10,000 steps, 10,000 promises

My feet are small (perhaps cute when they are well taken care of) but they are mighty. I used to kick around soccer balls with these size 5 pudgy things; I’ve trekked a mountain or two; and they have carried me to places I never thought I would go. More recently, they have been my tickets to intimacy with the Lord.

With a disinterest in motorcycle taxis and a preference for active sightseeing around Kigali, I began walking in order to get things done. A few weeks ago, God pushed me further: “blessed are the feet that bring good news!” (Romans 10:15) and so I intentionally prayed for people to greet, talk to, and occasionally pray with on these busy tarred and rocky roads.

Drawn often towards older women street cleaners, amazing, almost miraculous things have taken place. Not because of anything I am doing – but because He is in the thick of these moments and conversations. In praying with one woman, Marita, once, a passerby, Grace, joined. We held hands together and continued in prayer. People, wide-mouthed, walked by in disbelief. I smiled when we finished.

Why not? If we can pray in churches together, then surely we can pray on the streets together.

Once, when my sandal broken on the outskirts of a sleepy Eastern town, Nyagatare, God placed a woman shoemaker right next to me – tools and all. Last week, a Muslim man asked me about Jesus. Mind you, this was in Kinyarwanda. God gave me the words. I didn’t speak with force, superiority, or intimidation. I was honest. I told him that no, Jesus wasn’t just a prophet – He came to save the world. He was sent by God. This man, Yohani, didn’t walk away totally convinced. But her shook my hand, hugged me, and said I was different – I wasn’t just a well-read Christian; I spoke from the heart. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in quite some time.

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God’s revealed a lot to me as I have put one foot in front of another. With 10,000 steps, my daily goal, a lot of forward progress is required.

Our walks are not simply efforts in active ministry; it’s a way for me to hear His voice, too.

He’s reminded me of the root of abundant life: Him, not me.

He’s gently rebuked my controlling ways that always seem to surface back.

He has spoken and shown a deep love for grace and joy – for all.

He’s maintained promise after promise after promise.

He’s asked me to just wait. Wait and see.

To put on paper what He is worked in these daily 10,000 steps is nearly impossible, but I do love to try. This is why and where I find contentment in writing: it can show what He has done. Our stories of faith, revelations, and relationship with God become the life story.

And so, I try writing, perhaps not doing it justice, but it never did hurt to try. Here’s one of His most recent great works.

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On yet another walk, Jean Pierre, an old Hendrix friend of mine, and I trudged up the brown-green hill in Gatsibo District to visit the local teacher training school. Zahara now attends this location – only 1 of 4 teacher training schools in the Eastern Province – and will continue to be trained in nursery school teaching for the next 2 ½ years. I was Zahara’s English teacher way back when it seems (when she was only in Senior 1 & 2!) and so I couldn’t wait to see what this new school had held for her and the way it would mold her future, her methodology, and her very natural gift of teaching.

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I was stinky in sweat while the sun was seriously scavenging our skin, but I still smirked with restrained excitement as we entered the school metal gates. Even from the path below, her school looked stunning. For an hour, I met with administrators and toured the campus.

A new school, the bricks are molded together with white cement and the dormitories are full of beautifully built wooden bunks – the first of wooden beds that I have seen at a boarding school in Rwanda! An early childhood education student, Zahara is already observing nursery classrooms to ultimately educate Rwanda’s very young youth. Zahara is fed three full meals a day and is Vice-President of English while also serving as prefect for the girls’ dormitory.

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I saw her sitting in her Foundations of Education class and waved timidly. She blushed back and I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so we could chat. Finally. It’s been a year; but for someone your heart loves so preciously, that’s a very long time.

We sat in the main school office, tear-ridden and amazed we had gotten here. Literally. All of it – the student body, the school building, the environment, the programs – it made me incredibly grateful and joyful. I know a bit of where she has come from, and so this, yes this, is a promise of hope being fulfilled.

IMG_20150917_101358She’s doing it! She’s working towards her dream of teaching. I closed my eyes and I audibly praised Jesus. It wasn’t the education alone changing Zahara’s life – it was Him. She knows it too. As her eyes watered with genuine gratitude, I attempted to mutter a few words, like I had finally pieced together a long-awaited puzzle, “God brought out lives together for a reason…”

I started but choked up. Left speechless. Always left speechless.

But because we are in the world, nothing is so beautifully or perfectly wrapped or completed like this all the time. Our stories our laced with promise and struggle.

Her family called about an hour later, reeling off intense issues that were taking place at home while she was away at school. I watched helplessly as she quickly fell into the trappings of guilt, darkness, fear, and misery.

Traumatized, she was unreachable for 30 minutes. Crying, sobbing, and in a pit of pain, I prayed for her. You have to understand the depth of her family brokenness. Her past trauma is true and real. She, like all of us in some way, has been shattered.

I thought back to the previous week and deeply sympathized with her. I had visited her family, right in their home (back in our village), and I too, could sense a bit of this kind of penetrating, overwhelming wreckage.

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It was as if I had re-entered a room and though nothing had changed, everything had changed. All the problems. All. the. problems. Sickness, famine, dry fields, absent teachers, failed projects – God placed this place on my heart – so why did it feel so bad?

While on my visit, I excuse myself from the family table and go on one of these “10,000 step walks” to gain clarity and grounding. With the skirmishes and on-going issues of her family resurfacing, I began to ask questions out of hopelessness.

Is this school-sponsorship thing even worth it? Am I still being called to help facilitate this? Does this – will this – ever change? What might actually work here?

I had let hopelessness – damn you, hopelessness – trickle in.

The thick evils of our world would much prefer we stay in this place of distraught discontentment. If we do, we don’t remember the purpose of our lives and what we ultimately seek and strive for. Namely, there is nothing we can do in ourselves to end these challenges, disparities, needs, and pains. Strife will be with us as long as sin has a stake – and until otherwise notified – sin is a tragic part of our existence. And so, because of that, we don’t give up. We press on, asking God, what would you like me to do? How can I serve YOUR plan – even in these situations that I don’t think I can really handle? We surrender ourselves (feelings included) trusting that He will show a way.

I finished the weekend in more bountiful, joyful spirits (after all, my village is, and always will be, a sweet spot of home for me) but the power of hopelessness did not go unnoticed. That’s why Jesus and grace and love can be so difficult to comprehend; the further lost we become in our hopelessness, the harder it can be to come out of it.

I knew it would be something I would need to remember.

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Zahara left for the dormitory to have the space to let her emotions free.

The school disciplinarian and dorm mama sat alongside her too, patiently scratching her back, waiting for her emotional return. It was here, on this auburn-wood stained bunk, that a newly resurgent wave of conviction, passion, and belief came upon me.

Where God opens doors, the evil forces of our world will try to desperately distract us so we close them and miss our path to grace.

I’ve closed enough doors in my life to know this.

I didn’t want to see Zahara trek down this same kind of road.

“You are meant for this Zah….believe me. We don’t know why opportunity or struggle or our situations are placed in our lives and then come and go…but you are here. Keep pushing forward. This is your future. You must believe in what is being laid before you.”

Blotchy redness slowly faded and we hugged. I think she believed me.

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I will keep praying, I told myself.

I was quiet for some of our bus-ride back to Kigali.

What was God doing? What was He revealing – to both me, and Zahara?

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Morning comes too early.

My mind has determined to run, my body however, has not. I choose coffee and oatmeal knowing that I will be walking later anyway. Maybe I will do an extra 2,000 steps here or there for measure. I spill hot grounds on my Bible and oats fall between my shirts. Once a master of morning hours, I am now a mess. I dress and the walk begins. If only I knew what was ahead.

I would pray with Sifa, a woman searching for something. We chatted briefly, and I prayed that peace would transcend all areas of her life. Minutes later, I arrive at Canaberra, for another morning coffee with Nadine, a speaker and recruiter for Rwanda’s only all-women higher level institute, Akilah. With a mutual writing interest, we got connected and were discussing how she could elevate her work for communication and professional purposes. Our discussion shifted instinctively to the realm of faith.

Minutes later, as we sipped from our mugs, Nadine was telling me her own story. Raised within deep poverty in Rwanda, she used to walk 2 hours to school a day. There wasn’t always food. Her mother was sometimes sick. She knew God, however, and didn’t stop believing things could be different. Someone, along the way, believed in her too. The right person at the right time.

Then, her life changed forever. She enrolled in Akilah’s hospitality program and following completion of her degree, became a development and recruitment associate – on one occasion, working in their New York City office for 6 months.

“God’s hands were all over it. It’s only for His glory.”

She was emotional as she shared – almost in disbelief about what God had done. On a prompting from the Holy Spirit, I shared Zahara’s story with her. It had just happened days before and was still fresh in my mind. Then something amazing happened.

“I would love to talk with her…to reach out to her…whatever she needs…”

What….?

Just 24 hours earlier, I had prayed God would show an answer to Zahara’s needs of assurance and comfort in her freshly-sought faith. A mentor. A mentor who knows much more than I ever could. I exhaled with so much thankfulness and relief.

2 Peter 3: 8-9

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

He’s got a plan for Zahara. I’m just one small part. He is true to His people. He is faithful. That’s the God we live for, the God of creation. When we walk discerningly, it is amazing what we find. Whatever blisters may come, I will do my 10,000 steps faithfully too, and seeking and trusting in his unyielding sovereignty. It may be easy to forget, but that’s why God is a God of relationship. We walk with Him, sometimes taking wrong corners, but realizing He can (and will) get us back on track when we let Him. And more importantly, just because we follow Him doesn’t mean our walks are full of momentous, jump-on-the-couch-happy dances. Life is hard. Really, really, really hard. Zahara, her family, my village, and things in between reminded me of that this week. Prayer is a serious thing then, because it allows us to voice those concerns. God knows, but our voices bring the reality to life. Talk with Him. He’s listening.

It’s worth it. He is. You are. Life. Let’s try and hold firm to His promises. That’s my prayer for Zahara, for me, for all of us.

Enjoy your walk. With each step, we have a new promise. Promise.

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tattoos, acacia, & trust, oh my!

A bona-fide tree nerd moment for you –

Did you know there are over 800 different kinds of species of Acacia trees in the world? They thrive in warm, dry climates; mostly in Australia but also in the Americas and Africa. It’s one of my favorite trees. They are some kind of crazy beautiful. Not only do giraffes chew on their wood, but butterflies like hanging around them too! It’s not just me, I swear.[1]

More than that, they are referenced as the wood used in completion of the tabernacle for the Lord in the time of the wilderness for God’s redeemed people, the Israelites. Moses had come down from his time with the Lord on Mt. Sinai. He was glowing, said to be “radiant”, and communicated what the Lord had told the community to do. The intricacies of the tabernacle were planned and that did include the wood offered as well as other items like spices, linens, anointing oil, and onyx stones (Exodus 35: 20-29).

Verse 24 remarks, “Those presenting an offering of silver or bronze brought it as an offering to the Lord, and everyone who has acacia wood for any part of the work brought it.” Most excellent.

Perhaps that was the kind of durable, strong, highly regarded wood available during the wilderness wanderings. Either way, the fact that the specification was there certainly made me excited. It should probably be noted too that Acacia trees (and thus the wood) are some of the most firm materials around. They are solid.

I don’t think materials were placed and offered by accident. I think the wood was offered and used because it meant something.

After all, this was the tabernacle, the very sanctuary that would be used to glorify and worship the Lord.

God allows us to bring to Him what we have.

In the Old Testament, as with the construction of the tabernacle, God’s communion with His people was focused on tangible offerings of communal and individual possessions or objects. The story did change when God sent His son to be the sacrifice for human shortcomings, sin, mistakes, wrong-doings, flaws, and failures. His communion with us became the blood and body of Jesus Christ. But Jesus did something mind-blowing (true to his character) when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and proclaimed in John 20: 22-23,

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

That’s right, we received the Holy Spirit (from Jesus!) which means that we are able to bring back to God what the Spirit develops within us as we are guided, submitted to, and following His word. This is bearing good fruit. And we can’t do it without remaining in our God in the first place. This is our new kind of offering to Him.

We can try to love – we can even think that we are doing a darn good job of it – but ultimately, we are incapable of a perfect kind of love, the one we see modeled before us. It’s not hard (in my mind) to understand why divorce, conflict, and tension are rampant in marriage and relationships these days. We don’t love well, y’all. I can include myself in that. When you love through God, though, the kind of possible love changes and grows into something far better. God loves nothing more than reconciliation. Look at the way He loves us!

That’s a big reason I got a black tattoo of an acacia tree on my right wrist. Below the tree is simple. It says, John 15:4.

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The translation reads, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you,” or if using a different translation, “Abide in me, and I in you.” Abiding is a bit of each: seeking, obeying, and trusting.

I got the tattoo not just because of this crazy tree love affair that God has used in my life to speak to me (and hello, all the amazing symbolism of wood, trees, and gardens), but also because it’s a reminder of the promise God has given to me – and I to Him. It’s a visual reminder, every day, of the offering I must give to Him. I must remain in Him, allowing Him to prune, shape, mold, and refine whatever He would like. That way, when I exist in this world, in isolation, in community, or in between, I will be the woman He knows me to be. I will be true to myself.

Plus, and I’m being completely honest here, it makes for great conversation starters. If you see a girl running around with a random tree on her wrist, ask her about it. There’s a story there, and certainly, there’s a story with all of us, tattoo or not. Don’t be afraid to share yours, and definitely, don’t be afraid to share what reminds you of the greater promises in store for you. Just keep with Him, He is doing something crazy, that’s for sure.

I’m packing for Africa again tonight. I’m sure I’ll see an Acacia tree, or 100. I’ll see them and smile, knowing a bit more. I’ll also look up, pray, and stay with Him, even when the journey gets hard.

Wait and see. Abide. Remain.

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[1] “Acacia Trees,” 2020 Site, See it Clearly, 2012, http://www.2020site.org/trees/acacia.html/.

dazzling tree.

[dazzle]: transitive verb: to overpower with light; to inspire inspiration & wonder. noun: a herd of zebra.

[tree]: noun: a woody plant that is tall, has main stem or trunk & typically lives for a long time.

This sweaty, spirit-infused summer brought me a new name.

Dazzling tree.

While it sounds like a name straight from the 70’s, it runs a bit deeper than that. It has real roots.

God spoke it to me just last week, on the tail end of The Experience, the 2-month discipleship program with Forge, a ministry based here in Aurora. Our team had a day in one of my favorite corners of the mountains. I was exploring around a still lake, grey clouds gathering in clusters, a peaceful breeze guiding the trail. It was quiet, and still God whispered who I was to Him.

Dazzling captures the word I had longed looked for to describe the sparkling sunshine above the trunks and leaves and branches of trees. Gorgeous, right?IMG_9159

Before one of my teammates used the word in a devotional time one morning in Mexico, I had hardly heard of it at all. It refers to an overpowering light, yet it also can be defined as a unified and unshakable group of zebras.

As for tree, well, I have always loved trees. There were moments – multiple of them – this summer where I would pray and ask God, “Who are you to me?” In multiple circumstances, late-nights, and through Scripture, I was consistently pointed back to John 15: 1-4,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Just so you know, I’m not kidding about “God as a Gardener” or John 15 coming up many, many times. For one, the first time I heard God’s voice was on a log. Later in our summer, in my sleeping bag one late night in a remote Mexican village, I was reading a small book called, The Deity Formerly Known as God, with the author explaining different conceptions that 21st century believers have had in Him. One chapter, nearly verbatim, recounted a conversation I had with farmers earlier in the day about growth, faith, and God’s patience represented through trees. In July, on a hike in Winter Park, I found more logs and trees that God used to explain Himself and though it sounds crazy, I believe that all this time trees have been God’s way of reaching, protecting, and showing me just how He knows and cares for us.

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The Experience is intense. The team and staff joke that we eat, pray, and cry. We chuckle about that, but it’s kind of true.

I looked closely at those words, however, eat, pray, cry on my porch as the morning sky was a reaching early afternoon. I was quickly reminded that this was a lot of what Jesus’ ministry was all about: submission, fellowship, & truth.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself [submission] and take up his cross and follow me [fellowship]. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it [truth].” (Mark 8:34-35)

Forge is committed to building up laborers to share truth about Jesus so others can know the freedom of following Him. If you have read my blog before, or perhaps spoken with me a time or two, you might be like,

…what? This girl…what is she talking about? She already was a Christian.”

Well, maybe. But I can assure, I wasn’t following Jesus solely, purely, and with everything that I had.

I used to believe that God was a God of action and good works: live a moral life and you get a solid “A” in your spiritual walk. Holla. I thought that being nice to people equated a relationship with Jesus. I also felt that people just needed to be happy all the time and that we would all be just fine. I had basically boiled my faith down to a simple truth:

Obedience – Identity – God.

We find God from everything we do for Him.

It’s not really like that. Try it this way,

God – Identity – Obedience.

We desire to follow God and be obedient because of the identity we are given by Him. He’s far bigger, greater, more glorious, and incredible than we could even begin to imagine.

One of the many speakers at Forge taught us this simple diagram and I found it life-changing.

Christian life goes much, much deeper. It’s a changing of your heart – only done by Him – and an act of submission for His will, not yours. It’s not legalistic doctrine; it’s about passionately loving Jesus. Because really, here’s the thing – when you start loving Him, He will change you.

During The Experience, much of what happens is between God and the individual, though often using our teammates and teams to learn and grow too. In May, I walked through a process of healing from past guilt, relationships, and brokenness. I confessed openly. I learned and embraced forgiveness. I felt the gospel. We learned, and if you know anything about me, rest assured that I love learning.

By June, I continued to know God and the Holy Spirit very intimately. He showed up in Mexico (we traveled to several states for a mission’s trip), at a family camp in the Colorado mountains, in a missionary training simulation, on the inner-city streets of Denver, and as I processed my own purpose and vision in life. It was a special time. Painful, difficult, but oh so sweet. I genuinely am a new person; I feel healthy, whole, and beautiful. Not because of anything I reaIMG_8455lly did. But because of Jesus.

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The best part is that our walks in faith aren’t only for ourselves; they are for us to share. So, I’m excited to be back, digging deeper, and processing much of what I have just dived into.

God’s always been adventurous to me, and so it was still Him when I ate a snake heart a couple of months ago in the wilderness (true story) and when we sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ with a genuine woman of God, Betty, on Denver’s public transit system. When we realize that God is always along for the ride, life begins to be experienced in very different, radical, and surprising ways. Towards the end, I was even able to discern a life purpose (what God has created me for) that I have previously spent years trying to articulate:

I exist to share love by encouraging reconciliation and connecting cultures with written stories, testimonies, laughter, and intentional relationships.

It’s good to be back, typing and writing and sharing with a whole, new, imperfect but healed heart.

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Psalm 34:5: Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.

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“I’ll be 100”

I had two important conversations last week.

One was like a perfect glass of orange juice on a Saturday morning, glazed with pulp and fine laughter too. My Sunday small group sat comfortably in a circle, grazing on hummus-infused sandwiches and crunchy tortilla chips when one of my newer friends remarked, “I’ll be 100,” before sharing an innate part of her life. She meant that she would be transparent, honest, with a bit of “you get what you get.” Grinning all around, our discussion was real, or “100” and it always is there in our little church family. It has been the expectation set and the expectation that has continued; we share life.

Days prior, I had the other talk, only this one was a far cry from OJ; instead it was more like a sloshy, artificial, lukewarm 7-Eleven slushie; a hot mess.

We, this person I trusted and myself, sat at the coffee brown high stools of a local Starbucks nervously grasping our warm cups of Americano. Pursing my lips, I waited. He told me of his appreciation of my “courage” to share my story with him but that ultimately, the revelation was not enough for us to, well, frankly, stay together.

A melting slushie is even worse as the flavor dissipates and becomes diluted with water, and this exchange was not different.

I’m going to be “100” here and write this because it needs to be written.

The details do not matter but it was painful; it was rejection.

If you have shared your story; your truth; your experiences; your heart; your struggles; your secrets and you have been rejected, I am sorry.

I am sorry because that is the last thing we should be doing. As neighbors or family, or friends, or within any kind of community, acceptance, mercy, and love no matter what is both the pinnacle and foundation of relationship.

Personally, I have seen enough of the opposite of these kinds of reactions and it is time we move intentionally in a different direction.

I shared my past. My past is full – isn’t that typically the case for any human, for all of us?

Try this. Go walking down your street, turn the corner, look around. The people you skim over? They have been through something. That’s the truth and there isn’t any other way around it. The life we build, the things we go through – it makes us who we are.

If you have struggled with healthy eating, sexuality, broken families, people-pleasing; stand up because I have been there too. Life is messy and it is no use pretending otherwise. My hope is that by sharing, others feel inclined – free – to do so too. Presenting a past relationship on a silver platter in this conversation was risky. It holds stories, feelings, and memories that are some of the most important in my heart and in my life. But I did it. I pressed the imposition of vulnerability because much like facing an overbearing monster in life, you just have to set your own fears aside.

I told him of a woman that I did love and what it was like to go through a relationship like that. The good, the bad, the surprising, the difficulty, and mostly, the isolation of a mostly joyful experience in my life.

Grace, depth, and kindness exited the front door and fear and misunderstanding, with a basket of judgment, sat down and made themselves at home.

Worst of all, he admitted his own lack of knowledge on that part of my life and when pressed, I don’t think he even wanted to know more. Rejection and self-righteousness. Ugh. What’s uglier than that?

How do we bring our stories to the table, connect and dig deeper to find how God has uniquely created us and uses everything in our life for an ultimate good? How do our relationships and experiences serve in a larger picture of refinement and growth?

That question probes me, guides me, and has fueled me whether I have been in Colorado or far outside these boundaries. It’s also a major reason I write; it’s in books, pens, and ideas that we see patterns and experiences that prove there is something more to all of this.

It’s here where I feel called most into ministry – particularly in cross-cultural contexts.

The church needs to be safe.

I hope – I feel called – to be a part of that.

I want to enter ministry and discipleship training to develop further my relationship with God so that I, along with my friends, family, strangers, whomever, can feel safe with whatever their life has looked like.

Shame is not from God; it should not have a place in our church. It’s existed too much in my own relationship and understanding of God, and I am anxiously excited to give that away and replace it with something far more meaningful, truthful, and long-lasting. The ministry training will positively impact, I hope, the way I may work within and outside the church walls down the road.

But, honestly, it will also deepen, change, and challenge the way I understand God. As the training is only one month away, my prayer is that my heart is ready to leave the guilt, shame, secrets, and lies behind. It’s time to embrace truth. It’s time to seek how God sees me. Not how the world defines me, the way I envision my life, or the way the people I love most see me. Those things pale in comparison to being a daughter of God himself. When I left Rwanda in December 2013, I jumped right back into this American life. I took a job. I went back to Rwanda. I came back. I took the same job again. Not once did I really process in a healthy way, and before I get back to my roots in working with an organization that promotes women’s business and empowerment in East Africa, I really do need time to invest in God and my spiritual development.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. –Micah 6:6

If you are interested in learning more about what I will be doing this summer, please feel free to comment or contact me via email or phone. I would be happy to share.

If you are also interested in contributing to my fundraising efforts, you can visit this link here:

http://kbm.donorpages.com/TheExperience/HeatherNewell/