Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A letter of thank you to our community

Dear Friends & Family,
I just wanted to take a few minutes to let you know how truly grateful I am for your prayers and support over the last year. September 9 marks the 1-year anniversary of Ericlee’s graduation to heaven. In many ways, it feels like a lifetime ago for me. Over the last year I have experienced God’s faithfulness and provision in so many areas.
A year ago, I was struggling financially and wondering how I might cover upwards of $75,000 in medical expenses and continue to support my three daughters. Through the help of a local lawyer helping me negotiate many bills and the unbelievable generosity of many of you, we have completely paid off those bills and today I am debt-free. God has provided for me on a monthly basis through social security for all four of us and a part-time job teaching at California State University, Fresno.
The most exciting news is that I just got engaged. Shawn Young and I will be getting married on January 16, 2016. For those who don’t know Shawn, we have been good friends for 15 years now. I met him on my very first mission trip to Haiti with EvFree Church. Ericlee and I became close friends with him at that time, and Shawn has faithfully supported our non-profit work in Haiti through the years. Shawn lived in Maryland for the last 9 years, but through God’s perfect timing he moved back to California in November to be closer to his family and take a job at UCLA. We reconnected at that time and God has woven together our stories in a surprising way! My girls and family adore him and look forward to having him in the family. My mother-in-law, Christene, adopted Shawn as her “second son” years ago. This is truly beauty rising from the ashes.
Shawn recently accepted a full-time job with RB Capital Management in Fresno and plans to move here in the next few months. We appreciate your prayers as we prepare for the wedding!
For His Glory,
with Meilani, Giada & Zayla 
“You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my GLORY may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever!”
~Psalm 30:10-11

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Father to the Fatherless

The rooster crowed. The smell of Haitian coffee wafted through the kitchen. I opened the door to the mission house and there they were – 13 kids-turned-teenagers-overnight buzzing with energy and excitement for the day’s adventure. I smiled at their hiking footwear – some wore gym shoes, others wore Sunday heels, sandals or flip flops, and the smallest boy proudly donned his cowboy boots. I rallied my three girls and my friend Cori, and we all piled in the pickup truck.

Haiti Earthquake Relief

Destination: Mount Pignon.

It was my first trip back to Haiti since my husband’s death in September. After 12 years of traveling to Haiti together and directing a non-profit there, it was a journey we all needed to take. This country, this town, these people were our home away from home. My three girls were longing for time with their friends. My heart longed for healing.

That morning we embarked on a hike with the kids from the Bridge Christian Children’s Home orphanage to the top of Mount Pignon. A few of the young church leaders joined us. The path was dusty, switching back and forth. At times, we had to scale boulders and traipse through sticker bushes. The sun beat down on us. We had to ask for directions more than once. I wondered if I’d made a mistake trekking with all these kids and limited water. I had never taken a trip like this in Haiti without my husband. This was just the kind of challenge he would have loved.
The hike grew especially hard for my 6-year-old and her cowboy-boot-wearing friend James. Yet, they had a surprising determination. Some of the oldest boys helped them along. Their teamwork inspired me to carry on.
I started singing – something my mama would do when my brother and I grew tired hiking through the U.S. national parks. My Haitian friend started echoing the songs I sang in Haitian Kreyol. Some kids joined in. The journey somehow grew easier.
After a few hours, we made it to the top. I kept looking for that perfect lookout or grand vista but there was really none to be found. Our best views of the mountains and the valley below had come along the journey.

In all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights.

As we rested, sharing snacks at the top, I was prompted in my spirit to take this chance to reflect with the kids. I asked, “What were the hardest and easiest parts of the hike? Did it remind you of anything you’ve experienced in life?” Perhaps loaded questions to ask these orphans who had endured much suffering and loss in their lifetimes.

My daughter was the first to boldly raise her hand and draw a life connection. She shared how our family had gone through a really hard time this year when her daddy died. Tears pooled in our eyes. As a group we talked about how much Ericlee would have loved this hike. We imagined what he might be doing in Heaven. One of the boys said he thought he would be singing really loudly because Ericlee always sang loud in church. Another boy said he was probably running races on heaven’s golden streets or teaching angels how to work out.

This time was sacred. We cried, we laughed, we remembered. It dawned on me then that my husband had not only been a father to our three girls but a father to these fatherless children. His faith and selfless love for them through the years had affected each of them deeply, and they mourned with us.
We have experienced a lot of “firsts” this year without Daddy. We have waded through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, birthdays, anniversaries, soccer games, school performances and more without him. Some of those firsts were excruciating, others were filled with new memories and surprising joy.

Today we celebrate our first Father’s Day without him. Last Father’s Day the cancer had already begun to course its way through his body. I remember making him a special smoothie and pancake breakfast while he took what turned out to be his last walk around our neighborhood with our girls.

This Father’s Day promises to be bittersweet. We will feel the weight of his absence, but also find strength in his legacy. Author Shauna Niequist writes, “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness… Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, earthy.”

I write today for the children and mothers and wives and others who will find Father’s Day bittersweet. Some have lost their fathers to cancer or war or divorce. Some have fathers who live miles or continents away. Some have fathers who are present physically but absent emotionally. Some have been abused or abandoned by their fathers. It’s all hard. It may not feel happy. I urge you to press in to the memories, to dig deep in the bitter soil to uncover the sweetness, the surprising courage that can be found there.

I write today for the children and mothers and wives and others who will find Father’s Day bittersweet.

I also write to encourage dads and men in general: We need you. I challenge you to think about how you can be a father to the fatherless— Is there a friend or cousin or student or neighbor you could reach out to in this season?

I’m deeply grateful for the godly men who stand in the gap now to collectively help father my girls. They are the ones who give out extra hugs and play with them in the swimming pool. They are the ones who ask them about school and admire their artwork. They are the ones who pray over them and have generously helped with our financial needs. They are the brave men willing to tell the girls stories about their daddy. I am humbled by their willingness to enter into the awkward parts of our grief journey. I know my girls are not just surviving today, but thriving because of these acts of love that build their self-esteem and faith. We need you now and we will need you in the future.

I’m also so grateful for the godly men who stepped up to the plate to father my husband through the years. His single mother prayed for men to mentor him, to model respect for him and to mold him into a man of integrity. Ericlee defied the odds and proved to be an amazing husband and father figure to many during his time here on Earth.

Over and over again the Bible exhorts us to defend the fatherless. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
This isn’t a suggestion for do-gooders of the faith. This is a mandate throughout God’s Word. It is our privilege and call to take up the cause of the fatherless. Frankly, I never imagined that one day these verses would apply so personally to me and my own children.

Ericlee poses with his missionary grandparents
Oran and Arshaloos Bell in Pignon, Haiti.
On that Good Friday, I stood at the top of Mount Pignon in Northern Haiti with all of my children – some biological, some unofficially adopted by our family years ago. I looked out across the azure skies and dry rugged mountains and thought about the harrowing journey Jesus Christ took to the cross. The views along the way to the top. The sacrifice of a Heavenly Father who allowed His one and only Son to die for us, the fatherless. The bitter and the sweet. The broken and the beautiful.

**The above blog was originally published at Self Talk the Gospel here.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Worship: learning to change my heart posture

I grew up in a house spilling with music. My dad and brother were trumpet players. My mom played guitar and always sang in the church choir. My brother was the star in lots of school musicals and I devoted years to learning to play the piano. That love for music has also become contagious for my three daughters.

Now I rush to church on Sundays mainly so I can get there in time for the worship music. The strings, the keys, and the voices have a way of ushering me to the throne like nothing else in my week.

For the month of March, I decided to focus on worship as a spiritual discipline.

In college, I was a part of two distinctly different choirs. One was a women’s choir where we spent hours reading sheet music, practicing parts, and listening to the enunciation of each word in romantic languages. My part was only as important as blending my voice with the other women. The other choir I joined was the Gospel choir. Our director wanted us to sing loud and with feeling. My classically-trained voice struggled to free itself, to take flight. I learned to love the energy, the mix of music and the new friends from different backgrounds who gathered to sing. These two choirs taught me to embrace different styles of worship.

The strings, the keys, and the voices have a way of ushering me to the throne like nothing else in my week.

I believe worship can and should be experienced in a variety of ways. I have heard the most amazing ensembles lift their voices a cappella in Haiti. I have worshipped with indigenous friends in the hills of Guatemala using handmade instruments. I have sat on the front row at concerts, raising my hands in praise with thousands of others beneath the lights. I can’t wait to get to heaven one day and experience the diversity of worship God has created playing out all in one place.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites made worship a part of their celebrations and daily rhythm. After passing through the Red Sea, Aaron’s sister Miriam took a timbrel and led the women in song and dance to praise God for rescuing them (Exodus 15: 19-21). David showed how music has the power to speak peace and comfort when he played his lyre over a troubled Saul and the evil spirit left him (1 Samuel 16:23). After the rebuilding of the temple in the book of Ezra, the people took trumpets and cymbals and offered thanksgiving to God as King David prescribed (Ezra 3:10-11). All these serve as examples of how music was used to worship and thank God, and remember His faithfulness.

Changing our posture in everyday tasks

Worship is an opportunity to make our day, our life into a prayer. What I discovered this month is that worship is not limited to formal choirs and Sunday singing. In fact, worship is so much more than music. Worship involves changing our posture to one of kneeling before and pointing toward God in everything we do. As I went through this month I continued to ask myself this question: How can I use my lips and my life to bring God glory?

This question challenged me to find ways to worship even while doing everyday tasks. I can worship Him while taxi driving my kids to school and activities. I can worship Him while I fold laundry. I can worship Him while I cook dinner. I challenged myself to enter into a posture of worship even while doing my least favorite household task: washing dishes. Those who know me well know I despise dishes. As I was growing up it was a rule in my house that if you cooked the meal, you didn’t have to do the dishes. You better believe I learned how to cook.

Ask my former roommates and they will tell you great horror stories about how I used to leave dirty dishes in the sink and the green stuff started to grow. Today, I don’t have the option of leaving the dishes for long. We all know what happens. They stink. I have to walk through the kitchen every time I leave the house. If I leave the dishes, I smell the dishes. Often. I decided to redefine washing dishes as a time of worship. I made myself a playlist of songs on Spotify, and I started to scrub. What I discovered is there is something therapeutic about washing the grime off pots and scrubbing residue off silverware. This became my time to talk to God. I sang praises and thanks to Him with soap and water.

I know that in the same way I have to attend to the dirty dishes, I also have to be intentional about carving out time to worship. I can leave God alone for a few days but after a while my attitude starts to stink. That space between my shoulder blades begins to pull tight when I start running through my to-do list. I have less patience for dealing with my kids. When I give myself space and time to worship, I worry less about my present and my future; my eyes and heart are fixed on Him.

Praising Him in the storm

This past year my family has experienced much suffering and tragedy. When my husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer in May, I had to rethink the purpose of worship. I was reminded again and again that God calls us to worship especially in our suffering and grief. This is the way we enter into His Presence. I am challenged by Job’s response to suffering. As the story reads in Job 1: 13-19, he loses all his oxen, donkeys, sheep, servants, camels, and then a mighty wind sweeps over his home and all his sons and daughters are killed. Job tears his robe in grief but then he immediately falls to the ground in worship: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (1:20). This shows me that one way to endure the pain and hard circumstances is to get into a posture of praise.

I cared for my husband for months as the cancer spread throughout his body and he physically endured much pain. Watching him suffer felt like torture to me. The only thing that brought me out of despair in that season, and now while my girls and I grieve the loss of him, is to worship. I have to choose to change my posture to worship in practical ways. I keep a running list of gifts as a way to thank God for the little graces He gives me on the journey, and to trace the glimpses of His glory. I also have learned to seize every moment I can to sing to Him. Whether in the kitchen or the carpool lane, you will find me singing. This is the way I preach truth to myself. This is the way I spend time with my Maker.

Worship involves changing our posture to one of kneeling before and pointing toward God in everything we do.

It’s Friday night and all I can think about is getting in the kitchen to scrub the pots. My week has been long and my shoulders grow weary, but I am actually looking forward to my time of worship with dishcloth in hand. It’s a miracle in me, a discipline now.

Worship has truly changed my heart.

**The original version of this article was published at Self Talk the Gospel.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Glory: How one word changed the way I see


For the last several years, a small group of my friends have gathered just after the turn of the New Year for a “Word Party.” Every year the party looks a little different. We let the kids (12 among the 5 of us) run wild in the yard or jump on the trampoline or play sardines in the bedrooms while the mamas gather around the table. My friend Amy is a tea connoisseur so she’s particular about getting the chai brewed just right, and it’s heavenly. Carla is sure to be in the kitchen cooking up something like a frittata with garden-fresh vegetables. Yasmin typically brings something with brie because we all know that brie makes everything better.

Terry and I are usually given special assignments. She’s the queen of homemade mango salsa and always brings those amazing tortilla chips from the corner store. The mamas text me early to make sure I’ll bring my famous Chicken Salad Wonton Cups – a recipe I created years ago for a contest at The Big Fresno Fair. One year we even incorporated an art project. Terry brought old wood pallets and Amy brought out her treasure box of paints and brushes so we could all create a piece of art for our home with our One Word on it.

Beyond the excuse for delectable food and heavenly chai, our Word parties are a chance to reflect on the past year and to look into the future with eager eyes. We each choose One Word to embody our year. We commit to studying, cradling, following, contemplating, dwelling on that word for the entire 365 days, until we meet again. Some of us journal our discoveries. Others peck out late-night text messages to the group with discoveries throughout the year.

We each choose One Word to embody our year. We commit to studying, cradling, following, contemplating, and dwelling on that word for the entire 365 days.

At the party, we each have the assignment of tracing what God has taught us about that word theme in the past year. With great anticipation, we also reveal our word for the coming year and pray over them together. This gathering has become sacred through the years. When I say “sacred,” I don’t mean quiet and perfect like stepping into an ornate church somewhere in Europe flanked with breathtaking stain-glassed windows. Our “sacred” generally includes a noisily nursing baby, the sounds of Minecraft piping through the living room and a dog barking at the side door. This time is sacred because, in the original sense of the word, it is “set apart,” “holy,” a chance to share our faith stories in community, an opportunity to offer up tearful reflections and spur each other on to greater things.
At the close of 2013, I started thinking about my word. I started thinking and praying and pondering. When the word “Glory” wormed its way into my heart I was surprised. Glory? It didn’t seem to flow with the words from years past. I had already chosen “Thanksgiving,” then “Joy,” and one year I had two words: “Grace” and “Mercy.” My friends were choosing words like “Worship” and “Humility.” How did “Glory” fit there? At first blush, “Glory” conjured up images of war heroes and athletes defying great odds to gain victory. Somehow it didn’t speak of the quiet meditation I’d experienced before.
I tried to dismiss it. Maybe I could choose a nicer word. Love? Peace? Simplicity? Rest? Words I could feel good about plastering on my wall and exploring with my heart. Somehow that crazy word “Glory” just kept coming back to me. Every song, every billboard, every sermon, every movie seemed to incorporate that word somehow. I was surprised, intrigued. I needed to know more. What did it even mean? Why was “Glory” important to the gospel? How was it pertinent to me?
Little did I know that this single, 5-letter word would be the thing God would use to transform me, inspire me, lift me and carry me through the most difficult year of my life. This would be the beginning of tracing His “glory story” in the most unexpected narrative. God has shown me this past year that Glory is the very beginning of the story and also the grand finale. This One Word is used throughout the Bible as another word for His presence, majesty, beauty, creation, and heaven. Many of the heroes of our faith from Moses to Mary, from Isaiah to Paul, come to understand His Glory in profound ways.

Little did I know that this single, 5-letter word would be the thing God would use to transform me, inspire me, lift me and carry me through the most difficult year of my life.

I believe His Glory is a frame, a way for us to view the Bible and, more importantly, our lives. Jesus tells Martha in Luke 11:40, “Have I not told you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” I believe this is his way of urging her to seek His Glory. We are to be Glory-chasers. If we tune our hearts daily to the music God is creating in our lives, we will actively seek His Glory in all things. We will discover His presence in the good and the hard gifts. As I focused on Glory in 2014, it was a training of sorts. I had to train myself to see Glory. I had to train myself to seek Glory. I had to train myself to reflect His Glory to others.
Now when I am overwhelmed by the breathtaking colors of a sunset dancing over ocean waves, I count it a picture of His Glory. When I see the intricate beauty of a snowflake, I name it as His Glory. When I am caught up in a heart-talk with a dear friend, I believe the encouragement I find there is just another tangible example of His Glory. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer in May, I had to believe that even that hard gift was going to be for His Glory. When the meals, cards and financial support flooded in from our community, I understood that it was His Glory. When I knelt by the graveside hugging my three young daughters tight, I knew deep in my heart that this was for His Glory. When I read the letters and heard the stories unfolding of lives changed by his life, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that all of it – the joy and pain dancing right there – was about His Glory.
Glory-chasing has become habit for me. It’s the way I breathe. It’s the way I move forward one step at a time. It’s my new life purpose. I find myself framing everything by these few questions: How can I trace God working for His Glory in my present circumstances? How can I reflect His Glory in my actions and attitude today?

That one word – Glory – has changed me. As I enter a new year, I continue the journey in search of His Glory in unexpected places. I look eagerly to 2015 to see how He will use my new word – REDEEM – to bring new value to my story for His GLORY.

This article was originally posted at Self Talk the Gospel. Read more here.