

(Check out part 2 here.)

As We Go: A Photo Essay

Recent snippets of life and ministry. The photos speak for themselves.

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volcán de fuego. antigua, guatemala.
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fresh market veggies.
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candid capture of a stranger.
weekend soccer games.
weekend soccer games.
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steeping in the early morning silence.
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our feisty guard dog, misha.
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cowboys and indians murder mystery party to send off our sweet kara (seated center).
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lake atitlán.
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san marcos la laguna.
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we visited the zoo before picking up our new visas.
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easter egg painting with some sweet little babes. photo by k. chancellor.
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easter lunch with our guatemalan friends. photo by k. chancellor.
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we walk everywhere. these are my trusty favorites.
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cerro de la cruz. antigua, guatemala.

This life is hard and beautiful. I wouldn’t trade it for a single thing.
Thank you a thousand times over for sending me.

And Then We Were Seven

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 presetWe said rushed goodbyes because the public shuttle was already running late and people had planes to catch. The driver climbed up onto the top of his van, a dull shade of gray, and piled up the girls’ luggage, securing it while we all kind of stood around each other—fumbling around the reality of the moment. Someone held Misha, our rambunctious guard dog. But strangely even she seemed melancholy.

I hate goodbyes. It’s the hardest part about this lifestyle, the constant influx and outflow of people. When the moment finally arrives, I can’t make eye contact and I definitely can’t speak without becoming a tiny little puddle on the floor. On this day, standing outside the gate of our house, I say nothing and look nowhere and am still in great danger of puddling quite inconveniently all over the sidewalk.

When the driver hopped off the van, he said loudly in a gruff English that they needed to hurry. I bit my lip. The van was filled with older Western tourists wearing straw hats and billowy shirts, their eyebrows furrowed at the prospect of being late due to the prolonged goodbye of strangers. I traded quick hugs with closed eyes and hoped that the tiny notes I had written them both would be enough to convey how important they have each been to me in this season of my life. My hilarious, protective, insightful older sisters; how I missed them already.

They were brave, with cheerful smiles no doubt fueled by the adrenaline of finally returning to the familiar landscapes of a life in north Georgia—a land filled with old friends and enough plumbing capacity to flush toilet paper!—after months and months away. (It’s the little things, folks.)

So we each had a quick moment and then they jumped into the van; the doors slamming shut and the van speeding off, leaving a trail of dust as we stepped out into the street to wave goodbye until they turned the corner. I sighed.

We returned inside the house and sat back down at the table. Our numbers were getting smaller, and would continue to shrink in the weeks to come. Next week, three more people leave. But to be honest, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming. We did. We knew. But we hardly expected it so soon, all the changes clustered together in a tangled knot of calendar days barely weeks apart.

Things are shifting here. The snow is melting. Responsibilities are being transferred, fresh ideas are brewing, new opportunities are opening. At first it was slow, but the pace is quickening; with changes coming more rhythmically, like the contractions that preface a birth.

It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.

In the midst of these contractions, some days I wake up and ask Him if the risk is worth it. Will we end before we begin? Will we die in the middle of this painful labor? Will the complications become too much? Will we even know how to take care of what will be given to us?

I wait for carefully laid out solutions. Instead, He holds my hand and tells me that we’re ready.

These are the birthing pains. He’s making way for a new thing. I don’t know what it is, but I know it will be good. I can feel the excitement that’s budding, the anticipation that is blooming in fields peppered with young flowers unfurling like question marks. He hasn’t promised me all the answers, but He has promised me Himself.

And even with the risks that hang in the balance, even with the answers I don’t have, I trust Him when He whispers that yes-yes-yes: what’s being birthed will be worth it. 

In Which We Are Not Alone

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“You are not alone,” he said. “Do you know that?” 

I scoffed. Of course I am not alone. I live with thirteen other people.

I continued folding clothes.

“You are not alone,” he said again. “Do you know that?”

I sighed and went downstairs.

Later that evening, Robin tells me there is a song she thinks I would really love.

What’s it called? I ask, leaning against the doorframe.

“It’s called ‘You Are Not Alone’ by Kate Hurley.”

She plays another chord on her guitar.

Ah. I raise my eyebrows slowly. I’ll have to check it out.

(II)

I find the song and I play it.

As I listen, I wear goosebumps like a sweater,

the words echoing through the hallways of this dusty heart.

Because the truth is this: I came here in pieces.

I arrived in this city with much more than just two pieces of checked luggage.

Many days, I have felt alone–even in a house with thirteen friendly people.

But I am finding something marvelous.

None of us have it all together. Not even remotely.

And that’s perfectly all right. It’s a part of the process.

Through it, I am gently reminded of perhaps the most important truth:

When he said he would be with us always, he meant in the mess, too.

(III)

Here is what I hear the Father saying:

You are not alone in your pain.
And you are not alone in your doubt.
Bring your questions.
Bring your brokenness.
Bring every last piece of you. 

I am not afraid of the mess.
I am not offended by it, not angry at it, not ashamed of it.
I am big enough to carry it.

You have permission to be where you are.

I am not leaving you.
And I am not waiting for you to come with all your stuff figured out.

I am just waiting for you to come.
I am not interested in what you think I want you to be…
I just want you.

My love is big enough. Come and see. 

Step One

We wake up at 3:45 in the morning.

My mom shuffles into my room to already find the lights on as I wander aimlessly and shovel last minute items into my bag: razor, toothbrush, comb, nail file, glasses case.

“Ready?” She smiles, softly and sadly—a smile specifically reserved for the big faith leaps her children choose against all odds and circumstance. I nod and start to haul my luggage out from my room to the living room. My mother returns to her room to get ready, and I go back to check for anymore forgotten items.

I stand there for a moment and sigh, trying to stall. Nothing seems to be missing.

I stare at the walls, the bookshelves, the curtains. This room has always been there to catch me upon my many returns home: around the block, around the country, around the world. I’m sure it will be here when I come back, but somehow still everything about this time feels different.

I shut off the light and close the door.

My brother quietly pops out of his room and gives me a hug with closed eyes.

“Don’t have too much fun,” he says, grabbing me into a hug. He laughs sheepishly, but I hear his voice choke. His words taste like salt.

“I’ll do what I can, buddy. I love you.”

My once tiny nugget of a brother is now approaching the man-boy years. His appetite is like the seventh wonder of the world: a bottomless pit that bewilders all. I see the shadow of a mustache that dances on his upper lip. Sometimes, when he asks, I explain to him some of the mysteries of the female mind. He always shrugs and reminds me how weird I am. Bite your tongue, I always say with a laugh.

On this morning, I bite my tongue–hugging him hard, holding his heart close to mine.

My stepfather places my bags inside the trunk of the car. The four of us stand around the kitchen taking in quiet breaths between bitten lips. This is it. That moment we’ve never been able to discuss at dinner is finally here.

I stand there dumbfounded, in my street sign yellow sweatshirt, scruffy hair, and soft gray sweatpants, and for the first time this whole packing-up-and-moving-to-Guatemala thing finally feels real. For months it’s been some starry-eyed dream. Even in the middle of all the to-do lists and the support-raising, it’s felt surreal. But today it feels weighty. My feelings are muddled.

If given the chance, would I change my mind? I don’t let myself answer that question.

We begin the terrible exchange of hugs, long and lingering, with watery words and silent seconds.

My mother is uncharacteristically steady, which only means one thing: she has already wrestled with God, and He has told her what I suppose He says to her every single time. I am curious, but I never ask. Some words are meant to stay whispers.

When she hugs me, I fall apart. Our history is particular—filled with its own twists and turns throughout our journey but with more than enough love to see us through. Even for as many ways as we are different, there are just as many that show we are alike.

She rests her head in between my shoulder and ear, and tells me the same thing she tells me every single time I make a leap, repeats the words that somehow never grow old, that have almost become a holy thing; a sacred ritual sung over me in a house now grieving underneath stars.

I breathe in, counting each moment that has led me to this one. It has been one step, and then another, and then another. Suddenly every part of this reality,  the heavy and the light, feels both His and mine. For what is living if not for the risks and the wonder? And what is life if not a beautifully woven story of God bringing us back to Himself?

We drive through the early morning fog—our car cutting through the kiss of clouds that touches the ground—and something deep settles, a wordless love that soaks into the most uncertain parts of my heart and reminds me that yes-yes-yes, this is still the right thing.

We reach the airport just before sunrise. I trade more hugs and good-byes, and I think of new chapters.

When the plane finally lands, I find myself in the middle of an amusing conversation about cultural slang with an older Guatemalan woman. I watch us skillfully sink down in between mountains and valleys of Guatemala City, catching my breath as the hum of the wheels on the tarmac sings back to me.

Immanuel, Immanuel. The words echo in my spirit. The great mystery of the ages. The only answer to our desperate hopes. 

God with us. And around us. And before us. And in us.

I remember, and sigh with release.

As we stand up to leave, I grab my backpack. I take one step, and then another, and another—taking measured breaths because of the drastic shift in elevation—until I am off the plane. A puff of warm air pecks my cheeks and I scrunch my nose in delight. I’m here. And somehow all of those old worries seem foolish.

Maybe this leap has a cost, but what doesn’t? Maybe I can’t see the whole staircase, but who can? Maybe I don’t know quite where we’re going to end up, but why should that interrupt the view?

God is more than faithful. There’s just enough light to see this step.

So I’ll make the leap and keep moving, one foot in front of the other, all the way home.

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Photo of Lake Atitlán, edited using the VSCO app. For more information on what I’m up to in Guatemala, check out the Support tab on menu at the top of this page. Check out my first newsletter here. Subscribe and stay tuned for more updates! Much love.