Friday, July 24, 2015



Or, to be more tech-savvy: #blessed. (the young people on my trip to Swaziland were sweet enough to help me try to be cool last week. They are the best).

I have a real problem with this word. I don't think we fully understand what it means.

I did a quick search on Twitter and FB for "#blessed" and this is what I got: 

Great day at the beach! #blessed.
Look at this cool thing my kid did! #blessed.
{Picture of me looking pretty} #blessed
I'm so glad I'm where I am right now. I love my life! #blessed
My new car!{or other great thing I have}. #blessed.

Are those things really blessings? I'm not convinced they are. Someone once told me how God blessed her while on vacation and arranged for her to meet someone kind of famous who was inspirational to her. But this conversation happened while I was in Swaziland. All I could think about while she was talking was "Really? God blessed you by arranging things in your life so that you could meet someone famous while you were on vacation? What about God arranging things in the life of the child in a hut a mile away so that she could have food and clean water? Or, you know, not be raped?" I'm often left confused and shaken by what we consider blessings.

I cannot follow a God who "blesses" people in first world nations with new cars, fun opportunities, pretty faces, and awesome vacations while people starve, babies die of malnutrition, and women and children are raped just a plane ride away. I can't believe that God blessed my family with our lovely little home, while at the same time knowing the reason Amani's birthmother couldn't raise him had everything to do with poverty in her country.

In the Bible, blessings look quite different. In the Old Testament, blessings are a strengthening of an individual or a people. God blessed people in order for them to carry out his will, to continue his work of restoration and redemption. Many times, the blessing is children: adding to their number - more people to do the work of God.  In the New Testament, blessings seem to describe when someone fully experiences God, or gains a true understanding of God.  In both cases, the blessing doesn't directly benefit the recipient: it's something used to carry on the overall work of God and in turn benefits someone else.

What if we started talking about blessings that way? My heartbreak over poverty in Swaziland and Ethiopia is my blessing. It's an honor to cry and hurt for someone else. Ultimately, it makes me stronger and helps me do the work God has for me. And it makes me fight harder... not just for poverty in developing countries, but for issues here at home. The blessing of being broken-hearted makes me a better justice fighter.

The past 18 months have been kind of awful for me.  Losing my dad was the hardest thing I've ever experienced. But I have learned so much about the heart of God. I experienced God's presence in ways that I never had before and it both shook and strengthened my faith. Is it weird to say that losing Dad was a blessing? I hate it. I'd give anything to have him still here with me.... yet what God did with that experience was absolutely a blessing. And because of how I experienced God through that difficult time, I am following Jesus more closely. I'm more committed to God's work of restoration.

Life's not easy in the Cassell household these days. We planted a church about three years ago and while it could probably support a full-time pastor, we've made a commitment as a church that we will never spend more money on ourselves than we do on others. So until half of our tithes can support a full-time pastor, my husband has to work a second job. And his current second job is a contract position. It ends in two weeks. He's been applying for jobs for the past 8 months with no success so far. Our financial future is shaky at the moment. But we have this amazing little church. We've gotten to see people fall in love with Jesus. We get to be part of teaching others what following Jesus can look like - how we can be part of God's work to redeem and restore all the brokenness and injustice and oppression in this world.  It's a blessing, isn't it? We've sacrificed our financial security (and on some days, our very peace of mind); there has been no material benefit from our church plant. It's scary... but it's a blessing. I'm certain of it because it has made us decide that our convictions are important enough to make the sacrifices. We've decided following Jesus is worth it.

And this. I want to post this picture on Facebook with the hashtag "blessed." This is sweet Ellie with one of the children at the homestead we visited. She's 16 and traveled halfway across the world to bring a smile to the face of a child in Swaziland. Not only that... because of a last-minute problem with documents, she came ALONE. She had to leave her grandmother and her cousin at the airport in the States in order to come and she had about 2 minutes to make the decision to go.  She planted gardens for the hungry. She clothed the naked and while we didn't go to an actual prison, many of the people of Swaziland are imprisoned by their circumstances, held hostage by poverty.  She visited the suffering in prison. It was hard. She experienced what it's like to be part of God's work this week and I pray that her experiences in Swaziland will strengthen her to continue to follow Jesus, doing hard things. That is a blessing. It's a blessing I hope for for my own children one day. I can't wait to see what God does through that kiddo!

And then there's Sharon. I didn't ask her permission to tell y'all this, but she's 70 (I'm confident that she loves me enough to forgive me for telling you). And she has wanted to serve Jesus in Africa for her entire life. I was so excited for her to come with me to Swaziland. She sat on uncomfortable bumpy Combi rides for hours every day (I even caught her in the very back!). She hiked uphill a half mile after helping plant a garden and crawled through barbed wire. She held sick babies for whom she's been desperately praying. She pushed herself so hard she got sick one day and had to stay back at our hotel. She managed international travel and the stress of getting pulled aside repeatedly by security. And the woman with her in this picture pulled her all around her homestead, showing her every nook and cranny. And just this morning Sharon posted on FB that she is forever changed because of her experiences and that she hopes God will continue to change her. That woman never ceases to challenge and inspire me. What a blessing!

May we continue to seek out blessings such as these: hard days, opportunities to put our own needs and comforts aside for the good of others, fighting poverty, standing up against injustice. I pray today you may be truly #blessed.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I love going to Swaziland to serve.

I really hate coming home.

It doesn't make sense: I came home to my husband and my children whom I really missed while I was gone. I love my job and my friends and my church here.  And I'm certain that, for right now, Greensboro is home.

But re-entry after serving in a developing country is never pretty. Yesterday was my first full day home. I woke up feeling as if someone dumped water on all the circuits in my brain. I made it to the gym in an effort at normalcy but felt foggy & disconnected. And I spent the rest of the day fighting the urge to go to bed and cry.  

I live in a culture where it's perfectly acceptable to focus on myself and what I want. It's not only okay to be selfish and hoard our resources - it's encouraged. We buy big houses and fill them full of stuff only to declare that we don't have enough space and need a bigger house. I've been telling my husband recently about my plan to figure out how to raise the ceilings in our home because I don't feel they are tall enough.  My refrigerator is often full of food that goes bad and I have to throw it away. My kids have toys they never play with and clothes they outgrow before having a chance to wear. Just before my trip to Swaziland, we emptied out our attic and had a giant yard sale and I was shocked to see all the stuff we had been "just holding onto" for the past ten years.

And last week I delivered clothing to some families in one of the communities surrounding Project Canaan in Swaziland. One child's only pair of pants were threadbare and holey in the bottom. And we didn't have any bottoms in his size so we had brought two tops. When the family asked about pants for him, the best answer I could give was that at Christmas that family will be invited to Project Canaan to come and pick out clothing for themselves.

The best answer I had for a child with pants full of holes was the hope that a new pair might be available in 6 months. When my kids bust a hole in the knee of their pants, I toss them without a second thought. And I don't have to run out to buy new ones - they already have many extras in the drawer. And this same child, the one whose only pants are full of holes, put on the fleece jacket we had brought and did a dance of joy. He didn't complain that there were no pants, he was thrilled with the new cozy fleece. And I'm once again shamed and humbled.

In Swaziland, people live on homesteads. A homestead is generally 2-4 small mud huts with thatched roofs. One is for cooking, others for sleeping.  Here's one I visited last week:
Both of these buildings are sleeping quarters - but notice the one on the right is in disrepair.

The rain has washed away the mud holding the wall together. This building is still in use. People sleep here. If it rains, they just get rained on. 

This is inside of a sleeping hut in the rafters just over the bed. Imagine this like your bedside table. At home, my nightstand is filled with a lamp, books, jewelry, and pictures of my family. Here it's one of the few places to stick some tools and store things off the ground.

I'm unmoored. I'm angry. Everything I will do today seems meaningless. I'm going to take the kids to the library to return some books and to Barnes & Noble to turn in their completed summer reading lists and pick out their free book. It should be a lovely day. But instead, I'll fight tears as I look around me, remembering the children with whom I played, whose joy in receiving a piece of much-needed clothing (but not even the most-needed article) was greater than my kids' delight in their free books today. 

I'm unmoored. I'm heartbroken. There is so much wrong with this. My prayers are filled with "whys" and "I don't understands."  It is so hard to look poverty in the face and find hope. It is so hard to return to the excesses of everyday life in the US and not want to scream and cry. I will never have an acceptable answer for suffering. But I will never stop trying to be part of bringing peace and hope. I pray all the time that God will break my heart for what breaks his. And he has. And sometimes it's more than I can handle.

I want to remain unmoored. I want to stay heartbroken. I want to keep my anger. Traveling to Swaziland brings with it the honor and the responsibility to tell the stories. I have a friend who calls me her "personal dark cloud" because I'm the one who tells her about modern-day slavery, about poverty worldwide. But she says it with a smile because she's made changes in her life to do something about it. Seeing the dark makes me responsible to bring it to light so that we can work together to change things.

And here's what I know: Jesus came to bring restoration. God's plan is to redeem all of this. I can choose to make life about me or I can choose to be part of the work God's been doing since the beginning. For me, the choice is simple. It may be heartbreaking and overwhelming but I cannot imagine life any other way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Coming Out as an Ally

photo credit:
It hasn't been all that long that I've been publicly "out" as an ally to the LGBTQ community. And I regret that. I've always been in favor of equal rights but I hid. I held my personal views close and kept them to myself, not feeling safe to share. I wasn't brave enough. And for that, I apologize to the LGBTQ community. I missed chances to advocate for you because I valued my "safeness" over you and I am deeply sorry.

I've been thinking about my journey from secretly supportive to true ally. It's been scary. I grew up in the conservative Christian Church (granted, it was in Massachusetts, but it was a Southern Baptist Church in Massachusetts), my husband went to a Baptist seminary and we spent 10 years in ministry in traditional, conservative churches before starting our little church plant, missio dei.

That means that as I have made it public that I not only support equal rights in marriage but have also changed my belief about what the Bible says about gay marriage, I've taken a stand directly opposite many of my brothers and sisters - people I love. It means that some people who love me, people who have worshiped with me, who taught my children, who welcomed me into their lives when their kids were in our youth group have changed how they feel about me.  I've lost some friends. From places where I was once considered a woman with a strong faith, I've been told I'm not a committed Christian, that I've been blinded, that my faith is damaged, that I've elevated my own opinions over the Word of God. I continue to be shocked every time someone assumes I changed my belief because I no longer value the Bible.

I think about my fear the first time I posted a blog post in favor of marriage rights. I was so anxious I couldn't sit still. I almost threw up. I still get anxious sometimes. I added some new Facebook friends recently and as I clicked "add friend," I thought, "Oh gosh, they are going to see my rainbow profile picture!" I still fear. My selfish heart still craves approval from man. It still hurts when I'm told I don't love Jesus enough, that I've thrown out the Bible, when I'm told that I am valuing myself over God. It still hurts to know I'm no longer "in."

But this change - admitting I was wrong about what I thought the Bible said about gay marriage - has come from my love of God's Word. It has come from my love of God's people. The only prayer that has stayed truly consistent in my life has been this: "God, make my heart more like yours." Don't get me wrong - I have a long way to go. I'm still selfish and prideful and quick to anger (just ask my kids). But I also see changes. I feel power to love those that I normally wouldn't. I agonized over walking away from my firmly held belief that God ordained marriage for a man and a woman. I cried. I begged God not to let me make a decision based on what I wanted to see. And yet, as I studied the Bible and saw how gay Christians were in loving, committed relationships, I began to understand just how wrong I was. And the peace I've felt since I finally changed my mind is indescribable. It's that "peace that passes beyond understanding" from Philippians.

I speak out now because of that fear. It was (and is) scary and difficult for me to be out as an ally. I can only imagine just how much more scary and difficult is for a gay person to come out. Can you imagine this? What if the only way for me to be who I am, to be MYSELF with the people I love involved admitting I was gay - risking losing my community, my support system. Risking my life, in some cases. I have a choice here - I don't have to be an ally. I can keep my personal views to myself and leave the LGBTQ community alone. I don't have a dog in this fight. But I can't do it. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, to love one another, to fight FOR (not against) one another. The more I read my Bible, the more convinced I am that I am to put my own comfort aside, to put the needs of others before my own. And if there's ever a time to do so, it's now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Problem with CLEARLY

"The Bible CLEARLY says..."

I have seen these words about 47 billion times since the SCOTUS decision. I'm actually kind of wondering if anyone in my life ever said those words to me outside of the gay marriage issue.

But there's a problem. There's very little that the Bible is truly CLEAR about. I believe the Bible clearly says that Jesus died for all of us because God loves us that much. But there are Christians who would disagree with me even on that (the ALL part).

Here's the deal: As Christians, we believe the Bible is Truth. We use lots of different words to describe that Truth: inerrant, infallible, inspired, Word of God.

I believe all those things about the Bible: it is inerrant, it is infallible, it is the inspired Word of God. However, I don't believe those things about anyone's interpretation of the Bible. Including my own. I hold my theology loosely. The minute I start claiming my particular interpretation of the Bible as "The Truth," it becomes quite a mess.... um, kind of like the one we are in now.

The Bible wasn't written yesterday. There are layers of information to sift through: cultural norms of the time when it was written, the position and history of the writer, the purpose of the writing, what tradition says. We also have to weigh it against new information (for example: the Bible talks about the four corners of the Earth so until science caught up, the belief held that the Earth was flat and had four corners. Now, of course, we consider that passage to be figurative).

So we have to "pick and choose."

Okay, okay. I know that's a bad word in the Christian world. But we really do. We have to choose how we are going to look at different passages. We don't do it arbitrarily - we do it with a lot of prayer, a lot of study, a lot of discourse with others in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We look at what we've traditionally believed and decide if we still think that's right. We also look to see if a particular view is "bearing fruit" - meaning, is the result of this belief bringing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (are you singing the song with me?).

A lot of Christians like to claim that we own absolute truth.

But this is so dangerous. Guess what? The vast majority of us are going to find out one day that we were not right about everything we believed the Bible said. I know for a fact I'm wrong about some stuff. I just don't know which stuff yet. Look at our history. All of these things have been said are CLEAR in the Bible:

  • the sun revolves around the Earth (this is why Galileo got in such big trouble)
  • Christians can and should keep slaves
  • Women should keep silent in church
  • Interracial marriage is a sin
  • Women in leadership positions in the Church is sinful

We've changed our views on these "very clear" issues through much study, discussion, and gnashing of teeth in some cases. Some Christians still believe the Bible mandates a secondary role for women, but now those folks typically say it's "complementary."

I hear you if you believe the Bible CLEARLY says that same-sex relationships are sinful. I've seen the verses. At face value, it appears you are right. But maybe you could hear me too? I've studied, I've looked at cultural lenses, I've looked at the overall message of the Bible as it relates to marriage. Plus I now know gay people who love Jesus and whose relationships are "bearing fruit." And I don't think it's so clear anymore. I'm not going to tell you the Bible CLEARLY affirms gay marriage but I can no longer say with certainty that there's no place for my gay friends' marriages in God's eyes.

What if, as a Church, we took a stance of humility. What if, instead of the bumper sticker above, we said this to the world:

"We have this beautiful book. It's a love story. A story of how the God who created us is both letting us have the free will to mess everything up but also inviting us to be part of redeeming the mess we've created. He loves us so much that he sent his son to die to atone for all the ways we've failed. We are always working together to hammer out the details, but one of the promises in the book is that God says he'll live in you, he'll guide you, he'll start to change your life when you choose to follow him. He says he'll make our hearts more like his: we'll love more, we'll fight for those without a voice, we'll seek to end poverty, injustice, oppression. We will, together, lift one another up by putting the needs of others above our own. You are always welcome with us. Your voice matters to us. Let's read this book together and continue our path to learn more about the heart of God."

That, my friends, is how we cease to "look like the world." It's not about following the right rules. We don't own Truth. But we have an amazing God, one who will absolutely take our lives and turn it upside down for the good of others, bringing glory to himself and pointing others to Jesus. This is why I'm still a Christian: the hope of Jesus, the promise that he's bigger than any mess we get ourselves into. Clearly.