God’s Grace Continues to Light the Path

When you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, open your heart, mind, and soul to hear and see God’s way. He will speak to you, you just have to be willing to hear it.

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As our departure date is fast approaching (33 days from today) I continue to become acutely aware of how real this all is and I have noticed the fear and anxiety start to surface as the reality of our path approaches. Last night was no different; I could feel the fear and anxiety rising up inside me, the barrage of questions swirling in my head, and the complete uncertainty of the path we have decided to walk. What were we thinking…quitting our jobs, leaving our home behind, taking our three children out of school to serve complete strangers around the world for one full year, and to top it off utilizing our savings to make it all happen because “we heard” and “we felt” called. I;m pretty confident that these feelings surfaced because all the things we have put off until the very end are happening (because we are at the very end)–selling our van and downsizing to one car, wrapping up jobs, and saying goodbye to friends and family. We returned home from a wonderful week long trip to see and say goodbye to family in Michigan and then on to spend a long weekend with wonderful friends and, again, say goodbye. We all unpacked the car and the kids went to bed. I took the short drive up to the store for some milk for breakfast and to get Jeff and I some dinner when these feelings and thoughts surfaced again with full force. As I pulled out of the drive-through parking lot and turned the corner to head home a song I had never heard came on the radio called All In by Matthew West. The lyrics of this song made me laugh out loud in my car…

“So, I step to the edge and I take a deep breath; We’re all dying to live but we’re all scared to death. And this is the part where my head tells my heart; You should turn back around but there’s no turning back now.”

“I’m going all in; Headfirst into the deep end. I hear You calling; And this time the fear won’t win. I’m going, I’m going all in.”

I have never been a believer of “signs”, but I have come to be a huge believer in the Holy Spirit and God lighting the path for me and providing me with assurance that this is His plan for me and for my family. The funniest part for me was that the very next song that came up was Thrive by Casting Crowns. This song has been like a theme song for Jeff and I through this process of planning and preparations, the words singing out to our hearts in a way we could not imagine.

“Just to know You and to make You known; We lift Your name on High. Shine like the sun made darkness run and hide. We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives. It’s time for us to more than just survive; We were made to thrive.”

It may sound absurd, but at the very moment I could feel the fear and anxiety completely disappear and was instead replaced with peace and comfort. I was so overwhelmed at how peaceful my heart felt when just minutes before I was so heavy with fear. And all of this because of the songs that came on the radio. Now some may say that was just fate or coincidence. You can call it whatever you want. I will call it God’s way to comfort me in my time of fear, telling me that it’s okay to be afraid and then giving me the strength and solace needed to continue on our path.

God’s path for us is not always lit with neon signs flashing above our heads showing us the way, so we have to have our ear, eyes, and hearts open and we have to be willing to allow His way and His light to shine through us. He may ask a lot of us and it may be very difficult and maybe even painful at times, but He is not sending us on this path to harm us but to help us shine His light in this dark world, to help us fulfill His son’s commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your souls, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40.

We are embarking on a journey that is going to be difficult and we are going to face many struggles along the way, but we love our God and we have chosen to follow His path for us to serve our neighbors around the world despite these challenges. We will continue to pray for God to shine His light though us and to help us love Him with all our hears, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The “What” Versus the “Why”

Let your “why” be the motivation to change the world with the “what”.

Many people have asked about the connection between our faith and the mission to which we have been called. I think the best way is to decipher between the “what” we are doing and the “why” we are doing it; this distinction is crucial.

What we are doing (volunteer and service work) has nothing to do with our religion or even religion at all. Our goal is to serve others as they need it, to help where we can, to try to make their lives a little better, and to show them they are loved beyond their family, their hometown, etc by someone on the other side of the world. We want people to feel the love that we feel from our Lord.

With that being said, we are not seeking to change anyone’s religion, beliefs, traditions, or culture. All we want to do is show them we love them for the person they are today. We want our global brothers and sisters to feel and experience the love we have for them.

Now the “why” we are doing it is deeply rooted in our Christian faith. We believe that we have been called to show Christ’s love for ALL of His children, not for the purpose or sake of changing them, but just to love them. We believe that Christ has called us to this path because people around the world need to feel they are loved by people of different nations, cultures, and religions because God loves ALL His children, and our family can do this; show love to ALL people.

Casting Off Globally, the non-profit that Jeff and I started, has the hope and mission to help families find the opportunities to serve and volunteer together. Casting Off Globally (COG) is the bridge to the “what” but does not impact the “why”. Every family will have a different “why” for their desire to volunteer/serve others and COG wants to embrace that. We want to engage all families in volunteer service and welcome their “why” as a part of their specific story, not ours. Every “why” will be different, as it should be. Our differences are what makes this such a great opportunity for families across the spectrum to serve together and COG can be the key to opening their door to the “what”. We all have different reasons for wanting to serve and COG strives to embrace all of them to help families find their path to volunteer and service so they can make a difference in this world.

Our family’s “why” shaped the formation of COG, which is why we operate it with a Christian foundation, but that foundation cannot and will not get in the way of the “why” or the “what”. The primary goal of COG is to engage families in service and volunteer work together so we can make this world a little better, and whatever the “why” may be, we will work together as a global family to care for all our brothers and sisters.

Minimalizing

Sifting through our belongings to find and realize what truly brings us joy and happiness, and purging the stuff that doesn’t, isn’t an easy task.

As we prepare for our year of service, we must box and store all of our belongings. Our lease ends at the end of July, right when we leave for Germany, so everything must be boxed, stored, and out of the house before our departure. This has been a huge task, and to be honest, at first it was extremely daunting. Jeff and I have been married for almost 13 years and despite purging a ton when we moved to Wisconsin almost 7 years ago, I am overwhelmed how much “stuff” we have accumulated over the years.

In January 2018 I started packing, organizing, and PURGING. I have gone through our house, room by room, cabinet by cabinet, drawer by drawer to identify what was needed and not needed, not just for our upcoming mission of serving other for a year, but also for our return. We can’t get rid of everything because we still need to furnish an apartment/house when we return. So this task is not just getting rid of everything that we aren’t taking, but rather sifting though our belongings and identifying what to keep, sell, or throw away. We also have to be aware of the amount of stuff we decide to keep. A wonderful friend has offered to store all our belongings in her basement, and while there is plenty of room, we must still be respectful of their space and store only what is necessary.

To Be Stored
1 of 3 stacks of boxes to be stored. I anticipate 1-2 more stacks like this one.

As I started to create piles of “keep”, “donate”, “sell”, and “garbage”, I realized how many things we had that we didn’t need or even use. It was wonderful to drop off 2 bags of towels to the homeless shelter (I was amazed, we had acquired roughly 40 some different towels or various sizes–who needs that many!) Our small pile of items for the garage sale behind my couch downstairs has very quickly grown into boxes and boxes of “stuff”. As I look behind my couch, I am astounded how much “excess” we actually have despite my efforts over the years to get rid of things we don’t use or need. In doing all of this, I have realized the majority of our belongings we chose to keep were pictures, photo albums, books, heirlooms, and items that spark a certain memory. These items bring us joy, happiness, peace, etc., I have also recognized that all those items behind my couch don’t, they just provide me with clutter and frustration (because of course it was more to clean, put away, etc). Once I realized this, it was easier to go through it all and decide whether to keep it or get rid of it. I asked myself, does it bring our family joy, happiness, peace, comfort? Yes–keep. No–gone. Simple, right?

Well, not always. The things that were the hardest for me to get rid of were the expensive items. I think it was hard to purge these items because I felt that I was wasting money. They were expensive so we should keep them. The problem was we didn’t use them and they were just taking up space and collecting dust. Another thing that was difficult were the things we might use in the future. I have to be honest, I don’t like the idea of buying an item twice because I got rid of it only to find that I needed it later. However, what I am seeing is that as I have packed and purged items around our house, it is becoming more clear what we really need to live happily. The 12 beautiful wine glasses, while they were very pretty, really served no use to us; we don’t entertain that many people–ever! The juice extracter that I just had to have 13 years ago, has not been used in 10. The home decor that we kept after moving from Arizona has only made our new home seem smaller and more cluttered. I had to move past the thought that was focused on money, it may have been expensive and maybe it was useful to us then, but it’s not any more and if I can’t use, maybe someone else can.

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I am really looking forward to the ways this next year is going to change our family’s view on what we need to be happy and to live a fulfilling life. We will be spending the next year with only the items we can carry and I know we are going to pack up those backpacks with as much as possible. I am also expecting to realize that many items we thought we needed were just superfluous and that we actually left out things we really needed. I know that we will come back to Wisconsin a changed family, with a new perspective on what we need and as we begin to unpack all the boxes and boxes we thought we would still need, we will find many things that we don’t. But those are things that we can’t understand or know now; we need the experience to shape us and teach us a new way of life, whatever that looks like.

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I don’t believe that a minimalist lifestyle means that you live with nothing, but rather that you have learned what is truly important and needed. In our modern culture, we are bombarded with gadgets and things that are supposed to make our lives easier and I have been sucked in many times, but to what cost? Does that gadget to core and slice an apple all at once really make our lives that much easier? I know for me, this gadget has actually been more time consuming and has brought me more pain than I could’ve imagined. The silly thing never works right and I always end up having to use a knife to cut the remaining core off the apple slices, so not only do I have to wash the apple corer I also now have a knife–I have just created an extra dish to wash! Not to mention the three times I have either sliced my fingers or hand. I know, silly example, but hopefully you get the point. All these things are labeled and marketed to us under the pretense of making our lives easier, actually may be doing quite the opposite. It gives us the notion that if we only had that “thing/item” our lives would be better or easier, so we work harder and longer to earn the money to acquire it…but what’s the reality? We sacrificed time with the family and end up with a kitchen or house full of utensils, gadgets, and toys (yes, toys too) that never get used. I have fallen victim to this mentality many times, and I am pretty sure that I have not had my last encounter either. (The toys are a whole different blog, but let’s just say that I am really looking forward to my children experiencing this very minimalist lifestyle, even if its just for this one year. My hope is that they will come to see that they don’t need all of the stuff to make them happy and have fun!)

I am not saying that consumerism is a bad thing. We live in a post-enlightenment era and we are blessed with many things that really make our lives easier and that I don’t want to be without (aka: a dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, electricity, etc). I am just learning that what I thought was previously necessary or helpful may not always be the case and I am looking forward to this next year and how much I am going to learn about myself, my family, and what is truly necessary for us to have a happy and fulfilling life.

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Jeff and Sara’s Sermon

Here’s a look into our journey and the path that has led us to a year of service abroad.

A couple of weeks ago we were privelaged to give a sermon at our church. This was a new endeavor for us and we now have a much greater appreciation for those that do this every week. I understand that the recording is a bit long (amount 19 minutes), but it provides the journey and winding path we have traveled during this planning process.

Sermon

God’s Gifts and Calls (post from 2/1/18)

We are all unique pieces of God and we fit perfectly together to make up the masterpiece of God himself.

No two people are the same. We all have been gifted with different talents, attributes, passions, and paths to follow. I have recently started reading In God’s Hands by Desmond Tutu and right away he addresses this very topic and I love his insight. He explains that is not just our unique gifts that make us so special but that we are all meant to complement one another. My weakness is your strength and visa versa. This is what really connects us together and it makes me wonder if this is another one of God’s grand ideas…we are all imperfect beings, but together with each of us using our own given talents or “God’s gifts”, we could actually become perfect beings (I know, very utopian). Maybe, humanity as a collective whole can be perfect amongst our individual imperfections; Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM). This feeds into why He made us all so diverse, alone we are sinful and flawed though made in His image, but as a whole we all make up God. We all are individual pieces or reflections of God as a whole and this is why we are so unique; we alone can’t make up all of what God is. We are like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, each one of us is a little piece of God, but when we are all connected together, we make up the beautiful masterpiece that is God himself.

God created all of humanity and I believe He made us so different so we could supplement the individual flaws of others, and others for us. This uniqueness is also transferred to the calls He relays to us, no call is ever the same and no path laid before a person is ever the same. God needs missionaries, volunteers, He needs teachers, fire fighters, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, janitors, and everyone in between. He needs all of us doing what we do best for Him in order for His plans to work; everyone’s individual path is important to the whole. No calling is more important, better, or less than another, especially if it came from God. The path that God has led me and my family down is no more important than yours. Our paths are different, just as we are different. I believe that He wants us to embrace our differences and our unique paths so we can serve His world collectively, as a TEAM. We can’t make a difference alone, we need each other. We need our uniqueness to serve each other, our world, and most importantly, God. Let us all use our individual gifts and talents from God to follow our unique path, and let us do this together as a TEAM to complete the puzzle and make our world a better place; the place God envisioned for us.

Following God’s Calls (Post from 01/14/18)

It’s not always an easy path to follow, but He will always be there for you, sometimes to carry you through.

As we get closer to our departure date (it’s only 7 months away!) I am reminded of how crazy this idea may seems to others. Imagine someone asking you to give up your job and career, leave your house and belongings behind, deplete your savings, pull your children out of school for a year, and go to remote parts of the world to serve those who need help; give yourself selflessly to others and sacrifice all you have to make it happen. This seems absolutely insane and irresponsible, but what if these requests came from God? What if God Himself has directed you and your family to do these things in His name. Do you say “no” to God? God has given all of us free choice and it is up to us to decide whether to follow the calls and the signs. But just as we have the choice to follow His path, we can also choose not to; to ignore or overlook them or just straight up say “no”. Though He wants us to follow and obey His call, we have a choice and the decision is ours. We chose to follow.

God’s voice is not always loud and clear, sometimes it comes in soft whispers that can be easily overlooked or blocked out. For me, God’s call to me began as a soft whisper which came to me while scouring Facebook for new updates on family and friends. I read a post and something inside of me said to share it with Jeff; so I did. I believe this was my first call from God, just a gentle nudge. God continued to open doors to this idea and to be honest, also closing them too. From the beginning, Jeff and I decided to approach our plans with an open mind and an open heart so we could hear God’s call. We decided that He would not lead us astray, but that we had to be diligent and attentive to his voice. This meant that there was a possibility that this was not our path and we had to be able to accept that and move on wherever He was leading us. It has been amazing to watch His work in all of this. When something wasn’t right for us, the door was closed (sometimes even slammed) and it was during these times that we started to question whether this was the right path for our family. But it seemed that as soon as either of us voiced this concern or feeling, another door was immediately opened, not only to new opportunities/partnerships, but also to ways to make this happen. He has continued to work through people around us to encourage and to keep moving forward by placing a desire within them to support us through this venture. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”—Matthew 7:7

Jeff wrote a blog a few months back titled Scouting for God basically having an open mind and heart to seeing God’s signs around us, not for the sake of the signs themselves, but for the path which they lead us and the reward at the end. I think that having an open heart and an open mind will also allow us to not only be open to these signs from God, but also to hear the soft whispers and the loud screams from Him. It is very easy to ignore these “calls” from God. They can easily get lost in the busy, crazy, loud life we live (kids screaming and fighting, constant noise of music or TV, or the constant drum of the vast internet). I believe these “signs” and “calls” from God are intertwined, they are not the same, but they work together as a way for Him to show us the path He would like us to take and follow. These calls from God are the gently tug at your heart urging you to do something or the push you feel in a certain direction. They are those feelings you can‘ t explain or those ideas that pop into your head from out of nowhere. It could be anything from reading a Facebook post and feeling the urge to share it with a certain person or the desire to share your story with a total stranger. The point is, you never know where these things will lead. For me, they continue to lead to something amazing. Sharing a post with Jeff led to this calling; sharing my story with a stranger led to a generous gift to help.

I came across a quote that speaks volumes to this idea of faith and following God’s call, especially during difficult times: “When God pushes you to the edge of difficulty trust Him fully because two things can happen; Either He’ll catch you when you fall or He will teach you how to fly.” God can do anything He wants, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26); I truly believe this. This calling has not been an easy path to follow, quite the opposite. One of the most amazing things for me has been how both Jeff and I have had regular lapses in faith and yet when one is weak the other is strong. At several different moments one of us became weak in our faith and wholly questioned this calling and this path we were following, but when one of us had this moment of weakness, the other had an overpowering moment of strength. For me this is God’s call for us; when we are weak in faith He puts people around us that are strong to help keep us on our path. God will continue to guide us down this path and will continue to show us the way, both through signs and His words to us. “Twant me, ‘twas the Lord. I always told him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,’ and He always did.” —Harriet Tubman.

It is not an easy task to have an open heart, an open mind, and open ears and eyes to God’s call and the signs He lays before us. It takes great effort and is something that we have to be mindful of each moment of every day. We will fail often and our faith will be strong one day and weak the next. I will leave you with this, “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8) I have nothing to fear with God on my side, he will either catch me when I fall or teach me to fly; either way, He will be with me. I will do my best to keep my faith strong and all of me open to His word and His calling. I am His servant and I know He will never abandon me.

A Positive Spin on Negative News

How do we create positives in a world of negative news?

Steven Pinker opined in the Guardian on February 17th that there is an overwhelming trend towards negative reporting in news outlets.  For a child growing up with cable and satellite television and the myriad channels dedicated solely to the dissemination of news and having seen first hand how the lead topics of every nightly report are murder, rape, war, and graft, this trend is no surprise.  I have only ever known the news to report first and foremost on the worst of the worst.  As Mr. Pinker pointedly remarks, the adage of the day is if it bleeds, it leads.  Having also lived in a small town, then a big city, and then to a small city, I have seen a wide spectrum of how this plays out.  On the local channels there is typically a nod to a trending national headline (almost always negative)  followed by local headlines.  In the larger towns this usually starts with who was murdered that day or if no one was, the next most egregious list of crimes that occurred.

In our current situation we are fortunate that the list of crimes is usually fairly short and mercifully aligned with drug overdoses or bank robberies, not mass murders or worse.  It has gotten to the point where I no longer watch the news because frankly, I am not interested in hearing about all the bad things that have happened that day.  I have no doubt they occur and I am not supposing that ignorance will yield bliss or make the problems go away.  But simply put, there really is nothing I can do to stop a drug dealer from dealing his drugs.  I cannot stop a group of gang members from shooting each other, and I cannot intervene when a parent abuses his children.  The Federal and state authorities are tasked with this effort.  Instead, I try to focus on the areas that I can impact.  I look for the politicians who will support tough crime laws that will directly empower those authorities tasked with preventing or at least cleaning up the mess left behind by evil.  I look for opportunities to create positive outcomes for our community so that there will be fewer people who feel helpless and turn to crime as what they perceive to be the only solution to their predicaments in life.  I try to find ways to bring good to the world when it seems all we hear is bad.

As Mr. Pinker points out, the statistics reflect that there is a propensity for apathy or inactivity when the situation seems hopeless.  Why do anything if everything you do has no effect?  Pinker also published a study which reflects statistically that the world is currently in the most peaceful era it has ever seen (as measured by violent deaths per 100,000 people).  There are fewer wars occuring now then any other time in known, recorded history.  Would you have believed that from watching your news feed today?  I know from my personal experience that if I had to answer whether I thought the world was safer or more unstable and dangerous I would have to default to the latter.  Why?  Because despite the evidence to the contrary (evidence which goes underreported or not reported at all) the multitude of news stories is focused on the negative.  I don’t know if this is a function of the human condition or not.  Are we so guilt ridden from original sin that we cannot fathom to be deserving of peace and prosperity?  Maybe we just need violence and disruption in order to feel important.

I cannot begin to speak for anyone other than myself but I will say that there was a time when I intensely obeserved the news, formulated my strong opinion about the need for a crackdown in all phases of life to stop the bad guys, and vowed to be vigilant in the efforts of justice in the face of lawlessness.  And then I had children.  I watched them play unassumingly and unaware of the evils and dangers that were, according to eyewitness news accounts, around every fathomable corner.  My children weren’t, fortunately, in danger of imminent abduction or murder.  Now, I count my blessings that I have been fortunate to live in neighborhoods where gang violence and drug abuse are not prevalent but crime doesn’t just happen in these places and the news is all too happy to report this.

So after careful observation I started focusing more on the positives.  Laughter, empathy, friendship.  And while I am aware that danger still exists, I am also focused more on how my children have given me the hope and courage to focus on the positives in the world.  You see, it’s easy to gravitate to the negative.  It makes you feel good to not be the bad guy.  It’s easy to say you did the right thing by condemning the man who raped his neighbor or the “sicko” who shot up a country music concert.  But it’s hard to do something about it beyond the words.  It’s hard to give up a Friday evening to go serve dinner to 100 strangers who have no home and are in desperate need of a hot meal to fill their stomachs.   It’s hard to volunteer your time at the county jail to bring comfort to a man who may have committed unforgivable crimes and to remind him that he is still a man, flawed like us all, but deserving of love nonetheless.  It is hard to forego that next latte or round of golf so you can donate to a charity that serves those in need, or those who are sick, or those who may not look, believe, or think like you.  Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there that make those sacrifices.  I only wish the news spent more time lauding their efforts, mundane as they might seem for the ratings gurus.

Perhaps the ratings for good deeds are low because those good deeds remind us of how we all could do more.  And the reminder that we aren’t as profundly good as we think ourselves to be is a turnoff.  It certainly is a lot easier to feel good about myself when I see all the bad things others are doing that I am not.  I can boast of my goodness relative to those who are stealing, murdering, and waging a war of unjustice.  But looking at the great deeds of others puts into stark relief that which I am not doing.  Am I living the life of Christ, a life for others or am I living a life of me, focused on my happiness, my personal gains, my status in society?  If the answer is the latter then it is no wonder that I am drawn to negative news as a buffer to my own falibility.

The great news is that we can all break this habit if we deep down desire to do so.  It is not easy, no habit is easy to break.  But in doing so we will live a life far more fulfilling and far more impactful than the one we live by just not being that guy on the news whose mugshot is the lead story.  We need those good news stories to challenge us to be better.  It’s okay for us to look at others and feel bad for not doing more.  In fact it might be really healthy for us.  A reminder that we can be better and should try.  Seeing someone just like us who is capable of making a difference should inspire us and give us the confidence that we too can do the same thing.  It doesn’t take someone special to do something good.  Quite the opposite.  If you really look at it, it takes someone special to commit an act of evil, if not, then there would be a lot more people committing crimes in this world right?  The fact is that we don’t need to be, and probably outght not be, special.  We just need to be us and we need to make a committment to do good for others.  The ratings might not be there but the path to salvation, to a happier life, and a safer planet surely is.