The Life of the Beloved

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"The Life of the Beloved" by Henri Nouwen remains one of the most influential books of my life. I read it at a time when I was solidifying some important identity questions in my heart. I thought it was time to reread it repost some of the pearls from this book again. Enjoy and receive! Read it slow and take it in. I will tweet from this book over the next week.

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When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. Sure, popularity and power can present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection.

Maybe you think you are more tempted by arrogance than by self-rejection.  But isn't arrogance, actually, the other side of self-rejection? Isn't arrogance putting yourself on a pedestal to avoid being seen as you see yourself? Isn't arrogance just another way of dealing with the feelings of worthlessness? Beneath our arrogance their lives much self-doubt, just as there is a great amount of pride even in our self-rejection. Whether I am inflated or deflated, I lose touch with the truth and distort my vision of reality.

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the beloved.

That soft, gentle voice that calls me the Beloved has come to me in countless ways. My parents, friends, teachers, students, and the many strangers who crossed my path have all sounded that voice in different tones. I have been cared for by many people with much tenderness and gentleness. I have been taught and instructed with much patience and perseverance. I have been encouraged to keep going when I was ready to give up and was stimulated to try again when I failed. I have been rewarded and praised for success… But, somehow, all of these signs of love were not sufficient to convince me that I was the beloved. Beneath all my seemingly strong self-confidence there remained the question: if all those who shower me with so much attention could see and know me and my innermost self, would they still love me? That agonizing question, rooted in my inner shadow, kept persecuting me and made me run away from the very place where the quiet voice calling me the Beloved could be heard. I think you understand what I am talking about. Are you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don't you often hope: maybe this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship will fulfill my deepest desire. But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you'll go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burnout. This is the way to spiritual death!

We don't have to kill ourselves. We are the beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That's the truth of our lives!

When the deep reality that we are the beloved of Jesus sinks fully into our hearts, what follows is that it has to become visible and tangible in the way to eat and drink, talk and love, play and work. When the deepest currents of our life no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up lifeless and bored even when we are busy.

There are four primary words that I have used to identify the movements of the spirit in our lives. Those words are taken, blessed, broken and given. These words summarize my life as a priest because each day, when I come together around the table with members of my community, I take bread, bless it, break it, and give it. These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as a Christian, I'm called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken, and given. Most importantly however, they summarize my life as a human being because of every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking, and the giving are happening. Only gradually has their meaning become known to me, and I feel that I won't ever know their full potential. They are the most personal as well as the most universal words. Express the most spiritual as well as the most secular truth. They speak about the most divine as well as the most human behavior. They reach high as well as low, embrace God as well as people. This is simply to express the complexity of life and embrace it's ever unfolding mystery. They are the keys to understanding not only the lives of the great prophets of Israel and the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but also our own lives. I have chosen them not only because they are so deeply engraved in my being but also because, through them, I have become in touch with the ways of becoming the beloved.

Taken:

We are taken… Chosen. But, often I have tried to show or prove that I was just me and that I have no desire to be put on a pedestal were treated as a special person. When you are treated as the chosen one, you are as liable to be persecuted as admired.

Here's a great spiritual mystery: to be chosen does not mean that others are rejected. It is very hard to conceive of this in a competitive world such as ours. All my memories of being chosen are linked to memories of others not being chosen. To be chosen as the beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this.

As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of the suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectiveness and control.

The great spiritual battle begins-and never ends-with the reclaiming of our chosenness.

When we get in touch with our own chosen status, we are then able to truly see how others are chosen and to celebrate and draw their gifts as well… Leading to indescribably beautiful friendship.

Your life and my life are, each of them, one of a kind. No one has ever lived your life or my life before, and no one will ever live them again. Our lives are unique stones in the mosaic of human existence - priceless and irreplaceable.

Blessed:

We all need and value blessing. Literally means speaking well or saying good things of someone. We all need some of that. We often talk about the need for affirmation. Without affirmation, it is hard to live well. To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation.  It is more than words of appreciation, it is more than pointing out someone's talents or good deeds, it is more than putting someone in the light. To give a blessing is to say yes to a person's belovedness. More than that: to give a blessing creates the reality of which it speaks.

One day we feel great, the next we feel miserable. One day we are full of new ideas, the next everything looks bleak and dull. One day we think we can take on the whole world, but the next even a little request seems too much for us. These mood swings show that we no longer hear the blessing that was heard by Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and Jesus of Nazareth and that we, too, are to hear.  When we are thrown up and down by the little waves on the surface of our existence, we become easy victims of our manipulative world, but, when we continue to hear the deep gentle voice that blesses us, we can walk through life with a stable sense of well-being and true belonging.

We practically work out and claim our blessedness through prayer and presence.

I have read and written much of prayer, but when I go to a quiet place to pray, I realize, although I have a tendency to say many things to God, the real work of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me.

This might sound self-indulgent, but in practice, it is a hard discipline. I'm so afraid of being cursed, hearing that I am no good or not good enough, that I quickly give in to the temptation to start talking and to keep talking in order to control my fears. This focus is very hard work. It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many demanding voices of our world and to discover that there is a small intimate voice saying "you are my beloved child and on you my favorite rests."  It's not to say that this will ever be a voice you will hear with bodily ears. I am not speaking about a hallucinating voice, but a voice that can be heard by the ear of faith, the ear of the inner heart.

Many people get very distracted in prayer. But if you will spend 30 minutes per day listening to the voice of love, you will gradually discover that something is happening of which you were not even aware.

We must also be present in order to receive blessings. They are all around us! But we have to actively choose to "waste" our time to receive them. Are we too busy on our way to important things to receive the blessings that Jesus is built-in for us each day?

Once we accept fully that we are chosen and that we are blessed, we are now ready to embrace ours and others brokenness.

Broken:

The leaders and prophets of Israel, who were clearly chosen and blessed, all lived very broken lives. And we, beloved sons and daughters of God, cannot escape our brokenness either.

Our brokenness is always lived and experienced in a highly personal, and unique way. I am deeply convinced that each human being suffers in a way that no other human being suffers. Sure, we can make comparisons, we can talk about more or less suffering, but in the final analysis, your pain and my pain are so deeply personal that comparing them can scarcely bring any comfort or consolation.

Our brokenness is truly ours. And truly unique. Just as we have to claim our unique chosenness and unique blessedness, we have to do the same of our unique brokenness. Physical suffering pales in the face of a broken heart. It's the brokenness of heart we are talking about and that most impacts the earth.

The first step to healing is not a step away from the pain, but a step toward it.

The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it.

As strange as it seems, we must embrace our brokenness and step into it… For we are not alone.

The great spiritual call of the beloved children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. We must allow the blessing to touch us in our brokenness. Then our brokenness will gradually come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves as the beloved.

I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.

Given:

Our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others.

It is sad to see that, in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving. True joy, happiness, and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life lived for others.

There is a mysterious link between our brokenness and our ability to give to each other. The times of our lives where we feel like we have the least to offer are often the times that make us able to give more instead of less. Our brokenness opens us to a deeper way of sharing our lives and offering each other hope.

Just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so, too, do our lives!

Think of how we share meals together. If there is conflict, the meal is torture. But where there is beautiful relationship the meal is a life-giving honor.

Don't you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don't we sometimes say: "that was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time"?

Practical...

1. Giving yourself in life...

The real question is not "what can we offer each other" but "who can we be for each other"?

There is a big difference between talents and gifts. We have a few talents, but many gifts. Talents focus on what you can do while gifts focus on who you are. The true gifts that are in us often remain buried beneath our talents.

2. Giving yourself in death…

For those who know they are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, dying is a way of becoming pure gift.

Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life and freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope.

Our years on this earth are like a little seed planted in a very rich soil. For this seed to bear fruit, it must die. We often see or feel only the dying but the harvest the abundant even when we ourselves are not the harvesters.

Finally...

The world is evil only the when you become enslaved to it. The great struggle facing us is not to leave the world, to reject our ambitions and aspirations, or to despise money and success, but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who does not belong to it.

The world may be a source of survival, but it will never be a source of life.  The world and its strategies may help you survive for a long time, but they cannot help you live, because the world is not the source even of its own life, let alone yours.

We must live the life of the BELOVED!

Victim to Victory

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Yesterday was Memorial Day in the USA. But I "memorialize" it for another reason.

Last year on Memorial Day (May 29, 2017) our family touched down from Kenya with a sick little boy in tow and we headed straight from Dulles Airport to Baltimore where Graceson would spend the next month being treated following his stroke. 

Then, yesterday, Memorial Day (May 28, 2018) I touched down at Dulles airport again at almost the exact hour as I had a year ago! But instead of going to the hospital, I went HOME...to our new HOME...where I found my precious kids and beautiful wife running into my arms. And instead of being in crisis, they are settled on the inside and beautifully adjusted to this new leg of our journey together. Home has always been where Mommy and Daddy are. And it still is. 

There were times this year where we felt deep pain, anger, frustration, loss...like a victim. (Here were my thoughts only Three Months Later.) But these last two weeks I just spent in Africa felt like a "victory dance"!  To quote the somewhat cheesy, chanty song "Enemy's Camp" -- I felt like I went back into the land to "take back what he stole from me!" (Except Tanzania is far from the enemy's camp, but a land I love deeply.) 

When I try to explain this process to people, the best words seem to be this: "our bodies are back in the states, but my heart is still trying to catch up." I felt something shift this last week. My heart crossed the line. After many tears and a hard year, I think I am ready to cooperate on the inside. 

When I watch this video that we posted 6 months ago, I marvel at all that has happened since. I am so excited for the kids and the way they are all developing! And for Tricia and the way she is alive again back in the classroom-- she is like a blossoming flower on the inside and outside. And I am so very, very pleased with how Integer Network is taking shape. 

We did it, guys! And you helped us. Countless prayers. Amazing support. And a God that is a Good Father, a Great Shepherd that is ever by our side. 

In one year, we have moved from victim to victory!! 

Why don't "Christian kids" become "Christian adults"

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The reality is, there are many reasons. Some very painful and sometimes, nearly impossible to pinpoint. Here, I want to address one that I have seen a few too many times throughout my journey. 

Inauthenticity. Two faced parents. 

I have heard accusations and read studies of how children who grew up in a ministry or Christian family are often the most likely to rebel and walk off from the “faith” of their parents. I’ve watched and wondered. I’ve seen it over and over again. But, then I have also seen the other side… Kids that absolutely go for it and carry their parents faith even further! 

And here’s what I’ve observed:

When “Christian” parents act “Christian” when others are around, and unchristian at home when no one is watching, kids see it, hate it and say “no thank you” to this fake shit. And they rebel and run off looking for something honest. 

When we model equal amounts of “Christian” no matter where we are or who is around, kids see a faith that is embodied, real and attractive. They want it, keep it and go even further than we could. They know it's something honest. 

Yet ANOTHER reason I’m pioneering Integer Network with a hope for eradicating fakeness and creating authentic people that model and live authentic faith. I keep seeing the costs of inauthenticity biting us again and again. 

God, help us to learn honesty and vulnerability. 

(One day I would LOVE to find the time to develop content and teaching around this to help people see it and change it, so that our kids don't blame God for something he never did or someone he never was.)

Financial Partnership with Integer Network

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Here is a moment of honest sharing: We need financial partners to back us as donors as we start Integer Network! Maybe you want to be one of them? Simply put, if you feel that inauthentic and broken leaders and teams are hurting the church and the cause of Christ and you want to see them be real and whole, Integer would be a great place to invest some resources. 

More honesty: After more than 7 years of being fundraising missionaries, it would have been a nice treat to just "take a ministry job" somewhere that came with a salary and some security...but that was NOT what I heard from the Lord when we asked "what's next"? So, we jumped out in faith that if we started a ministry initiative consistent with my calling and God's leading, that the finances would follow. Fear isn't one of my biggest struggles, but I will say...this step has required lots of faith to combat the fear that lingers around the corner! As with any new venture, there is always risk. 

Ministry or Business? Some have asked...is Integer Network a business or a ministry? It is a ministry and we answer that question very thoroughly right HERE. 

The financial plan: Integer Network will function from the following income streams (in order of amounts):

  1. Donors making charitable contributions to the ministry which makes it possible to coach, train and mentor leaders both in the USA and abroad. 
  2. Clients paying for coaching services.
  3. Churches and teams hiring Integer for workshops, events and staff development. 

Money donated or generated will be spent in the following ways (in order of amounts):

  1. Staff Salaries 
  2. International Leadership Development 
  3. Administrative Costs for coaching and events 

Integer Network has an overseeing Board of Directors that has already begun functioning to provide accountability and wisdom to our decisions and development. Will introduce them soon over at the Integer Blog. 

We have made the giving process as easy as possible right here at the Integer Website where you can make one time gifts or establish recurring monthly gifts. Just click HERE. 

Thank you for joining in the early stages of a much needed network that will bring freedom and healing to many people! 

4 ways to actually love people

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After traveling many places and making many friends with people from wildly different backgrounds and cultures, I asked myself: "What worked everywhere?" I took time to examine the patterns and behaviors that seemed to break down the real and imagined walls that naturally separate me from others. At the end of the day, I discovered it was really just love. Love breaks down walls. So, here are 4 great ways to actually and practically love people:

  1. Ask, don't assume! Ask questions. Ask good questions. Ask non-googleable questions. Ask because you actually care and really want to know. Ask to learn about the other. Ask to clarify misunderstanding. Do not guess and assume you just know. Asking questions draws the other out and allows them to form their own story instead of you assuming you already know it. A good question can feel like a rare gift. Proverbs 20:5 says that they heart of a person is like a deep well; one who has insight draws it out. 
  2. Listen, don't lecture! If you ask good questions, but don't practice deep listening, you haven't loved, you've patronized. Secondly, lectures belong in a classroom...leave them there. They do not belong in interpersonal relationships. Hold your convictions, don't distribute them. We hold our beliefs, we distribute mercy, grace and compassion. No one else is nearly as concerned with your opinions as you think they are. Listen well, listen deep, listen long, listen for what is said, listen for what isn't. Often the thing you waited most patiently to hear is the thing that impacts you most deeply. 
  3. Authenticity, not acting! From the home of Syrian refugees to a village in rural western Kenya to the Maasai of Tanzania to the Afrikaners of South Africa, real works. In America, real works. People do not feel loved when you hide and deceive. However, everyone values truth...it is part of the God image in all of creation. Be real and people feel loved. Be fake and people feel handled and mistreated. Truth is attractive and honesty builds trust. Entrusting people with who you actually are is a brilliant way to communicate love. 
  4. Compassion, not comfort! As I said before, we hold our convictions, we distribute compassion and grace. It is an unavoidable reality that people hard to love are hard to be around. Hence, your comfort cannot be your priority. Love is a stronger and better cause than comfort and ease. If followers of Jesus want to actually emulate Jesus, we better get way more comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Now, go try these four. You'll be astounded at how well they work together. 

Learning from addicts

Lately I have been thinking a lot about authenticity. It’s what you do when you are launching a leadership network with that focus. As one who values REAL, I love to find it on display in others. 

I spent this past weekend at a ministry in Kentucky restoring addicts…men who have just come off the street, out of jail, off of cocaine, etc. It has been a long time since I have been so refreshed! What a blast to be among real people, with real problems who really admit them. When everything is out in the open, there is nothing to hide. When you have done the worst, everything under that is fair game. When your offenses are in the public, you no longer need to hide in private. 

I think us holy Christians have a LOT to learn from addicts. We have been so good at creating rules, doctrines, lines and boxes that we can easily become professional hiders. The rules we make and enforce naturally create fear for what happens when we break them. We are prone to put so much energy into maintaining our (fake) perfections that we don’t talk freely about our (real) imperfections. We don’t want to be kicked out. None of us like being excluded. 

An atmosphere of grace and a room full of addicts turning to Jesus is a sure recipe for authenticity if I’ve ever seen one.

Don’t Push It

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We all like to get our way. We naturally think our ideas and plans are good ones and want to make them happen. That’s just normal. But there’s something I’ve observed in my own life that I thought might be helpful to share with you.

Most of the time when we have to push really hard to get our idea to happen, it’s probably not the right idea, the best plan or the right time.

You know what I’m talking about… You feel like you have to sell the concept. When people offer what feels like oppositional feedback, there is an inner feeling of defensiveness that leads you to begin pushing and explaining why this thing really should happen. When we have to sell it, and spin it and push it, it should immediately throw up a yellow flag in our soul.

Wisdom is a really beautiful gift. She flows into our hearts and minds through the many streams around us. When we fight against the current, it’s tiring and probably a sign that we should stop and rest. A better idea or better timing is up ahead.

Don’t just barrel forward with your great idea when wisdom is whispering to you. There are a million good ideas out there and you’ll get another one soon enough. And perhaps that will be the one that goes flowing down the river with the wind at your back and people standing on the banks cheering you on. Listen to the voices around you.

I’ve pushed too many things in my life that I shouldn’t have. And as a “salesman” by nature, I’ve maneuvered into plenty of things I probably shouldn’t have. Trying to grow here. Let’s go with the flow of favor.

Don’t push it.

Confidence & Humility

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If we struck a balance between a Godly confidence and a Godly Humility…learned to walk in both, it would be a really powerful Jesus type of spirit! Confidence and humility are not opposites or contradictory, but rather hand in hand and a powerful combination for high impact! I meet many people afraid of confidence, worried they might become proud, and holding back the gifts clearly given them by God. It's a shame. 

There is a difference between confidence and arrogance (few people are truly arrogant, most are insecure and masked with false arrogance). And there is also a difference between being humble and being pitiful. In Psalm 51, David gives us a great example of the dance between confidence and humility. David writes this Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba and the Psalm kinda goes like this (in my own words):

Humility: God, I messed up please forgive me. Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit in me.  

Confidence: I will teach people, they will respond, I will joyfully sing and my mouth will praise!

Humility: But the only sacrifice that you desire is a broken and contrite heart, so make mine so.

Confidence: We will make Zion prosper and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and we will be back in your grace. 

My short version of the whole Psalm: I am not going to walk around BEATEN UP because I SCREWED UP, but I am going to MOVE ON UP…with a broken and contrite heart!

Confidence, when properly carried can actually lead to incredible humility. The more we feel the weight of our gifts, the more we feel the need for the humility to not misuse them. It leads to meekness which my friend Keith taught me last week is "strength under control."

Leonard Sweet calls this a Jesus Spirit….the bringing together of these 2 powerful dynamics! It is an emptying and a filling. Remember, humility is NOT putting yourself down. And humility is NOT denying your strengths. It is honestly accepting your weaknesses. You strengths are gifts from God to be welcomed and carried out.

I guess the key to a big head is a big heart. 

What belongs in the back seat of your car?

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Most of life's emotions are gifts to us. They guide us, protect us and whisper to us each day. Emotions have a vital role to play. But there are many times when we allow them to play a harmful role or steer us the wrong way. Recently, I came across an idea on a podcast that has impacted me pretty profoundly lately...and at a time I need it! This week I began putting the plow to the field on the next season of my life and work. This is a big moment for us! (Credit for this idea goes to Author Elizabeth Gilbert of 'Eat, Pray Love' fame).

Here's the gist:

Fear is one of our most common emotions. Before beginning any exciting new creative project, we must have a conversation with fear. Look, we need to accept that we can never get rid of Fear — that it follows us along wherever we go, and that it is especially provoked whenever we try to be creative. (This is because Creativity demands that we constantly enter into realms of unknown outcome, and Fear HATES realms of unknown outcome.) So I always explain to Fear that me and Creativity are about to go on a road trip together, and that Fear is invited to come along (since it always comes along, anyway!) and that it has a role to play— but that Fear is not allowed to drive, not allowed to make decisions, not allowed to choose the songs on the radio, not allowed to select the snacks, not allowed to suggest detours. Fear is welcome in the car, in other words — because I do not exile any of the parts of myself along the creative journey — but Fear must sit in the back seat! 

And the same is true of many other partners on the journey. Like Ambition. It can come, but it better get its butt in the back seat, because when ambition drives, we run over tons of pedestrians and neglect things that matter most. Or anxiety. It will come, but get in the back! Or pain. It will come, and it may help us spot a few potholes, but it may not drive!

So, who can you put in the backseat today?

And whose hand needs slapped if it reaches for the radio to play songs you do not want to hear?

Thank You, Dr. Swanson

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As most of you know, our 2 year old son, Graceson suffered a stroke at our home in Tanzania back in May of 2017. There were so, so many stories that unfolded during that time, many of which we will probably never be able to even retell. But here is one that I've felt compelled to share. 

It just so happened (God) that a few months after we arrived, we met an American Pediatrician from Minnesota living in Arusha. We took the kids to him and he offered us immense comfort, just knowing he was there. "There", meaning direct access to his cell phone at any given moment, not "there" like in the states. When Graceson became ill and lost function, it was Dr. Swanson that walked us through each step. The man just exudes peace and gentleness and is of the highest caliber workers in his field. It was Dr. Swanson that realized there was some form of swelling on Graceson's brain. It was Dr. Swanson that organized the airplane for the medical evacuation to Kenya. It was Dr. Swanson that we talked to each step of the journey as Graceson received diagnoses in Kenya. It was Dr. Swanson that encouraged us to get Graceson back to the USA. And throughout these many months he has cared, checked in, prayed, advised us and given us perspectives that no other Doctor (even in the states) has offered. Dr. Steve Swanson was one of our great gifts from God to get us through the hardest moment of our lives. And Tricia and I will forever be deeply grateful for him. 

I connected with Dr. Swanson when I was back in Tanzania last month and had the opportunity to hear more about the magnificent work he is doing in Tanzania, a land we love so much. I want to share it with you. You can watch this video below to meet Dr. Swanson and hear more about his work with prematurity in Africa. Enjoy! And donate if you feel so moved

Thank you, Dr. Swanson. One day we will see to it that Graceson visits you and offers his personal gratitude for helping save his life.