Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Truth About Big, Fat Closed Doors

Down syndrome has transformed my world, but not in the way you might expect. 

Sure there are the usual blessings that come with having a child with special needs (more patience, letting go, appreciating the small victories...cue the made for television Hallmark movie please). But I'm talking about the BIG STUFF here, people!

Because when it comes down to it, the simple fact is that the three most important changes of my life are a result of Emme and her elegant ability to close doors....when I was lost in a sea of overwhelming options.

The unfortunate reality is that you’ve got to keep it pretty simple with me, especially when it comes to a New Life Plan. I need small words, extra large print, and pared down choices ( actually just one choice is most helpful...otherwise I totally short-circuit and start rocking that sad little fetal position).

God knows me pretty well, and He’s working with what He’s got here.  And what He’s got is one chick who understands closed doors much better than open ones.  I’m talking VERY closed doors – the kind you can’t barge through no matter how hard you push down, kick over or try to sledge-hammer through.

Simply put, Emme is the rudder of our family’s ship, guiding us through the crucial decisions...leaving my nearly 10-year career job, moving to Africa and then moving back to America.

Let me back up…

Emme made quite the grand entrance into our life. To say the least.

I was a bit surprised, as a third-trimester pregnant mama, that they put me on “high risk.  After measuring the baby’s development, they thought she seemed a wee bit small. Teeny-weeny, if you will.

I thought, “Oh you doctors….always so dramatic. Always so ‘someone’s gonna die’. Please. Keep your lab coats on.”

Overly confident with all my hard-earned medical knowledge from watching several seasons of Private Practice, I tried to hide my “non-compliance.”

(honestly...don't these look like people whose medical expertise should not be called in to question?)

My sister-in-law (who was a labor and delivery nurse and acutely familiar with my tendency to downplay - aka “ignore” - sound medical advice), warned me what happens when you don’t adhere to your doctor’s orders (apparently they really are “orders” and not “strong suggestions,” as I had presumed).

She told me that they label you as “Non-Compliant” in your chart.  Seriously.  Be forewarned. Do you know how hard it is to get that label removed?  Even with a sudden rash of good behavior?  Perhaps you remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine was labelled as “difficult” in her medical chart and couldn’t get single doctor in town to see her?  Not ideal, folks. Not ideal.

So all that to say…I was a very “good girl.”  I went to all my extra “high risk” appointments so they could closely monitor the baby’s weight and heart.

I outwardly complied. But still, I continued to think the doctors, although amazing and among the best in the state, were a little overly cautious.

And of course I thought I knew THINGS.  I can’t even tell you what these “things” were that I thought I knew.  But I KNEW them.

One thing I did know without doubt…was that I was average.  An average student, average driver, with average talent.  So I presumed I would be having an average pregnancy and deliver a cute, but most likely average, child. This was fine with me.

One should never underestimate their own ability to defy the average.

So one day, after a delightful lunch at Boston Market with my hunk-of-a-husband, I toodled off to my 36 week doctor’s appointment.

This time, as they monitored her heart, they became VERY concerned.  The heart-beat was not very strong.

Still…I thought “Really, people? Simmer down willya.”

After all, in my very weak defense, they had thought Jensen was a bit too small and induced me a week early, only to discover she was perfectly fine and not as “wee” as they presumed. I was feeling pretty high-and-mighty about that.

So there I was…at my little doctor’s appointment, trying to hurry to get back to work and all my Very Important Projects.

They: Julie, we are concerned. Her heart beat does not look very strong.

Me: Really? (I tried to covertly shake my tummy a bit to “perk her up” and “help” her heart rate...that didn’t work at all. I probably looked more like a large pregnant lady with embarrassing gas issues).

They (kindly ignoring my gas issues): We would like you to go up to the hospital right away to have one of the perinatal doctors see you.

Me: Really? (then remembering the impossible-to-remove-taint of “non-compliance”) -“Ok, I’ll go.”

So I went up the hospital and was a bit shocked that they wanted to “check me in.”  Then was more surprised that they wanted me to take off my office clothes, put on a hospital gown, start an IV and call my husband.  Didn’t they realize I had projects due? It’s very hard to rush back to work when you are tethered by IV’s and whatnot.

I started to get the distinct impression they wanted me to stay.

They: We really think you should call your husband.

Me:  Really? I should call Karl now?  (still thinking I needed to get back to work for my projects - I know, I know…enough with the projects already).

They (my dear friend Sara Nylin, a labor and delivery nurse, showed up at this point):  Yes, Julie!! Call Karl! Now!!

Me (calling Karl): Hey babe. “They” say you really should come up here (talking loudly and smiling to the nurses with a big thumbs up) – then very quietly off to the side “Everyone is being really dramatic. I’m SURE it’s all fine. No need to rush…if you have other things to do…

But of course Karl completely ignored my casualness and flew to my side.  Once there, the doctor said we needed an immediate emergency c-section.

Huh. Now that caught my attention.  They said her heart was very weak.  She probably would not make it much longer and could not sustain a natural birth.

I was suddenly feeling VERY compliant.

Doctors know things too.  And they know when people can die.  And if we didn’t comply our little Emme would not have made it.

So there I was…moments later, sprawled out in the operating room for my emergency c-section…feeling vulnerable and shaken.  And then they pulled her out.  Sweet, perfect Emme.  She had the cord wrapped around her neck several times, one leg was totally white and her heart was quite weak.  So weak she wouldn’t be able to nurse or suck a bottle for several weeks.

The doctor said, “She has some facial features we are going to look into.”

And then I knew.  I KNEW she had Down syndrome. I knew that the average I had been banking on was very, very far away.

Many of you have heard the story…it was shocking and hard, but I really did feel Jesus meeting us and we were enveloped in a “grace bubble” that allowed us to see Emme as a gift.

And she is a gift.

Not to romanticize Down syndrome.  Emme is great because she is Emme.  But Down syndrome isn’t easy. Awkward and inconvenient stages of childhood (like learning to crawl, walk, use the toilet, speak) don’t just take the usual months…but years. YEARS, people.

I sometimes look at other 7 year olds (communicating clearly with their family, dressing themselves, doing a simple chore, going on play dates, invited to parties, etc) and know we are a long way off from that.

BUT what I am deeply grateful for is how Emme has closed doors.

Again, let’s remember, I can’t handle a lot of choices.

Closed Door #1: Once Emme, in all her glorious Down syndromeness, took the stage, and I never went back to work. I was managing a little web site company I loved, where I had been employed just under 10 years.  I was not going anywhere, or so I thought! 

After maternity leave it became obvious I should not go back to work with this little love bundle – and that was that!  I stayed on for a bit working part time from home till the owner could sell the company.

For me this was big stuff.  Closed Door #1 was to the career where I had invested so many years.

Closed Door #2: When we first started dating and were all smoochy-smoochy, we knew we wanted to go into overseas missions.  This dream carried into our marriage.  Even as we started successful careers, we stayed in an apartment because we knew we could be leaving for the mission field at any point and didn’t want to bother with a house to sell.

The problem was…too many choices.  Where to go?  What country to pick? What organization to go with? What leaders to follow?  Karl had a heart for Africa (which I thought was a bit cliché and slightly crazy...I had, after all, seen Hotel Rwanda and Tears of the Sun) and I was leaning toward Asia (the food there is so great! However Karl was unmoved with my culinary reasoning).  So we were at an impasse. With so many open doors and choices, we were paralyzed by the array of options. 

After Emme was born, we began to think it wasn’t possible to live overseas.  It seemed like there were so few countries that could provide any kind of support for children with special needs. So many closed doors.

I remember it distinctly - it was a Friday and we felt it was time to give up the dream to “be missionaries.” That day we had toured some new construction homes and picked out our floor plan to build our “dream home.”  Interestingly enough, when we saw some friends at church that next Sunday, they mentioned that there was a couple serving with All Nations in Cape Town who also had a child with Down syndrome.

That couple in South Africa graciously video skyped with us (I’m sure we seemed like crazy Americans with all our incessant questions) – and they told us all about their positive experience for their family in Cape Town and with All Nations.

(here we are with that family at Emme's last birthday party)

After realizing Cape Town offered some of the needed services for Down syndrome, especially for that development stage before school, we began to look more closely at All Nations and fell in love with their mission of using the simple church model to bring Jesus to others.

Without realizing it, Emme one again synched the deal.  She in effect closed the door to all the seemingly endless possible places where we could go that lacked services for special needs, and flung the doors wide open to South Africa.

Just for extra fun and more confirmation, God also anonymously provided $1200 in cash in the mail after Karl had a dream about it (read that story here). Who does that?? Who sends 12 one hundred dollar bills IN THE MAIL IN CASH? I guess God does…in your dreams and then makes it happen in real life, if you’re one of those tough-to-convince cases like us.

(Emme's first year living in South Africa)

Anyhoo…fast forward six years, and enter Closed Door #3: This year it became clear that South Africa had served Emme well, but she was at a new stage in her development and needed the services that America could offer.

We tried everything we could to make “Africa work for Emme” (horse therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, school facilitator, etc.)…we desperately wanted to stay and did EVERYTHING we could think of. But once again those big doors slammed shut and America swung wide open.

(Emme and her Horse Therapist)

(She misses her horses! She loves to ride them bare back)

So here we are…having traversed across the globe, moved to another country, started over with new friends, new jobs, new projects, new culture – to move back again at exactly the right time for us.

After being here 3 months, it’s obvious how well both Jensen and Emme are doing in school. Their teachers are nothing short of God's Biggest Blessing Ever!  The girls are growing leaps and bounds.  Settling in. Thriving. 

It’s clear we are exactly where we need to be.

So when you really get down to it, one of the biggest blessing of Down syndrome has been those heavy, rusted closed - doors locked so tightly that after we pushed and pushed as hard as we could…our only other choice was to look over our shoulder reluctantly to see what other door might swing open.

So my encouragement to you – when the “average” life you have come to love suddenly becomes very “un-average” and you are thrown into something that has rocked your world…embrace it.  

When everything is crashing down and what you envisioned for your life seems lost, press in!

It’s possible that the only way God can put you exactly where He wants you…is to take away your comfortable averageness and close some big, fat ugly doors.

Down syndrome is the most tiring, amazing, frustrating, incredible blessing of our lives.  It’s what it took for us to follow Jesus to Africa and follow him back to America. It’s ripped away our average and slammed doors hard in our face.

My take-away? It’s not about going to Africa or staying in America.  It’s about embracing the non-average path and falling in love with those big, ugly doors – all the while deeply trusting, as if your life depended on it, a God who loves you enough to allow both of those things to rock your world to its very core, then shape your life into something stunningly beautiful.

In closing…one of Emme’s favorite things to say to just about everything is, “No! All done!” And I pretty much want to say this to God all the time. But I want to change that to “Yes! More!”  More of what you have for us. No matter what that is. No matter where.  No matter when.

So don’t shake your fist at that closed door too long.  Look over your shoulder, just to catch a glimpse...and notice the new door, open just a tiny crack, waiting for you to nudge it open.

Video of Emme saying, "No! All Done!" (after I tell her I love her) - 10 seconds

Can't get enough of Emme? Here's more Emme Fun! - 31 seconds

Emme at Dinner

One of Emme's most amazing accomplishments since she started attending school in the US is her ability to answer questions in the negative or affirmative.  Here she telling me about school (she went to one of those bouncy jump places for a field trip) and is saying "OK" to more pizza and "No! All Done!" to more grapes first.  Good job, Emme!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Truth About Being a Missionary in Africa

Alright people…let’s be honest, “missionary in Africa” sounds pretty legit, right?  Cue scenes from “Hotel Rwanda,” “Blood Diamond,” “Tears of the Sun” (all movies that scared the you-know-what out of me ever wanting to go joy-riding around Africa in all of my inescapable whiteness).

Scene from Blood Diamond

Yes...this is exactly what I pictured (see photo of Leo above).

Now, I realize selling all your possessions, quitting a job you love and moving your family with small kids to Africa to “help people” sounds impressive and sacrificial.  And in that moment for me 5 ½ years ago in 2010, I suppose it felt that way.

(photo credit: Buzz South Africa)

And truth be told…it had pockets of scariness too.  Even through South Africa is slightly “Pseudo Africa” (we don’t actually live in mud huts, have ravenous lions roaming the streets, or neighbors sporting cool-but-a-tad-bit-too-tight-for-comfort “neck stretching rings”), Cape Town is always listed in the top most dangerous cities of the world (something about high rates of murder, rape and other such non-sense).

So I thought, “Yes! This sounds like equal counterparts of brave, sacrificial and amazing.  This MUST it!”

So we took the plunge!  We heard God say “go” – and we went.

Africa gets in your blood and you start to see her everywhere

Fast forward to now.

There have been failures and disappointments, battles hard fought and moments of grief and sadness.

But the #truthaboutreallife, is the surprising reality that I need Africa much more than Africa needs me.

Who knew that this country of load shedding (scheduled government power-outages), driving on the wrong left side of the road, and Ebola (OK just kidding…that was like 3,000 miles away in a whole different country) – would capture our hearts so thoroughly.

I cannot over-emphasize this…We LOVE it here! It’s certainly not about happiness…but we have never been happier. I am truly in the “happy spot” of my life.

If you think the worse thing that can happen to you is that "God calls you to move to Africa and become a missionary," I write this for you to think again and know that God's plans are ALWAYS good.  He loves for us to expect delight and wonder as we follow Him. Rest in knowing he has already customized a life-plan that that will blow your mind. Don't be afraid of His intentions!  I'll say it again - God actually and willfully intends so much good toward YOU...yes YOU.

Ok...back to Africa: Realizing recently  that we need to return to the US for our children, especially as it relates to Emme and Down syndrome, was an intensely difficult decision. In the end, it became obvious that the educational system in America could best support her needs and we will fly back to the US this July.

Emme recently turned 7 years old and we know she is entering into a new developmental stage.

7th birthday party

Decorating cup cakes

Emme's two favorite things: balloons and worship music

But the cold hard fact is that moving back to America is one of the hardest things we've had to do.  For me, this is harder than having a child with Down syndrome, harder than a miscarriage, harder than skin cancer.

Blah, Blah, Blah.  I know, I know…we all do incredibly hard things.

Nevertheless, my heart seems to be spilling over with fountains of tears. Over the last few weeks I would openly weep to anyone brave enough to ask me how I was doing.  I seemed to be crying every time I ran into someone else at the grocery store who had not yet heard we were leaving. It was terrible (not just for me but I'm sure for the poor people unfortunate enough to run into me)! Ha!  That will show them not to make eye-contact and ask how someone is doing – when all you want is some biltong (a 400 year old traditional South African beef snack…don’t offend the locals and call it beef jerky).

(photo credit: Naked Ape)

When we got up in front of our All Nations family to tell them about our decision to return to the US, I choked back tears while I said, “It’s good and right, but the hardest thing I have ever had to do.  The sacrifice for us is returning to America.”

After I said this, Adi came running up to me while we were still up front, jumped in my arms, put her hands around my face and said, “Mom!! Are you alright?” She proceeded to wipe away a tear. Sweet girl!

So, as a tribute to this continent I love…I am going to attempt to put into words what’s so great about this place.

Bottom line…it’s a combination of having an amazing spiritual community, wonderful lifestyle and resounding sense of purpose. We feel so connected to what God is doing here and around the world.

In case you are dumb founded about how Africa has stolen my heart…let me paint you a picture of what I will miss the most about this corner of the globe.

  • Amazing friendships.  Hands-down these people are world-class friends.  Everything from house-church and “game night” to lunch dates and dinner parties – I just love the deep and transparent friendships we have here. I come alive hosting parties and will find any excuse to have people over (after dinner ice-cream parties in an attempt to recreate “Red Mango,” Passover, Christmas in the summer, 4th of July in the winter, anyone who needs a birthday party, make your own pizza night, gender-reveal party, create your own pasta night, baby showers, going away events, welcome back events, girls night in, etc.). You need a party thrown in your honor? I'm your girl!

Gender Reveal Party (that moment we realized we were having a boy)

Gender Reveal Party Goers

Good bye party


Showing the kids a new tradition (Passover on Good Friday)

You get the picture. As with anywhere, people here are not perfect, but nearly everyone seems to be working through their issues and pressing in to the Lord.  I have such a sense that the people here really want to be more like Jesus.

  • Life-style.  Cape Town is stunning.  We don’t talk about it much because we are usually in our little valley “doing our thing” with our precocious 4 children – but within a few miles we have 2 great beaches (we are on the “tip of Africa” so one side features the Atlantic Ocean and a 10 mile drive going right past our neighborhood takes you to the Indian ocean on the other side).  There is a “surf culture” here, because this area boasts some of the best surfing in the world. There is also an equestrian culture here – as we are far enough away from the city to feel a bit “country” and there are many horse stables.  Mountains for hiking, hundreds of world-renowned vineyards and of course a fun and fast-paced city center make you realize….yeah, this place is great. Kind of like the corn fields of Nebraska….kinda…

A trip to a local garden (of the thousands of plant species that are indigenous to Cape Town, 190 are known to be unique to the city - occurring NOWHERE else in the world)

Editable Flowers

Cape Town is home to a total of 19 different and distinct vegetation types.
(This enormous variety is mainly because the city is uniquely located at
the convergence point of a great many different soil types and micro-climates.) 

Gourdes hanging in the garden

  • Purpose.  Karl thoroughly enjoys working with youth who have been hand-picked for their soccer talent and chosen to join Ubuntu, a truly remarkable soccer academy that combines premier coaching and discipleship, with an outstanding education and housing for those kids in need. 
  • Julie loves spending time in deep friendship a group of girls from Ocean View she has mentored for the last few years, creating fun new businesses with and being a part of the Business for Mission team at All Nations (helping to launch business missionaries into hard-to-reach places).  Ummm Yeah.  It really is as amazing and as it sounds.

Wall Stencil Artists

Love this gray Moroccan stencil

All Nations Business For Mission Team (touring Living Way)

"Business Basics" Class

I mention all this so that you know that when we say, “serving here has truly been the biggest privilege and honor of our life,” these are not empty words meant to sound good as we head back to the comforts of the US.  

This is the truth about my real life: Being a “missionary in Africa” is AMAZING and I am trying not to go kicking and screaming on my way out…hanging on with white knuckles to the mailbox. Lord grant me grace!

Ken Primrose (pastor of Norman Community Church) recently said, “Remember not to confuse the dream and the assignment.  The dream is Jesus and the assignment is the assignment.  The assignments change but the dream remains Jesus.”

I must remember the dream is not Africa.  The dream is Jesus and He can change the assignment any time He pleases.

And so that’s what we have here…a change in the assignment.

That said…here is a list of so many things I will miss.  These “daily life” idiosyncrasies have somehow nuzzled into my heart…

How we talk…
  •     I’ll put it in my diary (I feel a bit like an acne-pummeled teenage girl with a silly secret when I say this – but this is what everybody says to mean “I’ll put it in my calendar”)
  •     Can I have your details? (Don't make a mistake and think this means they want the details of your life - aka your deep, dark past...your food allergies...your shoe size...they really just want your phone number)
  •     Shame! (Oh that is so sad!  Or Oh that is so cute! Depending on context and tone – sometimes it’s hard to know if you should feel offended or complimented)
  •     Pleasure!  (Instead of “Your Welcome” -isn't that so much nicer and more cheerful?)
  •     I have the flu (Don’t be alarmed….this is really just the common cold)
  •     I need to fetch my children (I know you think “fetch” can only be used for your dog…but expand your mind…it’s much more efficient than saying “pick up”- I love to save a syllable!)
(photo courtesy of Fetching Knowledge)

  •     They didn’t pitch (This doesn’t mean they didn’t throw a ball at a baseball game – it means they didn’t show up)
  •     I’ll be there “now now” (There is some debate on how quickly this means someone will arrive – it’s probably longer than you think – but it does seem to be quicker than “just now”) 
  •     Take your trolley and get in the cue for the till but don’t forget to pick up your rubber and throw away your rubbish (Direct Translation: Take your shopping cart and get in line for the cash register but don’t forget to pick up your eraser and throw away your trash.)

Note "now = not now": Today I was going through a McDonalds drive-through and the order-taker said, "I'll take your order now" so I started to tell her my order...naturally. 

She interrupted and said, "No...I'll take your order now!" so again I started to give my order...a little more quickly and loudly this time so there was no confusion. 

After she interrupted again and said "No...I'll take your order NOW," I had a startling epiphany: "now" does not mean "right now" it means "not just a second."  Is this obvious to everyone but me? Am I even speaking English here? So I waited for a bit...and then magically she was ready. Somehow it took me five years to figure that one out. I'm loving it!

What we do…
  •      We have yet to meet a South African who does not personally walk you ALL THE WAY to your car when you leave their house.  I’m not talking about waving to you from the front porch…I mean TO YOUR CAR to let the conversation continue while you get in and maybe you should roll down your window as you pull out of the driveway to say one important thing and throw in a final good-bye while you’re at it. I think it will be a shock for us to go back to America and have our friends wave to us from the couch and say, “Thanks for coming!” Be prepared, we may not leave until we have a personal escort out and about 11 good-byes.
  •      I love the Afrikaans greeting with a hug and cheek kisses (don’t go the wrong way or it could get intimate and sloppy).
  •     When you have people over you always offer to make and prepare their tea…”Rooibos or normal tea”  Rooibos is a red tea with many health benefits (I’m still a bit hazy on what is “normal tea” but know that it is NOT Rooibos – the usual favorite).  One must ask if they want milk and how many sugars. Sugars are measured roughly by spoonfuls.  So if you have a group of friends over you may need to remember, “one with milk and 2 sugars, just milk, milk and 4 sugars, black, 1 sugar only, etc.” And don’t forget the rusks (hard little bread-like things).

  •     Don’t forget your R5 (this is roughly $0.20 - $.50) to tip the “car guard”– these are the very nice men in the parking lot who will help put your groceries in the car and guide you in backing out of your parking spot – I don’t know how I will function at Target without them.  God forbid I try to give change to the wrong person.  Awkard!

  •      Wondering how the dollar is doing. Living internationally makes you realize how crucial the exchange rate it…it’s a REALLY big deal. When we first moved to Africa and were setting up our house from scratch and bought our truck… the dollar was at all-time low of R6.5 Rand to the Dollar. Painful!!! Now it’s R12 to the dollar. What’s the big deal?  I’ll tell ya, sister! R1,000 in 2010 would require us to take $153 out of our US bank account. Today if something costs R1,000 we only need to take $83 out of our US bank account.  That makes a HUGE difference. Some may remember we had to return to the US for a 6 month “regrouping” after our first year here – that exchange rate had brought us to our knees.
  •      Check the daily load shedding schedule.  This one is a little crazy.  The government can decide at any point to invoke “load shedding” which means your power will usually be off for 2.5 hours (sometimes more than once a day). It’s not too bad if you know it’s coming. If not, you can be stuck with dinner half way cooked or no coffee in the morning. Serious mama crankiness.  We had a friend who experienced load shedding during their wedding reception – right in the middle of the dance the lights and power went out.  Most people do not have power generators – so they had to improvise with some candle-light time of prayer. 
Dinner during load-shedding (gotta love candle light)

I’m sure it’s obvious… I need Africa much more than she needs me. There is nothing like this place and I have learned SO much from these remarkable people.  I have fallen, deeply and madly in love with her. I’m certain this love affair will last a lifetime.

Once again our move to another country (even though it’s back to my home town) feels sacrificial and scary…but I know this is what the Lord has for us. I will choose to be thankful for the gift of Africa and open my hand to our next step.

Graciously, the Lord is starting to stir faith for exciting things to happen in Omaha and ways to stay connected to All Nations.

We are expecting a life of purpose, joy and passion.

So America – when I pitch up to your house and start to break out into cold sweats…you may have to kiss me on the cheek, make me some tea (with milk and 2 sugars) and walk me all the way to my car on my way out. If I try to hand you a quarter for helping me back my car out of your driveway, you may have to immediately put me on a plane back to Africa.

And that’s a wrap, people.  I’m about to take a little bow and call “Curtain!” on this chapter of my life.