When You Vacation in a Town That’s Rebuilding

GulfportI felt like college students. One day before our spring break began last March, my husband asked, “Do you want to get out of town? To the beach?” Of course, I did.

Spring break has always meant creating space at home for sleeping in, extra cups of coffee, visits to new restaurants, and conversing with our kids. Sometimes it’s great to have nowhere to be for a week. But times have changed — there are new summer jobs and extra summer sports commitments and cool things like songwriting camps. And with our summer flexibility fading away, wanderlust seemed especially strong this past March.

We hit VRBO and searched for beach condos as close to St. Louis as we could find. We started with the Florida panhandle but then kept expanding our search west. When it was all said and done, we chose a cute, dog-friendly place in a town we had never heard of along the Gulf Coast — Gulfport, Mississippi. Our plan was to hang at the beach and venture over toward New Orleans. It would be our first time in Mississippi or Louisiana.

The night before we left, I went online and discovered Google Earth describes Gulfport as “… a town still recovering from Katrina…” Oh, wow. The cottage was already booked and paid for.

I thought quite a bit about hurricanes this past year. Fifth graders at my school raised money for a community ransacked by Harvey. And my brother’s job sent him to Puerto Rico to do hurricane-relief — also Harvey. These headlines always remind me of two seasons in my own life: When I was six years-old, thousands slept inside our mega-church until Hurricane David passed through Florida. And, almost twenty years later, Hurricane Bertha hit North Carolina and rolled up the coast to New Jersey on my wedding day.

But Katrina?! That was 2005… and Gulfport, Mississippi is still recovering? I’m quick to hurt for a community when it makes the headlines but my empathy sadly fades as the days progress. And with Katrina, we’re talking 13 years later. I remember we donated a mattress when someone was hauling supplies of used goods down to Louisiana. But I haven’t ached for those victims since then. I had two preschool-aged kids back in 2005, and my life was embarrassingly all about us.

As dawn broke, we drove south and settled into an adorable brick home that had been repurposed into a beach cottage. We noted the closest Starbucks and donut shops on our phones, unpacked, and walked to the beach.

Two things struck me about Gulfport: 1) Yes, Katrina’s footprints were all over, and 2) This was a working town. I’ve never vacationed at the beach while rubbing shoulders with as many locals as I did tourists. Gulfport is home to the Mississippi State Port, and its horizon is punctured with the most industrial complex ever. Rentals were sprinkled among real neighborhoods where people got up early and drove to work instead of packing up their beach bags for yet another day of play and rest. It was an experience like none other. I navigated guilt and pity and pride and privilege — all in a few days.

It’s quite fascinating to watch a community thrive and intersect with one another … especially a community that has suffered. I fell in love, really. I felt redemption pulsing through its streets and beaches and even through its coffee shop. I read numerous tourist magazines highlighting locals who rose above the odds while opening new businesses and restaurants to replace those that were destroyed.

Our first meal was artisan pizza at Tony’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, a place mentioned on the Food Network.
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Oven

Shaggy’s welcomed us the next night.

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And Coast Roast stole my heart with its industrial vibes, open air counter, and rich, deep coffee. I went there every day to order an Americano while my daughter, a bit more adventurous, tried something new each time. We saw a dog peering in from the outdoor counter with its owners sipping away. I loved this place so much I asked for a Coast Roast shirt for my birthday and asked my husband to paint our house the same color. (He said yes.)

Coast Roast Outdoors

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Each of these restaurants’ websites told more than their business hours and menu items. Like many Gulfport establishments, their About Us pages referenced Katrina. When you’ve been hit hard, you view your story in two chapters: pre- and post-trauma. And while trials don’t define us, they impact our worldview. They deepen our understanding of ourselves, our faith, those around us — everything, really.

While we were in Gulfport, I happened to be reading Culture Making by Andy Crouch. He referenced how creatives and cultivators of culture adopt a posture of purposeful effort… how they do the painstaking work of preserving the best that those before them have done… how they dare to think and create something that’s never been thought of before… and how they steward culture, guarding what’s best in a neighborhood or field of practice. It’s a lot to navigate, really. I find it often easier to design something completely new than to rebuild what’s broken.

But restoration, it’s the heartbeat of the gospel. It’s about a God who pursues those whom sin has fractured, relentlessly drawing us near as He holds us with one hand and points back to the cross with the other. It allows us to understand — and believe — how much our Maker loves us. The gospel impacts everything — allowing us to risk, speak honestly, ask for forgiveness. It gives us the courage to redeem friendships and keep finding our voice instead of withdrawing in shame. All the while, we’re pointing back to that cross, too, with our own fingers.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, keep rejoicing and repair whatever is broken. Encourage each other, think as one, and live at peace; and God, the Author of love and peace, will remain with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11

I think of my own brokenness that needs repairing everyday. I grow weary at my constant need for restoration, and I’m sure those around me tire of my fractured state, too. I think of the communities that I intersect with — and those I avoid — and how rebuilding and restoring is in my DNA as a Christ-follower. And that call to love people and be others-centered — it’s how we help tell the story of the Author of love and peace.

As Gulfport’s residents exercise persistence and resilience over a span of years, as they rise up stronger than before, we can’t ignore the call on our own lives to do the same. Where will we be in 13 years? Ignoring brokenness? Still stumbling over the rubble? Or building something beautiful and empowering others to do the same?


“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

The Shield (When Fear Invades)

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Reunión de creyentes. Prayer meeting. It was an hour that would later become a favorite part of each day—a time before dinner to reflect on God’s goodness and beg for His glory to be manifested again. Our team of missionaries and Peruvian seminary students sprinkled the sanctuary in groups of two or three.

But I chose solitude. I needed a shadow. In South America only two days, I couldn’t face another person at the moment.

In recent months—even weeks—I was convinced God was leading me to mission work in Lima, Peru. I heard His call, sensed the Spirit’s confirmation, and prepared with culture and evangelism courses. A summer of ministering lay before me—street evangelism, testifying, and church renovation projects would join together as tools to share God’s Story. The message of redemption would come through our mouths and hands, but at the moment, my heart and body was what needed some restoration.

I used the prayer time that night to whisper fears into my folded arms. What was I thinking?! Did I really hear from God? Why did I leave all that was familiar to work among strangers? Many at home stepped out in faith, funding my experience and praying for a fruitful ministry. Doubts bred guilt over my ungrateful heart longing to be home, but my whispers would not cease.

An hour of self-focused prayer left me exhausted.

Gripping my shoulder, a hand interrupted my thoughts. I turned to face an older Peruvian stranger with an eager smile, a countenance not reflecting my own. Standing, I watched his eyes scan the room for a bilingual friend.

“The Holy Spirit gave me this message for you,” he said confidently through an interpreter. I had never talked to this man before.

Pointing to an English Bible, his finger moved down the page before stopping on words I memorized as a child from Joshua 1:9 ~  Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Stunned, I slowly nodded. “Gracias.” I could think of nothing else to say.

Did that really just happen? Did I really just hear from the God of the universe? And if I did, that means He heard me. It was unreal, but I soon accepted I had actually had a conversation with God.

My doubts were certainly quieted, and hope swallowed fear.

For the rest of the summer, that night served as a shield whenever Satan tried to discourage me. Sensing God’s constant presence, I approached my days with purpose, never to question again why I was in South America.

But time has a way of allowing you to forget.

And almost thirty years later, I need a shield for a whole lot more than loneliness. I feel misplaced way more than I did in Peru. And I question my adequacy more often than that teen missionary girl.

What do you do when you can’t answer your son’s, “Why?”

What do you do when your daughter’s hurting and you clumsily navigate her pain all wrong?

What do you do when middle-age leaves you doubting more than you ever have before?

What about when the ache is so great you can’t describe it to even your most intimate friends?

What then? Because honestly, I feel anything but strong and courageous on most days. The mandate to not be afraid almost seems like a dare.

But that promise, that wind of strength coming after the charge is what I cling to –- For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

And I believe Him.

What do you do when you can’t answer your son’s, “Why?”
I’ve seen His wisdom sweep in and form words in my mouth that resonate to my 13 year-old son’s heart.

What do you do when your daughter’s hurting and you clumsily navigate her pain all wrong?
I’ve felt His grace pry the idol of control out of my arms as His mercy softens her anger. I’ve tasted the sweet reconciliation that I couldn’t have created myself.

What do you do when middle-age leaves you doubting more than you ever have before?
I’ve heard Him invite me countless times to wrestle before landing on truth. He’s not threatened by my questions, and that fact alone brings comfort in my tendency to over-think. My wondering doesn’t mean I’m wandering.

What about when the ache is so great you can’t describe it to even your most intimate friends?
I’ve sat in the quiet as His Spirit really did help me in my weakness. I’ve sensed the relief of being known and have silently heard the Spirit interceding for me through wordless groans.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Yeah, He’s that Shield that won’t go away because, frankly, the arrows don’t go away either.

Be strong and courageous? Some days. Do not be afraid? Sometimes. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go? I’ll take that.

I’ll hide in the shadow of that Shield.

When You Need Something Bigger Than A Sunset

It would be the perfect ending to a fabulous day. After driving 1,500 miles through beauty, we still craved more.

We hunger, and we ache to be satisfied. And I still forget I was created for a different world.

We made plans and confirmed the exact minute God would sweep red and vibrant pink across the stone-and-cave canvas. Yes, witnessing the sunset over the Grand Canyon would satisfy the summer craving I just couldn’t put into words.

I was sure of it.

Earlier, I watched my son capture something bigger than himself…

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… and saw my daughter re-create instead of design. Saw her surrender instead of control.

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They were hungry. Just like their mama.

Have you craved beauty, too? Have you hungered after crumbs because that’s all you thought there was? Have you scribbled only to remember you’re not the Author?

I see you trying to carve a masterpiece but instead desperately stabbing at the form you want to redeem. The job of Savior is already taken.

Show me Your beauty, God. Show me Your glory. I was finally ready to thirst after the One who could satisfy. Ready to lean into the One I had danced away from with my worry and wandering. I really was.

Gradually, slowly, the desert air reflected the confusion within. I heard the slightest sound and felt the breeze and watched the crowd wait for more. The mystery lingered. Sometimes you’re too busy for answers, and waiting prepares your heart for truth.

The sky — it became a shadow too fast. The dark wrapped itself around us faster than the sun could paint the masterpiece.

No! The sunset! This was my only chance to see His beauty the way everyone else does. We wouldn’t be back tomorrow.

Rain, rain, go away. This wasn’t my story. Wasn’t my song.

But it was.

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The canyon, well, it’s so big. And vast. And you watch the storm inch toward you instead of surprising you like city rain. You read the story as it takes a different form, and your heart almost has time to catch up.

You think You need to see beauty, my Maker whispered. No. Not this summer.

You need to see My strength.

People ran, grabbing their children’s hands, while the brave tried to capture the moment. Tiny mortals sought shelter from something they couldn’t control. My kids watched thirsty and drank it in, letting the strength imprint their hearts instead of turning away to hide.

How can I make them run? How can I make them seek shelter when they’re brave enough to be exposed?

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I plan to be comfortable. I dream of somehow satisfying those longings I can’t even identify. I commend myself for trying to be still so I can notice the beauty.

But I recently told a friend we might just stop searching because what we long for doesn’t exist.

Yes! It’s so true, isn’t it? she agreed. We long for something that’s not even here.

I see your tender heart, weary from worry, craving comfort. I see you willing to surrender because you’re tired of fighting.

But friend, maybe the storm will show you something greater than beauty ever could.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters…

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,
        declares the Lord.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:1, 8-9 niv

Yes, come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters…

And in His grace, when we refuse to come to the water, He brings it to us.