Many of you have asked for a digital copy of my Christmas letter. I hope He continues to bring you hope and healing as you sing a new song in 2017.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what to write in my Christmas newsletter. I even went so far as to write a very lengthy draft of all the fun and delightful things that Jude and I did with our family and friends. I could have sent it and it would have been mostly true. We did get to do some wonderful things together this year with the people we love. I traveled to over 20 U.S. States and 8 countries and got a promotion at work. Jude started kindergarten and has been growing in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and men. But, it would have read just like those Facebook and Instagram posts that we all can’t stand: “Look at my beautiful and flawless life. Look at my perfect children, my global travels, and my successful career. Look at how happy everyone is! And did I mention I lost 10 lbs and got a Tesla?” It’s not that we can’t stand the fact that people are happy; it’s the fact that we all know it’s not the whole story.
A letter like that would have only represented part of the story for the entire year, because the whole picture is very different and may be familiar to many of you. 2016 has been a really difficult year. There has been a lot of pain, individually and collectively. Many of our relationships have changed. We’ve had dear friends who were like family move away. We’ve had people start relationships, get married and shift out of our daily life. We’ve had challenges with transitioning from pre-school to kindergarten. Our church lost its pastor and in the process, we lost some of our closest friends. We’ve seen more black people die, more mass shootings, and a host of Syrian refugees washed up on the shore as they fled their homes. We wrestled through a disgusting election. We’ve seen dreams dashed and innocence lost. Candles have been lit. Prayers have been prayed. And many tears have fallen.
And instead of days filled with perfect, smiling faces, which has become our virtual reality, 2016 was actually me getting up at 5:30 a.m. every day to read the Word, pray, and lean into the comfort of the Father. It was not shrinking back from disappointment and suffering. It was pressing into unfulfilled longing, believing it was birthed in heaven, and clinging to hope, even when deferred. It was believing that He does act on our behalf, that sorrow and sighing will flee away, that He is good (but never safe) and that He is near to the brokenhearted. It was going deep with my community, letting them carry my burdens, and in return, helping them carry theirs. It was choosing forgiveness, over and over, even when the person didn’t ask. It was loving and not being loved in return. It was singing songs of praise and thanksgiving with tears running down my face. It was the bloody part of the gospel, the painful part between Friday and Sunday, where Peter and John and Mary are counting down the hours until they can run to the tomb. It was believing that what He said is true. That He came once and will come again. And this is Christmas. This is advent: All of creation groaning, being stretched wider and wider, full of longing for this One who is our peace.
My prayer is that we will enter 2017 with a new song on our lips and hope in our hearts.
A baby died the night I arrived in Chiapas, Mexico to provide implementation training on the Safe Childbirth Checklist. The mother almost lost her life, too. She was laboring at home with a midwife when suddenly, her labor stopped progressing and the baby started showing signs of distress. The mother began losing a lot of blood. The midwife was unable to provide emergency care, so the mother was taken by ambulance to the small healthcare facility where she was saved, but her baby was not. I was standing outside the facility when she was brought in and I could see her family waiting powerlessly in the courtyard.
For some, Mother’s Day is a day to honor moms for all of the things they do, some unnoticed or taken for granted. But for me, Mother’s Day is my Easter – a day to celebrate forgiveness, life, healing and restoration.
Six years ago, my Mother’s Day started out very differently. It was a morning full of shame. I was going to church in my baggiest clothes, to hide my swelling body and my second trimester of a pregnancy that I still had not disclosed to many, including my church body. The miraculous story of that day can be found here. It was in this moment that every Mother’s Day became a day to remember the deep forgiveness and grace that is available to us all.
My healing journey is very familiar to some, as it’s been shared through countless discussions over bottles of wine, meals shared, long conversations taking us through the wee hours of morning, at conferences, and in my writing. Healing is miraculous, but it doesn’t usually happen through an instantaneous miracle. It happens over time as we pursue His truth and break free from the entanglement of lies that bind us when we choose sin over righteousness. It’s one of the most painful and difficult things we can do, but in the end it produces life and freedom.
My healing journey started with a dear woman coming over to my house one night to pray deliberately about how to pursue healing. We sat together and listened to the Holy Spirit in prayer who promises us, “I no longer call you servants, but friends, because a servant does not know his master’s business. But everything the Father is doing, I’ve made known to you.” During this time, we listened and made a healing plan that would take me into the depths of my pain over the next few months. I will never forget her words: “You must fight for this forgiveness and freedom for yourself. And also for your son. It will transform your home and the way you live your life as a mother.”
And I followed that plan. I went into the depths daily. I discovered the places of unforgiveness, bitterness, shame, and rejection. I went back to the garden of Eden and learned what the original lies were from the enemy and realized they were the exact same lies he is still telling women today. I received deep revelation of the price He paid to forgive us. I received His forgiveness. I forgave myself. And I forgave my son’s father. It was the most difficult journey I’ve made. It mimicked the pain we experience in the natural when we birth something. I was dying to everything that was untrue and new life was being resurrected in me.
The fullness of this freedom was revealed to me yesterday. I was lying in bed with my son. I was staring into his beautiful, bright eyes and I said, “I love you so much. I love you more than anything in this world except for God.” He smiled and said, “And dad.” My heart soared as the revelation of his words sunk in. My son knows nothing but the healing and forgiveness that covers my life. It has shaped the way I live and the way I interact with him and his father, even though we are not in a traditional relationship. I was struck by what would have happened if I had not followed this path of healing. He would be staring into the eyes of a mother who was full of bitterness, anger, self-pity, and pain. But instead, he has a mother who has experienced much forgiveness and in return can give much love. “Yes,” I said. “Except for dad.”
“Now there was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.” John 13:23
Recently, over breakfast, I was talking with my 5-year-old about the last dinner that Jesus had with his friends before he was killed. When I got to the part of the story where John was leaning back on Jesus, I slid over on our bench and pulled my son into my chest and said, “This was how John was laying on Jesus.” As we sat there silently, taking the moment in, I wondered to myself, “Whom in my life do I have this type of intimacy with? Is there anyone I would lean back on so safely, so freely, so securely?” I’m not sure there is. When I was a child, it would have been my mother or father. Maybe those who are married would say their spouse, or maybe not. And yet, this is exactly the type of intimacy that Jesus calls us into.
We read that John was lying back on Jesus after Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. There’s something incredibly beautiful about the timing of this that we may miss while reading the narrative. John seemed to be so moved by this act of beauty and selflessness that he simply had to slip around the table and sit next to Jesus. Perhaps John even sensed the deep sadness in Jesus’ heart as he contemplated the next few hours that lay before him and wanted to be of comfort to Him.
It was during this moment of physical intimacy that we also see the emotional intimacy that John shared with Jesus. There was something special about John. As we see the juxtaposition of his demeanor next to Peter’s, it’s even more pronounced. While John was leaning back on Jesus, Peter prompts him, “Hey, ask him who is going to betray him.” Peter, usually so bold, lacked the inner security to probe Jesus further when it was obvious Jesus had become greatly distressed. John’s identity was firmly rooted in his belief that he was loved by God. There was nothing he had to prove. While Peter – fiery, strong, and impulsive – seemed to be constantly trying to prove to himself and everyone else that he indeed loved Jesus. In contrast, John simply wanted to be loved by Jesus.
“Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest,but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in.” John 18:15-16
Again, it’s easy to miss something vital in the narrative here if we don’t stop to ponder what was actually happening. John was desperate to be with Jesus. Entering into the court of the High Priest was not easy. There was most likely a scuffle, a heated conversation, a desperation in John’s spirit, “I have to be with my friend. Ask the High Priest. He knows me. Tell him it’s John. I have to come in. I will not let Jesus go in by Himself.” In this same moment, we see Peter, scared for his life, denying that he even knew Jesus.
Because John knew how deeply loved he was by Jesus, he was trusted by Jesus. We see this as John was the only disciple who remained with Jesus to the end, and in turn, Jesus trusted him to take care of his mother. In this moment, Jesus was saying to him, “You truly are my brother. Take care of our mother.”
When I read these things, I’m reminded that we can truly bring comfort to Jesus as we walk in friendship with Him. Furthermore, when we allow ourselves to bask in the knowledge that we are known and loved by Him deeply, we possess a deep security that allows us to lie back on the chest of Jesus, to ask Him things that others are afraid to ask, and to follow Him into dangerous places.
There are many things that can keep us from this type of intimacy with Jesus, but we must remember that the veil has been torn. Innocent blood was spilled. Death is now working backwards*. We now have hope and this hope is what takes us into His presence. As we spend time meaningfully connecting with Him through prayer, meditation, and the washing of the Word daily, these things are slowly removed. Our walls come down. We receive truth that transforms. Our wounds are healed and we can slowly recline back on the chest of Jesus, like a child, like a son or daughter, freely, without shame.
This is what I was trying to instill in my son the other morning as I recounted this part of the Easter story. As he leaned back into me, I imagined leaning back on the chest of Jesus and I said, “This is exactly what you can do with Jesus, son. You can lean right back onto Him like this and ask Him anything you want to. This is the kind of relationship we get to have with Him. This is what we are celebrating on Easter, this leaning into love.”
*A reference to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
There’s an old saying that says, “What you do on New Years Day is what you’ll do all year long.” This year my dear friend and I spontaneously decided to spend New Years Day hiking in the Grand Canyon.What could be better than having a year of being overwhelmed by staggering beauty, participating in an exhilarating and strenuous hike, having cold, fresh air in your lungs, making room on your path for people of all colors and ages, and engaging in stimulating conversations and silences with someone you love?
We arrived in Phoenix early on a Tuesday and immediately went out to a small diner called Rustic Cafe to grab some brunch. It was a cozy, affordable place full of locals, mostly on the older side. We feasted on chilaquiles and vegetable omelettes and then headed to Jack’s condo, which we found on AirBNB. It was a charming one-bedroom located right off the Loop 101, making an easy commute to virtually anywhere in Metro Phoenix.
We spent the first day hiking Camelback Mountain with an elevation of 2700 feet. This was a moderate hike with some steep parts; however, there are a couple of places where railings have been added to give you some leverage as you navigate the rapid incline of elevation. Every portion of the hike offers beautiful views of the surrounding area, as well as an opportunity for birdwatching. The sun was setting as we neared the top and we captured some stunning pictures of the light reflecting on the red rocks.
After the hike, we stopped by True Food for dinner. I ordered the caramelized onion tart, which was topped with gorgonzola and figs, and was absolutely divine. I also ordered the Harvest Chopped salad which was comprised of squash, apple, pomegranate, walnut, goat cheese, roasted brussel sprouts, & topped with balsamic vinaigrette. Everything was incredibly fresh and the blend of flavors was outstanding.
We spent the following day hiking up Brown’s Mountain. This was a relatively easy hike among beautiful desert flora. We were amazed by the variety of colors in the cacti and rocks and the views from the top were spectacular.
After delicious salads at Rare Earth, we decided to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home. This stunning architectural wonder is set in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains; however, we opted out of the tour because it was a costly $36/person and we would have had to wait 1.5 hours for the next tour to begin. The free and natural beauty all around us was enough for our appetite. We headed back to Jack’s condo, poured a glass of wine, and relaxed in the condo’s community hot tub. Another point for Jack!
On New Year’s Eve day, we drove out to Sedona to hike the famous Cathedral Rock. Driving through Sedona was mesmerizing. Red rock formations cut through the sapphire sky all around us. Cathedral Rock was one of my favorite hikes to date. It’s not a very long hike, but it’s incredibly steep. One part requires you to climb vertically up a crack in two rocks that have come together, providing an incredibly rigorous tricep workout on your way down. Because of the formation of the rocks at the top, the sound from below is completely muted, creating an eerily silent moment when you reach the summit. There is a sign that says, “End of Trail,” but if you ignore it, and walk to the left, close to the side of the rock, you will find a tiny path that will lead you to a magical haven further up and further in to the rock formation.
We spent a few hours on New Years Eve tucked inside the Lost Leaf, a wine bar located inside a bohemian-style home. Our bartender was fantastic and after he told us they did not serve food, he encouraged us to go next door to Jobot Coffee for take-out — He would save our seats. To our delight, we found an expansive menu at this charming coffeehouse and ordered a crepe full of slow roasted pork, sauteed with fresh jalapenos and pineapples in root beer, covered with red cabbage.
Having no intention of staying out until midnight with our next full day at the Grand Canyon, we left and found an ice cream parlor called Melt right next door on the other side of the Lost Leaf. After ordering a butterscotch ice cream in the most delicious waffle cone I’ve ever tasted, we saw a little gallery right across the street. Some people were sitting outside in front of a fire pit. They told us to have a seat, so we joined them for quite awhile, comforted by the warmth of the fire and their gracious spirits. We talked about what we loved about Phoenix, what New Years meant to us, toxic relationships we had been in, and what relationships mean to us now. It was beautiful to ring in the New Year with strangers who felt so familiar to us, sitting together in the liminal space between 2015 and 2016.
January 1 was a glorious day for us as we drove to the Southern Rim. We woke up early and started our drive off listening to Farther Along by Josh Garrels. We probably listened to this song 27 times and never reached the bottom of it. I’ve heard this song hundreds of times and yet its profundity still makes me weep.
So much more to life than we’ve been told It’s full of beauty that will unfold And shine like you struck gold my wayward son That deadweight burden weighs a ton Go down into the river and let it run And wash away all the things you’ve done Forgiveness alright
Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall I’m free to love once and for all And even when I fall I’ll get back up For the joy that overflows my cup Heaven filled me with more than enough Broke down my levee and my bluff Let the flood wash me
These words were reverberating through my mind as we hiked down into the depths of a canyon that has weathered more than most things on this planet. I stared at the ineffable expanse of rock and sky and depth and I felt the flood wash over me, filled with hope for all that 2016 would bring.
Yes, you can do it. And you can do it well. And you will see more than you could ever imagine.
With direct flights on WOW Airlines for $300 roundtrip from Boston to Reykjavik, we could not pass up this trip! We were a little leery of traveling during November with only 6 hours of daylight, but after consulting several blogs, we were convinced we would still have a great experience. We decided to spend most of our time traveling east along the southern coastline.
We left Boston on November 20 around 6 p.m. on Friday night and arrived early in the morning on Saturday. WOW airlines followed all of their online baggage requirements to a T, so be prepared to not exceed your baggage limit and/or baggage weight. They will absolutely not allow you to take on 2 carry-ons. Even handbags must be placed inside your carry-on luggage. I saw half a dozen people getting stopped at the gate when they tried to carry on 2 bags. They will not let you do it, so don’t even try. ONLY ONE CARRY-ON. The seats had plug-ins under them — this was the only additional service that was free. Even water will cost you.
We rented a car from Rent-A-Wreck. It was by far the cheapest out of all the sites I checked. We arrived at 4 a.m. into Keflavik and Johann from Rent-A-Wreck was waiting at the baggage claim holding a sign with my name on it. He was extremely friendly and took us right to the rental office to sign the paperwork. Every blog I read said we would be better off renting a 4WD vehicle, so initially, we rented a 2-door Suzuki Jimi. Almost immediately upon driving it, we heard a whining sound coming from the engine and suspected the timing belt was damaged. We called Johann and he quickly met us back at the office. At that time, he did not have another 4WD vehicle, but he assured us that we would not need one once he heard our travel plans. Instead, he gave us a Hyundai sedan, which was much more spacious, cheaper, and had better gas mileage. He refunded us the difference, threw in a GPS, and even waived the extra driver fee — all for the inconvenience. Needless to say, we were thrilled with the customer service and were much better off in the much more comfortable economy car. Also, he was right: We did not need 4WD at all, as we stayed right on the Ring Road, so we were glad we saved our money. The total for the car rental for 6 days came to $220USD! Unbeatable in both price and customer service.
We spent our first night at Guðmundur’s flat, which we found through AirBNB. He was an excellent host and the price and location were perfect for us. We had free parking and were only a 10 minute drive from the center of Reykjavik. We spent our first day at the Blue Lagoon. We did not pre-book, which I would recommend, so we had to wait 1.5 hours. We were not in a hurry and passed the time eating and drinking in the cafe. The entire experience was ethereal. The Blue Lagoon is hyped up for a reason and you do not want to miss it. We actually went twice because we loved it so much.
The next day (Day 2), we woke up and drove the Golden Circle. We started at Thingvellir National Park, which due to fog, was slightly underwhelming. We continued on, stopping at Strokkur, which is an active geysir that shoots steaming hot water into the air every 10 minutes. The best part of stopping at Strokkur was not even the geysir itself, but the smoldering holes in the ground from the hot water running under and over it.
There is a gift shop and cafe at Strokkur with a brilliant multi-media exhibit on the volcanic activity of Iceland. We also had the best fish soup of our life at the little cafe to the right of the entrance. It was absolutely divine. After Strokkur, we stopped at Gulfoss Waterfall and then Kerið, a crater where a volcano collapsed on itself. Kerið was by far my favorite part of the Golden Circle tour.
After our tour, we drove to Selfoss for dinner and ate at a charming restaurant called Tryggvaskáli, which sits inside a beautiful home. The food was delicious and the service impeccable. It was one of our favorite dining experiences on our trip.
We spent the second night at Louise’s cozy holiday home outside of Selfoss, another AirBNB find. This home was located in a more remote area with gorgeous farmland all around. Louise was a gracious host and provided great tips for our road journey. She also raised Icelandic horses and we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them in the morning before we left. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy night, so we were not able to see the Northern Lights, but Louise said that guests regularly see them from her home. We often referred to the Aurora Borealis forecast while we were there, which is supposedly extremely accurate in predicting the appearance of this natural phenomenon.
We started the next day (Day 3) around 9:30 a.m. We continued on the Ring Road towards Jökulsárlón National Park which is a MUST SEE if you travel to Iceland. Even though it takes close to 4 hours to drive there from Reykjavik, the landscape alone is the most phenomenal landscape I’ve ever seen. (As you will come to understand after your trip to Iceland, you will find yourself speaking only in superlatives when describing the sights.) The geography changes right before your eyes drastically and dramatically with each passing kilometer. We found ourselves wanting to stop every few minutes to take photos of the ever-changing contrasts of land and light.
We arrived at Jökulsárlón an hour before sunset and spent the time walking around the floating ice and enjoying the sunset over the black sand beach. Exploring this glacial lagoon was the highlight of the trip for me. There are no words to describe the staggering beauty. It was completely surreal.
When the sun finally set, we jumped back in the car and returned to Vik for the night. Vik is a tiny town (population: 291) known for its black sand beaches and basalt formations. The waves are ferocious and the wind whips tiny black sand particles all around. At one time, Vik was recognized as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. It is absolutely stunning. Vik sits on a glacier, which sits on a volcano. If the volcano erupted, the glacier would melt and destroy the area in a torrential flood. There is one church in Vik that sits high on a hill and it’s been said that it is the only place that would offer the people protection if this ever happened.
We stopped at a little place for dinner called Halldorskaffi which offered a cozy atmosphere, good food and great service. We attempted to find an AirBNB in Vik, but there were not many to choose from when we booked our trip and the ones that were available were very expensive. We ended up staying at the Icelandair Hotel, which was nice, but not as elegant as the pictures made it seem. The breakfast was $17USD and unremarkable. All in all, we were excited to return to Guðmundur’s flat where we stayed our final two nights in Reykjavik.
On Day 4, we left Vik and made our way back to Reykjavik, stopping to see the Sólheimajökull glacier, which is an outrageous place where volcanic ash meets ice, and to see the two famous waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.
We were delighted to find a charming food truck at the entry of Skogafoss that boasted of fresh fish and chips. We watched the pleasant woman inside fry up local cod served with perfectly seasoned chips. It was absolutely delicious! After a leisurely drive back to Reykjavik, we decided to return to the Blue Lagoon, which was a fantastic ending to a long road trip.
On Day 5, we spent the day wandering around Laugavegur, the main street in Reykjavik. The boutiques offered unique and charming clothing, decor, perfumes, and jewelry. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the dramatic beauty of the Hallgrímskirkja church and Harpa, the music hall. Our exploration was topped off by finishing our day at the Iceland Phallological Museum where we saw a comprehensive display of penises and penile parts from mammals all across the globe.
Our final and most exquisite meal was at Grillmarkaðurinn. We elected the tasting menu and feasted on duck salad, savory ribs and chicken, smoked salmon, and pineapple crème brûlée. The interior of the restaurant was extraordinary with mixed mediums of flannel, fur, and wood making up the textures of the tables and seats.
On Day 6, we returned to Laugavegur Street to pick up a few more gifts and souvenirs and then reluctantly made our way back to the airport to fly home. Currently, Iceland is offering a tax return at the airport on purchased items that exceed $45. This was a great incentive to boost the local economy and encourage tourists to spend a little more at their local stores. It was very easy and quick to receive the tax return at the airport. Overall, Iceland is by far the most incredible country I have seen (of 25 countries) when it comes to natural beauty. I was overwhelmed by its breathtaking geography and pervasive magic and mystery.
P.S. On my last day in Reykjavik, I lost my driver’s license. When I returned to the U.S., I received a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik stating that someone had turned in my license and that “this happens all the time.” Apparently, Iceland is not only renown for it’s natural beauty, but for it’s honest and genuine culture.