Why Do I Noonday?

Two weeks ago, I became a Noonday Collection Ambassador, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have this as the next step in my story! Noonday is a business that uses fashion to create meaningful opportunities and dignified work for artisans in vulnerable communities around the world. We partner with the most amazingly talented artisan businesses in twelve countries: Afghanistan, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, and Uganda.

Noonday is a collection of women here in the States and across the globe who want to become leaders in their community, who believe in justice and dignity for everyone, and who desire a flourishing world where children are cherished, people have jobs, women are empowered and we are all connected.

Isaiah 58_10

I will be 40 next year, and it has taken me almost 35 years to understand and appreciate what it means to be a woman, to be feminine, and to trust I have strength and dignity. Up until four years ago, I was living a life with plenty of mistakes and setbacks. And while some of my stories have led me to feel guilt and shame, I almost wouldn’t trade my life story for anything, because it allows me to empathize with women who feel broken, who long to be pure and wholesome, and who mourn the loss of innocence often denied to us as women.

While on a mission trip in Africa two months ago, I was thinking about poverty and the systemic effects of disempowerment in vulnerable communities. I know I went to Africa to serve those in need as someone in need. But it got me wondering: How am I poor? Certainly I have a “good life”. I can pay the rent on an apartment I live in by myself. I have a car and a job and a dog. I travel and have dinner out with friends. I have medical coverage and can buy healthy foods. So how am I poor?

Noonday Ambassador, Katie Beard, on an Ambassador trip to Rwanda
Noonday Ambassador, Katie Beard, on an Ambassador trip to Rwanda

And, as I replayed the entirety of my story in my mind, I realized my poverty is intimacy. I have spent the last four years uncovering the many ways I have misunderstood intimacy, been careless with it, and in doing so, walked further and further away from experiencing it. And I know, as a woman built for relationships and designed for community, a lack of true intimacy is a painful wound in the soul.

About two years ago, I felt God calling me to engage in social justice. He didn’t provide details for the road ahead and certainly didn’t hand me a map. But he has gently and tenderly led me deeper and deeper into the stories of women in my community and around the world who are poor, vulnerable, and disempowered. As I hear the story of a young girl from an impoverished family in Afghanistan, married off as a child bride and required to prove her fertility at a dramatically young age, my head bows in sadness. As I learn the name and see the face of a woman who almost abandoned her baby on the steps of an orphanage because she didn’t have the money or a proper home to care well for her daughter, I weep for how differently she and I live. As I befriend women recently rescued from trafficking who are struggling to regain a sense of dignity and to feel safe in this world, my head bows even further from the ways women are discriminated against and treated with terrifying inequity.

Four years ago, I laid out the pieces of my story – all of it. The desirable and the things I would prefer to keep hidden. And it was awful, like setting the table for a meal I would absolutely not like to eat. I saw this whole scene and thought, “This is a mess. I am a mess!” I felt helpless to change and discouraged about decisions I had made in my past. But… in doing this, I was given another perspective. I realized that all these pieces make sense together if seen from another angle. They have shaped me to connect with certain people and to be passionate about certain things, like women in vulnerable situations, and the poor and needy.

Over time, I have learned that I matter, and what I do with my life matters. I am not disempowered like many women I know here locally and around the world. I can make choices for myself about where I live, whom I marry, and what I do with my life. I have resources and a support network of family and friends. And I know now that I don’t want my abundantly blessed life to lead to entitlement. I want to use what I have been given to empower others.

I want to let women in my community and around the world know they matter, too, and that the world would truly miss out if they were not here and their stories were not told. I want us all to feel beautiful in our own skin and to accept and appreciate our story. No amount of shame or abuse or neglect can take away the dignity we are given as daughters of our good and loving God. And I long to stand with my sisters in solidarity, to advocate for them when few will listen, and to participate in their empowerment so they can bring forth beauty and creativity as we were designed to do.

Collaborative design on the La Luna necklace along with women artisans in Guatemala
Collaborative design on the La Luna necklace along with women artisans in Guatemala

Noonday Collection allows me an opportunity to openly encourage and inform women in my community about the way our sisters are living around the world and invite them to partner with me in creating a marketplace where we can style one another and purchase hand-made products that provide dignified work and hope of a sustainable life for these women.

By hosting a Trunk Show or Adoption Show, purchasing products, or becoming an Ambassador, you and I can link arms and say to our sisters in our community and overseas, “I see you and love you. You are talented and beautiful, and I stand with you.”

Beautiful, broken, beloved Sisters. You are why I Noonday.

Please join me! If you are interested in hosting a Show or you just want more information, please contact me at laurengainesnoonday@gmail.com.

Let It Roll

Agnes 1

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24, ESV)

In a small village in central Malawi lives a woman named Agnes. She has round cheeks and a wide, joyful smile. She lights up my heart and I call her my friend.

I got the chance to meet Agnes last year when our team from Summit Church visited her district and helped her and many others write their life stories. These “Memory Books” contain details about their families, their joys and fears, and how they wanted their kids to be cared for and their possessions to be distributed in the case of their death. This was important for them to document because each member of this support group is HIV-positive, including Agnes and her husband.

One week ago, the Summit team and I got to spend a couple hours with this same group, hearing testimonials about their Memory Books and praising God for their continued health.

When we pulled up at the village church, they were singing and dancing and welcoming us back. I looked hurriedly for Agnes in the crowd and couldn’t find her. I’ve had her phone number tucked into my Bible for almost a year, knowing that a phone call would be too expensive but longing to hear her voice and hug her again.

When I finally saw her bright smile in the crowd, joy immediately filled my heart. In her, I see a hero that stands tall with dignity in spite of her situation. I see someone with gifts and talents bestowed upon her by God. And, fortunately, so does World Relief.

Agnes 2 unfiltered

Malawi is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. But while they are materially poor, they have a vibrant and growing faith community. The mission of World Relief is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. Believing that the church is the avenue through which God’s goodness and righteousness is revealed, World Relief equips pastors and ministry team members to provide long-term care for the needs in their community.

By introducing programs and training that focus on agribusiness, savings and loan, and HIV/AIDS education, and which blend Scripture (Word) with acts of service (deed), World Relief is equipping churches to cultivate communities that are on mission.

The goal is for each church to be equipped and serving independently of World Relief in about five years. Local churches also partner together to support and learn from one another and to continue raising up leaders and healthy communities.

In Isaiah 1:17, the Lord instructs us to “learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” God desires for us to be concerned about the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society, and that we make personal sacrifices in order to serve their needs.

I am blessed to have met Agnes. It brings me joy to know she is living a healthy life with HIV, learning new skills to make money for her family, and that she knows she is loved and cherished by God. I am grateful for the tireless work World Relief is doing in Malawi to help men and women move from pain and despair to being known and cared for by others.

The World Relief staff members below are heroes to me and continue to pray for each one of these men and women, for strength and refreshment and joy as they pursue justice and restoration for the people God has given them to love.

World Relief staff 2015

Restless

Last night, I sat still for what felt like hours. Actually, I sat on the couch, then I lay on the floor in a twist, then I folded over with my forehead on the carpet and my arms along my legs. But I was quiet and listening and still.

Earlier, I had been scrolling through Instagram when my eyes landed on the verse from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.

Suddenly it felt like my cure – the cure for my restlessness. I longed for that stillness. My mind had been racing all day. I was busily rearranging everything that wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, the plans that weren’t coming together neatly, and the longing in my heart that has been stirring without an easy resolution.

So I crawled into a place of stillness and sat there. I brought the fidgety feelings with me, as I typically do. And they made me want to check social media. Or clean the bathroom. Or turn on music, or scrub the sink, or anything but just s-i-t. And be. Adds Up 1 And yet, the longer I was there, the more I was able to sink into what I was really feeling. I imagined those feelings on a set of scales along with God’s tender, yet firm, promises. And it allowed me to swim through the swirling feelings, the confusion, and the mess without slowly freaking out.

I began by writing down all the things I have been carrying, all the stories I have given permission to overwhelm me. God asks me to lay all of this anxiety at His feet. He actually wants me to bring Him the things that weigh me down, that fill my heart with heavy darkness, so I can be light and free.

So I do. Through making this list, I take steps toward trusting He is for me, trusting that He will pick up what I lay down and it won’t all fall apart.

After I finished writing, I said, “Here’s my list, Lord. I hand these things to you, not because they are precious to me, but because I think the act of bringing them to you may be precious. And I know you will know what to do with them.”

It’s both stillness and faith in His mighty mercy that actually put me in a position to see and listen. And hearing from Him is what I long for right now. I crave direction. I want Him to tell me where to go, and when, and why. I long to be invited. And I feel just as stuck now as I did while going through math homework with my Dad when I was younger. He longed for me to enjoy the puzzle of algebra or balancing equations in chemistry, while I simply begged, “Just give me the answer!”

My friend, Melissa, wrote about me on her blog and has described how I’m feeling perfectly:

My friend, Lauren, thinks it’s like holding five cards in her hands, each one with a place she’s drawn to. She keeps shuffling them around, placing this or that one on top, staring and dreaming for a long while, and then shuffling them again. Meanwhile, God sits patiently across from her, eyes sparkling and says, “Hey, you. Want to play one of those?”

So I move towards stillness. So steady I hear the birds singing and can distinguish between their songs. Still enough to see the trees alive with small and wispy-winged movement.

Still enough to notice the tiniest shifts in a friend’s demeanor and to witness in her a realizing and an opening and growth.

Still enough in prayer to move through the layers of sadness, of anger and frustration, and finally lay down on the cool, solid floor of willingness and peace.

Still enough to see the shadows move and grow longer. And to know each moment I spend in fellowship with Him is movement in the right direction.

When It All Adds Up

I’m thinking about airplanes a lot these days.

I am returning to Malawi in May, I would like to visit California sometime this year, and a dear friend and I are making plans (waaaaay in advance) to return to Italy in October 2016. (I’m so ready for my next life as a travel writer.)

This is my second trip to Malawi, in partnership with World Relief, and this time our team will be facilitating a workshop for the staff on the StrengthsFinder assessment. This is a great way to discover our talents and uncover how uniquely we have each been made. Using a list of 34 strengths, the basic version of the assessment provides each individual’s top five strengths, starting with the most dominant one.

Here are my top five:

  1. Connectedness – having faith in the links between all things and trusting that there are few coincidences in life
  1. Empathy – sensing the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or situations
  1. Intellection – loving intellectual activity and enjoying introspection and intellectual discussions
  1. Developer – recognizing and cultivating the potential in others by spotting the signs of each small improvement and deriving satisfaction from these improvements
  1. Belief – having certain core values that are unchanging and that contribute to a defined purpose for life

I am strong

So my team members and I have been studying the 34 strengths and learning about how they shape the personalities, career choices, and lives of each of us.

As part of our preparation, our team attended a seminar on applying these strengths in interpersonal relationships. At one point, the teacher casually mentioned that one out of 33 million people will have the same top five strengths, in the same order, as we do.

One out of 33 million.

There are just over 7 billion people on the planet right now. And this is only accounting for the top five strengths. We each have a unique constellation of all 34 of them.

I was still digesting this when my friend, Nathan, leaned over and said, “You know, if you do the math, you are the only person out of 475 trillion people who has your same top ten strengths in the same order.”

I almost slid out of my chair.

Okay, confession time. I’m literally frightened of math. In middle school, I was called on one too many times in math class when I either didn’t have a clue or I gave the wrong answer. Nowadays, my brain automatically closes the windows and shuts the blinds when arithmetic comes my way. Never mind those ridiculous word problems: “There are two trains, one leaving Rochester, NY at 115 mph and the other leaving somewhere freezing in Minnesota at 102 mph…. Which of the conductors is wearing purple socks?” Ugh. Brain freeeeeeeeze.

Nevertheless, I tucked Nathan’s comment away in my heart. And when I got home, I opened my Bible to Psalm 139 and read how I am fearfully and wonderfully made. And I realized how significant it is who Jesus chose as His disciples: tax collectors, fishermen, zealots, outcasts. Jesus was teaching us something about Himself – and something about us as well.

We have been so carefully made. We have been given strengths and visions and dreams for our life. God wants us to live in vibrant clarity about how He sees us and how He wants us to see Him.

I can’t get over how intricately He thought me up. And you. And that person you have such a hard time being kind to each day. We are literally one of a kind.

The teacher helped us see how our strengths point to why we were made in this way – by looking at the pileated woodpecker. He hits a tree with 1,000 g’s, using a beak that doesn’t shatter and boasting a reinforced skull designed to spread the impact of striking the tough bark. For comparison’s sake, most roller coasters are about 4 g’s. The teacher gave this same example and said, “I’ll use this language loosely, but the woodpecker is called for a purpose and is appropriately equipped.”

pileated-woodpecker

If God spent this much time carefully crafting a bird, I hope I can appreciate how thoughtfully He made me. I know I have spent inordinate amounts of time wondering about my purpose and whether my meager contributions amount to much. But if I am the only person, probably ever, to walk this earth, designed the way I am, how could I not be more inspired and excited to share my story with others? Can I really appreciate how much the Lord loves me to have made me so unique?

God made each of us to share something distinctive about Him, to reflect His glory in special and specific ways. We each have Light to shine into this dark world. Please hear this: You are needed. You are important here. Don’t let the world miss out on knowing God through You!

His Love in Sight

Over the last month, my Mom has had two surgeries to remove cataracts in both of her eyes. She has been going to an ophthalmologist for years, but it was only a couple months ago, when she commented on the two E’s at the top of the eye chart, that the doctor glanced at her sideways and asked, “Has anyone ever talked with you about cataracts?”

Through the course of their conversation, my Mom learned the ways that cataracts had been clouding her vision and how clarity would be restored through surgery. But no one prepared her for the incredible, and dramatic, way she now sees colors!

Pre-cataract surgery

It’s like the world has suddenly come screaming into view again, as though she has been living for years underwater.

Post-cataract surgery

My first comment was, “You have to get on a plane! You have to start traveling again, and see the beauty and bold colors of the world!” But, for her, the ability to see the band members’ faces on stage at church, and to know she’s putting on two navy socks – not one black and one blue – is a really big deal for her.

Not only is there now just one airplane when she looks up in the sky, but flowers are more vibrant purples and pinks, sunsets have been restored to their deep tangerines and salmons, and her enjoyment of the world around her has been magnified.

In the gospel of Mark (2:13-17, NIV), we read the account of Jesus calling one of His disciples, Levi:

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Like many verses in scripture, I have read this one countless times. But after hearing about my Mom’s radical change in her vision, I suddenly experienced this verse in a whole new light.

Levi was a tax collector, an isolating and disliked profession during his time. I work at a church now, and have had jobs in various industries like health and wellness (yoga teacher), entertainment (Disney), marketing (BigEye Creative), and government (Florida Department of Law Enforcement). But I’ve never worked in a profession that would cause others to shun me or exclude me from social gatherings.

So when Jesus found Levi at work along the lake’s edge and said “Follow me”, I’m not sure Levi fully understood how much would change in his life.

One minute he is a social pariah, and the next he is reclining at his own table, in his home, with the savior of the world! And people took notice.

In those days, sharing a meal with someone was the social equivalent of calling them a dear friend. The Pharisees couldn’t handle Jesus associating with “tax collectors and sinners”, and they couldn’t help but ask Jesus about it. And I’m moved by His response. Basically, He says, “Here’s the thing: I’ve come for one reason and one reason only – to restore my relationship with sinners who know they are in need of rescue and grace. I’ve come for people just like Levi.”

I wonder if a smile spread across Levi’s face when he heard Jesus say He came not for the righteous, but for those who knew they needed Him. Suddenly, Levi is in. In that moment, he must have realized the Pharisees didn’t hold the market on who was accepted and who wasn’t, and the Pharisees’ world must have turned upside down when they heard Jesus say this, too.

Just like my Mom’s sudden change in perspective, there must have been a drastic difference in the way Levi saw himself and his place in the world. His whole world had to look differently from that moment forward. He was accepted. Chosen. And this was a status no one could take from him, not the spiritual elite or the doubting rejects of society.

Fortunately, the same invitation and acceptance is offered to us, too. And what a good feeling it is to know that the way we see ourselves can be colored not by the people around us, but by how our Lord sees us – righteous, pure, and totally, completely loved.

Good to Great

Some of you may know Bob Goff. If not, may I please encourage you to work your way into one of his speaking engagements or at least pick up his book, Love Does? Bob is hilarious, inspiring, and will challenge your socks off about how to live your life with faith and fervor!

Bob at Storyline

Meeting Bob at the Storyline Conference near Chicago (October, 2014)

Bob often includes one little tidbit in his talks that has been rolling around in the back of my mind. Every Thursday he gives something up. Every single week. One time, this even included giving up his job as a lawyer!

This is rattling around in my brain because when I first heard him say this I thought, “If I do this every week, I’ll soon be giving up necessities, like coffee and traveling, because I don’t have that much to give up!” I know you have no idea what that’s like, but let me tell you… for me, this is just not true.

I have a full time job and love it. I’m the Executive Assistant to the Lead Pastor at my church and it is, by far, my favorite job. In addition to this role, I also do quite a few other things each week:

– Co-lead a small group of wonderful college-aged women
– Teach two private, early morning yoga sessions
– Volunteer at the local rescue mission, serving dinner
– Mentor women in the local jail
– Lead meetings for our Ministry Interns, every other week
– Participate with three dear girlfriends in a writing group
– Write a blog (if you can call taking a month off “writing”)
– Clean an elderly gentleman’s apartment in low-income housing at the Salvation Army Towers once a month

my brain right now

This is how my brain feels right now. No order. Mild confusion. But lots of options!

Deep in my heart, I know I have to let some of these things go. But it’s hard. Which ones to keep? Which ones to step away from?

I watched a video today by Allison Vesterfelt about writer’s block, which has been a problem for me lately. She talked about the way she views writer’s block and what she’s done to successfully overcome it in the past. She said, “Writer’s block doesn’t always have to do with writing. Writer’s block can actually be something deeper than just finding the right words. It can be a ‘life block’.” 

And I am standing squarely in the middle of that. I have been telling myself I’m too busy to write (true) or that I’m actually enjoying face to face interactions with friends so much that I don’t need to write (not true). What’s happening is that I am avoiding the challenge of putting my thoughts on paper because I’m filling my calendar with so many good things!

So what has changed my mind about my schedule? First off, we are in the season of Lent and I’ve been praying about what I’m doing (or not doing) that creates distance between me and God. Second, I am trying to heal from a nasty sinus infection that has had me knocked down for over a week.

In my prayer time over the weekend, I asked for God to heal me. And right behind that request was another one for Him to reveal the reason for the timing of this sickness. Am I supposed to learn something from this, Lord? Is there a lesson here that I’m just not getting?

God took a moment, let me sit there in anticipation, and then said, “You can’t do it all. I know you want to, but you can’t. You see your busyness as ambition. I see it as pride.” 

Wow. Did you just hear all the air rushing right out of my balloon? That should’ve stung, but it actually felt good to hear. (After I stumbled back a few feet and sat down to think about it.) It’s comforting to realize God took the time to craft me in a particular way to be really great at certain things and good at others. And I can so easily confuse the two! But God understood the nuances and the timing of when I could use these gifts and talents. It’s something of a relief to hear that I don’t have to do everything I’m good at… at least not right now. Or all at once.

So, my task over the next couple weeks is to examine my list and see which ones are the great things God created me to do. (Keep doing those.) I also want to be very realistic about which things I’m doing that are simply good things and create less space for the great things to happen. (Work on letting go of those.)

I don’t pretend this will be easy. But it’s worth it. I’ll have time to write, and more spontaneous time with friends, and I’ll be able to invest deeply in the great things on my list. Most importantly, I won’t be able to pretend any longer that I’m doing all of these things on my own steam.