About the time I went to Serbia.

When the nightmare of last summer transpired, and I was no longer able to stay with the global journey team I was on, I figured I either needed to rethink going into the Nations OR take it as a sign that God had big plans for me. Plans the enemy would go to great lengths to thwart. I decided to go with the last theory and stand on the firm, holy ground of Father’s promises to use me in the nations, and I joined another team. All summer long, even as I trained, I wondered if I’d make it on that plane this time. You guys, even as I was driving to the airport with my family, I wondered what the enemy was planning. What was Father warring against on my behalf so I could get on that plane? I can’t know for sure, but I made it onto that plane sitting on the Eppley tarmac and every plane thereafter. They were all on time and the bags followed us faithfully. We were healthy, in good spirits, connecting seamlessly as a team and thrilled to be traveling to Novi Sad, Serbia. A place I can confidently say I never dreamed of visiting as a little girl. But that was before I knew the Lord.

Assuming that God was at work, I had my expectations set high. Maybe too high. But it was no tall order that my God couldn’t meet, because my time in Serbia BLEW MY MIND a million times over. To say that it was amazing and phenomenal and life-altering is just way too small in comparison to what it actually was.

*I loved all the strangers I met on all those plane rides, even in seats with no leg room for hours and hours. I thanked Him for every mile I covered, every cloud we flew threw and every person on every plane.  (I even overlooked the two cats meowing for 9 whole hours on the way back to the States. CATS. For NINE hours.)

*I loved the weary exhaustion that comes with jet lag and jam-packed days. Because it meant I was somewhere far, far away from my norm and I knew He was the only one that could make that happen. (jet lag = legit. The struggle.)

*I loved the language barrier. I loved every word I didn’t understand and the graceful smiles extended as we explained what we meant and bumped over pronouncing words foreign to our tongues. I loved those little kids with hearts to learn the language I take for granted.

*I loved that beautiful seminary building in Novi Sad and every team member working here. Those people God was preparing for weeks and months and years before it ever occurred to anyone to establish a Lifegate in Serbia. The people who ooze God from their smiles and hugs and hands and laughs and eyes. I have absolutely no idea how God can make people feel instantly like family, but He did. And I know I’m not the first to say it. Every day felt like a family reunion and departing from them was heart wrenching. There’s no way to describe the way I’m missing them, or the glee I feel when we communicate over social media. It will have to do until I can see them in the flesh again. Soon.

*I loved the delicious little bread store and the salon around the corner, but more than that, I loved the people working inside of them. Their welcoming smiles, their desire to know where I came from and sincere bear hugs with broken English that implored me to return.

*I loved all 53 of the children wandering the camp tucked away in a rural village in Serbia. The camp with spotty WiFi, legions of bugs, well water and dirty bathrooms. The camp that served up amazing food and warm hospitality. The camp that felt so familiar and so foreign at the exact same time. I miss it desperately. Take me back there, Lord.

*I loved those late night dance parties at the English camp, how sweat slid down the back of my neck as we bounced around, dancing like we had no cares in the world. The 50 year old dancing beside the 30 year old dancing beside the 17 year old and the 10 year old. To the same music, on that dusty floor with the moonshine streaming in and mingling with the colored spotlights we rigged in the corners. We shuffled back to our cabins, weary from the day and that dancing, but so alive.

*I loved that little hill by the corn fields and the horses at camp. I climbed up and sat to watch the sunset and to journal, the tears soaking the collar of my already drenched shirt, the pages filling with words. I loved what He told me. I loved knowing that He could only say the things He said to me in Serbia, because that’s where my ears and heart could receive them. And I wondered what He was saving to tell me as I wander the globe in the future.

*I loved the leaky eyes and falling tears of each child that we hugged at the train station, over whispered goodbyes. I kept thinking about how God collects all our tears in bottles and how the bottles have tears from all over the globe, mingling together in the sweetest way.

*I loved the dew that fell on the land of the camp each morning, blanketing everything in tiny drops of His refreshment. I loved how it made the sunrises glow through the lens of my cell phone camera, the one that could never capture well what my eyes were seeing.

*I loved each one of those believers in Belgrade and every piece of their broken stories. I love how they leaned in with elbows on knees and looked me right in the eyes as I told them my testimony, nodding their heads excitedly when they heard a part that resonated with their own. I love how each word knitted my heart to theirs and I instantly felt a kinship to those perfect strangers. I loved their sweet children in the next room, noshing on some of the most amazing pizza I’ve ever eaten. I loved the thick feeling of the Kingdom in that room in Belgrade where we met, sitting in a circle of chairs in an old building re-purposed many times over. I loved the distinct feeling of knowing that God was there and at work in gigantic ways. I loved the sadness I felt as we drove home that night, missing them like crazy. The sadness reminds me of where I left my heart, like a little bread trail.

*I loved every belly laugh from those 15 days. There were hundreds, maybe thousands. Laughs on planes and in vans and on trains and in English classes and over meals and with my roomie, in the quiet of the night because perpetual exhaustion makes everything seem really funny. My time in Serbia is hallmarked by laughter and that’s so, so precious.

*I loved the cobblestone streets we walked and shops hidden in alleys. I loved the locals sitting on benches as we passed by and exchanged smiles. Did they immediately know I was from somewhere else? Probably. But they made me feel like a neighbor anyway.

*I loved telling people about my family back at home. I loved searching for the words to accurately describe the man and the daughters I have been given, and realizing that I was coming up empty to express the feelings in my heart. I loved the way my heart leapt when a text or video would pop up on my phone, the one that faithfully scanned for service constantly. I loved the dream that God wrote on my heart to bring them with me next time, to stamp their memories with a lifetime spent discovering the world as a family. I loved the way my breathing quickened when the wheels of our plane touched down in Omaha, because I knew I was minutes away from being in the presence of the people God had designed for me before I was ever born. I love how the longings to be with both my family and people 4500 miles away have taken up camp in my heart effortlessly, and it doesn’t confuse me one little bit.

*I loved the feeling of scales falling from my eyes, and realizing how gigantic the world is. How beautiful the stars look when viewed from sleepy eyes at 1am as the camp leaders relaxed from the day over chuckles and quiet discussion. How breathtaking the sunsets are over the golden stalks of corn. How mesmerizing the storm clouds are, and how the big fat raindrops that fell on my arms felt like chunks of cold snow, even as I sat covered in sweat. I loved discovering birds I had never seen before, and wondering if they’d ever flown the air outside that village. I loved my eyes welling with tears as I gazed on the faces of those around me, the Father pressing into my heart how gorgeous He thought that person was, finding the beauty in everything and everyone. He so loves creation, y’all. It’s all His favorite.

*I loved falling in love again, with my God. That first-love feeling that screams ‘I’ll go anywhere You call me, it’s all Yours, I’m with You, Lord.’ I loved leaning into His arms and feeling Him all around. I loved the warmth in my heart, radiating from the comfort and joy that comes from a good Father, knowing that I was safe and sound, that my adventures were in His hands and for good purposes.

*I love what He did in me. And knowing that He’s never done, that there’s no limit to what He can do with a willing heart and a whispered ‘Yes’. I loved the butterflies in my stomach when it occurred to me that, at 36 years old, I wasn’t nearing the end of my God’s plans at all. If anything, He was just starting to use the girl who needed a whole bunch of molding and I was finally, finally starting to take shape. His hands must be sore, after all that sculpting I needed. I’m so glad He never gave up on me.

There’s more. More than I can write in one post, so I’ll keep writing. More than I could write in one blog, though I’ll try. The Word says that God gives the Nations as an inheritance. Tears filled my eyes as our plane sped down the hot cement runway in Munich, on our way home. Because it took me 36 years to know the gravity of that. I looked down through the clouds to the landscape below and saw deep greens, yellows, browns and blues. All those houses that got smaller and smaller as we lifted higher and higher in the air, allowing me to see so far. Bathed in the light of the high sun, Germany sparkled like jewels and a gasp caught in my throat to see the gift He was giving, the heirloom He held in open palms before me. This abundance, this richness, this treasure. He finds it in the people He knits in wombs and the trees burrowed into the soil and the water covering the land and all those stars He hung just so, each with a special name. That inheritance is for me and for you, scattered all over the terrain, just waiting to be discovered like a gift, tied up in His love. Friends, I just can’t wait to unwrap all those packages.

In love,
Mande

Marrying My Husband was the Riskiest Thing I’ve Ever Done.

 

I’ve never been arrested. Aside from a few minor traffic infractions, I’ve never broken the law. I was a 4.0 student in school and graduated with honors. I never cheated on a test or plagiarized a paper. I loved school. I actually did the work, read the required chapters, studied for tests. When I arrive for work, I try to do everything to the best of my ability. I don’t use my PTO for ‘playing hooky’, though I suppose they’re my days to do with whatever I want. I attempt to contribute good ideas, thoughtful suggestions and produce high-quality outcomes.

This isn’t to say that I’m anywhere near perfection. I haven’t arrived at that and I never, ever will. Sometimes I miss the mark at work and my best effort is pretty far off from the expectations, and I need to humbly take the criticism. Sometimes I shout at my kids as we’re trying to leave in the morning because I’m late. Sometimes I speed when I’m in a hurry. I feed my kids frozen food too often because I’m a horrible cook and rather than learn how, I simply feed them what’s easy. I eat the same food and don’t feel inclined to exercise much, so I’m constantly trying to lose the same pounds with varying degrees of success. I usually screw up craft projects and my attempts at baking fall flat (literally). I don’t change my sheets or clean out the fridge as often as I should. I ought to pray more. So much more.

So this isn’t an expression of my perfection. It’s just that I’m a rule follower. I’m a keeper of the boundaries set for me. I crave routine, I enjoy the stability of it. Sure, I appreciate some adventure peppered here and there. I revel in some of the places I’ve been, like standing on the edge of the vast ocean or the mountain top, and feeling tiny in comparison. I fully understand the dichotomy of craving a night in, while also wanting a dinner out. I’m totally outgoing and have never felt intimated by a crowd, but I’m an introvert at heart. Toeing the line, wanting order, needing calm and rest. Perfectly imperfect.

The riskiest thing I’ve ever done, by far, was marry my husband. After dating the same guy all four years of high school and then heading into a long term, committed cohabitation the first few years of college with another man, you could easily peg me as someone who appreciates being in a relationship. I never dated around. First dates are the worst to me.

So, it was uncharacteristically spontaneous of me to agree to that date with James on that ordinary Tuesday at Commercial Federal Bank back in 2001. He was a customer at the same bank that employed me as a teller. He’d come in, loud and brash, making jokes with the workers, tossing packets of mints across the teller line and making friends with the other customers. I found it completely obnoxious, this posture of look-at-me! He had a beat up, old GMC truck with a missing muffler and broken back window. To enter or exit the truck, he had to slide across the passenger seat. You could hear that truck a mile away and when I did, I’d run to hide in the bathroom until he left. Anything to avoid him. He asked me out a few times and I rejected him. But then my college relationship ended, and after taking a few months off to just breath, he didn’t look so obnoxious anymore. He led people and ran a business. The seven years he had on me oozed wisdom and command….it was so appealing.

One day, that fateful Tuesday, through the drive thru window, he asked me to dinner and I finally accepted. He was surprised. We made plans and when the night arrived, he called to give me the chance to cancel. I laughed and told him I’d be there. When I arrived, he appeared so different than what I was used to seeing. Showered, shaved, in a tidy polo and shorts, he struck me as so handsome. Normally he sported dirty jeans and faded t-shirts when I saw him at the bank….his job required nothing more and it was comfortable for the work he did. But in that restaurant over drinks and Mexican food, I saw him differently. He was still loud and perpetually joking around. But he was also incredibly intelligent, generous, complimentary. He spoke of a loving God that had captured his heart from a young age, a God I had only begun to get to know. He went from being two dimensional to three, a whole person with many facets and a complex personality. He was a complicated creature, full of contrasts: positive/negative, hot/cold, sparkly/soiled. His wit was lightning fast and it drew me in. He kissed me at the end of our date and it felt electric, intoxicating. It felt…..right.

A few months later, we were talking about a future. We looked at engagement rings, and I bought a wedding dress. My parents must have wondered with curiosity and some anxiety about their normally careful daughter being so impulsive, but they loved me and so they tagged along with my hasty plans. A few months after becoming engaged, I became pregnant. It wasn’t planned, but we were excited anyway. And so were our parents and friends.

When our daughter was just three months old, we wed on a cold winter day in February. Baby red roses, a blanket of white snow and candlelight made for beautiful photographs. After all those years of careful living, of being a good girl doing the right things, I had married a decidedly adventurous man who lived life by the seat of his pants, on a whim.

It seems that you often find couples in these odd, opposing pairings. Saver and spender. Tidy and messy. Loud and shy. We are attracted to what we lack. I found the go-with-the-flow attitude of my new husband so unlike the life of coloring in the lines I had lived. I envisioned a life of adventure and travel. My 22 years had been so vanilla, and I anticipated a marriage in bold color with him. It seemed really exciting. Until it wasn’t anymore. We had a baby. And full time jobs and a house to pay for. There were job changes. A problem with gambling. Another baby. Years of depression and post-partum depression and anxiety and melancholy, things that debilitate and suck life from a marriage. The monotony of middle-class family life can certainly wear on the spirit. If you aren’t careful, the vibrancy will dissipate under the weight of daily existence.

But there was also laughter. Around the dinner table and in the car. There were slow dances in the kitchen with dirty dishes piled in the sink, and shared tears over the awe-induced love for our daughters. Nights spent cuddled on the couch, watching shows we could agree on, like How It’s Made or Cops. Sundays seated next to each other in our church’s sanctuary, where we prayed and worshiped side by side. Holidays filled with torn wrapping paper and festive decorations. The first and last days of school and summer and vacations. And weeping together in a lawyer’s office, staring at official documents from the Nebraska Family Court, signed by a judge who deemed us temporarily unallowed to care for our children. A shared history. Hours tucked inside of days filling one year after the other, all those small hours that make up a life. Aging brought maturity and a willingness to see the beauty of the monotony I once loathed. I discovered the dance we were perfecting through shuffles and sways and twirls to the tune of the symphony in our days together.

If you look at our marriage up close, too closely, you’ll see the dings and healed-over scars left by disagreements and unkind words and unmet expectations. When I was a girl, I never fathomed that I would be married to a man capable of spewing forth verbal vomit, or that I’d be capable of the same thing. That one moment could be so embroiled in contempt and the next characterized by wisdom, encouragement, support. Little girls, and little boys for that matter, see the world in black and white. They see kings and queens, heroes and villains. They see castles. But fairy tales are just tales, friends. And real life is filled with shades of gray. And marriages, even the best and healthiest, are sometimes tripped up by the gnawing of paychecks that are too small and bills that are too big and kids that are so needy and pasts that are so broken. Actually, not sometimes. More often than not. More majority than the exception.

So if you look closely, you’ll see it all. And I’m okay with you seeing it, because the only thing worse than a messy marriage is the facade trying to cover the messy marriage and masquerade as perfection. Those facades can never reach other messy marriages in need of hope, or receive the encouragement of couples forty years deep in the trenches of day-in and day-out marriage that is fought for. Vulnerability is freedom, people. If you look at our fifteen years in those same trenches, at the compilation of my relationship with that boy I met through a teller window, you’ll overwhelmingly see love. Love that smooths over grouchy mornings and irritable bedtimes. A love that saw through blemished upbringings and fast, tarnished living and layers of errors. Love that asks the Father for His eyes, believing in the inherent worth living inside the person lying beside you, the same one that just wounded you deeply. The love that produces not one, but two amazing-stunning-witty-talented-beloved daughters, children we cherish and treasure and protect with bear-sized paws. The type of love that wants to quit, but longs for victory more. The love that covers a multitude of sins, sins that worldly, conventional wisdom says should destroy a marriage, rendering it unsalvageable, but restores it instead.

 

“Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything.”

-1 Peter 4:8 (MSG)

 

Fifteen years in, I’m still more careful and he’s still more carefree. Despite our best efforts, we’re still trying and picking love instead of the other option. In many ways, my marriage is better than those early years. But there’s no perfection to be found here. In fact, there’s a good chance we’ll end the day having bruised or bumped the other unintentionally. And yet. Fairy tales may just be tales, but love affairs are the real deal. Love affairs have twists and turns and starts and stops. They keep on keepin’ on. There is a love affair to be found in my broken marriage, forged by a broken wife and a broken husband. Look closely. You’ll see it there, right alongside all that wear and tear. Maybe marrying my husband wasn’t the most reckless or risky thing I’ve ever done, after all. Led by the Spirit inside me, and the love I found and extended through the brokenness of life, maybe it was the most right. And the reward has been worth the risk.

Living life on the edge,
Mande

 

 

How the clouds in Germany healed me.

 

‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’
-Isaiah 14:14

I’m not a big fan of hot, humid summers. Winter is alright. Spring is lovely. Autumn is by far my favorite. But summer? No thank you. All that heat, all that sticky humidity that you can’t escape. I kind of dread it.

I don’t remember the heat from last summer. I know for sure that summer happened and I know that it must have been hot. The nightmare we walked through lasted from June 15th to August 28th, smack dab in the middle of our summer months. Surely there were unbearably hot days, scorchers. But I have no recollection of the high temperatures that I normally hide from at all costs. My focus was laser sharp, with all other concerns pushed aside. I wanted my kids back. Nothing else mattered.

During that dark summer, I felt the shadow of Death following me through the lowest valley. It was ever-present, even as my God’s light was equally present. It loomed large, trying with everything it had to gain ground and take over. Relentlessly. The valley was so deep, so far down, it felt void of life-sustaining oxygen. All my memories of those 76 days are still dark and grainy. Even in the midst of the blinding sunshine characteristic of Midwest summers, my mind goes dark when I think back to that time.

This summer, I traveled to Novi Sad, Serbia with a group of people to serve at an English camp for children. What the enemy had tried hard to steal, the Father redeemed gloriously, far exceeding my expectations. It was more than I dared to imagine. Covered in the anointing of my Lord, I traveled across the globe, leaving my footprints in airports and rural Serbian villages and old brick streets tucked away in alleys.  All around me, I took note of comparisons between this summer and the last. Life versus death. Joy versus sorrow. Laughter versus gut-wrenching sobs. Defeat versus VICTORY.

We stopped in Munich, Germany to board a plane that would take us to Belgrade, Serbia. It was a short flight, but held the most impact for me. We were right in the middle of the day, when the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone brightly. As I lifted off the ground in Munich, the plane going faster, faster, faster until it had no choice but to float upward, I noticed the clouds all around me. Light, fluffy and cheerful, they surrounded the plane and my heart. Those clouds in Germany held within them a massive mystery I still haven’t figured out. By themselves, they are just evaporated water caught in a cycle. But those clouds, in that sky, outside that plane were created by the hand of the Father, and held healing and redemption and joy. I longed to jump into them and sink into their restoring buoyancy. Like a balm, the clouds matched the carefree Hope settling throughout and the stark contrast was crystal clear. I had landed in the lowest valley, yes. But, just as He promised, He lifted me up as if I were an eagle, propelled by the air under my wings. I had run so hard, so long and so far to claw my life from the grip of the enemy that my body still felt exhausted a year later. But I was not too weary to continue. I kept walking and did not faint. My hope, once tested and shaken, was now renewed and rebuilt, soaring.

The eagles have the most stunning view. All of creation on display below them, harnessing the mysterious air all around, pushing up, up and out, into the heights. I took in the beautiful sights from their vantage point and wept in awe of the One and Only God who can join me in both misery and celebration. The one who never leaves, never forsakes me. The King who accompanied me into the low valley and stood guard against the Shadow of Death, then breathed air under my healing heart and carried me into the clouds.

Soaring,
Mande