Onward & Upward

Driving to the Denver Coliseum last week, on a Friday mid-afternoon, I found myself nervous, giddy, proud, and ecstatic all at once. Grandma, smiling with a dark red lipstick, was in the passenger seat as the soft sound of Google Maps ensured that I took the fastest route. We parked close to the old beige-colored building and were able to find the rest of my family waiting inside.

We – all of us – had gathered to witness something miraculously momentous.

My brother was graduating college. Lance – he did it!

The anticipation was palpable as the ceremony begun and the commencement speakers shared their keen words of wisdom. I was particularly inspired after hearing from Metro State’s current President, Janine Davidson, who formerly served as an undersecretary for the U.S. Navy, among other high-level leadership positions in the Pentagon (um, so cool). She acknowledged that for many students, the path to success is not linear – it’s bumpy and windy, and often, ends up in places that we couldn’t necessarily expect. She shared that the youngest graduate from the December 2017 class was in their twenties – the oldest, in their seventies. She noted that over 300 graduates were the first in their families to secure a degree. From anecdote, to fact, to story, she exemplified why graduations are important at all – and I couldn’t help but glance at Lance ever so often, remembering all that he has been through to get here.

Simultaneously, I sat next to (and at times, held) Kysyn and AnaLynah, my nephew and niece, encouraging them to cheer loudly when they heard their dad’s name. Eventually, he stood, and meandered toward stage in a slow-moving line.

Lance Taylor Newell.  

We cheered and clapped and smiled. Yes! It was happening.

You see, the path for my brother was not and has not been easy. He has had to overcome challenges that I could not dream of facing. And yet, he has survived.

I don’t say that lightly either; many times, especially while I was living abroad, I wondered if I would see him again. I feared that we would lose touch. That maybe, things would never get better. In my heart, I knew how badly he wanted a solid, strong future. But, ultimately, he was going to have to fight for it. He did – and he won.

As I heard my brother’s name called for completion of his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I tried to freeze and capture the moment as best as I could. I looked around at our family, I gazed at him, and I held closely to my feelings of joy. I did not soon want to forget the rawness of miraculous joy. There really is no feeling like it.

A couple days later, at his graduation party, my mom and step-dad showed a slide show with pictures from many points in his life. From his teen years, from his time in sports, and even his earliest pictures, at just over 3 lbs, when he was still in the hospital. It was those pictures that made me weep; I have known Lance my entire life and for the duration of his life, he has been fighting. He has been brave. He has been resilient. He is not perfect – nor am I – but he’s done something that I hope he is proud of.

My biggest hope for him is that his story becomes one that he not only shares – but one that he can look back on and be proud of.

More people need to know that surviving (and thriving) is an option. More people need to know that overcoming addiction is possible. More people need to know that addressing mental illness is critical and necessary and NOT a weakness. And, more people need to know that it has been done.

My other biggest hope is that Lance can know deeply, and fully, how valued (and loved) he is. Though a diploma is a testament to one kind of success – it can never give a person the full value that they deserve.

Lance – wholly and completely himself – is worth gold. I have never been prouder and I simply cannot wait to see what is next on the horizon.

Sibling relationships are special – after all, at least for Lance and me, it’s the only kind of relationship where we’ve have shared so much of life at similar ages and at similar times. I used to say that Lance was my best friend. Though adult life has taken us to different places for different reasons, I still believe he is.

He knows me. He is my best friend.

And, he’s a newly graduated young man with so much ahead of him.

Onward and upward.

experiencing lance

In preparing to pursue God purposefully and intensely in just a couple of months, I have been reflecting upon some of the times, moments, and memories where I remember thinking, “He is here.”

I’ve captured some of them.

Just small glimpses, pictures, and sensory expression, any video I have captured only gets a small part of the story.

Last week, I posted a video from several blind students in Rwanda singing communally and beautifully; just one time of many that God moved my heart.

Here’s another.

This video is small and involves little amount of talking. None, actually. But here’s what happened.

Lance, Dad, and I ventured one summer (it was 2009, actually) through the Grand Canyon and then trekked through Southern California (sunny San Diego!) before journeying up into Las Vegas and Utah, then on home. We had a lovely time in the heat, open roads, and beautiful sites. Lance and I spent a lot of time together on that trip and it was then I really began to be inspired by the kind of human and person he truly is. I’ve experience God intimately because He has been such a testament in my own brother’s life.

One night, late, we were talking in our hotel room. It was around midnight and so we were all sorts of giddy and suddenly, we could not stop laughing. It went something like this:

I genuinely believe God gave us this particular experience to learn about each other, to grow in our own relationship, but also, to have fun. That we did. I’m thankful for not only this moment, but the many I have had with my brother that reassure me that yes, God is at work. In Lance, in me, in all of us.

*

I hope to value these relationships more and recognize God when he has ultimately been there all along.

If you would like to help my support my training in ministry this summer with Forge Ministries, you can donate at the link below. Thank you for all your support and prayers. They are much appreciated.

Heather Newell: The Experience

Dear Lance, my sweet brother

Dear Lance,

Exactly three months ago, I wrote an open letter to you. Fall was in full swing, and like the changing of the leaves, weather, and seasons, a lot has changed for you since then. The truth is, Lance, a lot has changed for me too. Time is the ultimate healer. That seems to always prove true. Time and time again.

When I last wrote an open letter to you, I had no idea where you were. I was terrified. And when you finally were found…I was convinced it could very much stand to be the last time I saw you face to face.

In my last letter, I begged you to save your life. And when I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, I turned to song lyrics once again.

Remember that old 90’s song? Jumper? Here’s the version I listened to at least a million times:

Because here’s the thing Lance, when I wasn’t sure what would happen to you, I knew begging for your life would likely be a fruitless endeavor. So I turned to my heart and found lyrics (yet again) that expressed a deep desire for you to see yourself for exactly who you are.

I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend, you could cut ties with all the lies you’ve been living in…and if you do not want to see my again, I would understand.

The angry boy a bit too insane, I sing over a secret pain. You know you don’t belong.

I know something’s wrong.

Everyone I know has got a reason to say, PUT THE PAST AWAY

*

Lance. Sweet brother Lance, it’s with innumerable joy I find myself writing to you again. Three months have passed, and I can feel your life being slowly, intentionally emptied of everything you are not, and filled with the man, the spirit, and the brother I have always known. The Lord is working in you; stirring His grace in you, and it moves me to tears.

We spoke a couple weeks ago over the phone. You had just moved into the next phase of your program and for the first time I heard you tell me,

“I just know it’s not something I can do myself. I have to give it to Jesus.”

Do you realize how miraculous that statement is?

And Lancey, do you realize the effect that your story, your testimony HAS HAD on other people? It’s only the beginning, but if you accept and live out that truth, your life will never be the same.

I can say this, I think, with full authority because in the last three months, like you, I’ve had my life rocked. I shared with you my story, sweet brother, and you can see how all of us can be encapsulated in the lyrics in the song above. I have started being honest about where I have been and not afraid to proclaim that I don’t know how my life will piece together in the end. Being honest, allows us to be human. Cutting those ties with lies allows Jesus to work. He will say to you and me, yes, now I can use you. Your testimony holds no power if you aren’t willing to own it, and move forward.

I do not think anyone knows what they are doing here. I never thought it would come to this.

I want you to know: everyone has got to face down the demons. Maybe today you can put the past away.

I was holding onto the song above and thinking about you so often, but I think I was singing the very words to myself too.

I had kept a very important piece of my own struggles, questions and doubt in my mind. But wouldn’t you agree: that’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus wants from us.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced.

Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

He who vindicates me is near.

Who then will bring charges against me?

Let us face each other!

Who is my accuser?

Let him confront me!

It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.

Who is he that will condemn me?

They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.

Isaiah 50:7-9

We are not alone, Lance. And crazy enough, our lives are paralleling at exactly the same time. I have been a Christian for a while, but just like you, I’m finally letting Jesus in. Submitting. Throwing down the burdens. Ain’t got no time for that.

So, Lance, I guess this letter is far less of a letter of desperation and uncertainty. It’s a letter of hope and gratitude. I have hope for us in this upcoming year. Without question – and I think you would agree – 2014 was the hardest year of my life. I wandered, I was isolated, and I carried deep wounds. However, healing has come. Is coming. Miraculous things continue to filter in to both of our lives when we take the freedom that is offered to both of us.

I need you to keep moving forward, to continually bask in Christ’s love for you. I need this, because it helps me to do the same. We are so dearly loved, my brother, and there is nothing that will change that.

That’s my biggest request of you right now.

My biggest piece of unwarranted sisterly advice?

Ignore any label, box, limitation, or identity that someone tries to place on you. The ONLY identity you need, Lance, is to be a child of God. Therein lies your value. Promise me that you will remember that.

To that end, filter out any plan, destination, or “place” that you think you need to be at this point in your life. Those, too, are lies of the world. Lance, to experience recovery fully, I think you have to do that for yourself. I know in my experience, in order to move forward healthily and in acceptance of mercy, you must not subscribe to what the world wants from you. If you do, the powers, principalities, and spirits of Satan will win.

I humbly get off my soapbox.

Lance last week I was sharing a meal with some new Rwandan friends and I shared a little bit about the recent empowerment you are experiencing in your life. These new friends smiled and said with great conviction, we will pray. And God will provide.

At a Thanksgiving meal shared with my new church friends, I met someone who not only did the program you are in, but completed it and is now living a life in the fullness of what God has led him to be.

At an Ugly Sweater Party I went to this last week, my mentor and another friend also confirmed the fact that they have been unceasingly praying for you and that feelings of restoration have come to their hearts.

Whether at the table with the church, with friends, or in the presence of family, you are truly being backed with love, support, and strength. Know this in your weaker moments and never fear reaching out for the people that love you most. More than that, know you can always call upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit will comfort you.

I love you Lance. I’m so proud of you. Let’s continue this great journey together.

Love,

Heather

beyond boxes.

People fear boxes.

Lost Angels, one of the many, many documentaries available to be screened on Netflix shares the story of people living on Los Angeles’ famous “skid row”, where an extraordinary amount of people live with no place to go. The term itself originated in Seattle in the mid-19th century. In fact, at that point the term referenced a saw mill area in town. A century later, the term has all kinds of connotations, most notably referring to areas of “homeless people”, “society’s rejects”, “low-life’s”, “disadvantaged”, and “poor”. The quotations may or may not be needed – your definition probably depends on your attitude.

lost angels

Residents of skid row live in housing that has served the poor for years – until being gentrified by groups of wealthier people, organizations, and movements. Skid row then shifts geographically with changing boundary lines as the people, places, and culture are pushed elsewhere. It grows, gentrifies, moves, repeats.

Case and point: New Orleans, Louisiana.

I saw the implications and consequences of urban tension when writing my senior thesis on recreational youth development in New Orleans. City dynamics altered unforgivingly after Hurricane Katrina and revealed the established and long tradition of stark separation of rich and poor. Areas like Audubon Park provide a plethora of recreational opportunities for children in the neighborhood; take a trolley down to Treme and you will find run-down, 1-acre plots reserved for parks but have been largely left by the wayside. This impacts youth development, city perceptions, and how people move about. Really, it affects how people live. At some point, you might end up with 4,000 + people living in a relatively small section of the city, all poor, nearly all suffering from mental illness, and many using drugs. That’s exactly what skid row in Los Angeles has become.

Cities all over exist with their very own versions of skid row – Vancouver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

It seems odd then, that on the very same day I am packing my own boxes for a move, my brother’s current location for recovery is described as “Denver’s skid row” in a conversation. Which, is true. It’s been known as that part of town for decades. More than that, it was that particular evening that I chose to watch the aforementioned documentary on skid row and I’m left thinking,

Wow. What do I actually think about all of this?

People fear boxes.

That’s what I think.

In the documentary, footage is shown of police officers scrounging up every box they can find on the city streets and taking it away. Belongings or not, it doesn’t matter.

A box carries things. For me, it carries a lot and for others it carries everything.

When we move places – homes, countries, rooms, colleges, states, jobs – we take our stuff in a box and we aim to remove it as quickly as possible. At least I do. I certainly don’t want boxes hanging around.

*

I’ve moved a million times before and yet this one feels different. It feels better.

We changed houses when I was growing up, we separated houses when my parents divorced, I left houses when I went to college, I stopped living in American houses when I entered the Peace Corps, and I was relatively nomadic at that point, unsure of where my houses, my boxes, and my idea of home fit. I was scattered.

I feared boxes because I kept acquiring more than just physical things to take with me – I was transporting memories, people, relationships, and a hell of a lot of journals. Putting a bit of myself into each place I went, I felt like I had to pack up that part of me too – somehow fitting it in my already crowded identity.

I feared them because I feared losing them.

When I moved to Hendrix in 2007, my boxes were full of high school memorabilia and knick-knacks from growing up back home in Colorado. When I left the country in 2011 for a handful of years in Rwanda, I brought the bare essentials and yet made room for photographs and letters from my college days, adding to what I had originally felt was important. When I came back from Rwanda the first time, circa 2013, I had a suitcase full of lesson books, grade books, and literally every item I could bring back that would allow me to hold on to all I had experienced in two years. I couldn’t explain it so I was going to try to do so with the things I brought with me, I thought. Then, I went back to the land of a thousand hills for the summer, and repeated the coming home process, only this time with much less.

The simple truth?

No box or suitcase can fill experiences.

It’s that realization that has made this move and this season of life so, so sweet. I don’t care about the boxes anymore. Here’s why:

I’m writing wrapped in a blanket from Ghana. I’m surrounded by a china cabinet that my mother and father had for a very long time. The teddy bear I received after having appendix surgery when I was young is next to me. The coasters from Mexico keep the sweat of my water away from my beautiful, wood dresser that I had at mom’s house. My grandmother’s jewelry and red lipstick tube fills my great-grandmother’s jewelry case and the pottery that Jordana made me shares space with the traditional pestle and mortar given to me by my mama and papa in Rwanda. Letters from dear friends, photos from Disney World, and key chains I collected from all over the country are displayed.

The secret, as probably many of you know, is that the more life passes, the more of life you have to share. You don’t have to put it into a box either; the box serves as a resting place for the mementos you pick up along the way. The way in which we live our life, yes, that’s how we carry our stories, memories, and years.

You can spend too much time worrying about your calling ahead or the callings you have already lived out. Do this too much though, and you miss what’s right in front of you. Sometimes all you can do is just put one foot in front of another.

*

For a lot of people, there is only one box. Maybe there’s not a box at all.

My brother – whether he’s near skid row or not – is at the point of no boxes.

He OWNS very little. His life could probably be put into a duffle bag that he may or may not still have. Some pairs of pants, his state championship ring, a few sets of shoes, and some notebooks.

However, despite the dismal picture that skid row initially paints, he’s not at the point of no return.

He’s not.

Skid row, the suburbs, the ritziest places in the country, and the most dead-beat corners of our land have people. Good, bad, whatever. We’re just people and we’re just trying to figure out how we live life.

It’s felt weird as I have started to unpack the last 7 or so years of my life, knowing that my brother is where he is, doing so much more than that. I’m removing pieces, fragments, and evidence from my cardboard boxes and my brother is trying to figure out how to not live in one permanently.

Hope transcends the fear. Hope is so much bigger than anything that we can contain. Like jars of clay, God has chosen to place a piece of him – a piece of His son, Jesus – in each of us.

jars

That’s the miraculous part of our lives. The boxes, the years, the mistakes, the victories, whatever it may be – it does not define us. We live in a “worn and weary land” – skid row, you might say, but we will never run dry.

Just to know You and to make You known

We lift Your name on high

Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide

We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives

It’s time for yus to more than just survive

We were made to thrive

-Casting Crowns, Thrive

thrive

Dear Lance.

Lance,

I am writing an open letter to you because you have given me no choice. I was ready to mail you one that I had recently written to the Salvation Army just the other day, but you are no longer there. You have no phone. I don’t know how else to find you. So, here is what I need to tell you.

*

The day before you entered rehab 30 some odd days ago, I received a text from you with very specific song lyrics and a song title that all but begged me to trust you, in spite of everything. The song recognizes the torment of someone who has lived through hell and is asking to be known not for the things done, but for the soul deep inside the human heart.

I told you later how the lyrics can be read both positively and negatively and that in the end I would always err on the side of believing in you; choosing the notion that we are more than a sum of our parts.

Now what am I supposed to think?

Your life is in a bag. The freezing, spitting rain fall is starting to give way out on the cold streets and I struggle knowing you are nomadically moving around without any kind of guidance or direction. You chose, completely on your own volition, to be homeless. Perhaps more than the addiction itself, the mental illness, or the bad choices, this is a poignantly strong situation that I fail to understand the most.

I found lyrics too, you know.

Cause all the dreams you never thought you’d lose, go tossed along the way.

Letters that you never meant to send got lost or thrown away.

You may never understand this, but there are people, myself included, who have been pushing for you since the beginning. I don’t just mean people in our family, neighbors, or mom and dad. I mean friends I have all over the country – all over the world. People pray for Africa like it has not holding power in the world but Africa prays too. Often, not for itself. My family in Rwanda lifts your name to heaven often and frequently. Divine always asks about you in any conversation we’ve had. Without much tangible financial capital, their human and social capital is limitless – literally and firmly trusting that Jesus will enter your heart. Has he?

Scars are souveniors you never lose – the past is never far.

Did you lose yourself somewhere out there? Did you get to be a star?

Broken promises crash down and do you grasp that choosing a life on the streets is asking – begging – for more scars? I had one request of you – don’t make me an only child. You looked down, sighed, and said you wouldn’t. I have finally come back home – from wandering, living, thriving in life in a lot of different corners of the world. Rwanda yes, but Arkansas too. And to my dismay, I returned, but you did not. What will it take, Lance? What is it that will motivate you enough to WANT to be here?

Words are not enough in this saga, Lance, you know that. You have to do something different. I want my brother back.

You grow up way too fast and now there’s nothing to believe and reruns become our history.

A tired song keeps playing on a tired radio and I won’t tell no one your name.

Like a tired song, hearts are exhausted. Hope, however, never dies. I hope you choose right for yourself. Do enough to stay clean. Every minute, every hour, every second. Whatever it takes. Choose Life. Get yourself out of dumpsters, alleys, and drugs. Don’t you see how no one can do it for you?

God can. But, you have to want to.

Save your life. Please.

I love you.

Heat

I think about you all the time, but I don’t need the same.

It’s lonely where you are, come back down. And I won’t tell ‘em your name.

*

Name, Goo Goo Dolls.

Hawaii, 2010.

Hawaii, 2010.