I’m celebrating my 36th birthday at a hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire today. Last year I celebrated my birthday at a hotel in Houston, Texas. It’s a little weird to wake up alone in a hotel in a strange city on my birthday, but it’s also kind of fun because the reason I’ve been at hotels the past two birthdays is because I was speaking at events.
This week I’m speaking at a women’s Christmas gathering. The church has more women attend than their sanctuary can hold, so they host it on two nights. I spoke last night, and I’ll go back again this evening.
After I gave my talk last night, I went to the book table in the reception hall and did a book signing. The line to buy books was an hour long. I got to talk to hundreds of women who were encouraged by hearing the story of redemption that I’ve lived over the past few years — surviving cancer, moving to Portland, and meeting a Somali refugee family that changed my life.
I woke up this morning thinking about the year that’s just passed, and the year that lies ahead.
I remembered something my friend Karina told me a while back. She said Dorothy Sayers once wrote that in order to be good at something, you have to choose to be bad at something else. Someone who wants to be a master sculptor must, in most cases, choose not to be good at a different medium, like watercolor or charcoal drawing.
In order to hold something in your grasp, you have to let go of something else.
A few months ago I started thinking about that in my own life. I started praying about what God’s calling was for my life. What was my unique gifting? What were my strengths and weaknesses? What did I need to let go of in order to grab ahold of what really mattered?
Here’s a piece I wrote that was just published by Sojourner’s.
This week the streets all over our country have been filled with protesters expressing grief, anger, shock and sorrow that Officer Darren Wilson (who shot and killed the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown) and Officer Daniel Pantaleo (who held the also-unarmed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold during his arrest) failed to be indicted for their actions.
Last night crowds across the U.S. staged sit-ins and die-ins, clogged bridges and shut down major highways. Many of them chanted, “No Justice, No Christmas.”
No Justice, No Christmas.
At first glance, I agreed with them. Screw it. Let’s just shut it all down. Shut down the bridges, the roads, the rivers, the train stations and the airports. Shut down the mall Santas and the Christmas pageants and the holiday parties and the family get-togethers. And then let’s shut down Christmas itself.
Because who wants to open a stocking filled with candy and socks and lipgloss when the Brown and Garner families will be grieving for their loved ones who are no longer with them? Who wants to sing about joy when our country is feeling so much pain? Who wants to proclaim, “Peace on earth, good will to men” when peace and goodwill are precisely the things we’re lacking right now?
No Justice, No Christmas. Seems like a good idea, right?
Two months after I met the Somali family, the older girls came home from school and told me they’d started learning about the American holiday Thanksgiving at school, and asked me to tell them more about it.
The first explanation I thought of – that every year Americans kill 45 million turkeys to celebrate that half of the Pilgrims who came to America didn’t die during the first winter– sounded ridiculous. So instead of trying to explain it further, I said, “How would you like to celebrate Thanksgiving with me this year?” They were ecstatic.
Every time I went over to their apartment in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, they’d race to get their coats and shoes, yelling, “We go to your house TODAY?”
Every time I’d shake my head and say, “Nope, not today.”
On the morning of Thanksgiving, my housemate Betsy and I drove over to their apartment to pick them up – we needed two cars to transport the six of them. When we knocked on the door, the girls all came running. Hadhi opened the door and motioned for us to come inside. I held my arms out and called, “Who wants to go to my house today?” They screamed and clamored to get their shoes on.
I brought a bag filled with hats and mittens, and once they had their shoes and coats on I handed out the items – partly because I thought they might like the thought of getting “dressed up” to come to my place, and partly because they didn’t own any winter gear.
We piled into the two cars, and drove to my townhouse. My other housemate Karrie had made the turkey, and when Betsy and the family and I got home, a bounty of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, and bread was waiting for us.
I’m currently in Germany staying at a place called The Art Factory. Several years ago, an American couple bought an old tile factory in Kandern (in the southwest corner of Germany near the Black Forest), and they’re converting the space into flats and studios where artists can come to rest, enjoy community, and create art.
Every night when we sit down to dinner, Mary Beth and Rick (the owners) tell amazing stories of how God’s provided for them in crazy ways. From having the dream to create a place like this, to discovering the property, to deciding to buy it, to receiving just the amount of money they needed at just the right time….it’s been a pretty incredible adventure.
Yesterday morning at breakfast, Mary Beth told me even more stories of how God has provided for them. And she told me of how relevant The Lord’s Prayer seems at times, especially the line, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
The Art Factory reminds me of stories I heard of George Mueller when I was a little girl. He was a man in England who decided to start an orphanage in the 1800’s because he had a heart for kids who lived on the street.
He had very little in terms of resources, but he had an enormous amount of faith. He ended up building several orphanages without going into any debt because, at just the right time, someone would mail in a donation for exactly the amount he needed.
One morning the orphans were assembled for breakfast and George led them in a blessing for the meal — even though there was no food on the table. All the food, and all the money, was gone. But George had prayed that morning, and he knew that God was going to provide.
A second after he finished blessing their non-existent breakfast, there was a knock at the door. A baker came and handed out bread, and a milk truck broke down and the driver asked if he could donate the milk to the orphanage before it spoiled.
I am inspired by George Mueller, and I’m inspired by Mary Beth and Rick. They’re people who live by faith. Not just the idea of having faith, but walking in the actual thing, minute by minute, all through the day.
I really want to live a life filled with stories like that — stories of putting my faith in a God who always shows up. I want there to be all kinds of eleventh-hour miracles that happen over the course of my life.
I want God to provide for me like he provided for the Israelites by raining down manna every morning.
Here’s a video I shot with Vanity Fair Lingerie for a campaign called, “Women Who Do.” In 3 minutes you’ll find out why I ended up in Portland, how I met the five Somali girls, why I wrote the book The Invisible Girls, and why I decided to use the proceeds from the book to invest in the Somali girls’ college education.
Want to help with their education expenses? Buy a copy (or five!) of the book, spread the word to your family and friends, and/or send a donation directly to The Invisible Girls Trust Fund.
Thank you SO much!
(This piece was published October 2014 by The Huffington Post.)
Every time I go to Paris, I stay at the same hotel. It’s a rustic little place across from Notre Dame Cathedral. It has a winding wooden staircase, and the rooms are sparse, but clean. There’s a wooden bed, a bureau and a small desk. No wifi, no elevator, no room service and no TV, but I love staying there.
I flew to Paris last week to spend time with a friend. When I checked in, the room wasn’t quite ready yet, so I stood at the front desk chatting with the clerk. I practiced my rusty French, and, along with his decent English, we were able to communicate.
We talked about what was new with Paris, and then began chatting about world events. This inevitably led to the most tragic news stories: Syria. Iran. Ebola. ISIS.
The clerk dropped his head in shame and swept his arm around the room. “I am sorry for the decadence,” he said.
I looked around the small lobby with a low ceiling, worn rug and well-used red velvet sofa. It didn’t look that decadent to me.
“What did you say?” I asked him.
“I am sorry for the decadence of Paris,” he said, apologizing to me on behalf of the entire city. He said the city’s investment in food, architecture, wine and incredible art seemed so wasteful in light of the world’s troubles.
“No!” I exclaimed, with more emotion than I intended. “The world needs Paris!”
The world needs Paris? I thought, the second the words had escaped from my mouth.What does that even mean?
Last weekend I flew to Washington, D.C. to speak at a women’s retreat. The theme of the retreat was Finding God in the Storm.
In one of the sessions, I talked about my experience of going through breast cancer treatments in my 20’s, when everything I cared about fell apart, and a lot of people I loved disappeared on me. I know it can be overwhelming when someone you love is going through a really difficult time — and I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to say, or what to do, so instead, they say nothing and they do nothing. And it feels like they dropped out. Like they disappeared.
After the session, I had a lot of people ask me what they can do when someone they know is hurting. And this was my answer: just show up.
The story of Job has become a well-known account of a man who lost everything but his life. While he was grieving the loss of his children, his servants and his estate, he also got painful boils all over his body. He ended up sitting in a trash heap close to death. And then three of his friends showed up.
The friends get a bad rap because they spend about 40 chapters of the Bible trying to figure out why Job is suffering. They try to place the blame on everything and everyone, and it isn’t helpful at all.
Job’s friends are often cited as an infamous example of how unhelpful people can sometimes be when we’re suffering. But here’s the deal. Job’s friends only made one mistake: They opened their mouths.
(This piece was published October 2014 by The Huffington Post.)
My friend went to a cocktail party in New York City a few weeks ago. She introduced herself to a shy, well-dressed woman who was wearing a silk scarf around her neck, standing in the corner. My friend said, “I just wanted to tell you — that scarf is gorgeous.”
The woman fidgeted with the fabric and said quietly, “I’m just wearing it until I can afford to get my neck fixed.”
She said she was embarrassed about the wrinkles that had appeared along her neck in the five-plus decades of her life. So embarrassed that she was covering them up, waiting until she had the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost for a neck lift.
When my friend told me this story, I thought it was an isolated incident, an extreme example of what happens to women in our culture of beauty where youth is an asset and age is a liability.
But then a few days later, I was walking down the main street of Santa Barbara when a young man pulled me into a brightly-lit shop, sat me down on a white leather stool and began applying products to half of my face.
When he finished, he handed me a mirror and asked me to compare the two sides of my face. On the product-influenced side, the lines under my eyes were subtly less noticeable than on the other side.
Because of this “amazing difference,” he urged me to buy a line of skin care products. He laid out four small bottles side-by-side. For the beauty regimen he suggested, it was close to $700. For a three-month supply.
I quickly did the math. Close to three thousand dollars a year to make a few lines around my eyes slightly less noticeable.
I told him no, thank you.
As I’ve traveled around and talked about The Invisible Girls, and about my own journey of faith, I’ve often been asked why I keep going to church. When God sometimes seems to hide, when people are not the best versions of themselves (and, worse, do it in God’s name), when it deprives you of a good Sunday morning spent in bed, when “organized religion” imposes more rules than are necessary……. why go?
I’ve asked myself that question. A lot.
I’ve been going to church since I was about a week old. Seriously, my dad is a pastor and my parents took me to church right after I was born, and I’ve been going ever since, with the exception of the seven months when I was going through treatment for breast cancer.
Why do I keep going?
I think I keep going to church because it’s familiar to me. I like singing old hymns, flipping through the thin pages of my Bible, hearing someone talk about beloved sacred stories.
I keep going because even though sometimes in church I’ve seen people on their worst behavior, I’ve also seen them at their best. I’ve seen them donate money to national and international causes. I’ve seen them give soup to hungry people and shelter to people who otherwise would be left to sleep on the streets. I’ve seen them bring my family meals when my little sister was in and out of the hospital with multiple heart surgeries.
I keep going because it grounds me. Hearing the same message of God’s love and vision for the world keeps my focus on the bigger picture. It keeps me wishing and praying and hoping and working for a better world. Or, as Jesus said, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
But there’s another reason that keeps me coming back: Communion.
In honor of the 31 days of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, here are 31 things to remember if you know someone with breast cancer.
1) Don’t spend a lot of energy crafting “the right” thing to say. There is no right thing to say except maybe “I’m so sorry” and “What do you need?”
3) Stop talking. She doesn’t need you to carry the conversation; she just needs you to listen.
4) Don’t tell her about your friend or relative who had breast cancer and died of it. That’s not helpful. At all.