I don’t belong here

When I was 13 years old I was molested by my then-step-father. There are really no words to adequately describe the fear I felt that night. While my short-term memory fails me every day, I can still remember that night in vivid detail. What I remember most are the thoughts going through my head “How do I get out of this? How can I get away without making him angry? I should not be here. I don’t belong here.”

Somehow, God gave me the courage and fortitude to make an excuse and get away from the situation. I consider myself one of the fortunate ones because unlike many of the 1 in 3 adolescent girls who are victims of childhood sexual assault, I was not a repeat victim.

The next morning I had to call my mom, who was away on a business trip, to tell her about what had happened. I think I knew deep-down that she wasn’t going to believe me, but knowing it didn’t make it any easier to hear.

It was not just my mom who didn’t believe me. Many immediate family members also could not accept what had happened. I felt like the family outcast. In their eyes I was confused, at best, and at worst, a liar. I felt like I didn’t belong any more.

I moved in with my dad and step-mom immediately. They worked hard to incorporate me into their lives, to make me feel at-home and loved. But the reality was that in the span of one week I had lost my identity as part of one family, one household, and was suddenly placed in a new house, new town, new state. I had left behind my sister, my friends, even my furniture. Everything was new and unfamiliar. To my 13-year-old self I felt like it was all a bad dream and I was just waiting to wake up and realize none of it had happened. I felt like I didn’t belong in this new reality, this new life.

I was enrolled in a new school a few days later, only weeks before my 8th grade year began. The school was huge and intimidating. I knew no one. I remember walking through the cafeteria on the first day, looking across the sea of unfamiliar faces, trying to figure out where I should sit. I felt the lump in my throat and willed the tears back down. I didn’t belong.

Because I had already completed one year of confirmation class, my dad and step-mom signed me up for my second year at a local Lutheran church (one they didn’t attend). I walked up the unfamiliar sidewalk to the never-before-entered red doors. Why was I here? This church was not home. I didn’t belong here.

Then I walked through the doors and a man with a white collar came up to me. “You must be Jelise.” He knew my name. He was expecting me.

“It’s so nice to meet you,” he said. “Come, let me show you the way to the classroom and introduce you to everyone.”

Isaiah 43:1

I don’t belong. Three small little words to represent such powerful emotion.

Whether you went through foster care as a child, moved to a new town where you didn’t know anyone, landed in jail, landed in divorce court, moved countries, schools, houses, or families, I would wager a guess that every single person reading this blog has felt like they didn’t belong at some point in their life. The reality is the world can often seem unfamiliar, cold and scary. We can feel abandoned, judged, or just different.

But there is One who calls us by name. Who knows us and loves us for who we are, who He created us to be. He is with us always, and when we are with Him we not only belong, we are beloved.

We are beloved

I love the book of Isaiah because it is essentially a passionate love letter from God to His people. Over and over He tells us that He is with us; He knows us and we belong to Him.

I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you;I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:9-10

But now thus says the Lordhe who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Isaiah 43:1-2

Just like that Pastor who called me by name all those years ago, God has already called each of us by name; He calls us every day. When we feel like we don’t belong in the earthly world, let us remember that we always belong to our Heavenly Father. We are wanted. We are loved.

That night, in that unfamiliar church, a seed was planted.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that church and Pastor, those other kids in that confirmation class, they would be a huge part in helping me heal and start to feel like I belonged somewhere. God was using them to call me by name — figuratively and literally. It was a pivotal moment in developing a life-long relationship with Christ. And through my relationship with Christ I learned to forgive. With time and counseling, I was able to heal from the events of that night. I made friends at my new school. I was loved and cared for by my dad and step-mom and they became home. And eventually my relationship with my mom was healed and made new.

There is no happily-ever-after in this world, but there can be a lot of happy-after-the-hurt. Through Christ all things are indeed possible.

[Author’s note: We’ve started a new teaching series at church called #metoo. Each week a different topic that covers a common human struggle is covered. Two weeks ago it was #I’mTired, which I blogged about. This past Sunday the topic was #IDon’tBelong, which obviously inspired this post. If you want more information about this series or Grace Community Church, go to: http://gracecommunity.com/metoogcc/}

#I’mTired

This has not been an easy week. In fact, it’s been an up-at-5:30-go-all-day-collapse-into-bed-around-midnight-dog-tired kind of week. The day job has been stressful. The extra-curricular activity shuttling of children started in full-gear. There were spelling tests and math quizzes to help study for, PTO meetings to prepare for, committee meetings to attend, volunteer events to plan, piles of laundry to fold, the suitcase to finish unpacking from that business trip I took 4 weeks ago, etc.

It’s Friday night and I’m exhausted. This is not a new feeling for me. I’m pretty sure the last time I felt rested was in 2002. But this Friday, instead of wanting to break down into tears of exhaustion or hide under my covers, I actually have a smile and feel at peace. And I know the reason is because this week I have made time to spend in the Word and prayer every single day.  And every day God, in His undeniable ways, met me where I was and I either read a devotion, heard a song, or found a bit of scripture that spoke directly to what I was struggling with that day. I know after 37 years I shouldn’t be surprised that He does that, but it still amazes me.

This past Sunday the message at church was about being tired. Not just physically, although that’s a big part of my life, but being mentally drained and spiritually depleted, as well. The sermon could have literally been written for me, as it described my life to a tee. Every week I talk to my step-mom on the phone and she always asks me the same question, “how are you?” and I always answer the same way, “tired, stressed…you know, the usual.”

The worst part is I keep kidding myself that if I can just “get past this one thing,” “finish this one project,” etc. then things will return to “normal” — whatever that is. First it was getting through the infancy of my first-born. Then it was getting through being pregnant with twins, and then the first year of having infant twins and a toddler (not much I remember about their first 6 months). Then it was, changing my job, ending my commute, finishing grad school…you get the picture. But there always seems to be one. more. thing.

What really stuck with me after Sunday’s message was the idea of margin. Like a piece of paper, we all have a margin in our life that needs to be reserved and protected. As a marketing person who has taken a design class or two, I know how important white space and margin are. You fill up a piece of paper with too much text and images and it looks terrible! Not only that, but your core message is going to get lost in the midst of the chaos and clutter.

I can keep waiting for this phase or that one to end. But as long as I keep adding things that spill into the margins of my life I will stay in this same, exhausted place, where often the core message of my soul is lost in the chaos and clutter. Intellectually I know this, but for some reason I continue to struggle with actually doing it. For years I have beaten-up and berated myself, thinking:
“Why can’t you get this figured out?”

“How hard is it to say ‘no’ or take care of yourself.”

“No one’s going to do it for you.”

But listening to the core teaching verse this Sunday I finally realized I don’t have to –nor can I– do this alone.

In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

If I want to find rest. If I want to eliminate excess and lighten my burdens. If I seek healing and restoration then I must start with Jesus. For He is “my strength and my fortress, my refuge.”

Matthew 11:28

When I don’t know what to let go of, He will show me the way.

When I feel depleted, His Word will fill my soul.

When I forget how to care for myself, He will remind me what is needed.

While I may not have been able to let go of much of the worldly things I had on my “to-do list” this week, I was able to spend time every day looking to God for guidance and wisdom.

I’m a work in progress. I know with time, practice and dependence on the Heavenly Father I will learn how to maintain margin.

The beauty in the swamp

[Author’s note: This post was inspired by the featured photo of Manchac Swamp in Frenier, LA taken by Kathy Ballon, which was the winner in our Facebook photo contest.]

There I was sitting around a dinner table in South Africa with four of my colleagues trying to explain the show “Swamp People“. While a lot of American television makes its way to the South African airwaves, somehow “Swamp People” is not one of them and none of my colleagues had ever heard of it before. After 5 minutes I had all of them in that place of side-splitting, tear-inducing laughter at my description of this show that my dear husband, a Louisiana native, watches faithfully every week.

I think it was the title “Swamp People” that really did them in. I mean after-all, that title does conjure up images of slimy, scary bog monsters that come to life and roam the shore instilling fear in everyone who lives nearby. Of course, if you are familiar with the show you know it’s actually about the men and women who make their living hunting alligator — a unique sub-culture of modern Louisiana who live off the bayou and eat food like turtle soup, alligator gumbo, and boiled crawfish. They catch alligators using giant hooks baited with rotting chicken and every episode I am sure someone is going to get eaten by an angry gator. They have a very distinct accent that is as thick as their red beans and rice and use words rooted in their French-Acadian history that the rest of the U.S. population have never heard uttered. I often joke to my husband that people from the bayous of Louisiana are the only ones that speak English but still need subtitles so people can understand what they’re saying. (And lest anyone think I’m too unkind, let me set the record straight that my childhood roots include living in a mobile home in West Virginia, so believe me I get plenty of ribbing for that.)

While I like to kid and tease my husband mercilessly about the show and the kinship he feels for these alligator hunters, I know that the show is successful because those of us who didn’t grow up in that lifestyle are in awe of the bravery and brass of these people that hang out in the swamp all day. The swamp that is full of alligators, snakes, snapping turtles, giant rodents called nutria, mosquitoes and other creatures I would prefer not to spend any length of time with. The fact is, even if you don’t immediately think of a scary B-horror movie creature, when you think of the swamp you probably don’t think of a place you’d like to oh, let’s say, vacation.

But, I have been to Louisiana and toured the swamps. The truth is the swamps are also places of serene beauty where there are more shades of green than even Pantone could imagine. Where Spanish moss dangles from 200 year-old cypress trees and floating bouquets of water lilies greet you as you float down the still, quiet canals. This photo below was taken at Manchac Swamp in Frenier, LA by my mother-in-law. It’s simply stunning. Nothing about this picture says scary-death-trap to me!

Manchac Swamp in Frenier, LA
Photo by: Kathy Ballon

And this is how much of life is. We have certain places, situations, or even words that we identify as intimidating, scary, dangerous, lonely, painful or despairing. But when we look at them in a different light we are often surprised by the hope, beauty, joy, comfort, and blessing they turn out to be. My husband and I found ourselves in one such situation earlier this year when he unexpectedly lost his job.

Unemployed.

It’s a word that conjures up all kinds of unpleasant visions and is ripe with worry. Even though my husband had been unhappy at his job, the unplanned departure left us uncertain of what the future would hold. As much as we tried to stay positive and trust that the Lord would provide, as the days moved into weeks, and then into months, our faith was tested and concern evolved into uneasiness, which evolved into distress. Yet, God was with us at every step of the way. We were provided for — both financially and spiritually. Friends and family rallied around us. My husband was able to use this time to give back, volunteering in our community, to spend time with our kids as they finished the school-year, and to support me as I finished my graduate school capstone. Even in the midst of the fear and stress, we saw the beauty of these gifts.

My husband ended up finding a job in his field, near our home, working for a great company. He absolutely loves this job! He is respected and appreciated by coworkers and has opportunities for education and career advancement he didn’t have at his last job. He will tell you, without hesitation, that losing his prior job was the best thing that could have happened to him.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

For as much as unemployment can be a place of discouragement, loneliness, and anxiety, it can also be a place of fresh-starts, opportunity, and hope. Because there is nothing we have to face in this world that is bigger than God. Nothing that He won’t use for our good. When we think we are in the dark, dangerous swamps of life, God can reveal to us the beauty and serenity of His purpose for our lives.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

What are the swamps of your life? Where have you seen beauty and blessing instead of fear and danger?

It’s not about jewelry

Dear friends,
I’d like to ask you to bear with me as I stray from my normal blog content. This one might appear to be a bit self-serving as I’m going to ask you for something at the end. But first, I want to tell you a story.
I want to tell you about Emebet.
Emebet from Ethiopia
This is Emebet
Emebet is Ethiopian and HIV positive. She did not know she had the disease until her husband died from it several years ago. Like many Ethiopians with HIV, Emebet feared being shunned by her family and community, so she lived in seclusion near Mount Entoto, making little money and unable to get treatment for her disease.
Then she was invited to work as an artisan in a local partner group created by a company called Noonday. Here she started making jewelry out of beads created from old artillery shells found in the fields by local farmers. She began to earn good wages, well-above the average for women in Ethiopia, found a support community, and began taking anti-viral drugs to treat her HIV. She came out of hiding and seclusion and re-discovered a life that could be lived with HIV. She even fell in-love, re-married and had a son named Yasbera.
Emebet is just one of many men and women in countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, and Ecuador that are gaining financial independence, healthcare, education, and freedom to live life because of their work with Noonday. Noonday is a fair-trade company that purchases hand-made, local goods from these groups — at prices above local market value  — and then sells them here in the U.S. as a means of creating economic opportunity for the vulnerable in underdeveloped countries. They also provide scholarships, no-interest business loans, and emergency assistance within these same communities.
 Noonday: Purchase with Purpose

 

I am so excited to tell you that I have recently become an Ambassador for Noonday. For me, becoming an ambassador  is not about earning some extra money, or hosting trunk shows. It is not about the jewelry. It’s about spreading the word and creating awareness. It’s about promoting fair-trade.  About raising money for adoption. It’s about empowering women in our privileged, first-world, free-state, to in-turn empower our sisters in poverty-stricken and war-torn countries to find a better life.  About using our purchasing power for good.
So now, here’s the point where I ask you for a favor. I’m seeking five friends/readers to host a Noonday Trunk Show in September, October or November. If you live within two hours of Winchester, VA, I will personally come and do your trunk show. If you live further away, then you can find an ambassador near you to do the trunk show.
Hosting a show is simple! All you need to do is set a date, invite some of your friends/family/co-workers and serve a few light refreshments. I, or your local ambassador, will do the rest. The trunk show is really an opportunity tell others about Noonday’s mission and impact, show off the beautiful hand-made jewelry and accessories that Noonday purchases from the 2,000+ artisans in over 10 countries, and be the change we want to see in the world.
As a thank-you for hosting the trunk show, you will earn credits toward purchasing jewelry and accessories, as well as special discounts. And, if you are one of the first five readers to schedule a show (whether with me or another ambassador) I will also throw-in one free piece of jewelry as my personal “thank you” for helping us spread the word.
 Noonday
You can learn more about Emebet and the other artisans here: http://jeliseballon.noondaycollection.com/impact/who 
Or watch this short video that tells you more about Noonday and what they do:
So, I have one question for you: Will you help me get the word out so we can help transform lives?
Sincerely,
Jelise

The missing blogger

It’s been three weeks since I blogged and I’m going through withdraw.

Honest to goodness withdraw pains.

I have felt a real longing in my heart to be staring at the WordPress screen and writing something. It’s been on my mind constantly, like an old friend that I haven’t spoken to in months. I guess this is how it feels to be a writer.

So what’s been keeping me away? Well it’s all good stuff. All important things. Getting kids ready for back-to-school; volunteering at said school which moved into a beautiful old building this summer and has needed help with renovations and preparations for the new year; helping to prepare for church services; a few dates with my husband; a long-needed day with my sister; fixing up my front porch. And of course that pesky day job of mine (for which I have a renewed love and energy since my trip to our home office in South Africa a few weeks ago). You know, just life.

haircuts
Back-to-school haircuts for three — definitely on the to-do list.
outdoor office
Focusing on my “day job”. One of the perks of working from home is having an outside office.
front porch
Fixing up the front porch. Isn’t it cute?
the school
Discussing school renovations after a PTO meeting.

 

There isn’t anything new on the list, it just seems it all came at me in abundance in the last three weeks and left me with no time or creative energy in the evenings to write. And this, I think, is the struggle for all blogger/writers/artists/creative types who pursue their creative love and passion in the midst of a busy, fulfilling, beautifully messy life.

I’ve been reading Lysa TerKeurst’s new book “The Best Yes” in small snippets over the last few weeks. One of the things she talks about is how we can find the best “good choice”. You see everything I listed above, everything I devote time to are good things. Good choices. But each “yes” to one of those inevitably means a “no” to some other good choice because there are only 24 hours in the day and this girl needs sleep to function.

So how do we choose which things to say yes to and which to put on hold? How do we avoid putting our creative love on the back-burner in favor of the persistently practical?

Slow the Rush - The Best Yes
Courtesy of Lysa TerKeurst. http://thebestyes.com/

 

Well, I didn’t say I’d finished the book, did I? I don’t know the answer. All I can say is that I know the things that have been pulling my time and attention the last three weeks are seasonal. I only have to get the kids ready for school once a year. After the renovations and repairs are done on the new location the school will need less of my time. After we’re done planning and preparing for the next series at church there will be several weeks before we have to start on the next one. I also know that saying “yes” to these things is directly impacting and helping others.

So, I choose to say “yes” to the things that have the greatest pressing need right now. Where I can do the most good or have the greatest impact in this moment. But I do it carefully. I don’t say “yes” to every request. Then I remind myself that saying “yes” to those things doesn’t mean I’m saying a permanent “no” to my writing.  And…I try to stay in tune with my body and my emotions. When that dull ache of desire to write turns into an all-consuming need, it’s time to stop and let myself have that moment.

I don’t claim to have discovered the perfect method. In fact I fail miserably at saying yes to the right things all the time. Or more often I fail at saying yes to the right amount of things and find myself completely overwhelmed. But, I’m getting better. These days I’m trying to listen to my inner voice a bit more. To honor the woman inside who is many things, but can’t be all things at once or she will drown.

So. Today, right now, I’m fulfilling the writer in me and ignoring the laundry, and the dishes, and the emails, and the school, and even my kids, for one hour. Just one hour on a Saturday morning. Because I needed to find her and give her what she needs to keep thriving.

Baby steps.

 

 

Romans 8:38-39