day 8: Philadelphia

Five years of life in this city that too often falls prey to ill repute. And I know why when I remember the crazy aggressive drivers I encountered when I first moved there the fall of 2004 to begin seminary. The culture has sharp edges and the people can, at first, seem harsh (especially to one accustomed to the genteel South). But of all the places I’ve lived, this one draws me in like none other. Maybe because it’s where I met my husband; where I met some of the best lifelong friends; or perhaps it’s the cheesesteaks from Jim’s (better than Pat’s or Gino’s) and the “LOVE” statue and the art and the culture and the dozens of amazing restaurants we took a self-guided tour of while we were dating.

I love this city of brotherly love because of the love I found there. Not only through dating and our first three years of marriage, but also through my fellow seminary students at Westminster Theological Seminary, and the family we found at Cresheim Valley Church, and a friend named Lauren we met because we frequented the restaurant-cafe where she worked while she was in school.

Philadelphia, I’m sending my love to you through these words and realizing that I need much longer than five minutes to capture this city most fully. Philadelphia

day 7: Haiti

Forty-eight hours before the youth mission trip to Haiti departed, I was asked to join since (a) I had a passport and (b) I was a youth leader volunteer the summer of 2004. So I took a deep breath, said yes, and went to get all of my shots and my malaria medicine.



As we drove to our destination, the poverty was unbelievable. Mounds of trash, dirt shacks, make-shift homes for the poorest of poor. Each morning I would hear drums from the witch doctors in the distance. The children hung on us in their tattered decades-old donated American t-shirts. We collectively repented of our Banana Republic discontentment and materialistic attitudes.

But the joy. That’s what I remember clearest. The joyful sharing of all that they had (which wasn’t much). The glad singing (for hours) on Sunday morning in church. The hope that filled their faces, spilling over into ear-to-ear smiles. The love they had for each other, for us, and for their Savior who was bringing them Home.

For they knew what I often forget. Home was not the temporary shack on the dirt road they walked back to, but Home awaited them at the end of this pilgrimage of life, tears, suffering, injustice, and poverty. The people of Haiti showed me true riches.



day 6: Ireland

photo from

photo from

Green everywhere. Rocky cliffs with the spray of the sea arching above them as I sit and pray and worship a God more beautiful than I’ve ever seen before. As part of World Harvest Mission’s summer internship, I spent two months in Ireland studying the culture and serving Irish pastors and church planters in their often exhausting and fruitless work of tilling the spiritual soil that is far from verdant like its rolling hills. The contrast I wrote about after my summer was of intense spiritual darkness against the backdrop of stunning creator-gleaming light. Beauty of the gospel at work in my heart and the hearts of those I met amidst the desolate environment of a people disenfranchised by the church due to its widespread abuses. A substitute of religious superstition for real faith surprised me.

Ireland held a world of contrasts. The bustling city of Dublin with its cobblestone streets and busy pubs and the lazy countrysides stretching for miles and miles of green with only a solitary pub here and there and barely roads big enough to pass. Two months of backpacking from coast to coast and I barely scratched the surface of this place. I felt as if I knew it less than when I started – and so it was with God and with my own heart. Ireland opened up a journey of messy grace at the intersection of sin deeper than I wanted to see and love more abundant than I dared to believe. (If you’re intrigued, check out the Sonship discipleship course at Serge, formerly known as World Harvest Mission, or even better – go on one of their trips!)

day 5: Mexico

Guadalajara, Mexico, in summer of 2000. I was there to take my Spanish to the next level and to assist missionaries in their outreach to college students. Both happened quite differently than I expected, and both happened in the context of a country unexpectedly beautiful.

photo credit:

photo credit:

I pictured poverty and cardboard shacks and drug cartels, for that’s the Mexico we often think of in the USA. But what I found was extravagant wealth, beauty in the hospitality of the people who were patient with our very broken Spanish and who embraced us because we came to love them. I found a land rich with break-taking sunsets, tropical foliage, and markets bursting with handmade goods of talented artisans. Of course, there were also the pockets of poverty – of a family of 6 living in a room smaller than my dorm room, of the black market CD’s and movies that we just didn’t ask too many questions about as we purchased them. How is this movie already out here when we haven’t even seen it in the theaters back home? 

I remember ear-to-ear smiles of the people whose church we helped to whitewash. I remember the generous Mexican family who invited me and a few of my gringo friends into their home. I remember the waiting and the waiting for dinner as our stomachs growled and we tried to be polite in this Latin take-your-time culture. (I don’t think dinner was served until 9:00pm). I remember that I really knew Spanish by the end of that summer because I had conversed in it and built relationships through it, which became a lifelong motivation to continue with it. guadalajara

Will I return to Guadalajara? I don’t know. But it will always stay with me – the loveliness and hospitality that I hope to emulate to others among us who don’t speak my language or call the US their first home.


[to read the entire series of 31 days of five minute free writes in 2014, click here]

day 4: Chicago

It’s September of my freshman year of college, and this is our first weekend to take the Metra into the city. It’s also my first time to ever venture into any city. I step out of the train station and feel awed by the height of the buildings around me. Man-made mountains dwarf me and exhilarate me. There’s an energy about this Windy City that is echoed in the stiff breezes rushing through the alleyways.

photo by Heather Nelson

photo by Heather Nelson

Chicago would be the city-scene of my college years. An easy weekend train ride away with destinations including the Sears Tower, the majestic John Hancock, the crazy Wacker Drive underground streets, Navy Pier (and a date or two), and always, always the shore of Lake Michigan as the setting of this inviting and austere midwest city.

Chicago means deep dish pizza and Ed Debevic’s and symphonies and plays and culture, culture, culture like none other. Now it also means cleanliness (compared to the other cities I’ve visited since then). Architecture that’s clean and pristine. Michigan Avenue (window) shopping at Christmastime. The second floor of a Borders where I’d study and people watch and chat about deep things over a mocha. Grant Park and the El.

Oh, Chicago!

Day 3: new

new snow

photo from

“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) Who doesn’t love new? Like a white blanket of snow unmarked by footprints, “new” begs for us to venture forth in joyful exploration. And new is what the world will be one day, and new is what we in Christ already are. We are the ones who display the “new” to come – the first sign of what will be fully realized at the end of time and the beginning of eternity.

New means we get another chance, that I never run out of grace to cover my sins and failures, that there is always hope for tomorrow and the next minute to be different. New means that I am not defined by who I’m not – I find new identity daily in grace and mercy that hides me securely in Jesus Christ.

What could this look like today, for you and for me? Not only that I walk in the joyous adventure of my new freedom in Christ, unfettered by past sins or future anxieties, but it means I can relate to you with forgiveness. Giving you a new chance to be who God is making you to be. At the end of a difficult day with my daughter, I lean in close as I’m kissing her goodnight and remind us both that tomorrow is a new day. What hope! What lightness – what fresh beauty awaits and what new mercy will cover tomorrow’s imperfections! I can continue to fight against idolatry and to invite you into the same. You will never be outside of the reach of redemption.

For behold, he is making ALL things NEW.


Posting as part of 31 days and Five Minute Friday today.


31 (or really 28) days of five minute free writes

31 days button

Ever since my first “Five Minute Friday” post on July 26, 2013, I’ve been hooked on the five-minute free writes hosted first by Lisa Jo Baker, and then more recently by Kate Motaung. (You can read all of my Five Minute Friday posts thus far here.) It’s an encouraging writing community to link up with, and it’s a good exercise in writing. The idea is five minutes of unedited free-write on a given topic.

This year, I’ve taken Kate’s challenge to join with The Nester’s 31-days challenge by doing 31 days of five-minute free writes in October. Here goes!

[I will be adding links to each day when the post goes live.]

Day 1: move

Day 2: view

Day 3: new

—after getting warmed up with Kate’s prompts, I’m going to mix it up with a few of my own in the days that follow (marked with a *)—

Day 4: Chicago*

Day 5: Mexico*

Day 6: Ireland*

Day 7: Haiti*

Day 8: Philadelphia*

Day 9: New York City*

Day 10: care

Day 11: teach

Day 12: rest

Day 13: work

Day 14: New Jersey*

Day 15: South Carolina*

Day 16: Virginia*

Day 17: long

Day 18: chocolate*

Day 19: school*

Day 20: manna*

Day 21: color*

Day 22: expect

Day 23: pumpkin*

Day 24: dare

Day 25: enjoy

Day 26: visit

Day 27: free

Day 28: unite

Day 29: wake

Day 30: first

Day 31: leave

day 1: move

Today I begin a monthly blog challenge of 31 days of five-minute free writing, hosted by Kate Motaung here. It will force me to write daily, and it should be a fun way to be part of this virtual “five minute Friday” community I’ve enjoyed over the past year.

I will post all of them at this site, with the links going active as I write each day:

Without further ado … I begin with: “M O V E.”


photo from

photo from

I want the faith as small as a mustard seed that’s big enough to move mountains. In fact, I’d settle for faith that could move my heart one-inch closer to loving people the way that I wish I could. Or faith to tweak my life just the tiniest bit so that it looks more like ideal. You know, just a few more dollars in the bank and a couple less pounds and happier children and a bigger house. Just that.

But God wants more for me. He wants me to have faith not in my ability to muster up mustard-seed faith on my own, but to have the faith that is powerful and strong because it’s rooted in the God who made the mountains (and the galaxies and the oceans and the entire universe). This God who created light from darkness and everything out of nothing. To connect to him by even a mustard seed’s worth of belief is to believe that anything is possible. Anything that HE wants to happen is possible. And it’s to believe that what’s more miraculous than a mountain moving would be my heart creeping closer to a completely abandoned faith in this God who can move me to do and be who he’s creating me to be in this world. 

That I would move closer to awe of this God who moves mountains … now, that would be miraculous when I too easily am moved instead by the carnival mirror delights of this world.