Here are three of the greatest things I have learned at 30 from my 20s. (I’ve rewrote this introduction for a week and this is the best one I’ve written… )
Don’t get stuck.
To me, it’s a shame that most people spend all of their 20s stuck. It’s also a shame that it is so easy to do. According to American standards, you’re an adult; also according to American standards, you should get married. These perpetual years of waiting can quickly escalade to being ruthlessly stuck.
When I graduated college, I landed an incredible internship (thanks to KU Athletic Department) at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cardiac Rehabilitation. I had the morning shift which means I woke up at 3:45am and was at the Hospital by 4:30am. I quickly fell in love with the “adult” feeling of waking up, making coffee and driving to work while balancing a plate of eggs in my passenger seat, and make-up in my lap! However, slowly this new cool “adult” feeling started fading and I noticed that almost every single one of my friends started getting married. So after the death of one of my favorite patients I ever had at St. Luke’s, I quit everything and ran. I strategically ran right into a Bible program full of 72 other single people. Smart, I know. I still have no words on how to define that year. My best attempt would be to say I learned truly who Jesus was and was NOT, and about how deeply hurt and broken I was. One of our exercises during the Bible program was to sit in a cemetery for two hours and write one sentence on how we wanted to live for the rest of our lives. At first, I hated this exercise because the wet grass was seeping through my pants and it was cold. No one should have to sit in a cemetery with a wet ass and cold feet. However, I looked up in all my judgement and one grave stone, out of the hundreds, caught my eye. It just said, “Here lies a very well-loved Father.” For the next hour and a half, I just sat there as the dam was let free and the reservoir of tears made my shirt as wet as my pants. I had a loving earthly father, but due to entanglement with alcoholism he wasn’t always able to show it the ways that I’m certain he wanted to. My mission statement read something like, “To be a wife and a mom and raise kids.” The moment I showed it to my director he totally denied my exhaustive work of crying for two hours. The problem with my mission statement, he said, is that it is not exclusively me and Jesus. Everything is dependent on a husband. I had to find a way to merge my passion – which is and will always be to be a mom – with my life circumstances.
At the same time, I was reading a book that had a chapter called Twenty-Five. This quote became one of the defining moments of my life:
“Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. Walk away, try something new. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming. Don’t lose yourself at happy hour, but don’t lose yourself on the corporate ladder either. Stop every once in a while and go out to coffee or climb in bed with your journal. Ask yourself some good questions like, am I proud of the life I’m living?” Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist
So, I decided then and there I would go anywhere to love, protect, and educate kids about the world and about Jesus. It no longer mattered to me about loving my own kids in my own backyard; I’d cross an ocean to protect any kid of any skin color, of any religion, of any age. I’d just show up. The last thing I was going to do is sit on my hands and waste away my whole entire 20s waiting to get married. I’ve seen too many friends go down that lonely path, and it wasn’t for me. My deepest desire then and still is to be a wife and a mom, and maybe someday, by the grace of God, I will get that honor. But, I was going to live life and live it to the full. So, I left.
Wander, but don’t get lost.
Since that defining moment when I was 22, I’ve had the honor of living on two different continents, in four different states, I’ve visited 14 different countries and 23 of the 50 states. I’ve lived in extreme wealth, and utter poverty. I’ve lived with Christian brothers and sisters and Muslim brothers and sisters. I’ve wandered well, but I’ve had to learn to not get lost..
When I first started traveling, it was actually a gigantic quest for meaning. I was lost. I didn’t know it at the time. Not in the spiritual sense of the word, but in the life sense. I had no idea what I was doing, what I was supposed to be doing, so I ran.
Somehow, I ran right into Colorado. I still do not know how it happened if I’m honest. Really, the only real explanation is that it was definitely where the Big Man wanted me. On paper, I was not qualified for anything I was doing, but for some reason other people believed more in me than I believed in myself. I’m not a perfectionist and I’m also not a people pleaser. But, I was a competitive athlete which translates to – I do not half-ass anything. I give a full-ass in all things. My first few years as a teacher I probably pulled 50-60 hour work weeks, and during basketball season I did not do anything other than coach and teach. Panera became a second home. I was greeted by all of the elderly coffee crew at 5am and the Australian worker knew my order by heart. I just wanted to help kids and I wanted them to know that they are loved and worthy of not just surviving, but thriving! I also didn’t know it at the time, but I’m beyond confident that I will spend the rest of my life teaching kids – all because some people decided to believe in a 22-year-old girl who wasn’t really qualified on paper and didn’t even really believe in herself at the time.
The school I was working at led summer missions trips, quite literally all over the world. I got asked to co-lead a trip to Rwanda which led to me leading the Uganda trip for the next two years to come. That first trip to Rwanda was another defining moment in my life. It was the last day of our trip and I was standing at New Life Rwanda church which is strategically on a hill that overlooks just about all of Kigali. I was waiting on one of our kids to go to the bathroom, and as I looked up and started watching the sunrise, my heart literally fell to my feet. Something you need to know about Rwandans is that they are also runners, but not by choice. There have also been times in my life where I retreated for safety, and for the first time I saw more of myself in Rwandans than any Americans I’d ever met. Most Rwanda have lost family members to war (the Rwandan Genocide) or to alcoholism. Sometimes alcoholism drove Rwandan men to fight in the wars and become versions of themselves that they were not when they were sober. The brokenness I saw in kids’ faces, the tiredness I saw in everyone else’s – it was all too familiar and I wanted to help. Somebody once said your deepest pains will become your greatest passions – and at that moment in the back of a Rwanda church, on a hill, filled with the stank of African bathrooms – that quote became my reality.
Little did I know, three years later I would sell quite literally everything I owned and move to Africa. People’s perception of this part of my story is always completely off. They either think I’m a saint, or that I’m the bravest and strongest person they’ve ever met. Neither of those are true. You see, it didn’t make any logical sense what I was doing with my life at the time. People, even my own family, told me I should not go. I was currently working at one of the top 3% of high schools in the United States. I knew when I was leaving that I would never get a job like this again. I’ve always wanted to get married and I knew making this decision was basically saying yes to singleness for the next three years. I intentionally did not go on dates or even say hi to any male in my vicinity the year before I was leaving. I was weird. I’m still trying to become unweird – it’s a work in progress! There were moments I would wake up at 3am in the morning and panic if I was making the right decision. When I boarded the plane and said a tearful goodbye to my mom, I sat in my seat and just cried and cried. I knew no one in Africa except a team that I had met via Skype. The only thing that gave me peace in my moments of panic was that this felt different. This didn’t feel like running anymore. This felt like walking, scared, through an open door. I wasn’t lost, I was becoming found one… step… at a time.
Stop running, and start crying.
When I became a teacher I knew it would break my heart. What I didn’t know is how much my heart would actually break. I’ve always had a soft spot for kids. I think it’s because I was such a wreck as a kid, so my empathy lies there. I actually struggle feeling sorry for adults. It’s just not my cup of tea. They can help themselves, but kids need people to show up and stand in the gaps. One of the Bible classes I taught, Apologetics, had two kids that lost their moms to cancer within a month of each other. To say that was a tender class would not be enough words to describe the challenge of teaching these kids that God is good, and also crying with them in the pain and agony of losing a parent. I still to this day remember every hard question those kids asked me that year, and I also remember sitting in the back of churches dressed in black, showing up to mourn with hurting families. One of the funerals in particular, I just could not get it together. I was sobbing and sobbing, and all I could think about is losing one of my parents or my brother. I remember thinking, I just cannot do it – dear Lord, please never let me personally walk through this crucible of pain and agony. I don’t have the heart for this kind of pain.
One year, six months, and seven days ago I was fast asleep in my bed in Tanga, Tanzania and I got a phone call on my little, cheap, plastic African phone. It said, USA followed by the number of my mom. That night is still a blur but she informed me that dad had a brain aneurysm, was in a coma, and it was not looking good. The rest of the night, I just laid there staring at my ceiling through my mosquito net, watching the rats crawl back and forth. It was all a mixture of tears, “should I stay?”, “should I go?”… By 7am, I woke up and decided I would leave immediately – I decided I couldn’t run from hard or pain anymore.
My brother is not “one of the greatest” guys I’ve ever met, he is the greatest guy I’ve ever met. He’s a pastor, so most people know him and admire him for the roughly 3 hours he spends on a stage on Sunday mornings. He’s just a typical guy, but, I’ve known my brother for 30 years now and I can wholeheartedly say that he is just as good, if not better of a guy off the stage, behind the curtain than he is on the stage. He’s been the man of our house since he was about 7 years old. He’s always had this deep desire to protect me and my mom from hard things or from pain, and he’s done it so well. When things got hard, he would always say, “Don’t worry about this sissy, I will take care of it.” And he would. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard him say, “Don’t worry about this sissy, I will take care of it.” Before I left for Africa, I was in such a weird spot. I actually do not do well with transition even though my life says that I do. I was emotional about leaving Colorado, my students, my family, my job, just everything. We had a dinner scheduled with my dad before I left for Africa. I have had dinners with my dad before, nothing about this was out of the ordinary. I hadn’t seen my dad in a couple years and I was just in a weird spot, emotional, and I decided I couldn’t do it. So my brother went while I went to the gym and worked out for two hours. Four days later I boarded a plane for Africa.
Eleven months later, I was doing everything I could to board a plane to get back to my dad. I ended up not make it in time and within less than 24 hours after landing in America, I was walking into my dad’s funeral. I’ve spent the last one year, six months and seven days asking myself hard questions, teaching myself that God is still good, and also crying through the pain, agony and guilt of losing a parent. I’m thankful for the hope of Heaven and I’m confident I will see my dad again someday. I’m also thankful for counseling, and patient and persistent friends who repeatedly ask me if I’m okay.
My 20s have taught me that life is not something to run from, but it’s about walking, sometimes scared, through the ebb and flow of becoming found one… step… at a time. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to be emotional, it’s not realistic to be okay all of the time, but God is truly good all of the time. We are more resilient than we can ever imagine and we are all meant to lean on each other along the way.
I cannot express how much gratitude I have for these past 30 years of life, and I wouldn’t change one, single thing. Cheers to the many more years to come!
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.” Maya Angelou