Let Your Life Surprise You

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This week, I received an email from one of my best friends, Autumn, who is living and working in South Sudan amidst one of today’s most pressing humanitarian crises. Refugee camps are overpopulated with men, women and children who lack clean water, sanitation, and sufficient nutrition – causing outbreaks of cholera, hepatitis and impending famine. And outside the camps, violence continues with killings in hospitals, churches and mass rape.

And my sweet, dear Autumn is on the front lines doing her part to address the immediate needs of our South Sudanese brothers and sisters, despite the horrific conditions.

This was her mode of transportation from a recent visit into the field.

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But there’s something you should know about Autumn: Humanitarian work was not her original career path. It wasn’t even her secondary or tertiary path.

In our early twenties when we lived together, Autumn worked for a music label, a recording studio, and even as a makeup artist. While she gleaned great life experience, she continued to be dissatisfied with how she was spending her days.

This is us, with our other roommate Amy (whose incredible story I will tell you about later).

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Autumn continued to ask the good and hard questions about vocation and calling. And then she took brave steps to actualize her convictions to be in proximity with the poor.

She left Nashville for a job with a social business in California, applied to grad school at London School of Economics, began internships with major NGOs in the UK and has found her way to coordinating emergency responses to water, sanitation and hygiene in South Sudan’s refugee camps.

Her most recent email stated:

Most days I feel completely inadequate to lead the response efforts in such a crucial way as this. Other days I feel blessed that I get to be here in this moment, and there is nowhere else I would rather be but be in the midst of all that is South Sudan. I feel like when I’m here I’m seeing a picture of love, suffering and life that most people don’t, and I’m so challenged and changed by it daily.” 

I am so proud of Autumn, for being courageous and persistent. For listening to her heart and following that calling. For serving in a moment in time even when the rest of the world’s tragedies have overshadowed the very real and horrific one that she is living in. And for choosing hope even when everything in her days tries to convince her otherwise.

As I remember our years together in our Nashville apartment filled with angst and uncertainty about calling and direction, I don’t think Autumn could have imagined that this is where she would be today.

Don’t count yourself out of the tugging convictions within. Listen to them, seek them out. And let your life surprise you.

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(This is in one of the camps that have flooded. And because of open defecation and poor sanitation services, she’s literally knee deep in it. With a smile and all.)

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More information about the organizations Autumn has been working for and how to help, go here and here.

(All photos courtesy of Autumn Petersen)

Time Out

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After compounded weeks of rushing out in the mornings, rushing home in the evenings, pumping between meetings and in taxi cabs and green rooms and public bathrooms and the back of airplanes, washing parts, storing milk, carrying coolers and ice packs, not sleeping through the night in 132 days (yes, I’m still counting), coordinating schedules/supplies/instructions for nannies and babysitters, dealing with Jude getting hand foot & mouth disease which he then generously shared with me, showing up in the office with fevers and chills, attending meetings and engagements in Boston, DC, and Atlanta, negotiating with James’ equally demanding work schedule, and continuing to press forward in our attempts to raise the money necessary to bring water to another million people in Africa, I kind of couldn’t take it anymore.

All I could think was, this is not working.

And, I need help.

I looked at James, and waved my proverbial white flag, wishing the world stop for a moment so we could catch our breath and look each other in the eye and ask what just happened to our life.

But we knew that the world wasn’t going to stop on our behalf. So, in a moment of clarity (and desperation), we deliberately stepped out of our world for a week and took a Time Out.

We hopped on a plane, and James’ parents graciously welcomed us into their San Diego home. His parents took care of Jude while I recovered from my fever; they took early morning shifts with him so James and I could sleep. We played with our baby and soaked in the sweet moments we miss when we are at work.

We dipped his toes in the water.

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And we handed him to his Lovey and Grandpap so James and I could walk, journal, read, float in the bay, eat real food, and take deep breaths of the Pacific air.

In all of this change since baby, I had no idea how much I would miss my husband. We are in all of it together, co-parenting and partnering together to get through our days, to care for our son.

But all of the moments of intimacy that make our marriage rich have disappeared in the demands of our new normal. James and I spent the week revisiting the values we set forth on our wedding day, that have been a compass for us in times such as these. Being the strategic executives that we are, we graphed venn diagrams of our values and tried to understand where we are and where we want to be.

We did not, of course, solve all of our problems in one week together, but we did get a chance to hit the reset button with fresh perspective, extra rest and a reminder for what matters most to us in our desire to take care of ourselves, love one another and love our neighbor. We affirmed the need to pace ourselves, to ask for help, to be willing to live differently when the status quo detours us on a path we ought not to take.

The world will not stop on our behalf, but taking moments of true rest from the hurry of life is vital. A recent New York Times article speaks to the importance of this reset. James and I recognize the privilege we have in mobility and access – but in whichever way possible to you to find rest, I hope you can make room for it, too.

 

The Clearing

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The Clearing

Do not try to serve
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
patiently,
until the song
that is yours alone to sing
falls into your open cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to the world
so worthy of rescue.

– Martha Postlethwaite

African Leaders Summit

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This week, our nation and president are hosting more than 40 African heads of state in Washington, DC. This is the largest summit of its kind, intended to strengthen ties between Africa and the US. There will be many discussions surrounding trade, energy, food security, and innovation.

To our surprise, Jars of Clay and I were invited to participate in the kick-off event for the summit, which was focused on the role of faith-based organizations working in Africa. Jars was asked to play music as part of the program; I was invited to sit on the panel to discuss the role of faith organizations working in Africa.

In a room full of members of Congress, US government officials and African ambassadors, nobody really knew much about us. In fact, I was a last-minute addition to the panel after much deliberation. I don’t blame them – the other panel members were established people like the South African Ambassador to the US, and the moderator was the Senior Director of the National Security Council. I’m sorry – Blood:Water who?

Washington isn’t used to having a band in their meetings or an unknown person on their stage. But I’m proud of what we contributed to the kick off of this historic gathering. The Jars of Clay guys picked a perfect set, and their song Oh My God stopped the room. The lyrics spoke to so many people there. The room paused before clapping. It had tapped something deep.

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A lively discussion on the panel followed the band. I felt small sitting among such significant people. But I just tried to stay faithful and honest in my answers. And then at the close of the panel, the moderator looked over at me and said, “Jena, as a young leader, I think it’s appropriate that you be the one to provide the final remarks for our time together.”

I looked out at the room of important people. I think I forgot to breathe.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but it had to do with letting the young leaders of Africa be the champions. I know so many creative, hard working, compassionate individuals across Africa. I think it’s our job to believe in them, invest in them, raise them up and let them be the heroes of their communities. Let’s do our best in partnering with them, and then move to the sidelines and cheer them on along the way.

It struck a chord with people. Administrator Shah came over to thank me for what I said. (BTW, he’s a remarkable person – 41-years-old and running USAID’s $22 BILLION operation – dang!)

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As I think more about it, I am reminded that inspiration goes a long way. Stories, lyrics, ideals, moral imagination. That’s just as important as the grandiose; sometimes it’s most important.

Here’s to a special week of the African Leaders Summit. I am honored to have been a small part.

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Schedule for the week
NPR story on the Summit

What It’s About

I greeted Saturday morning with a bad attitude.

My alarm went off at 5:15a, just 25 minutes after I had gone back to bed after nursing Jude. I threw my bags together and hustled out the door to join the Jars guys in a van with a trailer, headed for Atlanta.

We had a benefit concert that night, and I was slated to make the pitch from stage. Though I speak in front of people frequently, I still feel anxious and ill-prepared for such a task. It had been a long week, and I just wanted to spend my Saturday morning curled up on the couch with my baby and my husband.

The goal for the night was to raise $10,000 – enough money to provide a well for a community in Zambia. With an expected audience of 1000, I planned to ask each person to consider donating $10. It seemed a simple way to get there, not asking too much of anyone.

But when the opening act began, the auditorium was pretty empty.

Like awkward empty.

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Like this was supposed to be the most happening place on a Saturday night, but you were duped because everyone apparently went somewhere else kind of empty.

I felt duped, too.

“We can’t ask for a well tonight,” I told my colleague Jake. We’d be asking for too much. Reluctantly, I walked on the stage and told the scattered crowd about a community called Koloko, in Zambia.

I pulled these photos up, for the audience to see. They were taken that day by our team in Zambia.

There’s Josh rolling the drum of water.

10530651_10152283707576319_7765098311618738722_oCommunity members use this to transport their water, over 2.5 miles away from their homes.

There’s Courtney, accompanying a mama and her child on the walk for water.

10572091_10152283708736319_6926089174012544903_oChildren under the age of 5 are dying unnecessarily from water-borne illnesses.

And here’s the dream, I told them: that walking miles for water would no longer be necessary, that preventable diseases and deaths would disappear. A well could help them do that.

10463721_10152283707621319_2462994752408671881_oDespite the fact that I knew we wouldn’t get the full $10,000 that we needed that night, I boldly asked the audience that we try.

So we passed the popcorn buckets through the aisles, and people placed dollar bills into the buckets. It was a beautiful sign of generosity.

But it wasn’t going to be enough.

Until a man pulled me aside and handed me a blank check to get us to the $10,000.

A blank check.

In ten years of asking for money on behalf of my friends in Africa, I have never been given a blank check. It was a shower of mercy for my doubtful heart. A lifetime of water for a community we love.

It’s moments like these where my narrow worldview continues to change because it’s not about the thousands or the crowds or being in the hippest place on a Saturday night. It’s not about demanding a guarantee of success before giving up a precious day for myself.

It’s about remembering that God is bigger than our wildest dreams. That sometimes you don’t need a thousand new supporters; but rather, just the faithful ones. It’s about the stories we tell. And the faithful actions we live out despite our unbelief.

I guess, too, it’s about being bold enough to ask, even when it feels foolish. And it’s about letting love surprise you – because when I went back on stage to announce the good news, my colleague Michael ran up to tell me that another person had just donated $10,000.

And just like that, this small but mighty crowd had done something extraordinary. Koloko was now bound up in us, and us in them. But we had to have the audacity to ask. My own doubtful heart turned upside down.

Have Baby, Will Travel

When Jude was six weeks old, I dressed him in his finest collared outfit and took him to the Walgreens photo department to have his passport photo taken.

Here’s how it turned out:

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And yes, that’s a smiling crab on his shirt. Cutest photo ever.

Until the lady at the counter told us it was unacceptable for the application.

Maybe the crab was too much?

It turns out that my hand behind Jude’s head was not discreet enough. Strict rules, folks. Has to be just the baby’s head against a white background. So what’s one to do if your baby can’t hold his head up on his own?

The post office lady showed us the trick. Check it out:2014-06-25 13.17.21

Place a white sheet over the carseat, put the baby back in the carseat, pull the sheet up so it’s taut. Dance around the camera to make your baby smile (he’s going to have this passport until he’s 5 years old, so it better be a good one!).

And voila. An acceptable passport photo for a infant who can’t hold his head up.2014-06-25 13.18.17

The actual passport arrived in the mail today, and it’s adorable.

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What’s most exciting, beyond the cute photo, are the blank pages that wait in anticipation to be stamped by countries and places that will teach and shape my son just as they have for me and James. Watch out world, here he comes (eventually – maybe after he can hold his own head up!).

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A few lessons in securing a baby passport:

1. Collect the right documents:

  • A completed DS-11 Form (you can also pick it up at your local post office)
  • Birth Certificate (shows evidence of child’s US citizenship & evidence of parents’ relation to child)
  • Social Security number
  • 2″x 2″ photo
  • Photo IDs of both parents/guardians
  • Payment for fees (expect to pay $130)

2. Apply in Person

  • Locate the nearest passport acceptance facility
  • Some places require an appointment
  • Make sure both parents/guardians are present (if not possible, you need a notarized consent form)
  • Child must also be present

3. Get the extras

  • It’s cheaper to apply for both the passport book and the passport card – and then you have a secondary form of ID for your child

Confessions of a New Working Mom

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Over the last two weeks of my return to work, I have found a way to somehow nurse, burp, change and play with baby Jude while also showering, dressing, making breakfast, drinking coffee and getting out of the door in time to drop him off at the nanny’s with bottles and breast milk and get myself to work with a few minutes to spare. It’s amazing how one can feel accomplished so early in the day!

Today, I had a morning meeting that was going to conflict with the time that I needed to pump. I’d been thinking through it all last night and figured I would go ahead and cluster feed the baby – meaning, even though I fed him at 6a, I would feed him one more time at 7:40a right before dropping him off with the nanny. That way, I wouldn’t need to pump during my 9a meeting.

With everything ready to go out the door, I nursed Jude for this last-minute feed. I sat on the couch thinking, Man, I’ve got this!

But don’t all perfect plans somehow seem to backfire?

They do.

And for me, it was in the form of baby puke. All over my work outfit, all in my hair, all over the baby, all over the couch. There was no way I could recover from the hazmat disaster and make it to work on time.

So in a matter of crude desperation, I did what I imagine many working moms rushing out the door before me have done: I rubbed it in.

All of it.  I took the burp cloth and wiped the white spit up covering my front, my shoulders and my back, into my black blouse. I rubbed it into my hair, into Jude’s clothes, into the couch. It was all I could do.

My baby showed up soaked in mama’s milk. My blouse is crusty and I am sticky. My hair looks over-moussed. But we made it out the door and here we are, ready to face the day.

Sometimes, friends, you just have to rub it in.

(And after all of that, my 9a meeting was canceled).

Dinner with a Hero

Scott Hamilton, Melinda Gates & Senator Bill Frist. (Andrea Hallgren, Belmont University)

Scott Hamilton, Melinda Gates & Senator Bill Frist. (Andrea Hallgren, Belmont University)

When James and I were invited to a dinner event with Melinda Gates last Monday night, we didn’t realize we’d actually be having dinner WITH Melinda Gates. Joining 75 other guests to hear her speak about healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies for girls in the developing world, we were honored to simply be in the room. In a happy accident of some no-shows at her table, James and I were chosen to fill the seats, quickly finding ourselves sitting next to one of the most powerful women in the world.

Had I known that I’d be having dinner with a hero, I probably would have prepared questions and dressed a bit more professionally, and James probably would have abstained from that pre-dinner whiskey that mixed poorly with his jet lag. But despite our shuffled demeanor, our dinner together was, well, lovely.

Melinda Gates has been a hero for me over the years – a wife, a mom, a humanitarian who cares deeply about overlooked people around the world. I have often wondered what sustains her and why she does what she does. And now I had the opportunity to find out.

I learned that her Catholic faith is the source of her motivation to care for the poor. I learned that her favorite part of her vocation is sitting with women in communities around the world and listening to their struggles, their ideas, their hopes. She never really wanted to be the public voice in connection to her philanthropy, but she has learned how crucial it is to share the stories of those whose voices are not being heard. She spoke about how the stories of the poor have moved her and compelled her to have to do something about it. Knowing these women around the world makes it personal for her. She can’t ignore those she has met.

She asked us about baby Jude and our thoughts on taking him to Africa with us, offering us stories of what it has been like for her and Bill to bring their three children along with them around the world. She talked about the joy in service and philanthropy – that she and Bill could essentially be doing anything else, but they chose this because they believe in it and it gives them joy.

Though my station in life is quite different from that of Melinda Gates, I found myself wanting to be her when I grow up. She is driven by faith and passion, grounded in her commitments, articulate in her vision for change, intentional with people and generous with her time, her resources, and her leadership.

We all need heroes. Men and women whose lives inspire us to our better selves. I feel so lucky to have spent a special evening with one of mine.

To honor Melinda Gates and give voice to her and her husband’s mission, here are some links tied to the issues they are championing:

Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers & Children Worldwide

A piece that James & I wrote, posted on Gates Foundation’s blog

Bill & Melinda Gates’ Annual Letter – Dispelling myths about foreign aid

A Must-Needed Prayer for Today

(Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev)

(Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev)

With increased violence in the Middle East and a commercial plane shot down in Ukraine, I seek prayers and words to make sense of it all. To add insult to injury, the world lost nearly a hundred men and women on that plane whose life work has been to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As they departed Amsterdam to attend a conference in Melbourne focused on the relentless war against HIV/AIDS, their vessel collided with another kind of war, and we lost so many heroes.

It all feels so senseless. It brings us to our knees in prayer and desperation for a God who is bigger than the tragedies of mankind.

These words from Ann Voskamp spoke deeply to me last night; may they comfort you today.

Lord, there are bombs tonight, wars tonight, 
planes that have fallen from the sky,
tears that have fallen from the shattered hearts of mothers,
and we fall to our knees before the Wounded Healer 
who cups His hands to catch every falling tear & sparrow & heart 
in His palms that have our names engraved right into Him 
far deeper than any of earth’s sorrow. 
We pray tonight in the name of Him of who catches everything falling 
so we don’t fall apart…so we are held. 

Amen.

For the Mothers and the Babies

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“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days…” – Isaiah 65:20

Eight days after I delivered Jude, I suffered from a postpartum hemorrhage. While it was a terrifying experience to bleed out in a public restroom and be taken by ambulance to the emergency room, there was an easy operation that fixed the problem. I stayed in the hospital for two nights and have fully recovered since. Meanwhile, postpartum hemorrhages account for more than 30 percent of all maternal deaths in Africa. I could have been one of them.

This morning I will be sharing a stage with Melinda Gates and Senator Frist, standing in solidarity of the 287,000 women around the world who die every year due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been leading the way in bringing awareness and support to vulnerable mothers and children in developing countries.

Following their lead, James and I have joined a growing coalition of faith-based organizations and advocates to make a stand for access to contraceptives and healthy family planning because of our commitment to save the lives of mothers and babies. We have also written an op-ed that unpacks the complexity of these issues in places like Kenya. Blood:Water is already actively supporting clinics and making safe delivery possible for thousands of mothers and babies. The babies in the photo was a celebration of a mama with preeclampsia and her twins’ survival thanks to the clinical care they received.

But we still have a long way to go.

It seems fitting that on my first day back to work from maternity leave, I will be spending it at a gathering on behalf of mothers and babies worldwide who deserve a better story. I dream of Isaiah’s vision of the new heavens and the new earth where never again will a baby live but a few days or a woman not live out her years. It was personal for me before, but now as a new mother with dreams for my own child, I wish it even more for our women and children around the world.