The Best Laid Plans

These past two years have not gone as I planned. You know how they say the best laid plans can fail? They definitely did. When I stepped off the plane in December 2017 after spending 3 years in the jungles of Ecuador, I had the next year planned out. I was convinced I would be in Brazil by January 2019, if not sooner. 

January came and went, yet I was still there. 

Absolutely nothing has gone the way I imagined. The approval took longer than I thought. Fundraising took longer than I thought. My visa took longer than I thought it would. Even just getting down to Campinas took longer than I thought it would. Seriously. Everything that could be delayed was. Almost literally. It was actually ridiculous sometimes.

I wish I could tell you that I rolled with the punches with the best of them. I wish I could say that I took every delay with the grace and understanding that you would expect. But… I didn’t. I’m still human after all. I got frustrated so many times. I didn’t understand. I was so close, why was it all of a sudden so hard? I was frustrated because nothing was going according to my plan…

Oh. My plan.

That was the problem. I was looking at my plan. The easy plan. The path of least resistance. I should’ve learned by now that that’s not how this life works.

While I was in the States, I did Beth Moore’s Bible study on the life of David. As we were digging into his life, God showed me something. David was just a kid when he was anointed to be king. He didn’t just walk up to the throne the day he was anointed . He went right back to the field. He still had to grow up. He even spent a few years literally running for his life from Saul. I don’t think any of that was part of his plan to become king.

He didn’t know at the time that all of the delays and all of the struggles were preparing him to become king. All of those things made him a better man. They drew him closer to God. We tend to have a negative view of setbacks. We see delays as defeat. We become frustrated, asking God why on earth He let it happen the way it did. But here’s the thing: His plans are way better than ours will ever be.

I look back at how I got here, and I see His hand in it all. I see where He was preparing me for what He’s doing today in my life. Yes, there’s still so much I don’t understand, but I’ve been able to trust Him this far. Why would I stop now?

He already knows what’s going to happen, so even when we don’t understand, we can trust that He knows what He’s doing. He wouldn’t bring us this far just to leave us. God was using my circumstances, the good and the bad, to prepare me for what’s coming. God is using your circumstances, the good and the bad, to prepare you for what’s coming.

Among The Redwoods

My family tree is not beautiful. It’s not like the Redwoods that have roots that run deep and are as old as the earth itself. It isn’t known for its majesty or beauty. People don’t travel for miles to see it. It doesn’t have strong branches where birds can rest. It isn’t teeming with life.

My legacy is wrought with alcoholism, abuse, witchcraft, and who knows what else. My family tree is twisted and gnarled. It’s been charred and damaged. The strong winds have pulled it up. The roots are exposed. The branches are bare; It’s not beautiful to look at. 

I don’t come from a family legacy of Christians. There aren’t generations of believers who came before me that committed their entire lives to Christ. They were broken people who didn’t know God. But in the scars of the tree, there was redemption. Somewhere, among the roots of my family tree, a seed was planted. In the midst of death, a new tree began to grow.

My family is not a picture perfect family. I can’t look back and see God interwoven through the roots of our tree. But you know what? That’s okay. It may not be beautiful or majestic like the Redwoods, but God is restoring it. He’s healing it from the roots and making something new.

There is something beautiful about a family tree that has Christ as a part of every branch and root. But there is also something beautiful about a tree that He has redeemed and made beautiful in spite of the twisted roots and broken branches. A tree that has new growth.

I don’t know why God called me. I don’t understand why He chose a gnarled tree over a Redwood. But… I see a new tree beginning to grow. Right in the middle of the old one. Maybe soon, there will be a Redwood growing among the exposed roots.

Digging Roots

The hardest part of missions for me has always been digging roots. Heck, it’s been the hardest part of life for me. But it wasn’t always this way.
When I was young friendships weren’t a problem. It was easy, even. But I got hurt many times over the years. I’ve never really had a close friendship last more than 3 or 4 years. So I quit trying. I quit trying to get close to people because it really only meant more pain for me. It just meant more people that had walked out of my life.

I remember when I first got to Ecuador being terrified of getting too close to people. Here’s the thing, I knew from the first time I walked into Sucua that I would leave one day. Brazil was always the end goal. So my first instinct? Keep everyone at arm’s length until I left. Get just close enough to not get hurt, yet still be effective.

But I ran into a problem. I wasn’t helping anyone. Because you can’t be an effective missionary without digging roots. Missions work is made up of relationships. It’s in the job description. And I was keeping myself so closed off that I wasn’t building any relationships.

I remember around this time God reminding me of a quote from C.S. Lewis: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

My natural tendency is to lock my heart in a box. To keep it safe from anyone who could maybe possibly one day hurt me. I say “is” because I still struggle with this. But I can see how much God has changed me since then. During my three years in Ecuador, I got close. For the first time in a long time, I made myself vulnerable. And I don’t regret a moment of it.

I know that leaving Ecuador hurt because I dug deep roots there; I had intertwined my life with the lives of the people I worked with. And when your life gets mixed up in other people’s lives things get messy and weird and sometimes confusing. But isn’t anything good worth fighting for?

During my time here in the States, I’ve fought to keep being vulnerable. I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been easy. Relationships are tough and messy because imperfect humans are involved. And even though these last couple of years have been some of the most painful years of my life, they’ve also been the most fulfilling. Truly loving others the way God has called us to hurts sometimes, but I’m learning that it is so rewarding.

A few weeks ago as I was planting the winter plants at my church, I noticed roots from the plants that had been there before still mixed in with the soil. There are always roots left behind if the plant was there long enough.

Anytime we decide to be where we are, to dig roots into the place we’re in, a part of us will be left behind when we leave. My hope is that everywhere I go from now on, people will still find the roots I left behind in their lives. That even after I’ve left the States and moved to Brazil, that I will have left behind something good. I have a long way to go, but I’m making progress.

Unlikely Roommates

This post was written the week I knew I wouldn’t be returning to Ecuador as a missionary. Even though I was overjoyed that I would be going to Brazil, my heart still ached because I didn’t know when I would see the people I fell in love with again. There’s a type of grieving that happens when your entire life is changed so suddenly. This is a look into those last three months I spent in my old life.

I’ve always thought of joy and grief as enemies. Two emotions that can’t occupy the same space because they’re simply too big to leave room for the other. But recently I’ve learned that’s not the case.

Joy and grief actually live together.

They’re roommates that pass each other throughout the day, walking through this life together. They tend to be found together because if grief didn’t have joy, it would be unbearable. As I sit here feeling the grief, it doesn’t hurt so bad. Because joy is sitting right beside her, reminding her of all of the good memories. “Remember when…” Joy is there so that grief remembers why the pain is worth it.

You see, grief is that feeling of something missing, like the ghost of something that could have been. It’s like a piece of your heart was broken off and you’re searching so desperately to find it, so desperate to feel whole again. It’s drowning in a sea of hurt and regrets and “what if”s.

But joy… oh, joy. Joy is knowing that yes, it’s missing… But it’ll be okay. It’s knowing that you will be whole again, soon. Joy is the memories. It’s your laugh when you go back to the time you may have almost died… Almost. Joy is the gratitude you have for the time you did have even if it wasn’t near as much as you wanted. Joy is the lifeboat that keeps you afloat when you feel like drowning.

Grief may feel like you’re roaming in the dark but joy is close by slowly guiding you home, no matter how lost you think you are. Because joy sees beyond the darkness of the night you’re in. Joy knows the way home.

This process of sharing a home with joy and grief has taught me this:

Grief reminds you that you’re human.

But joy reminds you that you’re alive.

Does God Like Me?

I used to ask myself a lot when I was younger if God liked me. You’re probably wondering why a kid would ask that question. Well, my mom (sorry mom I still love you) used to say something a lot:

“Just because I have to love someone doesn’t mean I have to like them.”

Maybe you’ve heard that too. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. Well, my little 10-year-old self used to wonder if God also felt that way. Let’s be honest for a second here. We all want to be liked. We may act like we don’t care, but we all want to know someone out there likes us. We want to know that people enjoy our company.

I felt like God had no choice but to love me. He created me so He kinda had to right? God loving me was great and all but I wanted to know that He liked me. It was easier to believe that He loved me than that He liked me. Maybe you find yourself asking that, too.

I think about Adam and Eve in the garden. God would go walk in the evening with them. He didn’t have to go to the garden to walk with them. He could have stayed in heaven and not worried about them. But He chose to spend time with them because He liked being with them.

And guess what? God likes you. He is genuinely interested in your life. He wants to spend time with you. He would take you to get ice cream and listen to you talk about your worries and your dreams and what you have to do tomorrow. He’ll sit on the end of your bed when you’ve had a bad day and tell you it’s all gonna be okay. He wants to know the little things. When it comes down to it, He just wants you. All of you. The messy and emotional and sometimes weird parts of you, too.

And even though you may think He has better things to do than listen to you or bigger problems to handle, you’re wrong. Because if God had to pick between you and His to-do list, He’d choose you every time. Every day, over and over again. Every. Single. Time.

He’s always choosing you. He’s always choosing me.

No matter how annoying or weird or unlikable I think I am sometimes. I am not another item on His to-do list. I am not a chore for Him. I am not His “problem”. I’m just simply… His.

I think He likes that.

Following a Ghost

For some people, change is easy. They flow like a river, taking the sudden shifts in direction smoothly. Others struggle with it. It’s a raging river they have to cross, not flow down. Usually, I’m the former.

But not this time.

Change is easier when emotions aren’t deeply involved. Things get hard when the smooth river starts to rage. When your flesh is fighting against the change and nothing makes sense and you’re getting hit by rocks at every turn.

Change doesn’t always hurt, but when it does it hurts me deeply. It’s a grief of what could have been. I try to make myself forget all of the “could’ve”s and “what if”s that flood my mind. I know change doesn’t affect everyone this way, but it’s how it affects me.

Before I decided to do what God was already telling me, we fought about it. A lot. I wasn’t gonna follow Him easy this time. You’d think as a missionary I would’ve learned by now… not quite. In my mind, it wasn’t like the first time I said yes. I wasn’t saying yes to go… I was saying yes to leave. Yes meant going to America. Yes meant moving to a totally different country with another language when I was just getting the hang of this one. It was leaving all the relationships I had spent 3 years building. It was leaving the life I had fallen in love with.

For a ghost. For a life that I had no idea what it would look like.

During all of this, God took me to a verse in Job:

Though He slay me, I will hope in Him;
yet I will argue my ways to His face.

Oh, I was arguing. He had most definitely heard my piece. And I definitely felt like He was slaying me. But He asked me: Where is your hope?

I can tell you where it wasn’t: in Him. My hope had been in the wrong place. I had it in the future I had planned for myself. It was in what I wanted to do, not what He planned. And even though what He wanted me to do was something I had desired for years, it was easier to stay where I was. It hurt less.”Just a little longer?” I asked. He said no. I shut up. Then put my hope in Him.

How foolish are we? I was literally arguing with the Creator of the universe about my future.

I decided to follow that ghost of a life and I can already tell it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go to do what I love. It’s not what I planned; it’s so much better.

To sum it up: Hope in Him and He will work everything out. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it makes perfect sense to Him. He is for you. He loves you. Just trust Him.

Change is inevitable. Life is full of it. It always hurts to close a book, especially when it’s your favorite one. You know the one, the one that’s written all in with torn pages and tea stains, practically falling apart. But there is so much anticipation for opening the next. On the shelf sits a book with blank pages, an exciting story waiting to be told. But it has one condition: you’ve got to live it first.

Even If

I have a confession to make. I, Caitlin Emfinger, struggle with doubt.

Yes, there it is. Written out for all the world to see. I’ve been a Christian for a long time. But that doesn’t mean I’ve figured everything out. You’re probably wondering what exactly that means. I mean, there’s a lot of things to doubt! I guess I should be more specific. I struggle with the doubt of if God will do things. I don’t have a problem believing that He can. I know that He can. My problem is believing that He will. That’s what scares me. 

Now it’s time for a story. A few months back, we had a girl in the Hope House get really sick. She’s only 12 years old. She flatlined multiple times while she was in the hospital. We were told on multiple occasions that she wouldn’t make it through the day. The entire time, I had no problem believing God could heal her. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that He could. But would He? What if He didn’t? How would her family feel? The girls? Would the people in her life lose faith? And why would He take her? These questions raced through my mind for weeks. The good news is, I never got the answer to those questions. He worked a miracle in her body. She’s still in Cuenca for now, but she’s getting better. He’s healing her. She survived. And last month, she came down to visit us.

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Her first time back in the Hope House in months. It was an emotional day for all of us.

But you know what? I would have loved and trusted Him just as much as before if He had decided not to heal her. I wouldn’t have understood why, but it would have been okay. Because His ways are so much higher than our ways. In spite of my fears and doubts, He still worked a miracle.  

I thought a lot about the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They trusted God in the face of death. That whatever He did would be right, whether they lived or died. That His will is perfect. Sometimes we have to trust Him even if He doesn’t do what we think He should. Even if He doesn’t perform a miracle, He is still God and He is still and always will be good, even if He doesn’t heal.

Even if He doesn’t do what I think would be best. Even if things don’t turn out the way I want. I will still follow Him and trust Him no matter the outcome. Sure, I may still have my doubts. But you better believe I will throw them to the side and keep on going, even if it means walking straight into the fire.

Because He is still God and He is still good.

My Life & God’s Sense of Humor

I’ve always believed that God has a sense of humor. My life is proof of it. I mean, He decided to throw this girl that never even grew up camping into the middle of the jungle, right? But it seems like He always wants to surprise me.

Years ago, I served as a youth leader in my home church. I remember telling God, “I’m definitely not called to work with youth. Why’d you ask me to do this again?” If I’m honest, I mainly helped because I was asked to and I knew God wanted me to serve there, but I didn’t have a desire to work with youth long term.

This is where things get funny.

In October, I started working with the youth at the local church because help was needed and I had worked with youth in the past. I didn’t expect to fall in love with it the way I have. It’s my favorite service of the week. It’s so funny to me how sometimes, God takes the things we don’t really like doing and asks us to do it. But over time… you begin to love it. Then you wonder, “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”

After a few weeks, I remembered a message my pastor gave a while back on this verse:

“Delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

He talked about how God not only gives us what we desire but that when we let Him completely into our lives, He gives us new desires. Oh, He gave me a new desire alright. Over the first few weeks, I was indifferent. I liked going, but I didn’t love it. Then one night my heart changed. All of a sudden I fell in love with those kids. And the thing is, that would have never happened if I hadn’t obeyed.

Why do we act surprised when God asks us to do uncomfortable things? It’s almost like we sometimes expect Him to keep us on a cloud for our entire lives, far away from anything that may make us feel awkward or out of our element. The reality is, that’s the last place He wants us. He wants us to grow and growing is uncomfortable.

I’m constantly reminded that He knows my heart way better than I do. He knows what my heart will be; not just what it is now or has been before. If anyone should choose my desires, it should be Him. Honestly, if I had followed my own heart I’d probably still be a portrait photographer in the States. And as much as I loved doing that, I’m glad that I’m living here in Ecuador as a missionary instead of doing portrait photography because that’s not what I was made for.

I’m thankful for a God that knows me better than I know myself. I can trust Him, even if He asks me to do something crazy. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

 

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Our incredible youth leadership team.

Grief As A Wave

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Grief. This is always something I’ve never dealt with well. A year ago yesterday, my great granddad passed away just 3 weeks after I had returned to Ecuador. I was in Cuenca renewing my visa and wondering how on earth I was going to be moving in a couple days when I got the news. I didn’t expect it to hurt as much as it did. I wasn’t super close to him, but he was a constant in my life. Something that had always been there. But then one day… he just wasn’t.

Reality didn’t hit until I went home in September and when I went to his house, he wasn’t there. It was like finding out that your childhood home, the one place you always expected to be able to go back to, the one thing that was always there was suddenly erased from the map. The memories stayed, but the physical place, the town, the house,  your favorite tree, all of it was just… gone. And all you have left are the memories of what used to be.

You see, grief is like the ocean. Most days are okay. The tide is normal, the current won’t pull you away too far. But then the waves come and crash over you and confuse you to the point that you don’t know which way is up or down. The current pulls you farther out and further down and before you know it you’re drowning in a sorrow that you don’t even understand. Then when you reach the shore, when you realize that these waves have taken away that constant, that home that was always there… the memories flood over you like high tide trying to pull you back in. But then it stops. And everything goes back to normal for a while. Until the hurricane decides to come once again.

I found myself in the same place yesterday as I was a year ago. I found myself hiding in the bathroom at church crying as the waves crashed over me, as the tears flooded and I was powerless to stop them. I found myself asking the same questions I had a year ago, feeling that same pain over again as the memories came flooding back. The same emotions, the same memories, the same questions. And honestly I still struggle with the pain of regret and I know it’s a process but I wish it could speed up a little because even though it isn’t constant when the pain comes… it hits like a hurricane.

I know that God is faithful to heal. I know He’s always with me. He’s the one that guides me back to shore. And even though I question Him at times about why He did what He did, and have even gotten mad… I know that He knows best. And even if I don’t understand, I don’t need to. I just need to trust Him.

So much can change in a year. But then some things don’t change at all.

Here’s To Carrying A Notebook Everywhere

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Hey, can I tell you a secret?
When I was 12, I started guitar lessons. I’ve recently discovered that most people don’t know this. I picked it up pretty quick and I enjoyed it. I quit playing at 14 when I couldn’t continue lessons. I still remember a couple chords, but I just haven’t put forth the effort to pick it up again. Meanwhile, since then, my brother has taught himself how to play four different instruments.

I used to design. A lot. Most of my designs are still sitting on my hard drive. I made MySpace backgrounds, Facebook cover photos, art pieces… I also sold a T-Shirt design to raise money for a mission trip. I still do this some, but mainly simple things.

And now the big one. I used to be a writer. I know what you’re thinking. “But you’re writing right now?!?” Yes, I am. But I used to write almost anything, all of the time. Short stories, poetry, essays, you name it. I even started trying to write a novel at one point. I remember I used to carry a notebook and pen everywhere I went, and I slept with one by my bed at night. So many times I would be sitting in a waiting room or in Wal-Mart and I would get an idea and just start writing right where I was. I wrote to cope with pain, to express myself, to understand God. I wrote my testimony into a story once because it made more sense. Writing was my release and my way of showing people what God had done for me.

Then one day, I just stopped. I can’t pinpoint when or why, but I quit using that talent. AT one point, I hadn’t written in weeks. A friend asked me what I had written recently. My response… Nothing. I was shocked and so was she. She asked why. I had no answer. I still remember what she said to me:

“Caitlin, if you stop writing, you’re gonna lose it.”

I didn’t think much of it then. But here I am on the other side and I’ve lost so much of it. About a year ago, God reminded me of her words. So what did I do? I asked God to give it back. I asked Him to give me back the ability I had to write before when I would stay up at night writing as fast as I could because the words were coming so quickly and they just flowed out of me like a river. And do you know what He did?

He laughed.

Then He said, “I won’t give it back until you start writing again. Do you really think it’s going to be that easy?”

Needless to say,  I got the point. But was the laugh necessary?? I digress. God gave me a gift for writing, yes. No one is denying that. But I quit using it. I’m the one that stopped writing. He never took the gift from me, I just let it get rusted up, and now the wheels don’t wanna move like they used to.

If you have something you’re good at, don’t be like me and have to learn the hard way to keep doing it. Whatever it may be. And if you’re like me and already have… Pick up that pen again. The paintbrush. The guitar. The camera. Whatever it is. Pick it up and start practicing. Don’t let it go forever.

So here’s to carrying a notebook everywhere in 2017. Maybe one day soon, I’ll be as great of a writer as I was at 16.