I was sitting on the couch minding my own business when Rhema walked up to me and started pushing something into my mouth. She caught me off guard and I sputtered and resisted at first, not knowing what she was doing. I took her hand and found sprinkles stuck to her palm. Flower sprinkles.

She tried again, pressing one to my lips.

Rhema has a strong opinion about sprinkles: she LOVES them. I keep them on a high shelf so that she doesn’t eat a whole container full in one sitting. She’d moved a stool over to the cabinet, got down the sprinkles, and forced them into my mouth, I mean, offered me some.

Oh my heart.

I think you know. This was no small thing. This sweet girl, seeking me out… not to lead me to something she wanted (and just the fact that she looks for me is something I never want to take for granted). She came to me to give to me.

Brandon and Hope wanted some, too. She generously went to them with her sprinkles.

Thank you, Rhema.

During my junior year in college I had the life-changing experience of living and working at the Missionaries of Charity Home for the Destitute and Dying in the poorest section of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The mission was founded by Mother Teresa and I spent my days working with special needs children in the orphanage and sharing life with the young women who lived there. Every day we shared the same meal together: injera – a spongy, porous bread, topped with small portions of meat or potato and a sauce called shiro.

Injera meal (Source: Wikipedia)

Injera meal (Source: Wikipedia)

At these meals my Ethiopian friends would “gorsha” me. Gorsha is when you break off a piece of injera with your right hand, wrap it around a piece of meat, dip it in the shiro, and then put it in your friend’s mouth. Gorsha, they taught me, was an act of love and friendship. And the bigger than handful of food, the greater the love.

Honestly the gorsha took some getting used to. I missed forks and spoons. Our injera was gray, thin and bitter (the poor kind) and the shiro made it all soggy and squishy in the fingers. Sometimes I worried I would throw up. But when I began to understand it, this special way of feeding the ones you love, it touched me deeply. We did not speak the same language, but as my bonds grew strong with these Ethiopian women, I began to treasure our time eating injera. I will never forget sitting through entire meals with my heart and mouth wide open as friends fed me gorsha-style. They forever have a piece of my heart.

“I am the Lord your God… open wide your mouth and I will fill it with good things.” Ps. 81:10

Missionaries of Charity, Addis, 1995. I am third from the left, back row.

Missionaries of Charity, Addis, 1995. I am third from the left, back row.

Nineteen years later and my Rhema doesn’t know it, but she’s given me a precious gift. She’s taken me back.

Once I sat in a circle of women over soggy bread and sauce, in a home for the outcast, the orphans the sick and destitute; they nourished my soul and I felt so thankful and special to be among them.

Once Rhema gently pushed apple slices into my mouth, and I was comforted.

Today she fed me sticky flower sprinkles.

I am loved.

I am full.

Let’s review

I’ve been meaning to blog for the longest time. It’s been a challenge to find the time and energy to think and write. And when I’ve been away from this space for too long, I complicate things in my head and pressure myself to be something other than I am.

Like students in the first few weeks of school, we seem to be in a review course. Right now we’re just simple.

Grace is an ongoing lesson – how to give and be grace to one another. Because we have received God’s never-ending grace. My biggest grace-teachers are Brandon, Rhema and Hope. Even when I am absolutely horrible, those three love me. “Grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less.”* Every day, every single day that I get to be Rhema and Hope’s mother, God whispers this truth to me.

I watched a video from six years ago when Rhema’s was working with her in-home therapist. Unexpectedly the video brought tears to my eyes. (Nevermind the fact that my precious baby is growing up so fast!) In it, she is so happy. No aggressions, no bites on her arms or self-hitting, no pulled-out hair. Just giggly. And she speaks. She says, “One, two, three, go.” It’s her sweet four year old voice, and it’s been so very long (years) since we’ve heard clear, articulate, spontaneous words like that. It was like hearing her speaking voice for the first time again and I played it repeatedly, memorizing the sound.

And I wished for a different story. And I wondered and worried. Did we miss something? Did the seizures do this? Did she regress so much? Is it that we failed to consistently practice “One, two, three, go” that we lost it somehow?

This morning I underlined a sentence in the commentary that accompanies my Bible study of Joshua. “People in biblical times viewed a name as a living sign representing the future potential of an individual.” I reviewed: Her name is Rhema, which means ‘spoken word, a thing said’ Her name is a promise. Some have encouraged me, saying that I speak for her through this blog. Yes, I record the stories and share what God is teaching me through it all. But I believe that she speaks (and will speak in whatever form that may be – vocally, in writing, pictures, etc.) for herself. I simply still believe.

Though we could not have imagined the challenges and setbacks we would face, God still has a good good plan for our loved ones, for our dear children.  My friend Judith once said of her son, “Two steps forward, one step back. I still believe in you, Jack.”

I still believe in you, God, able to do ‘exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’**.

I still believe in you, Rhema-girl.

*What’s So Amazing About Grace, by Phillip Yancey

**Ephesians 3:20

Author of hope

It’s Sunday morning and our pastor invites us to pray silently for the person on our right and then the person on our left. My Rhema-girl is on my left, sitting between Brandon and me. She’s humming softly, continuously, as she colors papers on her lap. Her dress, fingers and nose are marker-stained as usual. She’s had a string of good days and we’ve been basking in her, the light in her smile and eyes.

The pastor has been teaching from Psalm 42 where David is struggling with despair and depression, “where tears are his food day and night.” And I think, don’t we all feel it? When the hurting, fighting, suffering stretches from Baghdad to Ferguson to here.

Hope thou in God, David tells himself. And we are reminded: There is never a time when we may not hope in God. He is our hope.

I bow my head to intercede for the man on my right – the husband of a dear friend, and it is such an honor to pray for him and his family. Then I turn to Rhema knowing that Brandon has already petitioned God on her behalf, like Jairus falling on his knees, he’s taken her and lifted her up. As she hums beside me, I am overcome. Because it is a gift, such a precious gift to pray over my daughter and trust that I am heard. Just simple, heartfelt prayers of a mama as a new school year begins. And it’s the best and all I have. I know too well that the dark days will come, so I ask Him to be with her and hold her in the ways I can’t. That she would know Him near. My heart is filled with all the reasons for joy and hope; God is not limited by “nonverbal autism” and He speaks her language perfectly. She’s His.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope…” ~Rom. 15:13



“I am what you would call ‘indoorsy.’” ~Jim Gaffigan, on camping

Well, I thought I’d share some pics from our vacation earlier this summer.

The husband ordered up a weeklong getaway for the family to a place called Camp of the Woods in the Adirondacks.

Now. I am a luxury hotel, fine dining kind of girl. So you can understand why I might have a problem with a destination called Camp of the Woods.

The husband assured me that we would not actually be camping, that we would be staying in a lakeside cabin equipped with beds, a refrigerator, stove, etc. We’d eat in a dining hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He said, “We will not be roughing it.”

What he failed to realize is that my definition of the word ‘camping’ is totally different from his. If (-and this happened of course-) I pull back the bedcovers and find a chunky spider sitting under the pillow … and get this… I’m not surprised to see the chunky spider sitting there… then I am indeed CAMPING.

Looking back on it now I can say that our accommodations really were nice but it felt like ‘roughing it’ to me and I might have had a tiny bit of a bad attitude and maybe acted like a big baby for the first day or so. Just maybe. Because my visions of vacation are me lounging on an island beach, eating, sleeping, reading, repeat.

This was me the first night. I wasn’t keen on sharing the bed with Mr. Spider and his homies so I wrapped myself in Rhema’s plastic mattress cover that we’d brought from home!


In the end we had such a great time going on little adventures together, enjoying the beauty of our surroundings, hearing great speakers and incredible music, I forgot to care about the fact that it didn’t fit my grand dreams of vacation.

We did things as a family we’ve never done before. We rode a gondola to the top of a mountain. Played ping pong. Attended concerts. Took a boat ride. Hiked to a waterfall. Built sandcastles and had a carnival on the beach. The Camp of the Woods staff was wonderful, and I’m probably not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition but I can’t think of a better way to say it: we felt ministered to.

All too often God takes my plans and expectations and shows me He has something better, something I need more. I was reminded of a favorite Emily Colson quote: “It’s time to throw out my ideas of what I thought life would be, should be, and let joy fill up those brand-new vacancies.”

Rhema certainly had times when she struggled, but I think she would say it was worth it. Throughout the trip I tried to jot down reasons to be thankful, things I never wanted to forget. The first one occurred when we were driving on an open road in the mountains. The air felt so good and the beauty of creation enveloped us. A song was on the radio – Multiplied by Needtobreathe. Rhema began clapping. On her own. No one guided her hands or held them together. She clapped to these words:

God of mercy sweet love of mine
I have surrendered to your design
May this offering stretch across the skies
And these Hallelujahs be multiplied…
These Hallelujahs be multiplied



Rhema_Russell  hope horizon IMG_1098


DSC_0256 IMG_1078 famcrop




Hope pulled a question out of The Dinner Game box as we were cleaning up the kitchen. “Grandma, this one’s for you,” she said, reading aloud. “Can you remember the first time God felt real to you?”

My mother-in-law thought for a moment and replied, “Well, when I was young I wanted a bicycle. I really, really wanted a bike and I prayed for one. And that’s when I learned that sometimes God can say no.”

Hope and I waited.

Finally Hope prompted, “And…?”

Grandma said, “Oh, that’s it.”

“That’s it? But you got the bike, right?

“No,” she said. “I never got the bike.”

We scratched our heads as she walked off. The first time God was real to her was when he said… no?

In Rhema’s ten years of life I’ve had many, many prayers for her. Some of those prayers were prayed for her even before I knew she would be mine.

These days my biggest prayer is for a good day. Just a good day. One in which she can smile and hum, participate in life and enjoy the love of those who love her. Yes it’s true, I often wish it were easier for me and Brandon and Hope. Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup. Ps. 16:5

But more than anything I wish… I pray… it was better, easier for her.

And honestly most days, it seems, the answer is no.

But I think that sometimes when I love and pour myself out for my daughter and my only “reward” is a painful headbutt, that God is telling the story of how He gave Himself for me and forgives and loves me over and over again.

For the times my head says I should be “all better” by now, but the heart still breaks, God is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18).

For years of unchanging circumstances and unanswered questions, He is doing something and the whole story is yet to be told.

For  moments when there is no strength left, yet somehow strength comes… I love you O Lord my strength. Ps. 18:1

Maybe that’s what Grandma meant. When you want a thing so bad, and the answer is no. And God is not all you think he is. No, He is real, more real than He’s ever been, and sovereign and good. Don’t always feel or see it, can’t explain it, but my gosh, you believe.

Lord, I pray for a good day. And in the land of No, I will hold my girls and whisper that You hear their hearts’ cry, that You never leave and You love them even more than I do. We’ll take our mess, our No days, and look to you to make something so beautiful…


“What is the price of two sparrows–one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”
~Matt. 10:29


A couple days of video-EEG monitoring for Rhema in the hospital. Tethered to this room. I imagine people in white coats sitting in a control room correlating patient behavior with seizure activity in the brain. I imagine them watching – with a bowl of popcorn – the antics in Room 916.

They see Rhema eat a blue marker tip.

They see me eat three cupcakes.

They see Brandon stand in front of the camera, put on his shades, flex, and smolder just for them.

They see us pray.

They see Hope cry because she doesn’t want to leave her sister for even just one night.

Caught on camera is a great view of my rear end (and the three cupcakes that attached themselves to said rear end) as I spend half an hour kicking and fighting with the chair that’s supposed to turn into an extra bed. They see me when I turn and do a few fist pumps when I finally get the darn bed assembled.

They see me kiss Rhema’s cheek about every 15 minutes.

Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart feel lonely and long for heaven and home? When Jesus is my portion. A constant friend is He. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. Yes, his eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Tethered to this world and to these bodies. When she hums and giggles and screams and jerks and cries and we don’t understand, she is seen. When her sister willingly, joyfully does everything she can to love and help her family, she sheds quiet tears, and she is seen. When her father pours himself out for his family, fights the frustration and then deeply longs just to have a conversation with his 10-year old girl, he is seen. When I do the things that only a mother can do for her developmentally delayed child day after day, year after year… I can’t help my heart – it misses the things she misses, and I am seen.

I heard a message last week from Priscilla Shirer. She said everything I already knew, and yet it was everything I needed to hear again about overcoming the discouragement that had secretly, painfully settled in my soul. She said that it’s no small thing. That the awesome God who makes something out of nothing every moment, who lays the foundations of earths and causes the morning stars to sing and launches lightening and carves canyons and paints the skies, sees me. Sees her. Sees you.

I realized this in a personal way that day. Rhema had not slept through the night in weeks, constant shrieking for days. I felt like breaking, “sleep-depraved” as my mother would say. At the end of the seminar, Priscilla prayed and in one line of the prayer she said something like ‘Lord, please give sleep to the sleepless.’ And a couple tears leaked from my eyes (because I was indeed sleep depraved and) I knew in my gut that in a world, in a country, in a state, in a mountain town, in a lecture hall full of people, my God had come to me and seen me.

She sleeps...

She sleeps…

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” ~Genesis 16:13

Home home

Hope, age 2, "looking for Daddy" through the mailslot when he was deployed in 2009-2010.

Hope, age 2, “looking for Daddy” through the mailslot when he was deployed in 2009-2010.

Just a quick update-

Brandon returned home from deployment last week and we have been enjoying the time together. Hooray!

The girls and I had planned to meet him at the airport but he was delayed by several hours. My good friend Gail willingly came over and stayed with the girls – almost until midnight – while I picked Brandon up at the airport. This homecoming was different. He was not in uniform. He traveled alone. There were no crowds or signs, no ceremony. No newspapers or news cameras this time. Just me and him.

It was the best way. The first time he deployed to war over ten years ago it had been just the two of us at an airport… (well, actually my dog Ronald had been there and Rhema was in my belly, but we’re just counting the bipedal adults…).

Now things seemed to come full circle for us. He walked over to me and gave me a hug. He sighed heavily, “We made it another year. No more.” It was a promise. And I simply said, “Ok.”

Two kids, three deployments and what seems to be a lifetime of ups and downs, pains and joys, we were back to just the two of us. Making peace with all the life lived apart and what it cost us. Looking ahead to a new chapter.

The quiet homecoming made me think of a favorite story:

A missionary couple, after years of faithful service overseas, was returning back to the States. They returned to the New York harbor on the same steamship as Teddy Roosevelt. Upon their arrival in the harbor Roosevelt was greeted with great fanfare – a brass band, reporters and photographers, firecrackers were set off. And this aged missionary couple, health broken and spent in their service for Christ, walked off the gangplank and through the crowd, unmet and seemingly unknown. As they walked, a tear trickled down the husband’s cheek.

“What’s wrong?” his wife asked.

“My whole life I’ve given to serving God. We’ve spent ourselves for Jesus and nobody is here to greet us. There’s no bouquet of flowers for you.”

His dear wife thought for a minute and then said, “Honey, we’re not home yet. We’re not home yet.


In the coming months Brandon will begin the process of retiring from the Army. It will be quite a change for us – I’ve only always known him as a soldier – but it’s a welcome change. I’m thankful, so thankful for the chance to finish and begin again, for whatever God has for us next (we give our lives to Him), to live and love and work together until we’re Home home.


*Thank you so much for the prayers and encouragement this past year!