This is a story about dashed expectations and changing plans. A story of transitions. This is a story about fear, pain, Love, doubt, and Hope. It’s a story about Africa. It’s a story about me and about you. A story about a girl. i didn’t write this story, i never could have written it and even if i could, i never would have written it. It was written by Someone else. i’m just going to tell it to you, as best i know how.

That Time We Said No To Africa. (Fear).

i was never a fan of spending a long time in Africa. i’ve always wanted to travel to Africa… Just a quick trip with some photographs to show the family and friends back at home so they know how adventurous i am and how i am globally minded and compassionate. An African Facebook profile pic would be worth a week or so in Africa.

But as we began praying about the country we would pursue adoption through, Africa didn’t make the cut. Adoption had been in the plans since as long as marriage had been in the plans but where from… We didn’t know. Africa had always been in the “plans”, too. The “we should go to Africa sometime” kind of plans.

After all, “we should go to Africa sometime” right?!

So, come late 2014 and into early 2015 we started praying about adoption (as a right now kind of thing). We started consulting friends and family about what it would look like for us to peruse this adoption journey NOW. We started researching adoption agencies, programs, and available countries. And when we looked at countries, we started in Africa… After all, “we should go to Africa sometime” right?!

Nope. Not going. Ain’t happening.

Every adoption program comes with a list of stats and expectations. It’s kinda like the back of a baseball card merged with a cookbook. And one of those things on the expectations list is always: expected time in country. We looked at Africa first and not only were there very few programs in Africa, but the expected time in country wasn’t listed in days. It was listed in weeks. But even that was misleading. They could just as easily used the word months.

The first African country our hearts sprang to was Uganda. Not only would it be “nice to travel to Africa someday”, but some of the favorite and most hip and white social justice heroes of my high school and early childhood days had started their work on Uganda. Invisible Children had captured my attention during my late teens and early twenties in their work to bring awareness to the child soldiering and night traveling plights of the young people in northern Uganda. Noonday was cranking out fair trade jewelry in Kampala. And on and on the list could go. Uganda was the place to go if you wanted to save the world.

So, my finger landed on Uganda and slid down to time expected in country… 6-8 weeks.

Nope. Not happening. Forget about it.

You see, i’m already a father of three, and they’re not traveling to Uganda with us, and i’m not leaving them here for 6-8 weeks while we’re in Africa. Uganda is fairly safe today, but 6-8 weeks in Uganda is like two years in a “normal country”. A lot can happen in Africa in 6-8 weeks.

i didn’t write this story, i never could have written it and even if i could, i never would have written it. It was written by Someone else. i’m just going to tell it to you, as best i know how.

i mean haven’t you ever heard of Al-Shabaab? Or of the LRA? i wouldn’t want to be in Africa long enough to meet Joseph Kony in a back alley (6 years ago i would have, but being a father has brought back the fear). i mean haven’t you ever seen the movie Hotel Rwanda? Political landscapes can flip at the drop of a hat. Ever heard of Burundi? Neither had i until a short while back when they had a government shift and the Department of State issued a shelter in place for all Americans there until airports could reopen. Stop it. I could throw a rock into Burundi from Uganda. And i sure as heck don’t want to be caught in the crossfire when Leonardo DiCaprio is trying to smuggle blood diamonds out of the country. My father-in-law lived in Africa for a while and he had to carry a big stick when he went to town and watch for pickpockets in the reflections of store front windows. Several of my friends spent much of their childhood in Africa. Where one of their dads planted a church. The kind of church where pastoral visits sometimes require a car trunk full of weapons. We’re not talking machine gun preacher, i promise. It didn’t go down like that. But while we’re on that topic… Have you ever seen the movie Machine Gun Preacher? It’s pretty intense in South Sudan and i could throw a rock into South Sudan from Uganda. You see, when they make movies about Africa they don’t have to write a script of political upheaval and extreme violence and turmoil and sickness. History already wrote the script. And what about all the sickness?! i wouldn’t want to be in Africa long enough to get AIDS or Ebola. And thank God for malaria shots. What if i am killed by a hippo?! Those guys are fierce. Have you ever read a travel advisory for Uganda? Not very comforting, to say the least.

So, the answer was no. Move on. We aren’t going to Uganda. I’m not going to orphan three to give a forever family to one. Forget about it. And so we did. We forgot about it…. Until August 6th 2015

When Dreams Die in a Swimming Pool. (Pain).

It was the day before my birthday, and we were on vacation in Myrtle Beach, SC. i was in the pool with my boys, and they were jumping fearlessly from the deck into my arms. They weren’t thinking about the water that was taller than their heads or the fact that the distance between me and them was the actual limit of their jumping abilities. They were thinking about the joy that came with saying “risk be damned,” and they were just jumping. They were thinking about the strength and consistency of their loving father’s arms, and they were just jumping. They were thinking about their joy and my joy, and they were just jumping. i should have known that as i was basking in the presence of such amazing child-like faith and joy… That God was about to test my faith and make war for my joy… But i never saw it coming.

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“We have to talk”, Sarah Beth had just returned to the pool area, and, in hindsight, you could read it on her face. She got into the pool and walked over and then she spoke, “the agency called.” My first thought: “we have a referral!”. Her first words, “They’re shutting down the in country hosting program in Colombia.” Wham! My first response was frustration (didn’t they know we were on vacation?!). And then everything just blanked.

As Ezra crashed into the side of my head, and i barely managed to catch him and keep him from sinking into the water, i didn’t even look at him. i just stared into the sky above the fence on the west side of the pool area and felt my stomach turn to mush. The pilot program we were a part of in Colombia was the only thing that made adoption from Colombia work for our family’s current situation, and the end of the program would mean the end of Colombia. And i didn’t even have to talk it through (we did anyway), because i knew Colombia was being erased from our future, and i couldn’t find any words. i remember half-heartedly hugging my bride and telling her everything was going to be okay. But she wasn’t falling for it, and i wasn’t either. And when i said the next words, “God has a plan that’s better than our plan…”. It might have sounded like i was comfortable with that, but my soul was laced with bitterness and frustration and confusion. “Can we talk about this later?! Let’s just enjoy the children that we already do have, and we can talk about this later.” And then i went about pretending like i was enjoying myself, but all i could do was stare at the sky above the west side fence of that pool area. i felt like i had just been kicked in the stomach.

They were thinking about their joy and my joy, and they were just jumping.

Little did i know that as i was staring west into that barely cloudy blue sky in confusion and frustration, i was looking in the exact direction of our agency’s African Program Director. You can’t make stuff like this up. She lives less than one mile up the street that was directly across the road from where we were swimming. It would be a few days before we learned that, but it’s been a multitude of similar things along this journey that have reminded us of the glorious sovereignty of God. Little whispers from God saying, “I’ve got this! I wrote this story before you were even born. I love you. Trust me.”

The Smoke Clears. (Love).

When we were informed that the specific Colombian program we were a part of was being shut down, the agency told us they were putting us in contact with the Haitian/African Program Director. This was white noise to me for about 48 hours. i was reeling and frustrated and in a complete fog. i felt like we had lost our daughter. We’d yet to get a referral so there was not a real life little lady to match that unquenchable belief that we had a daughter in Colombia, but it had felt so real to me. Now the pain of loss felt real, too. i felt like she was dead. She wasn’t. But the expectations were shattered. We had been so confident. We believed we had a daughter in Colombia. We didn’t. And we likely never would. Just. Like. That.

We ate at Bonefish Grill that night. It was date night, and we tried about five really nice local restaurants first, but i refused to wait in line at any of them and 1.5 hours later we ended up at the stupid Bonefish Grill (actually a really nice restaurant, but it is a chain, and i wasn’t in the mood). It was depressing. It was surreal. It was like the twilight zone. i was angry. i was mean. Sarah Beth was hurting already. i hurt her even more. i said, “It’s MY birthday tomorrow…” as if that made it alright for me to be a self-centered piece of crap.  i apologized. She wept. Right there in the Bonefish Grill. The waiter was awkward. The cloth napkin was streaked with mascara. i ate a steak. i was grateful for delicious food and a patient wife, but i’ve never felt so weird eating food. To be in a nice restaurant with romantic lighting, just going through the motions because, “Hey! No retreat! Always advance!” i was determined to enjoy this vacation, but i was fooling myself. My heart was broken. i cried when i was alone, and i pushed the vacation forward when i wasn’t. i’ll always wonder if i should have pushed so hard to salvage that day instead of just absorbing the blow full force, but it’s in the past now. And i can tell you this, i’m not eating at Bonefish Grill ever again until our daughter is with us, and you can take that to the bank. i’ll eat a steak again and this time i won’t weep in private. i won’t care who sees my tears.

It was painful. The wound was deep, but it was healing faster than i thought it would.

And it wouldn’t take long for the smoke to begin clearing. We were mourning expectations and not an actual person, and so we moved through the stages of grief a little faster. It was painful. The wound was deep, but it was healing faster than i thought it would.

By the last days of our vacation we were seriously thinking a lot about Africa. As i previously mentioned, when the Colombian Program Director had given us the heartbreaking news about the closing program, she had mentioned the African/Haiti Program Director would be contacting us. This was of little comfort to us on August 6th, but after about 48-72 hours it was starting to get into our heads. Into our hearts. After all, “we should go to Africa someday.” This was the first place our hearts had flown to at the start our adoption journey, but it just didn’t seem like it fit. Now we were asking all the same questions about if it fits now.

I’ll be honest, the questions seemed even harder this time. Maybe it was how comfortable we had become with the idea of Colombia, but all the questions we had asked about Africa in the beginning, seemed even heavier now than ever. Everything that had led us to say “no” to Africa in the first place, was still true. And i was still scared of the idea. More. Than. Ever.

Even when i would rather walk in the “less than”, He is good to lead me to walk in the “better than”.

My initial response was the same as before, “No way. Not going to happen.” But God has a loving history of turning my staunch and confident “no” into a humble and reliant “yes”. i’ve said “no” before only to later hear God so kindly say, “we’ll see about that.” He makes known to me the pathway of life. Even when i would rather walk in the “less than”, He is good to lead me to walk in the “better than”.

We’re going to Africa. (Transition).

As we were wrestling with these questions, fears, and hesitations about Africa, we learned that the lady from our agency, answering so many of our questions about Africa, was directly across the street from where we were staying (remember the day in the pool).  God whispered, “I’ve got this.” We talked about Africa all the way home on the long drive back from the beach. The other African programs didn’t fit like Uganda, so if we switched to Africa, it would most likely be Uganda. But could this really be where our daughter is? We were getting close to sure by the time we got home, but i wanted to talk to some friends and family. Some folks who i trust to love me honestly and authentically.

To be away from my boys for that long, in a place like Uganda… it seamed foolish. Risky. Stupid. Was it worth it?

When we got home we learned that some dear friends from our church family, who were adopting from Haiti, had been switched to Uganda and already matched. Viola. That’s her name. She is 6 years old. A few days later they would be offered the joy of bringing her sister home, too. They said “yes.” They’ll be bringing two little ladies home from Uganda very soon. To our home state. Our city. Our church family. They have kids already that play with our kids sometimes. Are you kidding me?! God whispered, “Trust me, kids. I’ve written this already. All is well.”

i was beginning to believe Him. i talked more with Sarah Beth. We prayed. We talked about pros and cons and fears and excitements. We prayed. i talked to my dearest trusted people. They prayed. We prayed. i was still scared. To be away from my boys for that long, in a place like Uganda… it seamed foolish. Risky. Stupid. Was it worth it? i just couldn’t bring myself to believe that it was.

Then one morning it all caved in, my fears and hesitations that is. Thinking about the potential of weeks spent in country (this was my biggest hold up), i kept asking myself if it was worth it. And then i had a thought, “i wonder if there is an Acts 29 church in Uganda?” i pastor at a church that is part of the Acts 29 Network, and the network has gone global over the last few years, so i logged onto the Acts 29 website and pulled up the map. Africa is huge! There was a little dot there in East Africa. i started zooming in. The dot looked like it was right on top of Lake Victoria. My heart skipped a beat. i love the church. i love church planting. i kept zooming. That Acts 29 church is right smack in the middle of Kampala, Uganda. Stop it. That is exactly where we will be required to stay while in Uganda. Kampala. And right there in the heart of it is Sojourn Church! God whispered, “trust me, son.”

God took His blowtorch of grace out and started melting my heart at the speed of light.

There are about 5 things in this life that grip me to the core of my soul. The gospel, my bride, my boys, adoption, and the church/church planting. When Jesus builds His church through church planting, it makes my heart go crazy with joy. So, i pulled up the website for Sojourn Church Uganda and started reading and watching. And God took His blowtorch of grace out and started melting my heart at the speed of light. The pastor was from the states, and he packed up his entire family, even his kids, and planted a church in a slum in Kampala. God had me by both sides of my face now, “I NEVER abandon my kids, son! Nothing! Nothing can separate you from my love. Risk is right. Fear not my child!” i wept!!! The world shrank. Uganda seamed like it was only about two miles away… like i could walk there. i saw the faces. i saw my brothers and sisters. i saw Ugandans and Americans and Ukrainians. i saw the church. i saw God saving people and loving His kids. All in the heart of Kampala. i finally saw what my friends who have visited Uganda had been saying all along. This is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. So much love. And for the briefest second… i saw my daughter in Uganda. My heart saw her. i wept. And i wept. It was the epitome of ugly crying. My heart was a puddle. As soft as it has ever been. Fear was dead. Hope was alive. We’re going to Africa. We’re going to Uganda. That’s where she is. And we’re going to bring her home. Risk be damned. Fear meet love. Enter joy.

Are we doing the right thing? (Doubt).

But wait. It can’t just flip on a switch like that, can it?! As the clouds of fear were breaking up another storm was forming on the horizon. The storm of doubt.

What about unethical adoption?! Is that even a thing? Oh, it most certainly is and Uganda (and other African countries) has some stories to tell about it. Is it frequent? Not necessarily. Does it happen enough to draw the attention of many? Yes. And then doubt hit our hearts like a two-ton truck. An article here. A blog post there. This family thought their daughter was coming back from the states when she turned 18, but they were lied to. That family had to leave the village for medical attention, and while they were gone the folks they trusted with their son ditched him at the orphanage. And what about the plethora of orphans who could be cared for by their own parents if it was not for severe poverty. What do we do with that?! Ever heard terms like double orphan or evangelical trafficking? These are terms that make you think. These are ideas that make your head hurt. Some of what you read and see has just enough reality in it to make all the other crap they’re feeding you sound true and some of it is just undeniably true.

Children come into adoption through painful and sometimes very complicated situations. Each situation is unique and beautiful and brutal.

There is so much more to write about this and one day we will, but for now be aware of this: adoption is born in varying levels of tragedy, but no adoption is ever born without tragedy. Children come into adoption through painful and sometimes very complicated situations. Each situation is unique and beautiful and brutal. But SOMEtimes adoption is riddled with lies and theft and is nothing short of trafficking and profiteering. Adoptive families must take responsibility for these things and pursue ethical adoption to the furthest degree possible. But still the thought of an unethical adoption resulting in the growth of your own family is incredibly hard to process. International adoption is full of difficult thoughts that lead to doubt.

In many countries, international adoption has been shut down because of these previously mentioned reasons, and there has been very small pockets of chatter in Uganda about the same. It’s not likely, but still, what if we get 8 months into this thing and Uganda shuts it all down? Then what? International adoption is full of uncertainty that leads to doubt.

We’d considered these things throughout the entire process of this adoption, but with the proposed switch to Uganda, Pandora’s box had been opened once again. For days and days we wrestled with these thoughts and doubts and questions and ideas and realities. Are we doing the right thing? Your brain short-circuits a little bit at times like these. And doubt and fear have a way of  making the heart feel numb to even the most exciting things.

We talked to our agency, we googled, we read, we prayed, we watched, we talked to friends, we prayed, we talked to each other, we read the Psalms, and we prayed some more.

Are we doing the right thing? Your brain short-circuits a little bit at times like these. And doubt and fear have a way of  making the heart feel numb to even the most exciting things.

And it comes down to this, One, there are orphans in Uganda. Orphans for whom international adoption is their only practical, authentic, and realistic hope. These orphans need forever families. Two, there are orphans in Uganda who wouldn’t be orphans if someone could come alongside their parent(s) and help them find or develop a sustainable source of provision for their family. Three, our agency goes above and beyond what is required of them by Ugandan law to insure the absolute ethical nature of the adoptions they facilitate and that these orphans are in need of forever families. Four, and superseding all other reasons, God is all powerful and completely sovereign. We trust Him. We long to trust Him more. And we can move forward through doubt and fear, knowing His love never fails, and His plans are always best.

Destination Uganda. (Hope).

And so that’s where we find ourselves. We’re heading to Uganda. We’re moving through the fear and the doubt. We believe we have a daughter in Uganda. Even more importantly, we believe that God has already written this story that we are living in real time. His love is infinite. His plans are better. His joy is full. And His heart is for the orphan.

So, fear still fights, but its end is sure. And doubt still lingers, but it will meet its demise. We’re setting sail for Uganda, but our course has already been charted. Through still waters and dark waters and wild waters we will go. And our God continues to remind us that because He is good, risk can be right. This is still our story. This is still her story. This is still your story. And this is still His story. This is Africa (TIA).

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PUZZLE