Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Have You Given Up on Christmas?

Do you remember the classic holiday cartoon when Rudolph saved Christmas with the help of the characters from the Island of Misfit Toys? The one with the cast of goofy, bumbling characters giving all of their excuses to Rudolph as to why they couldn’t help with his important mission. How could a spotted elephant, a bird that swims, a train with square wheels on his caboose or a water pistol that squirts jelly save Christmas? They were just broken and misplaced misfits with odd skill sets living out their days secluded on an island.  These toys failed to realize their uniqueness and idiosyncrasies were exactly what Rudolph needed to save the day. 

Do you ever feel like life just doesn’t “work” like it has in the past or that you are not needed in the same capacity anymore? Do you have dreams that are out of sync with the life you are living today, leaving you feeling a little bit like that train with square wheels with no clue about your life purpose? Or, has your journey has left you feeling without hope for tomorrow?  

Have you given up on Christmas?  

It’s been years since my children watched that movie, yet I woke up with that story on my mind and this thought in my head: Jesus uses the broken to accomplish the impossible! This idea immediately filled me with such hope! No matter if we sometimes feel too broken or misplaced, we have a secured hope that we have been created for a unique purpose. This hope came to us at Christmastime in the form of a baby born in a manger. This hope - our King - takes our broken and misfit lives and uses them for his glory!  

My apologies for mixing modern tales with ancient truths, but this idea is nonetheless so true. Jesus took twelve misfits as his disciples and they were able to change the world!  Take heart this Christmas Eve my friends: broken dreams, broken lives, not even a broken world are too much for our Savior.  Our redeemer takes us just as we are and uses everything for his glory! 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Annual Christmas Letter 2019

Dear Family & Friends, 

It’s an unusually blistery day here in Sarasota, tomorrow is the last day of school before the holiday break, and our home is filled with the smell of cookies baking - all of this can only mean that Christmastime is finally here!  The warped pace speed at which we live most of our year is finally beginning to slow down and we are all very much looking forward to the fun-filled, yet relaxing holiday celebrations ahead of us. 

The past few years have brought many changes to our lives, and 2019 has been no exception!  As the kids grow up, our home has turned into more of a bus station as everyone comes and goes according to their own schedules these days.  I still cook dinner, but most nights food sits out on the stove for anyone passing through late after work or extra-curricular events.  More often than not, I’m already in bed when the final family member finishes dinner. Even our summer vacations were different this year as half of the family went to Guatemala and the other half went to Europe. But, as our photo in the matching PJs testifies, I’m still holding on to a few family traditions despite all of the other shifts in our world.      

Tim proudly celebrated his 5th work anniversary with ABC this October. He’s busy as ever, chasing business (and delivering donuts) to hard-working contractors all over Florida.  He continues to serve in recovery programs in the area on a monthly basis, including a ministry called Loving Hands and a new program at our local hospital.  In June, Tim went on a mission trip with our church and two youngest to Guatemala to serve at a malnutrition center. He enjoyed spending time with Lydia while in-country and getting to see one of the ministries she was working with this year. During this trip, he also got to zipline for the first time! 

Lydia is now 22 years old and has just completed her first year in Guatemala.  She’s been home since November for a respite period and to raise funds for returning in early January to serve as a missionary for another year. In 2019 she worked with a few different organizations but beginning in 2020 she will be working in a social work capacity with a single mom’s ministry.  Lydia has also worked very hard on her language skills this past year and was excited to earn her official diploma of Spanish as a foreign language. Please continue to hold her in your prayers as she steps into full-time ministry this next year. 

Michael turned 18 years old in November and has finished his first semester of classes at the State College of Florida.  He is studying to be either a screenwriter or to work in film production.  In fact, we just found out today that he has been hired as a paid intern for the Sarasota Film Festival!  This year he got his driver’s license and is getting close to buying his first car.  This summer he went to Europe for the first time with me and Isabelle, attended a musical festival in Miami, vacationed in Colorado with his best friend, and even spent a weekend in New York City! It’s safe to say he’s been bitten by the travel bug.  
Isabelle is also 18 years old and is finishing her senior year of high school where she will graduate this May at the top of her class holding a Cambridge AICE diploma. She recently finished her year as co-captain of the color guard and is already starting to say goodbyes to the various final events at her beloved school.  Izzy is applying to 3 art schools: two in Florida and one in Alabama. She’s already applied to the schools and has finalized an amazing art portfolio for submission.  The next few months will be an exciting and unfolding adventure as she decides where she’ll be going next to advance her skills and hone her craft.

Dennis is now 13 years old and is in 7th grade. His entire world is now solely about football: playing football, watching football, & talking about football. He wears #40 proudly for the Sarasota Redskins,even after the on-field assault that sent him via helicopter to Tampa’s All-Children’s Hospital as a trauma patient this fall! Thankfully, after a few days of rest for a sore neck, he returned to finish out the season.  He remains active in his youth group and loved returning to Guatemala this summer to serve and spend time with Lydia.  He’s also the proud new owner of an iPhone, which fully seals his teenager status.

Rebekah is now 12 and is also in the 7th grade.  She’s a committed and hard-working student, who’s showing an interest in STEM classes. Last spring, she was part of a small group of students selected to participate in a shark research expedition through a program sponsored by Girls, Inc. and the University of Miami.  It was an amazing opportunity for Rebekah! She enjoyed every minute of the time spent on the boat and in the water learning with her peers.  Although she dealt with some sickness, she did have a great time in Guatemala this summer too. She’s also started playing the flute and is showing real promise with her new instrument!

Dawn –and finally, there were major shifts in my world this year as well.  Although I wasn’t looking, God surprised me with a new job last spring! I now serve as the Regional Philanthropy Manager for Operation Blessing in the Southeast US.  While this does mean I am traveling a bit more than with my previous job, the blessing is that I am officed from home.  Now that the transition is behind me, I can tell you I absolutely love my new role! One of the highlights of my year was getting the chance to run around Europe with my twins.  I continue to plug away at grad school; as of today, I am officially halfway through my program. 

That wraps up the quick rundown on the happenings from our little tribe in Sarasota. Wishing all of our dear family and friends a very Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year! 

Tim, Dawn, Lydia, Michael, Isabelle, Dennis & Rebekah Stark (and Ky too!)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Travelogue - Puerto Rico

Once upon a time I worked for an airline and traveled the world for almost nothing. But all I really wanted was a baby.  I mourned continually over my empty arms.  Nothing else would appease me: Hawaii, the Greek Islands, Europe, sailing down the Nile - a decade of beautiful places and experiences that I mainly viewed through the lens of pain. I didn’t understand God’s love language to me in the waiting season.  I missed so many amazing places of worship on the way to my arms being filled to overflowing. 

The way I spent my 20’s shrouded in mourning is a great life regret.

Today I am traveling again, for different reasons, but still very similar to the way I did so many years ago. I know without a doubt God has once again given me this season as a gift in a beautiful way of merging mission and passion. It’s a do-over of sorts. Life is full of long, complicated and painful journeys; infertility was only one of many that I’ve endured. If there is one lesson I can take away from the 23-year infertility chapter, it is that I cannot fret or worry or mourn my way through this life.  

This week work led me to Puerto Rico. A traveler to my core, I was so excited about this new adventure I couldn’t fall asleep the night before my flight.  I’ve been to the island years ago on two other occasions, but only in the San Juan area.  This trip required me to rent a car and travel to Mayaguez, on the western side of PR.  I padded my travel time on each side of work events to allow for moments of spontaneity: pulling over at enjoy look-out points, taking the temperature of the Caribbean water with a quick dip, snapping photos of interesting sites, and choosing local eats over convenient chain options.  

Puerto Rico did not disappoint!  I so enjoyed spending time with ministry partners, learning about the heart-breaking impact of Hurricane Marie, and discovering the resilience of the people. I intently practiced present-moment mindfulness by not letting my thoughts creep back to other weighty matters and instead choosing to focus on the “great and small” of life happening right in front of me: 

·       the vibrant colors saturating the Puerto Rican culture through nature and art.
·       the proud rooster walking down the sidewalk, crowing like he totally belonged in that human space.
·       the irony of eating St. Louis style ribs, known to be a specialty of the BBQ joint I just happened to stop at for dinner.
·       the newlywed who saw me standing on the shore at sunset who coaxed me to jump into the rough shore break and enjoy the sunset with her family. 
·       the experience of driving in San Juan’s rush hour traffic when 12 lanes of inbound cars merged into 4 without traffic lines or signals of any sort. 

While travel is all a little harder on my body these days, I am intent on not missing the moments made for worshipping along the way this time.  I cannot reverse the way I lived my 20’s, doubting the goodness of God, but I can learn from that experience.  This week I’ve been reminded again to savor the gifts I’ve been given. 

Here’s a Christmas song I’ve had on repeat most of this week that seems to capture so beautifully what I'm feeling: 


I have come from so far away
Down the road of my own mistakes
In the hope you could hear me pray
Oh Lord, keep me in your reach.

How I’ve longed through these wasted years
To outrun all my pain and fears
Turn to stone from own cried tears
And now its your grace I see

Love won’t compromise
It’s a gift, it’s a sacrifice
My soul renewed, and my heart released
In you I find my peace.

Wonderous child of whom the angels sing
Know my joy, feel my suffering
Shining star make this love you bring
So bring that I may believe

That my way will not be lost
From now on, ‘till that river’s crossed
My soul renewed, and my spirit free
In you I’ll find my peace

~ Michael McDonald

(Recorded by my fav, Russ Taff)



Saturday, October 26, 2019

How I Hear From God

Special note: A pastor friend invited me to participate in a discussion answering the question: how do I hear from God?  This post will be featured as one of five bloggers examining many sides of this topic throughout November.  You can access the entire conversation here:  https://johngregoryjr.com/2019/10/25/heard/?fbclid=IwAR3jJwKyTZHOWIOaMK1o03aWhBgwIU3-CNSROQb7RwrN3_neOAGWfeoa_Wc

This morning in my daily devotion I’m reading from 1 Chronicles 14 where King David is fighting the Philistines. In preparation for the battle, David inquires of the Lord about strategy and God answers very specifically: “Do not attack them straight on. Instead circle around behind and attack them near the poplar trees.  When you hear a sound like marching feet in the tops of the poplar trees, go out and attack!” (NLT).

I don’t know about you, but throughout a lifetime of inquiring to the Lord I’ve never been given such a specific and detailed answer.  Yet, this type of communication was commonplace for David and many others as recorded in the Old Testament.  

God speaks this clearly to believers throughout the New Testament too. A good example is the back and forth conversation between the Lord and Ananias in Acts 9.  God’s instructions were very detailed: “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now.  I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.” Acts records Ananias’ response to these instructions and God’s reply to his questions too. 

I believe God still speaks to us today. Scripture explains He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 18:8, Mal 3:6).  He speaks to us through general revelation, such as what we observe in nature and from history; and, He speaks through special revelation as recorded in Scripture.  

Worship and prayer are both powerful ways I hear from God. Worship is the cornerstone of my spiritual life.  Many days I wake up in the morning with a song running through my head and heart.  I’ve come to wonder if this is the Holy Spirit helping to prepare me for the day ahead.  Prayer is also a huge factor of my faith life. I’ve found that prayer quiets and heals my soul, or as Ole Hallesby so powerfully writes, “prayer is the breath of the soul, the organ by which we receive Christ into our parched and withered hearts” (Prayer, 1936, p.14).

God speaks to my heart during personal devotion time and through the preaching of the Word too. These are aspects of his special revelation, which require me to faithfully attend to the habits of reading the Bible and attending church.  I’m constantly amazed how often these activities seem to overlap and confirm each other. For instance, when a passage I’ve studied during the week just happens to be a key component in pastor’s Sunday message. 

Meditating along the ocean shore or hiking through a nature preserve become holy places where He will reveal something new about His faithfulness and strength to me. Soft as rain, these gentle whispers create a new thought that cause me to suddenly see situations in my life differently. In the “be still and know” solitary spaces, God is near and always leading me forward.  

Finally, and probably most profoundly, I hear from God through the relationships we form in this life.  Within the context of family and friends I learn of His faithfulness, compassion, and enduring love.  As I wipe away my children’s tears, I know that God also wipes away mine. Not only can I understand His patterns and purposes deeply through these vital relationships, my desire for His presence deepens.  When earthly relationships bring pain and disappoint, I run to the Creator to be healed by His unconditional and steadfast love.   

How do I hear from God?  Oh, I hear from him in so many beautiful and powerful ways. I may not be the recipient of full conversations as the saints of old, but His presence fills me, heals me and guides me daily. He is imminent and He is faithful.  I just need to be quiet and listen.  

Sunday, September 29, 2019

My Hope is in You

A situation happened this week that left me feeling like someone had literally punched me in the stomach.  I heard news that stung so badly; I couldn’t believe it and yet somehow instinctively, knew it was going to happen. Just when I was starting to heal over this particular situation in my life, the band-aid was ripped off and I was bleeding again.

I’m not sure how you react when life gives you a proverbial punch, but I immediately reach out to those I trust who can understand the situation and also give me sympathy.  Next, the internal tapes of justification start rolling, serving as a self-defense mechanism for this unexpected pain.  Sometimes I cry in response to disappointment, but this time I was just mad.  Finally, I hit the “I don’t care anymore” phase where I mentally willed myself to let the thing go and move on.  Then usually, and unconsciously, I repeat the whole emotional loop again. 

After a few days of this cycle, God seemed to take notice where my heart was treading.  First up this morning was the fact that Psalms 39 was part of my daily devotional.  As I read these words I knew that David understood the anger and frustration I’d been feeling this week: 

I said, “I will watch my ways
    and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
 while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent,
    not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
 my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
 then I spoke with my tongue:
“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is. (NIV)

Next up was my reading for the human services counseling class I’m taking this term.  Unbelievably, the next chapter was on forgiveness.  The author explains, “Forgiveness first involves recognizing and grieving over the damage that has been done, then choosing to release the negative emotions associated with the offender.” (1) Hum....I'm guessing God has something to say to me in this moment.  I think it goes something like this: “Sissy (2), it’s time to let this thing go, your days are too short to stay in this place of unforgiveness where bitterness and resentment will only hurt you.” 

My only response to hearing such gently revealed truth? “Yes, please show me Lord how to forgive, I know you alone can make me whole.”

People are going to hurt us.  Life involves suffering.  Relationships involve pain.  But so does bitterness and unforgiveness, because these negative emotions keep us trapped in a loop of self-justification and defense.  I don’t want to live my life with armor around my heart.  Armor is heavy and a burden, it hinders and slows me down.  I have to believe there is a better way towards whole-hearted living. 

I don’t know how to do this on my own, but the beautiful truth here is that I don’t have to.  I didn’t orchestrate my devotion or study time today, but God did and if he can speak to my pain, he can also heal it.  Psalms 39:7 continues on to say, “But now, Lord, what do I look for?  My hope is in you.”  Selah. 

[1] McMinn, Mark. (1996). Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling. Pg. 207
[2] Sissy is what my Mom called me and what I turn call my girls.  I’m pretty sure it’s that endearing daughter term God uses for me at times too. 

[1] McMinn, Mark. (1996). Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling. Wheaton: Tyndale House. Pg. 207
[2] Sissy is what my Mom called me and what I turn call my girls.  I’m pretty sure it’s that endearing daughter term God uses for me at times too. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Teenager is Born

Dear Mama Catalina, 

A teenager is born!  Our baby is 13 today!  I don’t know if 13 is a significant age in Guatemala for a boy, but Dennis has dreamed of this day for a few years now.  12 was not easy on him, but he has come through brilliantly on the other side.  You would be so proud of the progress he has made and the obstacles he has overcome. This boy – our boy – is strong.  

I was not with Dennis on his first birthday.  We missed celebrating that milestone together by 21 short, but oh so long days.  His foster mama Karen held a little party for him that year and made sure he ate cake for the first time.  I was able to call and wish him feliz cumpleaƱos with the help of a Spanish-speaking friend.  He was not with you or me that day. I cried the whole day. I’m guessing you did too. 

Today he will go to school, then youth group, then football. I won’t really see him today either, but I’ve made dozens and dozens of cupcakes so he can celebrate with all of his friends. Our boy is a social extravert, although lately he listens to that inner-insecure-teen-critic too much. Tim and I embarrass him widely by just “being” these days, right on track where he should be as the calendar rolls to #13.  We hold our parental ground valiantly though, knowing one day he will emerge on the other side of these hormones knowing we never left his side. 

He would want you to know he’s finally broken the 100-pound mark on the scale and he’s just so proud of that fact. So proud. This year during his sports physical the pediatrician made an estimate he will reach 5’10 in height. There was actual fist bumping in the exam room when we heard that number! He’s starting 7th grade off with a bang academically too – it’s looking like he will made honor roll this first quarter!  That’s a complete turnaround of where we were this time last year. He is playing tackle football, which he loves and I hate.  I can’t stomach the games or seeing the bruises on his body, but as I said in the opening of this letter – this boy, our boy, is strong. 

One of Dennis’ teachers recently shared with me that his wishes for the future are: “see my biological mother, be a person who helps the world, and be an engineer.” You are always present in his mind and thoughts.  He carries you with him in this life even though I am the one walking by his side. I carry you with me today on this milestone birthday.  I pray that the grace of God that surpasses our understanding will wrap you up in His love until the day we can meet and wrap our arms around you too. 

Love always, 

Mama Dawn

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Travelogue - North & South Carolina

This week I’ve traveled 325 miles back and forth between North Carolina, South Carolina and the Carolina coast meeting with partners of Operation Blessing. I’ve now passed the 90-day mark as the Manager of Philanthropy for the SE Region and finally feel like I’m starting to hit the rhythm of my new role.  The stories and passion for this work are growing in my heart and I’m enjoying connecting with donors throughout my region. This week was filled with inspirational and emotional moments centered around the ministry I serve.  It was also filled with blessings for me personally as I “stop to smell the roses” along the way.

I flew out of Sarasota at 5 am on Monday morning. Thankfully, our airport is small and close to home, so I got to sleep until 3 am.  But friends, 3 am is still a very early start to a work week!  I was leaving the airport with my rental car in Charlotte when the sun broke across the sky.  It was time for all of the coffee I could find before my first appointment.  As I drove north in the direction of my 9:30 am meeting, I passed the hotel I was staying at for the first few nights.  I decided to stop in and see if I could get an early check-in for around noon, so I could freshen up before heading to my second appointment of the day.  What an unexpected blessing to have the front desk agent offer to let me in my room at 7:30 am!  Not only did I get that much needed coffee, I was able to unpack and get settled before starting my first day in Charlotte. 

Twice on Monday I passed signs for the Billy Graham library.  I honestly had no idea what this was, other than what the name implied. I wanted to stop and check it out, but I was coming and going and that 3 am wake up hit hard right at rush hour in a city I didn’t know.   Better to get to my room and call it a day, I reasoned.  However, when I drove past it a 3rd time on Tuesday, I knew I had to stop.  I pulled in and walked towards the area marked Prayer Garden, where I was greeted by two volunteers who welcomed me to the site.  The man started singing over me and the woman prayed the most on-point prayer you could imagine. There I stood, tears pouring out of my face, when I realized we were standing at the foot of the graves of Billy & Ruth Graham. It was a very special and unexpected moment for me, as you might imagine. 

Another highlight of my week was connecting with friends I had not seen in at least 20 years! I’m telling you, there is nothing more powerful in this life than reconnecting with people you’ve loved in the past and picking right up where you left off.  We talked nonstop for 3 hours and really only stopped because it was a work night and well, I’m more of a morning person!  We laughed and reminisced about youth group and high school and weddings and babies and family.  I’m so proud of the lives they’ve built and the faith they’ve held.  Reviving our friendship in person -not on social media - was such a blessing to me! I also got to spend some time with my boss, who drove down from VA to the NC coast to spend time with me and squeeze in some more training.  We watched the sun set over the bay on Wednesday night, enjoyed a late dinner together, and closed the place down with laughter.  She is also such a blessing to me!  

After wrapping up my last meeting on Thursday morning, I drove 4 extra miles out to Oak Island to check-out the NC coastline. I’m telling ya, put me near a beach and I’m there with feet in the water, if only for a few minutes.  Now that I’m used to the Gulf shades of turquoise and light blue, I’m always amazed how dark the Atlantic seems by comparison.  The water at Caswell Beach is still warm though, and the sand dunes are incredible.  I also checked out the Oak Island Lighthouse that lights up the mouth of the Cape Fear River to guide ships into the Port. For the life of me, I can’t imagine who thought they should name a river Cape Fear!  In any event, you can apparently climb this lighthouse for some incredible views of the area.  It’s on my to-do list for the next visit in this region!

The people and landscape of the Carolinas are indeed a treasure.  I’ve enjoyed every mile I’ve driven and let me tell ya, the NC rest areas are second to none!  Their peach ice cream is pretty good too, if you are ever driving by a road side stand selling this deliciousness, I highly recommend you stop!   

Tired, but thankful for a beautiful week, I’m returning home to Sarasota where the next adventure awaits:  Hurricane Dorian!

Friday, August 23, 2019

The One About Football, a Phone, and a Moped

Dennis found out he did not make the football team at his middle school today. He came home devastated, beyond that if there is such a thing.  They picked 7 kids out of 60.  He made the first cut, which brought the pool down to 20.  He was not one of the 7 out of 20.  There were some weird deals in all of this and I’m not going down that path with this post, but just know for a boy who struggles with rejection, this decision was all kinds of hard.  I’ll just say how proud I was for him to see the list, talk with the coach, and ride the bus home before the pain oozed out of every fiber of his being. 

We sat with him in the raw, brokenness for a very long time.  It didn’t comfort him at all that we had already lined up another local league that was starting Monday night – tackle no less, what he really wanted. No, that didn’t help.  He wanted on that school team.  The one where they picked 7 kids out of 60. That was the team he just knew he was supposed to play on this year.

This is where being a parent is sooo hard.  There are just some things you can’t fix in life’s journey…… like finding your child’s biological mother or getting him on the school football team

But there are some things you can fix.  We’ve promised Dennis a phone for his 13thbirthday for a very long time.  That day is 1 month and 2 days away.  Tonight I said to Dennis, “Son, let’s go get your new phone” and the drooping eyes suddenly popped up.  He couldn’t believe what he just heard.  I watched as hope came out of hiding from inside my little man, “Mom, are you for real?”   I told him that there are two things he’s waited a long time for:  playing football and getting a phone.  Tonight, I couldn’t get him on that team, but I could get him a phone. 

We grabbed our things and walked outside only to discover all 3 of our cars were gone. Without hesitating I said, “Well, shoot, I guess we are taking the moped.” Again, he looked at me and said, “Are you serious?”  You better believe I was not going to let a little thing like not having a car keep this kid from his long-awaited phone, especially tonight.  

I may have watched a YouTube video (or two) to figure out how to get the bike started and taken several practice loops around the neighborhood, but I eventually got my son to the Sprint store several miles away.  I'll never forget him yelling in my ear, “You’ve got this mama” as we buzzed along Tamiami at 29 mph at 6pm on a Friday night.  

We are safely back home now, in one piece, with the new (red) phone in hand.  We’ve talked a lot about how things cannot heal our hearts and sometimes you cannot fix what is broken.  But Dennis knows I will sit with him in his pain as he cries about not knowing where Mama Catalina is as birthday time comes around again, or on nights when he does not make the team he desperately wanted to play with this year.  He knows that I will learn to ride a moped if necessary, and that I will always – ALWAYS – have his back.